The 17th Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize Speech
Published with the permission of the Rómulo Gallegos Center for Latin American Studies (CELARG).
The following speech was delivered by Ricardo Piglia upon being awarded the 17th Edition of the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize for his novel Blanco nocturno [Target in the Night].
The jury indicated that he was awarded the prize for “his great talent for locating the plot in a precise world,” his “rigorous observation of events and characters,” the “clarity of his language” and “the literary wisdom that allows him to captivate the reader and maintain the story’s tension with subterranean poetic force.”
It goes without saying that I’m very honored and excited to be here. I thank my colleagues on the jury, my friends from the CELARG [“Rómulo Gallegos Center for Latin American Studies”]. And I’m thankful for the presence of the Minister of Culture of Venezuela, and of all of you, tonight.
I think it’s very important that a prize awarded in Latin America should have the tradition and prestige of the Rómulo Gallegos prize. Receiving a prize is always an uncomfortable situation - you feel recognized for your work but out of place at the same time, because the prizes are given to books and not to people.
We could consider discomfort, that distance between the book and the author, as a classic theme of literature. Who writes is not who narrates is not who writes, as has been said. There is something like the fantasy of the double in that situation: books always have something in common with Mr. Hyde, they are always the shadow of their author. But, nonetheless - as this is a prize for a novel - storytelling is what links narrators, novels, and readers. And I’d like to say a few words about storytelling tonight.
I’ve often imagined that if, through some magical method, we could have at our disposal all the stories that circulate through a city in a single day, we would know more about that place than we could from analyzing political reports, news, surveys, or statistics, or from receiving media discourse. These social stories are the greatest context of literature. In more than one sense, the novel works among reality that has already been narrated. This multiple plot of anonymous voices, versions, little stories, personal perceptions, is the space in which the novel lives.
Telling stories is one of the most stable practices of social life, and a day in any of our lives is also made of the stories that we tell and are told, of the circulation of stories that we exchange and decipher constantly in the network of social life; we are forever condemned to narrate. “Tell me!” is one of the great social demands. We all practice narration and know what makes a good story. So what is a good story? One that interests not only the storyteller, but also the audience. One example is telling our dreams. Anyone who tells a dream confronts the problem of all narrators who believe the stories that interest them will interest everyone else. When you tell a dream, when you say, “I dreamt about my childhood home,” that image has an extraordinary significance for you as the narrator, because you remember well what that childhood home was, but you have to know how to transmit that memory and that feeling.
So, a good storyteller is not only one who who lived the experience and the feeling of the experience, but also one who is able to transmit that emotion to others. That’s why, when someone tells me a dream, I try to see if I am in the dream, if I appear there, because that would make the dream a little more interesting, or perhaps more dangerous. In any case, I would be implicated in that story. The story depends on that implication, and it is always linked to whoever is receiving the story, in a structure that has formed the foundation of the short story from Poe to Borges.
On the other hand, storytelling is one of the original ways to use language. Some even think that storytelling has a place in the origin of all culture. Karl Popper has stated: “I propose the thesis that the most characteristic element of human language is the possibility of telling stories, and it could well be that this ability has existed in the animal world.” He continues, “the moment at which language becomes human is found in the closest relationship with the moment in which man invents a story.” Storytelling could be the condition of possibility and enigmatic, somewhat miraculous occurrence from which language arises. Words are used to name something that is not there, to reconstruct an absent reality, to bind occurrences together, establish an order, rebuild certain relationships of meaning. We might remember the example given by the novelist E.M. Forster in his book, Aspects of the Novel: “The king died and then the queen died, that’s a fact. The king died and then the queen died of sadness, that’s a story.”
The succession in time is preserved, but the feeling of causality, of sadness, eclipses it. The motivation, the meaning, the “why do things happen?” is the key to the narrative.
On the other hand, narrative has an incredibly long history. Stories have always been told; we could even imagine the possible beginning of all narrative, we could infer a start, imagine a first story: we can imagine that the first storyteller walks away from the cave, perhaps searching for something, crosses a river and then a hill, finds himself in a valley, and sees something extraordinary there before returning to tell that story.
We can imagine, in any case, that the first storyteller was a traveler and that the journey is one of the central structures of the narrative. Someone leaves the everyday world, goes somewhere else, and tells what he has seen, narrating the difference.
