Absent, due to health problem -but present through the voice of the actress Cecilia Roth-, the winner of the 2021 Cervantes Prize, Cristina Peri Rossi, has defended commitment, sexual freedom, feminism and humor in her speech, while attacking wars and power during the traditional ceremony at the University of Alcalá de Henares, presided over by the kings of Spain after two years without being held due to the pandemic.
The Uruguayan writer based in Barcelona, the sixth woman to win the award, began by recalling her childhood in Montevideo, where she met many Spanish exiles “because in addition to a war whose reasons I did not know, in Spain there was a terrible dictatorship that had killed thousands and thousands of people and put thousands of others to flight.”
Peri Rossi has recalled how her uncle’s library was a refuge in her childhood. There she discovered The Quijote, a book that he read “dictionary in hand” and provoked “contradictory feelings” in him. “I myself was irritated when Don Quixote confused windmills with giants, and I came to think that Cervantes was actually ridiculing his character to prove to us that the company of changing the world and establishing justice was a delusion”, he has confessed of that first Print.
But everything changed when reaching chapters XII, XIII and XIV, with the story and the speech of Marcela. “She is accused of being guilty of Grisóstomo’s suicide, to which she refused, and in a surprising speech she rejects men, marriage and power relations between the sexes: she demands her freedom, and for that she isolates herself from society and takes refuge in the field, like another shepherdess. I was born free and in order to live free I chose the solitude of the fields“, He says”.
A freedom at all costs that has guided Peri Rossi’s life, marked by the harshness of exile and the courage and firmness with which she has lived love and sexual desire. “In this way, Cervantes desecrates beauty as a feminine attribute, and turns Marcela into a tragic heroine: to preserve her freedom from the men who want to possess her, dominate her, she renounces social life, isolating herself from the world, fleeing from men. Of course, this heroine would later be described as hysterical, frigid and neurotic for not assuming the role assigned to her by patriarchal society”, he continued in his speech. “In a patriarchal society, being a woman and independent was rare and suspicious”.
And has established parallelism with own biography. “The understanding that Don Quixote manifests towards a real female character made me think that madness can be a pretext for the exclusion of those who wield uncomfortable truths, a lesson that I obviously learned, paying a very high price, until today, but if were born again, I would do the same.
The writer has confirmed that the jury was correct in its ruling by recognizing, in addition to her literary vocation, her fight for human values so often violated by political power. “I had to exile myself from the Uruguayan dictatorship because, like Casandra, I had warned and denounced her arrival, and as punishment, my books, and even the mention of my name, were prohibited; I miraculously saved my life and ended up in Spain, where another ferocious dictatorship oppressed freedom. I turned resistance into literature, as so many Spanish exiles did, and instead of renouncing society, like Marcela, from my books, from my life I have tried, like Dona Quixota, to undo wrongs 4 and fight for freedom and justice, although not in a pamphlet or realistic way, but allegorical and imaginativea”.
“Humor is the sixth sense of literature”
You have quoted Jean Paul Sartre to point out that literature is a compromise. “From an article against Putin or a tribute to the women raped and martyred in Juárez, to Cortázar’s stories. Isn’t it a commitment to satirize, for example, the excesses of technique, the morbidity of television sets or the festive rites of soccer fans? As committed as writing a lyrical poem that exalts the desire between two women or between a man and a woman”.
But, as his penchant for irony shows, commitment does not mean solemnity. “Life can be a tragedy, a drama, but its habits and customs can be ironized and satirized. I wrote in a poem: “The ancient pharaohs / commanded the scribes: / record the present / predict the future”. I think that this continues to be the commitment of the writer, without any solemnity, and with little salary. And with humor, as when I wrote this short poem: “I could write the saddest lines tonight, / if the lines would solve the thing”. The sense of humor is the sixth sense of literature. I could write the most grateful verses tonight, and I would fulfill my obligation as a scribe, although the verses would not save those who die by bombs and missiles in cultured Europe.