By Alfonso Fernandez
CARACAS – Colombian writer William Ospina said that “we’re all of mixed race” as he accepted the Romulo Gallegos Prize over the weekend for his novel “El Pais de la Canela” (The Country of the Cinnamon), in which he recreates the first voyages of Europeans to the Amazon as seen by a half-breed Indian.
“It’s too late to tell Columbus not to get off the boat,” the writer said in his address during the ceremony held Sunday in Caracas where he received the prestigious International Prize for the Novel, for which he was chosen last June.
“All I have to do is go to an indigenous community to realize I’m not a native, but by the same token I just have to go to Europe to see I’m not a European. We’re all of mixed race,” he said in his speech of gratitude entitled “In Praise of the Causes.”
The 55-year-old Ospina received the award that includes a cash prize of 100,000 euros (about $143,200) and a medal from the Romulo Gallego Foundation for Latin American Studies, or Celarg, which organizes the competition, from Roberto Hernandez Montaya at a ceremony attended by Venezuelan Culture Minister Hector Soto.
The novel “El Pais de la Canela,” the second in a trilogy that began with “Ursua” published by Alfaguara, and which will conclude with “La Serpiente sin Ojos” (The Eyeless Serpent), recounts the conquest of the Amazon by the first European travelers as seen by a native of mixed race.
The Colombian writer, poet and essayist is considered one of the most brilliant authors of Latin American literature’s “post-boom” of the 1960s and 1970s, with more than a dozen works published.
According to some critics, his literary career has made him a worthy successor of his friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who said in 2005 of his novel “Ursua” that it was “the best book of the year.”
In his speech Monday, to the general applause of the audience, Ospina mentioned the authors who related the earliest accounts of Spaniards’ voyages to America and who inspired him to write his novel, including Juan de Castellanos and Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo.
He said that the conquest signified “our great continental tragedy, the great sorrow that has meant so much to us,” and stressed the paradox of “our strange destiny of deploring the conquest in the language it left us,” though he did add that “it’s no longer exactly the tongue the conquistadors brought here.”
At the ceremony the Venezuelan Minister Soto encouraged the reading of “El Pais de la Canela” which, he said, is a “work our people should get to know.”
The culture minister compared Ospina’s book with “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Garcia Marquez, and said he was going to ask Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to include the novel on the list of obligatory reading for students at the missions promoted by the Venezuelan government.
“When you don’t know where you’re going, it’s worth turning around and seeing where you’ve come from,” the minister said.
In an interview with Efe three days before receiving the prize, Ospina said that race mixing “is the name of modernity” since “if we’ve said goodbye to anything, it’s to racial purity.”
The awards ceremony ended with a repertoire of songs in this country’s traditional style sung by Venezuela’s Cecilia Todd, who dedicated them to the prizewinning author.
Ospina is the fourth Colombian writer to receive the Romulo Gallegos Prize after Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Manuel Mejia and Fernando Vallejo.
The biennial literary prize was created in 1964 in honor of Venezuelan writer and president Romulo Gallegos, and among its winners are the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, Spain’s Javier Marias, Chile’s Roberto Bolaño and most recently the Mexican Elena Poniatowska, who took the prize at the last awards ceremony in 2007. EFE