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Claudio Magris

Prince of Asturias Award for Literature 2004

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Prince of Asturias Foundation, Mr. President and Members of the Award Juries, fellow Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many years ago a young Umberto Saba, who was still not one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, sent a poem about a fellow soldier, who was still doing his military service, to a literary magazine. The poem was published and the poet received a cash prize of fifty lira – this at a time when a song with the words ‘If I could have a thousand liras a month’ was popular in Italy. That night in the barracks his comrade-in arms told Saba to hand over half of his winnings to him - twenty-five lira - because the poem would not have been written without him.

I believe that the young man was not entirely mistaken and that life does indeed have the right to call a writer to account, even if it is the writer who today receives, gratefully and astoundedly, an award so generous and unexpected as the one being bestowed on me. In trying to express the heartfelt gratitude for the honour granted me, I think that I too should also share it with those without whom my books would not exist. Writing is transcribing. Even when an author invents, he transcribes stories and events that life has made him a participant in: without certain faces, certain major and minor events, certain important people, certain bright moments, certain periods of gloom, certain landscapes, certain moments of happiness and despair, many pages would not have been created. So I should share this award with all the co-authors of what I have written: men and women who have shared my life and are a part of me. Only by looking at their faces can I see my own, like looking into a mirror that would otherwise be empty, as if I had sold my reflection to the devil, as in the myth. Only thanks to them can I say, like Don Quixote, “I know who I am.”

This Award sets the seal on the enormous generosity that Spain has shown towards me from the outset. For me, it is already reward enough to be placed alongside the great figures who have received the award in the past and those who are receiving it today with me, to say nothing of the other writers who were short-listed for the award as I was. The greater and more important the award, the more it inspires in the person receiving it not only a sense of joy but also of uncertainty, for it leads us to take stock of ourselves, and stocktaking, as everybody knows, often reveals a deficit. Perhaps today more than ever, a writer particularly feels the precariousness of the ‘ego’, the interchangeable nature of experience and of one’s very personality, both of which sometimes appear to be absorbed in a nameless, recurrent abstraction. Sometimes the writer feels that one of his texts might be somebody else’s. This may be a temptation born out of fear, but sometimes we feel that the only things that are uniquely and unmistakeably our own are the moments of darkness, fear, pain, anguish, delirium, or indignity, as if we were only ourselves when we are about to lose our way, to drown, to give up the fight. However, without bearing in mind this darkness, this impulse to quit the fight, we would be incapable of taking up, despite everything, what Saint Paul called “the good fight.” Writing is also a continuous to-and-fro between two truths – fight or flight; it is a voyage across the desert towards a Promised Land that we know we will not reach, because the reality of writing is banishment, being beyond real life. “What do you lose by writing?” I was once asked by a Chinese student in Xian. A monumental question that required a long reply. Yes indeed, writing should also document some of the lost voices; yet with no literature, real life would be even more distant.

We are witnessing the astounding, liberating transformation of an era, of the world, of reality, perhaps of man himself. We are perched on the rim of a volcano, and from all around there comes the thunder of war, of a war that first ravages one part of the globe and then involves the world as a whole, like a cancerous metastasis. As I am from Trieste, I come from Italy, but also from a small part of that central European civilization that before its time intuited, lived, and staged an upheaval comparable in history only with the demise of the world of antiquity. We live in a reality like the one described and foreseen by Musil; a reality floating on air with no foundations, made up of many copies of originals that have been lost or may never have existed, where events seem to be Parallel Actions similar to others that nevertheless do not happen, where a person feels as if he were multiple centrifuged beings, as if he were a scattering of islands rather than a single, compact whole. We have entered the control room of life’s factory, where we do not know if our great-grandchildren will be like us, how much they will be like us, whether they will share our passions or whether they will be almost another species. Reality is a theatre set that is constantly taken down, and we move across it like Don Quixote through La Mancha. We have created no Don Quixote, at most an Amadis of Gaul, and our old costumes wardrobe collects dust and gets even older and worse in this universal translocation that is taking place; yet this also plays its part in the shaping of a reality that is difficult to imagine. In its present and future – which is already partly our present, but is also still partly the future for us - Nietzsche and Dostoyevky foresaw the universal advent of nihilism. Much will depend on whether, like Nietzche, we experience it as a liberation to be celebrated, or whether, like Dostoyevky, as an illness to be cured of.

A person from Trieste is particularly inclined to be a man with no features and to seek the identity he is unsure of in literature. The Award bestowed upon me today generously highlights the strong sense of Europe in my writing. I was born and have lived in a border town which at certain times was itself a frontier; indeed, it was made up and woven of frontiers that split it spiritually, separating the city from the city itself, criss-crossing it like scars on a body. Only a truly united Europe can turn frontiers between its nations and cultures into bridges that join them rather than barriers that separate them.

European unity should not induce fear. In fact, we are already living a situation that is European rather than national. This de facto European unity will have to move more and more towards institutional unity, though the way forward is plagued by difficulties and setbacks. Love of Europe does not presuppose some Eurocentric, myopic pride; the centre of the world nowadays is anywhere, and will brook no iniquitous domination of one particular area. European humanism is also a battle for the equality of any of man’s provinces, as Canetti called it. In the helter-skelter of political, cultural or social transformation, democracy sometimes wavers. Spain, which has undergone an incredible renewal in a few years, is a great example of how modernisation can, and should, be synonymous with the upsurge and victory of democracy.

Europe is not about levelling up differences, but rather about formimg a chorus in harmony, in which Oviedo will be no less Asturian and Trieste will be no less ‘Triestian’ or Italian. Unity does not exist without diversity, and vice-versa. Dante said that he lad learnt to love Florence by dint of drinking water from the River Arno, but he added that our homeland is the world, just as the sea is for its fish.

Thank You.

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