A History of Some Prizes

Mexican writer Sergio Pitol receiving the Cervantes Prize from King Juan Carlos I of Spain in 2005.

On July 24, I was informed that an international jury had awarded me the Juan Rulfo Prize for Latin American and Caribbean Literature. It would be difficult for me to express the emotion of that moment. The very name of the award is cause for satisfaction and pride, such that it is equivalent to receiving another prize.

As always occurs in these circumstances, from the deep folds of memory, scenes, gestures, phrases, sometimes only monosyllables begin to emerge.

Juan Rulfo in Warsaw, next to Julio Cortázar, Danuta Rycerz, and Augusto Monterroso talking to a select audience of Hispano-Americanists, translators, writers, and journalists and above all to an enthusiastic swarm of students who had read their books, mostly in Polish.

Juan Rulfo in Paris, at the home of Alfredo Bryce Echenique, also with Tito Monterroso, Manuel Scorza, Enrique Lihn, Julio Ramon Rybeiro, and other Latin American writers at a party that culminated in a turbulent political discussion.

Juan Rulfo at Monday lunch at the home of Alba and Vicente Rojo, with Fernando Benítez, Jaime and Celia García Terrés, Tito Monterroso, Bárbara Jacobs, Catalina Sierra, and Carlos Monsiváis, following, silently, incisive conversations about current Mexican affairs.

Juan Rulfo seated in an armchair placed especially for him in the bookstore El Ágora, on Insurgentes Sur, where I sometimes saw him talking with Federico Campbell.

On each of these occasions I seemed always to see a man at battle, without showing either effort or, it seemed, even interest, with the senseless and invisible matter that is life; with the air. A survivor

Only at El Ágora, in his private corner, did he seem to be at ease, he was a fish in water, or better, a delicate animal from dry ground certain of his space.

Seeing him, hearing him, glimpsing him in the distance meant immediately referring to Pedro Páramo, to “Luvina,” to “Tell Them Not to Kill Me!,” “It’s Because We’re So Poor,” and “Anacleto Morones.” He was the Tusitala, a name, according to Stevenson, by which the peoples of the  islands of the South Seas called the storyteller, the most important person on the island. His voice was that of his protagonists, a combination of murmurs, wind, and silence. He was the man who had transformed our narrative, the one who, after writing a novel and a handful of stories on rural themes, using an apparently peasant language, accomplished the feat of turning all the costumbrista literature of the period into ashes, sand, and dross. Just as Cervantes who, upon writing a single chivalric novel, entombs all the novels of that genre.

With Rulfo, contemporary narrative in Mexico is born.

What my generation, and those that come after, owes him is incalculable, although some of his beneficiaries have chosen not to acknowledge it.

Since July 24, I have been interviewed frequently. To the inevitable and obligatory question, regarding my reaction to this prize or to prizes in general, I have responded with something I have always maintained clear: a writer does not write to win prizes or tributes, he does it out of biological necessity; he writes as he breathes. And if his task is ever rewarded he must accept it as incentive, as something casual, a mere sign of chance. And he will do well to remember, so as to position himself within reality, that, already within this time of awards, some of the greatest literary figures have not received any, for various reasons. Such is the case of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Lowry, Kafka, López Velarde, Lampedusa, Vallejo. Instead, a multitude of literatti have boasted a dazzling breast of braids and medals on the funeral bier, but no one remembers them today because they were not truly real, they meant nothing. They were minor figures, sparkling and vain, nothing more.

