CERVANTES PRIZE 2017 A journey outward and back
“With your permission, I would like to dedicate this prize
to the memory of the Nicaraguans recently killed
on the streets while demanding justice and democracy,
and to the thousands of young people still fighting
with no other weapons than their ideals so that
Nicaragua once again becomes a Republic.”
With these words and a black ribbon on his lapel
Sergio Ramírez began his acceptance speech
for the Cervantes Prize on April 23 in the auditorium
of the Alcalá de Henares University, Madrid,
We reproduce it here in its entirety.
Your Majesties: I come from a small country with its volcanic mountain range rising up in the center of the searing Central American landscape that Neruda, in one of his stanzas in Canto General (General Song), called “the sweet waistline of America.” A volatile waistline. In an essay of my youth that I titled Balkans and volcanos I tried to explain the cultural nature of that region whose history is branded in blistering iron by cataclysms, repeated tyrannies, rebellions and strife; but, in Nicaragua’s case also by poetry. We are all poets from birth, unless proven otherwise.
“Poet” is how people greet each other in the street, on the opposite sidewalk, whether they are pharmacists, trial lawyers, obstetricians, office workers or street traders; and if not all my countrymen write poetry, they feel it as their own, unquestionably thanks to the formidable tutelary shadow of Rubén Darío, who created our identity not only in the literary sense but also as a country. Evoking his native land, he wrote: “Mother, whose small belly was able to bear/so many blonde beauties and tropical treasures/so many clear blue lakes, so many golden roses/so many sweet doves, so many wild tigers…”
In my case, I voluntarily declare myself a poet, in the sense that Caballero Bonald recalled from this same chair when receiving the 2012 Cervantes Prize: “that verbal emotion, those words that go beyond their own expressive limits and open or leave ajar the passageways leading to enlightenment, to those ‘deep caverns of meaning’ mentioned by St. John of the Cross.”
Poetry is inevitably part of the substance of prose. Rubén, who knew this, revolutionized not only poetry but also journalistic reporting and was an innovative storyteller. What’s more, I think anyone who hasn’t spent his life reading poetry has difficulty finding the keys to prose, which requires rhythms and invisible music: “silent music/resonant solitude.” It’s what Pietro Citati calls “the music of lost things” when talking about Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s prose in The death of a butterfly: “for most people, things are irremediably lost, but for him they left behind music. And for a writer, it’s essential to find that music of lost things, not the things themselves.”
Nicaragua is a nation
founded by a poet
Not everyone in Nicaragua writes verses, but Rubén opened the doors to generation after generation of modern poets, right up to today, with names such as Carlos Martínez Rivas; Ernesto Cardenal and Claribel Alegría, both of the latter honored with the Queen Sofía Prize for Hispano-American poetry; and Gioconda Belli.
It’s strange for an American nation to be founded by a poet with words and not by a general on horseback with his sword in the air. The only time Rubén wore a military uniform, a dress coat embroidered with golden laurels and a bicorn hat with a crest of feathers, was when he presented his credentials to His Majesty Alfonso XIII in 1908 as Nicaragua’s ephemeral ambassador; a uniform, moreover, loaned to him by his Colombian counterpart because he didn’t have one of his own.
Rubén brought liberating novelties to the language he inherited from Cervantes, jolting it from stagnation. Bórges said of him, “Darío renovated everything: subject, vocabulary, meter, the peculiar magic of certain words, the sensitivity of the poet and his readers. His work has not ceased nor will it; those of us who once fought against it, understand today that we are continuing it. We can call him the Liberator.”
The language that was already that of Cervantes made its outward journey to Central America on August 19, 1605, when the first copies of Don Quixote arrived in Portobelo; and its journey back with the first copies of Azul. That was when Don Juan Valera wrote from Madrid on October 22, 1888, in one of his American Letters: “you are not a romantic, nor naturalist, nor neurotic, nor decadent, nor symbolic, nor Parnassian. You have mixed up everything, put it to boil and distill in your brain and extracted from it a rare quintessence.”
