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Prince of Asturias Award for Literature 2013
Writing almost always begins as a dream, a whim or an imaginary vocation. However, the dream, desire and whim fail to gel if it does not become a craft. A craft –any craft– requires a strong inclination and a long apprenticeship. A craft constitutes an undertaking that is sometimes exhausting or tedious because of the patience and sustained effort it requires, but when things go well, it also affords moments of fulfilment, subsequently allowing the reward of a break, all the more pleasurable for the feeling that it is well earned, at least to some extent. I say ‘to some extent’ because everyone who is totally dedicated to a craft knows that there is always a great distance between a project’s greatest potential and its execution, just as there are unforeseen discoveries. A craft is a practical endeavour: one does something one enjoys and which one has managed to do, by dint of learning and effort, with some degree of solvency, but one does not do it for oneself, for however much the job is done all alone and however much a private satisfaction resides in the mere act of doing it. The result obtained from this endeavour achieves an objective existence, irrespective of who carried it out, and then comes to form a beneficial part of the lives of its recipients: a musical instrument or score, a tool, a table, a story, a notepad, a painting, a clay bowl, a photo, a scientific discovery, a dance step, the cure for a disease, a sporting feat, a well-prepared dish, a pyramid of artichokes in a greengrocer’s window.
There are some peculiarities to the craft of writing, as there are in any other. The first is that the human need it satisfies is one of the most intangible, yet also one of the most universal: the need to know stories and to tell them; that is, the need to give intelligible shape to the world through words. A story –fictional or not– proposes a universal model of a certain field of experience based on observation of the little details of life, just as a scientist acts, developing theoretical models derived from observation and experimentation which serve the twofold function of explaining and predicting. In primitive or ancient societies, myth constitutes the model for explaining and predicting human behaviour. Our modern variety of myth is fiction, in all its varieties, from the coarsest, most banal, most commercial and ephemeral to the profoundest and most demanding, from the soap opera and video game to Don Quixote or Moby Dick or a short story by my dear Alice Munro.
Our profession is therefore dedicated to a craft which is older and more useful than it seems. It is also a much more uncertain craft. For the reason that –and this is its second peculiarity– experience affords no guarantee in this craft and there may be a shocking divergence between merit and recognition.
Those who write know they have to devote as many hours and years to their craft as other artisans to theirs, and that they will not manage to achieve anything of value without that dedication. Yet they also know that commitment –in and of itself– does not guarantee the quality of the result, because experience and dedication can lead to stagnant mannerisms and self-parody. They also know that the ‘best’ is sometimes recognized immediately and at other times ignored, and that what sometimes seemed ‘better’ falls apart after a very short time and that, long after, a strange form of deferred justice shines the spotlight –with no possibility of compensation– on real talent which did not itself shine in their lifetime.
Disheartenment in the face of the uncertainties of the craft is further accentuated in times of uncertainty as bitter as these. It is difficult to speak of perseverance and the pleasure of working in a country where so many millions of people despairingly are without work. It is almost frivolous to ramble on about the lack of correspondence between merit and success in literature in a world where those with a job see their wages dwindle, while the better-off see their profits increase obscenely, in a country ravaged by a crisis in which those responsible go unpunished, while their victims receive no justice, where rectitude and a job well done are so often afforded less value than cheating or clientelism; in a country where the latest forms of demagoguery have given new life to the ancient contempt for intellectual work and knowledge.
Even so –and leaving civic responsibilities in their due place– the only acceptable remedy against the disheartenment of this craft lies in the craft itself. Writing, crafting all five senses into each word. Writing without succumbing to the slightest form of indulgence. Writing, accepting and enjoying the solitude and giving thanks for the network of other fundamental crafts that make it one of the least solitary and most communal crafts in the world, just as the craft of the musician and scientist is solitary and communal; giving thanks to the craftsmanship of the publisher, the proof-reader, the translator, the bookseller, the critic, that of other writers one learns to admire, the craftsmanship of those who teach others to read and of those who transmits their love for literature in the classroom; giving thanks for the most pleasurable craft of all, that of the reader. Writing with the fear of not having readers and with the fear of losing them, surmounting praise and injuries equally. Writing, because, like any other craft, writing is primarily an act of affirmation, despite all the abnegation and impossibilities it involves. Writing, just because.
These awards were first bestowed in 1981, and Your Highness presided over them in your first public act. At the time, we still lived under the recent, sombre trauma of an attempted coup. In his acceptance speech, the poet José Hierro alluded with joy and relief, but also fully aware of the danger, to the “air of freedom we breathe”. Despite all the woes, we continue to breathe this same air 32 years later, which constitute the longest known period of freedom in the entire history of our country. It is important to remember these things now, when the future seems, in many aspects, as uncertain as it did then. In this period of time, the entire generation born then –that of my children– has come of age. Their lives are now harder than we imagined only a few years ago, but it is important to remember that those times, in 1981, also seemed threatening when we were living through them. And yet we have not stopped breathing the air of freedom whose praises José Hierro sang. The literary generation to which I belong would not have been possible without that breath. We have even become so accustomed to it that we now run the risk of not knowing how to appreciate it. It is our responsibility to safeguard what was won thanks to the fact that many people did and continue to do their jobs well, both in the private and public sphere; and also to reflect urgently on all the mistakes, all the passivity and oversights that we need to correct. In this endeavour, the crafts of the word may be more useful than ever.
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