I have received some awards and I have welcomed them with gratitude and emotion. In 1956, at twenty-three years of age, almost all my generation’s colleagues had collaborated in magazines and literary supplements and some had already published a book. I had written a few stories that, out of insecurity, I did not dare to publish. I rewrote them ceaselessly, toyed with them, and from time to time I allowed Monsiváis or some other friend to read them. I worked as a proofreader in the Compañía General de Ediciones, a business created by Martín Luis Guzmán and Rafael Giménez Siles and run by the latter. I became friends there with Aurelio Garzón del Camino, an indefatigable translator who brought the entire Human Comedy of Balzac into Spanish, plus all the novels of Zola and many other French books. He was the head of proofreaders at the publishing house. Soon we had discovered that we shared literary curiosities, as well as mutual friendships. Perhaps what fundamentally united us was our devotion to humor and parody, of which he was a master. That modest Spanish grammarian who took refuge in Mexico transmitted to me his passion for the language, which he all but transformed into a ministry. We would often go out to eat at the various gastronomic paradises he had detected near the publishing house. And on each of those occasions I attended a literature and grammar lecture, delivered with grace and without pedantry. From him I learned that the best motivation for a writer came from familiarity with the moments of greatest splendor of our language. He would explain to me, book in hand, that the style of Alfonso Reyes was a distillation of the best parts of language, from the Cantar de Mío Cid, one of whose first versions in Castilian was made precisely by him, even the vernacular and quotidian language of today, and in his transit, he would travel through the splendors of the Golden Age, the cadences of modernismo, the audacities of the avant-gardists of the twenties and the thirties, until arriving at Borges. Without showing in any way the seams to create a style. Writing—he would say—does not mean copying masters, nor using obsolete terms as some Mexican neocolonialists had done. The fundamental objective of reading was to sense the “genius of language,” the possibility of modulating it at will, of making new a word that has been repeated a thousand times by simply putting it in the right place in a sentence. In Rulfo’s work, he said, the richness and perfection of style was attained; his was a language that contained resonances of all times, where a peasant’s vocabulary had value because of its stylization, so as not to arrive at the typical costumbrista reduction in the books of José Rubén Romero in México or José María Pereda in Spain.

Garzón del Camino, by his own confession, of course, knew that I wrote stories and that I did not dare publish them because they were still very immature. Finally, I gave him some of them to read, and after a few days he told me his impressions: their faults and the eventual possibilities of revision. Suddenly he blurted out that he had given one of the stories to a friend of his who collaborated on a dreadful magazine that every so often awarded short-story prizes. So as not to implicate me, he had sent it under a fictitious name.

“Of course, the magazine is rubbish,” he told me. “And that has the advantage that no one you know will ever see it. The important thing is to read in print what you have written. That will give you the distance to recognize your mistakes, which are many, and to detect if any phrase is worth keeping and improving as much as the text allows.” That magazine was called Aventura y Misterio. The story “Amelia Otero” won first prize, and the author, who was me, appeared with the name of Xavier Fierro. Garzón del Camino was right, and I will be forever grateful to him. Seeing a story published somewhere was the first attempt to cut the umbilical cord. One can read as if the text were not his own, especially in a magazine as bad as that and protected by a fictitious name. I began to notice my deficiencies, not only those belonging to that particular story but also those from which other stories suffered. The money did not have the slightest importance, the prize consisted in providing me with the security I needed, which it did to such an extent that shortly thereafter I decided to visit, along with a very young José Emilio Pacheco, Juan José Arreola to propose the publication of our texts in his beautiful Cuadernos de El Unicornio. “La sangre de Medusa” [The blood of Medusa], by José Emilio, and my own “Victorio Ferri Tells a Tale,” appeared in 1958. In these stories, we revealed ourselves for the first time to the world in the same publication.