Three centuries after Cervantes, Rubén gave back to the peninsula a language that then seemed strange because it came nourished with challenges and daring; a language that was a mixture of voices scrambled in the incandescence of the Caribbean—from where I also come—because Central America is the Caribbean, that place of verbal miracles where portents pertain not to the imagination but to dazzling reality, only needing to be transcribed: Rubén himself; Alejo Carpentier, a worthy Cervantes Prize winner; and Miguel Angel Asturias and Gabriel García Márquez, both
Nobel Prize winners. In the Caribbean all inventions are possible; reality is of course already an invention in itself.
In that sense, I consider Cervantes a Caribbean author, capable of pulling apart the real and finding keys to the marvelous, as when he talks to us in The Colloquy of the Dogs, “she could congeal the clouds whenever she had a mind, covering therewith the face of the sun; and when she pleased, she could make the most cloudy and tempestuous sky become clear and serene. She transported men in the twinkling of an eye from the most distant countries, and had a wonderful cure for those virgins who had been negligent in guarding their honors. She concealed the faults of widows in such a manner that though they were wanton yet they were accounted modest. She parted those that were married and married whomsoever she pleased…”
Rubén recognized the traits of his own triple mixed-race ancestry, “the trait of being descended from the blest and the children of colonist landowners, African slaves, and proud Indians…,” and it is that humid obscurity, where history’s sounds and murmurs are blended together, that charges with lightning the language the New World gives back to Cervantes’ Spain.
Rubén’s virtue is in
turning everything around
Rubén’s excellence lies in his turning everything around, putting satyrs and bacchantes next to outraged saints and pious virgins, finding pleasure in contrasting colors, having a magical ear for music and another, no less magical, for rhythm, eliciting sonorous terms from other languages, gilding the appearance of gold and giving real substance to theatrical sets, granting musical majesty to popular tunes, finding and giving delight in the greedy grabbing of the exotic: “Above all, there is youth, a desire to live, a sensual commotion, a pagan exposure...”
But the language never stopped being that of Cervantes, a language of novelties once again as in the Spanish Golden Age, and its constant journey back and forth today is what reinvents that language in the 21st century as it multiplies and expands. A language that doesn’t know calm; a restless language because it is alive and constantly demands more spaces without recognizing walls or borders.
In his autobiography Rubén says he found the first books he would read in his life in an old wardrobe in the ancestral home where he spent his orphaned childhood in Nicaragua’s León. He was ten years old. He said, “They were Don Quixote; the works of Moratín; A Thousand and One Nights; the Bible; Cicero’s De Officiis; Madame de Staël’s Corinne, ou l’Italie; a volume of classic Spanish comedies: and La Caverna de Strozzi, a horror novel whose author I no longer recall.” He ended by commenting that it was “a strange and arduous mixture for a child’s head.” The small-print edition in two slim volumes of the life and deeds of the ingenious gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha, which he then had in his hands, was printed in Barcelona by J. Mayol and Co. in 1841.
That same child was taken by his great uncle and foster father, Coronel Félix Ramírez Madregil, to see ice, as Aureliano was taken by his father, José Arcadio Buendía. “It was because of him that I learned a few years later to ride horses, and to know ice, illustrated children’s stories, the apples of California and the champagne of France,” he recalled in that same autobiography.
Once in possession of the old wardrobe’s treasure, he chose to begin his journey—because every reading is a journey—with Don Quixote, the first of many readings over his lifetime. But this one would be a journey in which another journey is related.
Unlike Ulysses, who wants to reach home to Ithaca without setbacks, Don Quixote sets out from his home somewhere in La Mancha in search of obstacles. He wants to be interrupted and isn’t surprised by the interruption; that’s why he set out, to confront them: fabulous monsters, powerful rascals, charming villains, and temptations of the flesh that he must reject, as a good gentleman must, subject as he is to the vow of chaste fidelity to his lady.
Rubén never discarded Cervantes
The rural world Don Quixote will travel though would have very little attraction for someone who embarks on an ordinary journey for reasons imposed by everyday life. It’s his confused imagination that creates the obstacles, dangers and challenges. Of course the obstacles Ulysses meets while sailing towards Ithaca also result from imagination, in that case Homer’s: sirens whose singing fatally infatuates sailors, sorceresses who turn men into pigs, winds enclosed in a wineskin that cause shipwrecks when unleashed.
