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He's Finally Recognized by His Country, Peers

Authors: Augusto Monterroso wins a writing award and kudos from the homeland from which he was exiled.

December 05, 1996|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUADALAJARA — It happened in a heartbeat. But for Augusto Monterroso, an unassuming writer who favors brevity over almost everything else, it was a moment worth savoring.

More than 40 years ago, a military coup toppled Guatemala's reformist leaders and left diplomat Monterroso stranded abroad. Yet last Saturday, as he mounted the dais here to receive one of literature's most prized awards, Monterroso was literally embraced by the government that once threatened to kill him: As Monterroso walked by, Juan Jose Serra Castillo, Guatemala's ambassador to Mexico, stepped forward and wrapped him in a warm bear hug that startled the tiny Monterroso.

"It was a little strange, that hug," he later said with a smile.

But the government of Guatemala wasn't the only one trying to make up for past slights Saturday. The Latin American literary community did the same when it belatedly recognized the 74-year-old author's work by presenting him the Juan Rulfo Award, the region's most prestigious writing prize.

Also honored at Guadalajara's 10th International Book Fair was Mexican novelist Elena Garro, 75, who Wednesday was awarded the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz prize, one of the few major literary awards reserved for women writers.

Garro, former wife of Mexican poet Octavio Paz, was recognized for her novellas "Busca mi esquela" ("Look for My Calling Card") and "Primer amor" ("First Love"), which the judges cited for "indisputable literary quality and human transcendence."

Although Monterroso said he's "always been mentally and emotionally in Guatemala," he built his literary reputation in Mexico. In fact, he didn't publish his first book until 1959, when he completed "Obras completas (y otras cuentos)" ("Complete Works and Other Stories"). The numerous works that followed have been published in nearly 20 languages; his English-language translations include "Complete Works" (University of Texas, 1995) and "Black Sheep and Other Fables" (Doubleday, 1971).

But despite the literary importance of Monterroso's work, the $100,000 check he received as winner of the Juan Rulfo prize represents more money than he has made in nearly 40 years of writing. "He's not what you'd call a bestseller," joked writer Barbara Jacobs, Monterroso's wife.

The Juan Rulfo prize, funded by 12 Mexican government agencies, universities and businesses, was founded six years ago to recognize writers who are natives of Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain or Portugal writing in Spanish, Portuguese or English. The award is named after an award-winning Mexican author and screenwriter who--along with novelists such as Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar--has been credited with sparking the contemporary Latin American literary boom.

The Sor Juana prize, founded four years ago, is open to any woman writer published in Spanish since 1992. Although it does not carry a cash award, the winning work is guaranteed translation and publication in English (by Curbstone Press) and in French. The award is named for a 17th century Mexican nun whose poetry and theater pieces are widely recognized as the first important writings by a women in Latin America.

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