Each prize has its history, and in my case a happy consequence. In 1978, I held a post at the Mexican embassy in Moscow. I had been struggling for six or seven years with a novel insistent on making my life impossible, an unruly story that caused blocks, stagnation, paralysis of will, and various other ills. It was a story that I had conceived one night in Xalapa, for which I already had the beginning, the end, the characters, the plot, the situations, the spaces, everything when it was said and done. I thought I would be able to finish it in a few weeks and let it rest a little longer and then sharpen it, perfect it, and publish it soon. Nothing happened that way. I wrote and rewrote it several times. At last I tore it up, determined to forget it forever and undertake some other project, but as soon as I found another plot the former novel got in-between me and the new work. At the time, some Mexican cultural publications would arrive at the cultural section of the embassy, among them, from time to time, La Palabra y el Hombre, the literary magazine of the Universidad Veracruzana. One day, on my way back from Tolstoy's house in Moscow, which I was visiting for the first time, I leafed through a copy of the magazine, and saw a call for the annual short-story contest it sponsored. It would be a few weeks before the closing date arrived. That night, at a diplomatic dinner, I behaved like a ghost, to the degree that some were worried about me, believing that I had contracted one of those deadly flus, typical of the thaw. It’s true, I had been distracted, restless, annoyed, but not due to illness. When I arrived at my apartment, I began to scribble some notes about a young Mexican man who arrives in Paris in search of the traces of his father who disappeared in France many years before, during a trip from which he never returned home. In the previous years, and even then, I had contracted an overwhelming passion for opera, to the point of almost becoming a reason for living. I immediately incorporated operatic themes, the figure of a frustrated Mexican singer, that of her sister too, a specialist in Conrad, author of an essay on Lord Jim, the helpless orphan who goes about the world finding and losing parents, and those and many other lines comes together, formed a plot, and I began after seven years of paralysis to write a story: “Asimetría” [Asymmetry]. I finished it in a few days, sent it to Xalapa, and in due time I received the news that I had won first prize. It was a formidable prize because it represented my return to writing. It is possible that instinct, linked entirely and during all my life to literature, had caused me to notice that call upon opening the magazine and return to the right path. From then on, I continued to write in Moscow with a passion and happiness that I had rarely known and that I only recovered many years later, when I worked on some texts from The Art of Flight. I am certain that if anything remained of me in the future it would be a few pages or at least a few paragraphs of those four Moscow stories. “Asimetría” was joined by three other stories: “Nocturno de Bujara” [Bukhara Nocturne], “Vals de Mefisto” [Mephisto’s Waltz], and “El relato veneciano de Billie Upward” [The Venetian tale of Billie Upward].1 I was surprised that after finishing that quadrivium, I managed to rewrite, from beginning to end, that abandoned and terribly disheartening novel that had caused me to lose several years of my life. I wrote it with disconcerting speed, as if my hand were guided by a will higher than mine, or, rather, as if my hand were what was thinking, discerning, adjusting the plot, and deciding the language. In addition, that book of stories that began with a prize from Veracruz, when it was published in Mexico, with the title Nocturno de Bujara, won the Villaurrutia Prize.

And so, while going from prize to prize, an existence and a writing have passed, making little effort to flatter the world.

Some psychoanalysts have reproached me for a lack of competitiveness. I want to be in the countryside, to write in a cabin hidden in the undergrowth so that no one can disturb me, to be able to produce in solitude, to live a life apart from the world, but I am susceptible to the joys of the world, to conversation, to gossip, to enjoy and laugh at and with the protagonists of the human comedy.

The period of my life that transpired in Barcelona was one of the periods in which I felt closest to a state of freedom. Under a quintessentially authoritarian regime, that of Franco, I did not allow my inner freedom to be altered. In that autarchic and orthodox State par excellence, Beatriz de Moura and I, along with a group of friends, reveled in creating, in the publishing house Tusquets, a collection exclusively of heterodox writers.

Whenever I read or hear anything about freedom, or when I think about it, I seek refuge in the shadow of Chekhov.

I could go without reading countless masterpieces written by brilliant authors, but never those by Chekhov. Without his stories, novels, theater, and correspondence, my life would have suffered a grave deficiency. I think of a world without Chekhov, and I glimpse only gray streets and plazas, hopeless and stale. In a calm and well-mannered way, Chekhov is one of the most profoundly subversive writers that ever existed. His morality is condensed into one sentence: “Indifference is the paralysis of the soul, a premature death.”

Chekhov was the son of serfs. He was born a year or two before the edict that abolished serfdom was proclaimed, a word that in Russia meant slavery. Throughout his life he remembered that his life, from birth, ceased to be governed by chance on a given day. He could have been sold, given away like a puppy, lost at cards or dice, as had happened to some of his relatives. Having been born a servant served as an extraordinary incentive. He became the greatest writer in his country. His work, veiled or sometimes openly clear, indirectly rejects any form of tyranny, whether political, administrative, familial, professional, or any other.