But the giants, magicians, captive ladies, caves and enchanted castles that Don Quixote encounters on his way come from his own imagination. It’s a world he creates for himself as a character, superimposed on the real world. He is his own character, while Ulysses is Homer’s character. Ulysses is an accomplished liar who invents to embroil others. Don Quixote invents for himself, a creation of his own fiction. As soon as he regains his senses, all that commotion built up in his mind breaks down, the stage curtains and sets disappear and what remains in plain sight is just rational reality. Nothing remains for him but to die.
The real and imagined worlds complement and oppose each other in the pages of Don Quixote. The castles of bygone times are inns along the way and the innkeepers aren’t charming, but prosaic boardinghouse owners who will scam travelers if they can. But one world can’t exist without the other, because it’s its opposite and at the same time its counterpart and complement.
From that first journey Rubén would never discard Cervantes, who according to his sonnet became his literary and life role model: “Hours of gloom and sadness/I spend in my solitude. /But Cervantes/is a good friend. He sweetens rough moments/ and reposes my head…”
“He is life and nature/ he gives a helmet of gold and diamonds/to my wayward dreams./ For me: he sighs, laughs and prays,” he says in the next stanza. Life is as it is. The long-past Age of Chivalry, which isn’t an historical time but one of fictional characters, enters into real contemporary time and the resulting clash, instead of destroying them, brings them to life.
They aren’t destroyed because Cervantes narrates these amazing and crazy stories naturally, far-removed from the affectations and deceptions that generally hide ignorance. A natural writer is one who knows what he’s talking about. He talks into the ear of the reader; he doesn’t bellow. He speaks with gentle gestures; he makes love with words and gestures: “he chatters like a crystal stream.”
Rubén Darío and Don Quixote,
“King of gentlemen”
Faced with astonishing madness, Cervantes isn’t worried; he calmly laughs without letting the reader see and by distancing himself from that bizarre world with laughter, which is far from being a wicked or vulgar laugh, he teaches us to be compassionate and accustoms us to naturally contemplate the wonderful: “For me: he sighs, laughs and prays.”
The dead worlds built of papier mâché, the theatrical sets that smell of paint or age, will sooner or later be eaten by moths because the false doesn’t survive, whereas the world that’s naturally brought to life by means of words, resembles life or is life. In this way nature and life become inseparable.
And nature and life are unquestionably related to humor and melancholy, which are also soulmates as Ítalo Calvino explains in Six Memos for the Next Millennium: “just as melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness, so humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight…”
These two qualities of literature and life also help balance each other because they have the substance of lightness. The humor in Cervantes loses the corporeal heaviness of comedy. It lives from and in lightness, as opposed to weight that doesn’t let air circulate between the lines of the text.
Just as Sergio Pitol, winner of the 2005 Cervantes Prize, who died this very month in Mexico, and to whom I pay homage, is Cervantine to the bone because he could never abide weight and knew how to change it into humor, irony and parody; one of Rubén’s “rare ones” who knew how to make writing a celebration.
In “The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho,” Unamuno reminds us, Don Quixote made us laugh because his seriousness entertains us and at the same time moves us. He didn’t believe in ridicule, because for him ridicule didn’t exist: “a gentleman who made everyone laugh, but never told a joke…”
And Rubén, invoking him in Litany for Our Lord Don Quixote: “King of impoverished noblemen, lord of the sad/you breathe in strength and you dress in daydreams/crowned by an aureate helmet of hopes and dreams…,” also invokes the natural nature of things: “listen to the verses of these litanies/made with some everyday things/ and with other things I saw in the mysterious.”
My mother taught me to read Don Quixote
At some point in life you discover Cervantes. It was my mother, Luisa Mercado, who, because I had the infinite good fortune to be her disciple, taught me in her secondary school literature classes to read Don Quixote, the Archpriest of Hita’s Book of Good Love, the poems of the Marquis of Santillana, Jorge Manrique’s Verses on the death of his father, Lope and Quevedo; and I learned a number of these poems by heart forever.
