THE BLOG
08/13/2013 11:42 am ET

Lalo Is the Word, Puerto Rico His Nation

Eduardo Lalo's selection as this year's recipient of the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize is an event of transcendental significance. This virtually unknown writer shares the honor with immortals like Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Fernando del Paso, Abel Posse, Manuel Mejía Vallejo, Arturo Uslar Pietri, Mempo Giardinelli, Javier Marías, Angeles Mastretta, Roberto Bolaño, Enrique Vila Matas, Fernando Vallejo, Isaac Rosa, Elena Poniatowska, William Ospina and Ricardo Piglia.

But if the distinction conferred to this intriguing writer is important in literary terms, even more interesting is the recognition that is given -- through his work -- to a nation that is not recognized as such, yet.

Earlier this month, while accepting the prize in Venezuela for his novel, entitled "Simone," Eduardo Lalo -- a Puerto Rican born in Cuba, and therefore a United States citizen -- said in his emphatic Caribbean Spanish:

The majority of the world's inhabitants have defined, stable, virtually unquestioned origins: a place, a people, a nation, a state document that clearly declares their personal coordinates. However, there are other people on the planet whose origins are questions, mistakes or condemnations. I remember my student days in Europe when I was invariably stopped by the French gendarmerie at their border posts. I remember how the officer's brow furrowed while examining my passport, how he used to compare the picture with my face, how he returned to the document, as I kept waiting at the counter and then came back with a superior who, after examining again the pages of my 'identity' document, asked with a mixture of contempt and police suspicion: Qui etez-vous?: Who are you?

Forced to clarify at the borders that he was not a Cuban, not an American, but a Puerto Rican, Lalo remembered his childhood years in the Island, where he got the "gift" of finding his place in this world in the streets of San Juan and even more precisely in an emblematic location of the old city: the vast esplanade of El Morro Castle, main fortress of the defense system built by the Spanish crown, and in his view, the "mouth" of Latin America for centuries, a sort of access to the body of many human souls and where Spanish words started to travel up to the confines of Patagonia.

Lalo continued elaborating a powerful acceptance speech:

I've gone there tirelessly since I knew my life would be associated with writing, since that distant Paris night when Eduardo Rodriguez (his legal name) became Eduardo Lalo. I stand on top of the walls and watch the sea, that distant horizon line I have photographed so many times. For the islanders, the ocean can be a desert. All or almost all comes from there, yet that space is impassable. One remains there on the wall, on the edge of the habitable world, contemplating the most distant point. But there too, the writer I became, discovered the devastating power of indifference and silence. That is probably why I go back to the wall, to contemplate a silence and space without limits, against which there is apparently nothing to oppose. Before that emptiness I understood I had to learn to survive the ocean which was the image of the distance, abandonment and isolation, and that this distance from the world had brought to an end so many artists and writers of the Caribbean. There, on the wall, I realized why the words died so many times in our mouths and in our pages, I knew how history was an invisibility machine and how breathing in Puerto Rico would always be a struggle against suffocation. Same as in the planet's highest mountains, the sea that separated us and blurred between us was a death zone.


Then, he said:

One day, I cannot remember when, on top of that wall I knew, staring at the horizon, that it was from that place I should think and write. Actually my feet were in a unique space. It was not a lower or dispensable level, as so often the toxicities of our two conquests-the Spanish and American-had led us to believe. It was a privileged spot to rewrite the world, a viewing space, a place that could only be accessed after traveling many roads. It was, indeed, a torn, dirty, sometimes trivial place, but all that is human could be found there. All the words were also there. If there was an epiphany to the sea, was that our poverty gave me enormous freedom. On that wall I knew that many of the most diverse countries and ages, had also observed that horizon, but in their case could have been a desert or a mountain range, the pampas or the favela, injustice, madness or sexuality, and had realized, as I did, that henceforth their duty was to remain there until lucidity would redefine pain.

And that is how Eduardo Lalo wrote and unexpectedly arrived to the literary Olympus, all the way from Puerto Rico. A place that, in his words, is the

extreme frontier of Latin America and the only Latin American country conquered twice, a place to which the Spanish colonial administration denied the printing press until the early nineteenth century, which was not allowed to create a university for more than four centuries, which was given away as spoils of war, like a farm or a cargo of sugar, to their new ruler... a place that perhaps lived globalization before any other country, even before the term existed and its consequences were known, as well as the ways to oppose it.

Still, against all odds, his voice was able to transcend the "dead zone" of colonialism, to bring to life not only a great novel that debunks preconceptions of Spanish language literature in less than 200 pages, but also the clairvoyant possibility of a nation.