Witness of exception

An (almost) chronicle about the Princess of Asturias 2015 prizes.

Everything was rehearsed and the organisation, perfectly planned, functioned like a Swiss clock. At the indicated hour, on the evening of this October 23 the beautiful Campoamor Theatre of Oviedo, capital of the Principality of Asturias, opened its doors and the solemn ceremony took place according to the planned protocol, presided over by the King and Queen of Spain, Don Felipe and Doña Leticia. King Felipe gave the floor to some of the prize-winners, who thanked in their speech the Princess of Asturias Foundation (previously the Prince of Asturias) for this prestigious recognition and also attempted to recall all those who had backed and encouraged them throughout the road that led them here or the need for the world to know what had led them there.

Only later, when the speeches had concluded and from the window of the bus that was taking us back to the hotel for the closing toast we contemplated the public that was saying goodbye to the prize-winners to the tune of drums and the traditional Asturian bagpipes, did I understand that neither the TV images, nor the photographers and reporters accredited to cover the event that was being broadcast to the entire world, could be able to collect the barely contained emotions of that night, nor the tension or the satisfaction of that small group of persons distinguished by virtue of their talent, their intelligence and their work, with outstanding results in different spheres of social life and human knowledge.

 

This year’s list included super-known names like those of star basketball players Marc and Pau Gasol; Francis Ford Coppola, one of the most important film directors of the 20th century; and others that were not so familiar, like that of the French Esther Duflo, professor of the Massachusetts Technological Institute and founder in 2003, together with Indian Abhijit Banerjee, of the J-PAL Laboratory, a research centre that aims to reduce poverty from public policies based on scientific studies on the subject.

 

And there was I, who without being one of the protagonists had the luck of being among the 1,600 guests of that night in Asturias, and who in addition had privileged information about one of the prize-winners.

 

From my box number 17 – and with a certain sensation of banishment, perhaps caused by the accumulated tension – I was able to witness the arrival on the stage of the prize-winners and, especially, of the winner of the 2015 Princess of Asturias Prize for Literature, my couple of a lifetime, dressed with a white and very Cuban guayabera that broke the ceremony’s etiquette, which demanded the use of a dark suit and tie. What almost no one knew is that the trousers Leonardo was wearing had been a last-minute purchase because of the late discovery of a red wine stain unnoticed until then on his linen trousers and which would spoil that intentionally chosen attire. We did not imagine that in those few blocks that separated the shop from the hotel, which we toured walking, we would have to stop several times at the petition of some reader or a fan who wished to take a picture as a souvenir or simply congratulate Leonardo for the important award he would be receiving.

 

But my privileged information did not stop there. Just a few friends knew that Leonardo would bring with him a baseball – Breton would have described this act as surrealist – as another of his signs of identity. That is why I was not surprised by his animated entrance to the hall, with the ball in his hand, as if it was a question of a baseball player, dazzled by the lights and a bit bewildered by the applause of his fans in one of the best games of his life.

 

But I knew that for Leonardo the meeting a few days before in an impressive hall of the Palace of Congresses and Exhibitions, the work of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, which was attended by more than 1,200 persons representing the Book Clubs from all over Spain had been almost as emotional as this moment. And though the book signings previously organised in one of the city’s principal bookstores – and which lasted almost two hours – was an agreeable warning, nothing compared to that face to face with persons who, like Guadalupe Iglesias, had taken a train or a bus from places very far away from Oviedo to attend the meeting. What many were unaware of is that Guadalupe Iglesias is the president of the Madrid Retina Club and that, despite her visual limitations, she has not lost the enthusiasm for reading and affirms she is a great admirer of Leonardo’s work, which she has only been able to access to through the system of audio books.

 

I was reviewing all this while I was listening to the speech read by Leonardo during the awards ceremony – and while I was unable to see the reading podium because of the location of my box -, I even knew what he was not going to say, though he would have wanted to do so, and how much he had carefully considered and corrected each one of his words so they would be able to transmit, in just a few minutes, all that he most wanted to say: his sense of belonging, his love for Mantilla, what he owed his culture, his parents, his friends and study comrades and comrades-in-arms, his publishers, the language in which he writes: the best things in life.

Padura_Teatro campoamor 2015

The applause and congratulations returned later. The slow return to the hotel with the people crowding the streets to say goodbye to the prize-winners, and in the middle of the flashes and the celebration, I was also one of the few present who could bear witness to a solitary work that, for many years, centred on days of work, accumulated tiredness, have made him live surrounded by debts and tensions, but also enjoying moments of great happiness when at last the time came to let go of the short story or novel and, not without artistic fear, cut its umbilical cord so they could finally breathe on their own.

 

The following day, between the avalanches of photos published by hundreds of newspapers in the world there was a close up of Coppola’s feet which stood out, in which he was wearing one red and one yellow sock (like the Spanish flag), and the photo of Leonardo in a frozen gesture of pitching the baseball from the stage to the public. And then I again thought of all that had led Leonardo Padura Fuentes to that stage, everything that those images of deserved jubilation and elated Cubanness could not reveal, and much less this pallid chronicle, no matter how many privileges it has, will be able to say. (2015)

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