She kept a copy of Don Quixote in the largest room of the house that had belonged to my grandfather, Teófilo Mercado, who was converted by some Alabama missionaries who came to preach the austere Baptist religion in 1910, but for some time previously a liberal progressive, a blind-faith believer in progress and education. He was a kind of disciple of Augusto Comte lost in Masatepe, the small coffee-growing town on the Nicaraguan Pacific plateau where I was born.
He was a farmer, surveyor, artesian well builder and cabinetmaker. The table where I write was handmade by him and Don Quixote was among his books of medicine, agronomy and geodesy, and manuals of plane geometry and basic algebra. If he thought all reading should be didactic and despised longhaired poets and novelists who waste their time on tales of amorous misadventures and invented adventures, what was Don Quixote doing in such strange company on his bookshelf, except to belie his distance from imagination? And doesn’t his grandson, the novelist, also belie it?
I am a disciple of Cervantes and Darío
My writing is tied with a knot inspired by Cervantes and Darío that cannot be cut or undone. A knot of words I’ve been hearing since childhood, suckled in a hybrid language that brought the old sounds of the Spanish Golden Age captured in archaic Arcadian verbal pastoralism, and interspersed with those words that glittered like ancient gems among the dust of the centuries, those of the distant Nahuatl language—Masatepe, from mazatl–tepetl, land of deer—and of the Mangue language from even much earlier, so that while the countryside of my childhood falls away towards the Masaya crater lake at the foot of the Santiago volcano, where the lava visibly boils red, mauve and yellow as in the mouth of hell, the vestiges of that almost forgotten language mark out the neighboring lands, Ñamborime, close to water, Jalata, sandy water, Nimboja, the way to water.
Narrating is a gift that comes
from the need to recount
Language is first acquired in the ear. A child’s world is a world of voices that sometimes become writing: voices of fables and legends, market cries, anonymous romances strummed on a guitar and those of the evening social gatherings attended by my paternal uncle Lisandro Ramírez—choirmaster of the parish church, violinist and composer of waltzes, fox-trots and mazurkas—along with my other musician uncles, poor and Bohemian like him, who together made up the Ramírez Orchestra.
They gathered in the grocery store owned by my father, Pedro Ramírez—the only one who had resisted playing an instrument because they made him carry the heavy double bass—and entertained themselves in lively repartee before climbing the steps of the parish church to play the Rosary at six in the afternoon. That merry banter was a Cervantes-style verbal party in which they never told crude jokes, despised ridicule, turned their sorrows into joys and gracefully mocked their own misfortunes, so that by laughing at themselves they earned the sovereign right to laugh at others.
Narration is a gift that doesn’t spring from anything other than the need to recount, that pressing need without which anyone who surrenders to this incomparable profession cannot live in peace with oneself. From the depths of that need a novelist must illuminate in his prose everything that lies in the deep caverns of meaning, bring the torch up to the faces of the characters hidden in the darkness, reveal the changing intricacies of the human condition…
I write between four walls
but with the windows open
It’s an everyday epiphany that doesn’t happen without following the proper procedures, starting by sitting down to write between four walls like a prisoner who enjoys and suffers from the need to recount. You have to know how to capture the gift. Writing is an induced miracle, and often a miracle that needs constant revision. Rubén says, “I pursue a form that my style doesn’t find…and there’s nothing except fleeing words.” The blank page is full of traces, shadows of fugitive words.
I feel that I am, therefore, the synthesis of my two grandfathers, the musician and the cabinet-maker: he who plies the bow and he who pushes the gouge, half the composer who filled the sheet of lined paper with melodic signs and half the artisan who was never satisfied with a piece of furniture that had misaligned drawers, or didn’t stand firmly on the floor, or whose joints let light through.
I write between four walls but with the windows open because, as a novelist, I can’t ignore the constant abnormality of events in the reality I live in, so disconcerting and turbulent, and not infrequently tragic but always seductive. My America, Our America as Martí used to say. The Latina Homerica as Marta Traba baptized it.
