Presentation Speech by Professor Knut Ahnlund, of the Swedish Academy, December 10, 1989
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Camilo José Cela has written upwards of a hundred books, a veritable library in itself, filled with the most astounding contrasts, popular, crudely humorous tales side by side with some of the darkest and most desolate works in European literature.
Once Cela was a young poet in a Madrid on the verge of civil war. More than almost any writer he was at the center of those agonizing events, both as one of those responsible for them and as a resistance fighter. It was after serving in the trenches, being wounded and lying awhile in field hospitals, after the war was over and he had come home and Spain had embarked on her many dreary years under the new regime, that he made his debut – as a prose writer. In high quarters there was a desire to see edifying books, preferably cheerful and sunny ones. Cela’s first novel was about a multiple murderer who relates his life history before his execution. La familia de Pascual Duarte, Pascual Duarte’s Family, was printed secretly in a garage in Burgos in 1942, and by the time it had come to the authorities’ notice the edition was almost sold out. Gradually the censors became resigned; next to Don Quixote it must be the most widely read of all Spanish novels. This story of a matricide can be read as an allegory, a fairy tale about Spain’s monstrous sufferings and furious internal strife.
It opened the sluice-gates. Cela’s works grew in range and splendor. If they had anything in common it was the swarms of characters appearing in them; it was hardly a matter of the hierarchy of main characters and secondary ones that is customary in novels. On the stage where the author lets dramas of life and of Spain play themselves out under grim starlight, one could argue, with only slight exaggeration, that there were only secondary characters.
La Colmena or The Beehive, with more than 300 characters, depicts Madrid life during the first sad years of the Franco era. It was Cela’s boldest challenge hitherto to the authorities’ repression of free expression. Although it was translated into many languages, the Spaniards themselves were long denied access to it.
Eighteen years later, in 1969, when Cela published his novel San Camilo 1936, the mesh of censorship had numerous gaps and tears in it, so this book was at last published where it was written. To some extent, the Madrid of The Beehive still exists in San Camilo 1936, but illumined by streaks of visionary light, and swatched in an apocalyptic glow. The action takes place in Madrid during the week immediately on the eve of the Civil War. Here we encounter the young man with the sad burning eyes, see him mingling with the city’s crowds or staring into the mirror of his own bitter reflections. To a great extent the narrative is an incantation, an exorcization, an invocation, and so it points forward to the work which must be Cela’s most obscure, Oficio de Tinieblas 5 – a poetic apocalypse, a major poem eleven hundred and ninety-four verses long, an overall vision of life’s dark absurd anti-logic, arranged in a form similar to the Mass.
In Mazurca para dos Muertos, Cela, after his forays into the border lands where language and existence meet chaos, came back to the realities of Spanish life which he had depicted in so many facets. It is an account of the lives of ordinary people in the green and damp Galicia where he lived as a child. But most of all, perhaps, it is a tale about Death, an imagistic fresco depicting the tumult, insanities, comedy and tragedy of human life, always against the background of death, which in the end gathers everything and everyone to itself. Its great, crude humor is part of a tradition that goes back to Aristophanes, Rabelais and Shakespeare, yet it resembles nothing we have ever read in that line.
In his classical travel books from the forties and fifties, redolent with a quieter humor, we meet a more gentle pliant Cela; Cela the vagabond, looking for milieux and cultures that at the time were in the process of disappearing.
As a whole, what we have before us is an extraordinary rich, weighty and substantial body of writings that possess great wildness, license and violence, but which nonetheless in no way lack sympathy or common human feeling, unless we demand that those sentiments should be expressed in the simplest possible way. Cela has renewed and revitalized the Spanish language as few others have done in our modern age. As a creator of language he is in the tradition of Cervantes, Góngora, Quevedo, Valle-Inclán and Garcia Lorca, Spanish has not really been quite the same language since those writers have put their marks in its great book.
Dear Camilo José Cela,
I have devoted a few brief minutes to describing a body of work so great and varied as to defy any summary. Your contribution to the rights of creative imagination spans nearly half a century, including long periods under difficult conditions, but in the end it won out. In recent years the wealth of Latin American literature has been widely discussed everywhere. Perhaps too little attention has been paid, however, to its counterpart in the country where Spanish was first spoken. Personally, and on behalf of the Swedish Academy, may I congratulate you most cordially, and may I ask you to receive from the hands of His Majesty the King this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.