There are wonderful definitions of freedom; I prefer the simple, quotidian way by which the Russian author refers to it. Chekhov’s letter to Suvorin, his editor, is famous:

“Write a story of how a young man, the son of a serf, who has served in a shop, sung in a choir, been at a high school and a university, who has been brought up to respect everyone of higher rank and position, to kiss priests’ hands, to reverence other people’s ideas, to be thankful for every morsel of bread, who has been many times whipped, who has trudged from one pupil to another without galoshes, who has been used to fighting, and tormenting animals, who has liked dining with his rich relations, and been hypocritical before God and men from the mere consciousness of his own insignificance — write how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and how waking one beautiful morning he feels that he has no longer a slave’s blood in his veins but a real man’s.2 [In that instant, he begins to be not only a writer but a free man.]”3

And in a letter to another friend, Aleksey Pleshcheyev:

“I should like to be a free artist and nothing more, and I regret that God has not given me the power to be one. I hate lying and violence in all their forms, and am equally repelled by the secretaries of consistories and by Notovitch and Gradovsky. Pharisaism, stupidity and despotism reign not in merchants’ houses and prisons alone. I see them in science, in literature, in the younger generation.... That is why I have no preference either for gendarmes, or for butchers, or for scientists, or for writers, or for the younger generation. I regard trade-marks and labels as a superstition. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from violence and lying, whatever forms they may take.”4

The Herralde Novel Prize went in 1984 to my book El desfile del amor [Love’s Parade]. which won me a presence in the Spanish literary media. The novel was translated into several languages, but its greatest impact was in Mexico. For many years I wrote from Europe and published in Mexico in small editions. My books received very little critical attention for years here. I had from the beginning a handful of enthusiasts, but also some ill-wishers, who considered my narrative antiquated, out of fashion, due, among other reasons, to the fact that my characters did not do physical exercise and spent their time talking about painting or literature. The Spanish prize changed the landscape, my readership increased, and critics ended up placing my work in the canon of Mexican literature. The notion of being successful in Europe made me visible in my country. And so things went. Two other novels followed the parade of love: Domar a la divina garza [Taming the divine heron] and La vida conyugal [Married life]. They constitute a carnival triptych.5 I have described this experience somewhere:

“As the official language I heard and spoke every day became increasingly more rarefied, to compensate, that of my novel became more animated, sarcastic, and waggish. Every scene was a caricature of real life, that is to say a caricature of a caricature. I took refuge in its laxness, in the grotesque...The function of the communicating vessels established between the three novels that make up the Carnival Triptych suddenly seemed clear: it tended to reinforce the grotesque vision that sustained them. Everything that aspired to solemnity, canonization, and self-satisfaction careened suddenly into mockery, vulgarity, and derision. A world of masks and disguises prevailed. Every situation, together as well as separate, exemplifies the three fundamental stages that Bakhtin finds in the carnivalesque farce: crowning, uncrowning, and the final scourging.”6

Many years have passed since the appearance of my first publication in 1957, and my last books began to receive favorable critical attention. And the fact that I continue as an active writer, regularly publish literary texts in magazines and cultural supplements, and am invited to give lectures or teach courses at home or abroad must have convinced the jury in 1993 of the National Prize for the Arts that the time had come to award me the prize for linguistics and literature.

Indeed, I received it with some delay because the circumstances of the moment were especially unusual. On January 1, 1994, three cities in Chiapas had been taken by military action, and for a few days were in the hands of the rebels. It was something that had not happened in Mexico for many decades. We began to see pictures on television or in the newspapers that we had always considered normal in Central or South America, but never here. No one was able to do anything in those days but read newspapers and watch television. The conversations usually revolved around that phenomenon. The prize of 1993 was not awarded until the beginning of February 1994. Everything was very confusing, and it was difficult to understand what was really happening during the initial days. They asked me to read the thank-you speech on behalf of all the winners. I declined. I would have spoken only if it was in a personal capacity, but to read a speech that was to represent all the winners seemed irresponsible and abusive to those who could have points of view very different from mine. The ceremony was very tense, the seriousness of the situation created an aggravated nervousness. The philosopher Fernando Salmerón read superb and firm pages, making known to the President of the Republic the concern of many intellectuals and his condemnation of a military action that might trigger acts of genocide similar to those experienced in neighboring Guatemala.

