Winner of the 2012 Cervantes Prize.
At times it might seem as if the world in the XXI century is becoming progressively smaller, more homogeneous, less interesting than it was not-all-that-long-ago, when borders still towered imposingly from country to country and queues had to be made to exchange good money for bad, in order to fund a short holiday. It is called globalization, and the fact that its effects are so visible—McDonalds is everywhere, as is Rihanna or James Bond—means that often the opposite phenomenon goes unnoticed.
Publishing is no stranger to globalization, and indeed global trends usually dominate the best selling charts regardless of the language, the context, the location: J. K. Rowling, Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson and E. L. James, to name but a few, are regular occupants of the top tiers in sales everywhere from Italy to Argentina, Mexico or Germany. Nevertheless, away from the best-selling charts, the publishing business in each of these countries tends to operate in drastically different ways.
In Spain, specifically, and consequently to some degree also in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, the literary establishment is structured around an uncanny number of literary prizes, which act simultaneously as a subsidy of sorts for creators and a regular source of new talent. Not only does every one of the large publishing houses host its own annual literary prize (Planeta’s standing out as the single most opulent literary prize in the world, after the Nobel), but even the smallest towns in the country organize their own competitions.
Within this context, Spain’s two major institutional literary awards, the Premio Príncipe de Asturias, open to all writers, and the Premio Miguel de Cervantes, open only to writers whose work is produced in Spanish, stand out as the two most significant literary prizes in the world, bar the Nobel. Like the iconic Swedish academy award, both these prizes take in consideration the entire career of its nominees, rather than a single work in the fashion of the Pulitzer, or the Booker.
On this occasion, let’s concentrate of the Cervantes: established in 1976 in the immediate aftermath of the end of Franco’s dictatorship by Spain’s Ministry of Culture, the prize has traditionally been awarded in alternate years to Spanish and foreign writers respectively. Among its recipients feature Nobel Prize winners, such as Camilo José Cela, Octavio Paz and Mario Vargas Llosa, as well as a number of writers we have talked about in this column, from Jorge Guillén and Alejo Carpentier, the first two winners in ’76 and ’77, to Juan Carlos Onetti and Carlos Fuentes.
Announced towards the end of November and awarded on the anniversary of the birth of the greatest Spanish writer of all time, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, on April 23, this year’s winner is José Manuel Caballero Bonald, one of the most venerable and respected literary figures alive, not only in Spain.
Born in Jerez, in the southern end of the country, in 1926, Caballero Bonald grew up in the impoverished and criminally censored environment of the early days of Franco’s dictatorship. Perhaps for this reason, he turned to poetry from the very beginnings of his literary career. In 1952, having just finished his degree in Literature and Philosophy, he published his first collection of poems, Las Adivinaciones (The Prophecies), followed by Memorias de poco tiempo (Memories of a Short Time, 1954), and Anteo (1956). By then he was already living in Madrid at a time when the regime was beginning to move from its oppressive policy to a more liberal stance of “national reconciliation.” Caballero Bonald greeted the shift by moving away, having already penned what would be his first acclaimed book: the collection of poems, Las horas muertas (The Dead Hours, 1959).
Between 1959 and 1962 Caballero Bonald lived in Colombia, working as a lecturer at the Universidad Nacional. This South American experience has a strong influence on the Spanish writer, whose father was a Cuban national. The result was his first foray into the world of fiction with what to date remains possibly his most famous book: the novel, Dos días de septiembre (Two Days in September, 1962). Set in the middle of the vendimia, the grape harvesting season, Dos días de septiembre weaves a compelling story around the disgraced figure of Joaquin, a vagrant flamenco cantaor who is, quite literally, starving to death, and his equally miserable friend, Lucas.
Caballero Bonlad’s portrayal of a rural community in Spain in the ’60s plays with the stark contrast between the well-to-do controlling families, in charge of vast and considerably profitable vineyards, and the common people, very much dependent on the whims of the powerful. There is more than just an undertow of political engagement in the text, clearly influenced by the general sentiment prevalent in Colombia and the rest of South America toward the end of ’60s, but any ideological intentions are made to play second fiddle to a well-structured novel where the family members and associated social elements of three competing vineyards are outlined in detail.
Dos días de septiembre is often very difficult to read, simply because Caballero Bonald, like any good poet, gives language primacy over story. The problem is that he gives primacy to a special language, somewhat idiosyncratic and certainly unusual, if also exact to a fault, which soon emerges as the true protagonist of the novel. In many respects, Caballero Bonald revisits the tradition of costumbrismo prevalent in South American literature at the end of the XIX century, whereby traditional habits were reproduced and often extolled in narrative texts. Nevertheless, Caballero Bonald’s version of costumbrismo practically reverses the effect by alienating readers through terms that, far from creating a familiar framework, rather introduces them into the (quite literally) unknown universe of the writer’s creation.
That, however, is only half the story of Dos días en septiembre, because for every instance in which Caballero Bonald opens a conceptual rift between his prose and the reader, there are significant portions of dialogue between members of the colorful population of the novel in which the true sensibility of the Spanish people is masterfully expressed in few but striking lines.
Twelve years would lapse between Dos días de septiembre and Caballero Bonald’s next novel, Ágata ojo de gato (Agata Cat Eyes, 1974). In between he would run into trouble with the authorities in Spain, spend time living in revolutionary Cuba, compile a number of non-fiction volumes and start his four-year teaching spell in the USA. To this day, Ágata ojo de gato is his most famous work, perhaps not because it is his most engaging but rather because it is his most ambitious. Rather than diluting his theoretical aspirations with mundane (however good) dialogue, Ágata ojo de gato complements Caballero Bonald’s exploration of a heavily charged, heavily meaningful language with the creation of a totally new—imaginary—landscape dissociated from the “real” world from the outset.
Ágata ojo de gato sounds like a fairy tale, reads like a treatise and tells the epic story of the rise and fall of a legendary fortune in approximately 250 pages. Hence, every chapter, every page, almost every word is impregnated with significance; hence progress in the unveiling of this mystery is laborious to say the least. Which is not to say there aren’t joyful moments in Ágata ojo de gato: Caballero Bonald successfully internalizes many of the techniques explored by the Latin American writers in the ’60s and integrates them organically in his own narrative style. In other words, Ágata ojo de gato might well be a masterpiece of the elusive genre known as the “total novel,” but masterpieces are often hard work.
Aged 86, Caballero Bonald has distinguished himself as a multifarious intellectual. He conducts himself as a man who considers himself to be a poet, and who sees poetry as the highest possible degree of cultural refinement. He has published 15 books of poetry, including his autobiography in verse, which came out in 2012. As well as the two novels mentioned he has published three more pieces of full-length fiction, added to three volumes of memoires, and two dozens of non-fiction titles. Having announced his retirement as a writer earlier in 2012, the Cervantes comes as a fine cap to a career that has spanned six decades and that has seen him claim every recognition awarded by the Spanish Academy. Therefore, come April 23 2013 I will be having a toast to one of the great wordsmiths of our age: José Manuel Caballero Bonald.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday, March 16, 2013.