By Adam Critchley
Novelist, playwright and poet Fernando del Paso (b. 1935) has become the sixth Mexican to win the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, considered the most prestigious literary award in the Spanish language.
An author of historical novels, plays and poetry, Del Paso’s most famous and successful book is News from the Empire (1987), charting the second French intervention in Mexico and the reign of Emperor Maximilian I, who was executed by republican forces in 1867.
His 1977 novel Palinuro of Mexico was praised as a Joycean odyssey charting the 1959 Mexican railroad workers’ strike, interspersed with references to myths and legends of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past.
Del Paso received news of the award in delicate health, having suffered a series of strokes last year that have left him unable to write and draw, the latter another talent he has developed in parallel to his writing.
The award is “almost the culmination of a life’s work,” Del Paso said in a press conference in Guadalajara after receiving the prize, while lamenting that his lifelong friend Carmen Balcells, the Spanish literary agent who died in September aged 85, did not live to share his joy.
He said that, at age 80, he had almost abandoned all hope of winning this award.
Awarded annually since 1976, the Cervantes Prize carries a 125,000-euro purse and is awarded to an author for their work as a whole from nominations made by the Real Academia Española (RAE) and the academies of the world’s Spanish-speaking countries, with the director of the RAE and of each academy comprising the jury, along with outstanding literary figures and the prize’s two previous winners.
This year’s jury comprised Chilean 101-year-old poet Nicanor Parra, who won the prize in 2011, and Egypt’s Nagwa Mehrez, director of the International Association of Arabic Hispanists (AIHA).
The jury praised Del Paso’s contribution to the novel in Spanish, with “works that link tradition and modernity, as Miguel de Cervantes did in his day.”
Winning the award, Del Paso follows in the pen strokes of Mexico’s 1990 Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz, who won the award in 1981, as well as Carlos Fuentes, Sergio Pitol, José Emilio Pacheco and Elena Poniatowska.
The prize will be awarded on April 23, the anniversary of Cervantes’ death, in Madrid.