The circumstances created around the National Prize led me, in a roundabout way, to my next book, The Art of Flight. None of the journalists who interviewed me on that occasion were interested in my books, the prize or the ceremony, or any literary project I might have for the future. They wanted to know more about what I thought about the rebellion in Chiapas, what my position was on the matter. I could offer nothing more than conjecture. I did not support armed struggle, I was terrified that this guerrilla outbreak would turn into something like the Shining Path: an eternal movement that did not seek an end, a joy of violence in and of itself, a setback in every way. But I credited the rebels insofar as the situation of misery and degradation of the indigenous people of Chiapas had reached levels of abject neglect. The injustice was flagrant. I wanted the government to seek a just peace and begin to remedy the atrocious situation of the Chiapas Indians.

To assuage some of my doubts, to try to understand the intricate historical situation, I decided to travel to Chiapas, and did so shortly after receiving the prize. I arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas. I met Monsiváis there again. It was an unusual city. A great many groups of foreign journalists, the most sophisticated television installations, dozens of languages ​​mixed together, and thousands and thousands of indigenous people filled the streets, flooded into the churches and their atriums, many of them exiled from the surrounding mountains to the city ​​for fear of war. I spent four or five days in Chiapas. I spoke with people of different kinds. And I discovered a world that barely survived in its terrifying orphanhood. Chekhov, returning from the island of Sakhalin, one of the murkiest prisons of Tsarism, declared that this trip had transformed his conception of life, and that his literature would show that transformation in some way. When I finally arrived home, to my garden, my dogs, I was overflowing with pain and anger. I read some lines by Octavio Paz that always enlighten me: “But in our history there appears an element unknown in Spain: the Indian world. It is the dimension to a time that is intimate and unfathomable, familiar and unfamiliar to my country. Without it we would not be who we are [...]. The Indian world was from the beginning the other world, in the strongest sense of the term. An otherness that, for us Mexicans, is resolved in identity, distance that is proximity [...].” He says this in his speech upon receiving the Cervantes Prize in 1982. I read those words and thought of the groups of Chamulas, Tzeltals, Tzotzils, Ch'ols, Tojolabals I saw huddled and humiliated beside the military checkpoints on the roads I had just traveled. We Mexicans had lived a monumental delirium in recent years. We were told and it was repeated incessantly that we had set foot on the threshold of the first world, but what my eyes captured were lamentable rubbish heaps from the thirteenth world. This is what those who share our self had become. There was, however, something uplifting in the process. A continuity of a civil society that had been until them intermittent had begun to emerge. And I began to write The Art of Flight, a book that scarcely broaches the Chiapas question, but that is born of everything that moved in me during those days, transformed by literature into a pilgrimage to the center of myself, to my childhood, to my roots. In four days, I had rejuvenated forty years. It is possible that this breath has touched some fiber of the reader. I had written those pages as a personal, almost secret record, and it immediately became by far the most popular book I have ever written. What's more, it won me another prize: the Mazatlán.

This is, then, the history of my awards and their consequences. The Juan Rulfo Prize, whose awarding honors me, bears the name of the most extraordinary Mexican author, whose books Pedro Páramo and The Burning Plain were already born as two classics of our literature, and so they were seen from the moment of their appearance. My admiration for Rulfo and his books is immense. I promise to attempt in the future, to the extent of my strength, to be worthy of this award and that venerable name.7

Translated by George Henson

 

1 Of these four stories, “Bukhara Nocturne” and “Mephisto’s Waltz,” along with “Victorio Ferri Tells a Tale,” will appear in a soon-to-be-released collection of Pitol’s best short stories with Deep Vellum Publishing. –Editor. 

2 Translated by Constance Garnett. 

I have been unable to find an English translation of this letter that includes this last sentence. –Translator.

4 Garnett.

5 Pitol’s Carnival Triptych will appear in English translation by George Henson by Deep Vellum Publishing.

6 The Art of Flight, translated by George Henson.

7 Sergio Pitol was awarded the Juan Rulfo Prize for Latin American and Caribbean Literature, known today as the FIL Literary Award in Romance Languages, in 1999. In 2005, he would win the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, the highest literary award in the Spanish language.

 

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LALT No. 5
Number 5

LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.

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