To close your eyes is
to betray the profession
Dominated by curiosity and amazement, I resort to that countryside—illuminated yet filled with shadows, desolate yet filled with voices—in search of its hidden corners and the humble characters that populate it, each of them bearing the weight of their small stories. I’m seduced seeing them walk, without being warned or without warning, towards the jaws that devour them, so often victims of arbitrary power disrupting their lives, the demagogic power that divides, separates, confronts, mows them down. That power has no compassion or justice in its nature and therefore imposes itself with excess, cynicism and cruelty.
Over the centuries history has always been written against or in favor of someone, whereas the novel doesn’t take sides or, if it does, its purpose is ruined. The vast countryside of La Mancha is the realm of creative freedom. A writer, loyal to an official creed, a system, a single thought, can’t participate in that diverse, contradictory, changing adventure that is the novel. A novel is a constant conspiracy against absolute truths.
Reality, which so overwhelms us. Warlords mourned in the past; warlords of today, like fairground magicians disguised as liberators, offering remedies for all ills; and drug trafficking warlords, dressed like kings in a deck of cards. The constant exile of thousands of Central Americans towards the United States border impelled by marginalization and poverty, the train of death that crosses Mexico with its everlasting whistle of the wounded Beast, and violence as the most terrible of our deities, adored on the altars of Santa Muerte (Saint Death). The clandestine mass graves that keep being opened, garbage dumps turned into cemeteries.
To close your eyes, switch off the light, draw the curtains, is to betray the profession. Everything will sooner or later end up in the story; everything will inevitably enter the waters of the novel. And that which history conceals or writes incorrectly will be told by the imagination, owner and mistress of freedom and honor, that for which you can and must risk your life, as Don Quixote said. Nothing can and should be freer than writing, because it diminishes itself when it pays tributes to power which, when not democratic, only wants unconditional loyalties. We are more like witnesses for the prosecution. Our profession is to lift up stones, said Saramago; if we find monsters underneath, it isn’t our fault.
Why I joined the revolution
In my younger years, as our father Cervantes put it, “I had other things to keep me busy; I put aside the pen and the comedies.” And if one day I turned away from literature to enter into the maelstrom of a revolution to overthrow a dictatorship, it was because I was still the boy imagining himself kneeling on the floor of the inn watching the tableau of Master Pedro’s puppet show, anxious to take up a large sword to help Don Quixote behead wrongdoers.
However, again quoting from the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, as I did in my memoir about those years, Adios Muchachos: A Memoir of the Sandinista Revolution (2012): “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
A prize for Central America
I live in my language, in the vast terrain of La Mancha to use Carlos Fuentes’ fortuitous phrase at once a verbal territory and an indelible stain. The Stain (La Mancha) that cannot be undone or erased; the stained writing, polluted with beauty and truths, illusion and reality, iniquities and greatness.
And remembering Fuentes, friend and teacher, brings to mind my everlasting debt to the Latin American Boom writers, so close to me and who taught me so much. García Márquez, who reinvented the language in his alchemist’s crucible transmuting reality into prodigy; Cortázar, who in the pages of Rayuela gave my generation the keys to rebellion without repose, making me into a cronopio forever; Fuentes himself, who climbed scaffolding to paint the story of Mexico and America as an amazing mural in movement; and Mario Vargas Llosa, whose novels I disassembled page by page, as if with a Meccano set, in order to learn the rigors of the profession.
And the other everlasting debt, to Tulita, my wife, to whom in many senses I owe my profession. To explain it, perhaps it’s sufficient to repeat the dedication I wrote in my novel Divine Punishment, published thirty years ago now: she invented the hours to write it just as, being a better novelist than I, she has invented my life. Along with her I owe a debt to my children and grandchildren, all present here today, my offspring of the spring of the patriarch, of whom I feel as proud as I feel fortunate.
Thanks to Juan Cruz, who knew how to arm me again with the weapons of literature when I returned from other conflicts with a broken lance; to Antonia Kerrigan, the best literary agent in the world, and to Pilar Reyes, the best editor in the world.
Thanks to the Cervantes Prize jury chaired by Darío Villanueva, director of the Royal Academy of Language, for so generously pointing its compass toward my work.
And thank you, Don Felipe, for the honor that Spain, whose language engendered “a thousand loose lion cubs,” grants through me to Central America and to my small but bountiful country.
Sergio Ramírez is a Nicaraguan writer. Subtitles by envío.