And that mode of telling the story as a journey is a structure that has persisted, arriving in the present day; there is no journey without narrative. In a sense, we could say that we travel in order to narrate. But we could also think of another origin for the act of narration; we could image that the other first storyteller was the seer, the shaman, the tracker of the tribe, who tells a possible story based on obscure clues and traces of the past. There are some tracks, some traces that can never be understood, and it is necessary to decipher them, and to decipher is to construct a story. So, we could say that the first storyteller was, perhaps, someone who read these signs, who read the flight of birds, the tracks on the sand, the drawing on the tortoise shell, and reconstructed - based on these scraps - an absent reality, a forgotten and future meaning. We could identify this reconstruction of a story based on certain tracks that are here, in the present - this step toward another temporality - as the story-as-investigation; there is something I don’t know, and the story reconstructs it, imagines it, narrates it.
If we think of the long history of storytelling, we could imagine that there have been, therefore, two basic modes of narration that have lasted since the beginning, two great forms that are beyond genre and whose tracks and ruins we can see today in the narratives that circulate and persist: the journey and the investigation.
We should understand investigation as a story that serves to solve an enigma, something that can never be understood and that the story attempts to restore and decipher. At the same time, these two great modes of narration have their heroes, their protagonists, their legendary figures, as if the repetition of those stories had ended up crystallizing itself in the figure that sustains the form. We could therefore think that those two great modes of narration have also constructed their own heroes. There is the great tradition of the traveler, the wanderer, the one who abandons his homeland - the astute Ulysses, the Polytropos, the man of many journeys, the one who is distant, who longs to return, the subject who is always in a precarious situation, the nomad, the foreigner, the one who is outside of his home and who lives with the nostalgia of something lost. We could imagine Ulysses as a sort of hero, as a sort of first hero; based on his own isolation and his nostalgia, he is constituted as a subject and he can narrate.
And, of course, the other hero of subjectivity, the other great figure, is Oedipus: the decoder of enigmas, the one who investigates a crime and finally ends up understanding that the criminal is himself; it is Oedipus who protagonizes the structure of the story-as-investigation, and therefore as a lost story that must be reconstructed, since this absent story is the story of his life.
Ulysses and Oedipus, imaginary heroes of archaic stories, define narrative as a journey or as an investigation of meaning.
They are later called Don Quixote and Ahab, Erdosain and Doña Bárbara. In great narratives, there is always the passion for finding meaning in life in a world where significance is manipulated and where media do not present reality in its truest form. Literature persists in its aspiration for the truth, and this aspiration justifies literature.
At this point, I would like to remind you of a fact, a small occurrence that, in a way, illustrates what I want to say and illustrates many other things as well, without saying them explicitly.
Years ago, in 1978, in the midst of the military dictatorship, I went to visit Antonia Cristina, one of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who had two disappeared children: Eleonora and Roberto. Antonia lived in a very modest apartment in a barrio of Buenos Aires; I remember very well that every so often she would fall silent and then tell me that she heard so many lies that she sometimes argued with her TV set while watching the news, the political programs, and she talked to them and rebutted them, alone, in that house in Buenos Aires, in front of the avalanche of news that repeated the military regime’s cynical versions of reality. “Sometimes I ask God,” Antonia told me that afternoon, “to make them give me a minute, just a minute to say how things really are.” Every night, she reviewed and rehearsed what she wanted to say in that minute. She polished again and again, in her mind, the story of the truth.
The tension between history and experience, between information and narration, is at play in that situation. In some places in the city in certain years, the true versions circulated, the facts, the stories that let us know what was happening beneath the high tide of manipulated information. Antonia was also Scheherazade, alone in an apartment in Buenos Aires, telling her story and the story of her children. She, like so many others in Latin America, helped us to resist, and also to remember.
Thank you very much.
Caracas, Venezuela. August 2, 2011
Translated from the Spanish by Arthur Dixon
Ricardo Piglia (Buenos Aires, 1940–2017), professor emeritus of Princeton University, is unanimously considered a classic of contemporary Spanish-language literature. He published five novels, including Artificial Respiration, The Absent City, and Target in the Night, as well as collections of stories and criticism. Among the numerous prizes he received were the Premio de la Crítica, Premio Rómulo Gallegos, Premio Bartolomé March, Premio Casa de las Américas, Premio José Donoso, and Premio Formentor de las Letras.