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Spanish novelist turns 100

Fragile of body but still sharp in mind, Don Francisco Ayala turned 100 on Thursday.

india Updated: Mar 20, 2006 17:37 IST

He appears as frail as a small bird but his mind remains razor sharp.

Don Francisco Ayala, one of Spain's intellectual giants, turned 100 on Thursday and while the decades have undoubtedly taken their toll, his humour-filled, piercing brown eyes let you know he still has plenty to say.

"Mind-wise, I feel exactly as I've always felt. Energy-wise, I'm slowing down," he told The Associated Press in an interview from the elegant Madrid home he shares with his American wife, Spanish literature professor Carolyn Richmond.

Novelist, sociologist, moralist and literary scholar, Ayala has won all of the prestigiousprizes in Spanish letters from the Cervantes in 1991 to the Prince of Asturias in 1998. The Spanish Civil War forced him into decades of exile leading him to teach in universities in Argentina, Puerto Rico and in half a dozen in the United States before retiring from the City University of New York some 40 years ago.

He recalls his life abroad with fondness but looking at North and South America nowadays, he's pulls no punches.

"I think the United States has changed, and for the worse. When I say for the worse everyone can interpret it as they choose." "Latin America has not improved either," he adds, describing Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales as "temporary phenomena expressing social uncertainty." Ayala's birthday kicks off a year-long celebration of events, conferences, seminars and exhibitions in his honour, sponsored principally by the Culture Ministry. It begins with a dinner date with the King and Queen in the National Library.

"It's not often someone witnesses a century of life and especially with a conscience more or less alert," says Ayala. "This is a privilege which nature has bestowed on me." He recognizes, however, that his time is nigh. "I've been a part of the past for the last few years," he says, with his characteristic humility and lucidity, adding that life consists of looking to the future until you can't any more. "I see the present as a concession time has kindly ceded me and which I am enjoying because I see that I have been lucky in that the world around me remembers me, wants to hold me instead of looking down on me or locking me up and abandoning me, as often happens to old people.

"Some people are old at 20, some at 30 or 35 or 50, some never grow old ever ... but there comes a time when calculating age rationally you know you're not going to get much further." Born March 16, 1906 in the southern city of Granada, Ayala's life turned into a flight from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing Franco dictatorship.

At the outbreak of the war in 1936, he was in Buenos Aires on a lecture tour. He returned to work for the Republican government but in 1939, as Franco's troops entered Barcelona and the conflict was all but over, Ayala took the route of so many Spanish intellectuals- exile in America.

"Spain's transition, (from dictatorship to democracy) the moral reconstruction of this country, would have been more difficult had it not been inspired by the democratic legacy that was destroyed by the Civil War but which Francisco Ayala and others like him were able to conserve," Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said of him.

Ayala published his first book, Tragicomedia De Un Hombre Sin Espiritu (Tragicomedy of a Man Without Spirit) in 1925 and received a doctorate in law, in Madrid University in 1930. In Buenos Aires, he taught sociology and founded the magazine Reality, publishing works by Argentine and Spanish writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar and Juan Ramon Jimenez. He then moved to Puerto Rico in 1950 where he founded the respected magazine, La Torre.

In 1955, he began a 20-year stint in the United States working in Princeton, Rutgers, New York University, Bryn Mawr College, University of Chicago and finally New York's City University. Many of his most outstanding books stem from the years in exile, including Los Usurpadores (The Usurpers"), of 1949 in which he examines the immorality of a person subjugating another to his will. La Cabeza del Cordero (The Lamb's Head) is a collection of short stories on similar themes centring on the Spanish Civil War. Ayala, who settled back in Spain in 1975, the year Franco died, delves into ways of reconciling individual conscience with society and applying ancient moral values to modern times. The collapse of moral order and the hopelessness of human relations are also common themes in the pessimistic and satirical novels such as Muertes de Perro (Death as a Way of Life) and El Jardin de Las Delicias(Garden of Delights). Today, he feels equally pessimistic about the world. "I feel sorry for those I will leave behind. The world ahead doesn't look worth living for," he said recently. He continues to read and write but confesses he's not too impressed with modern literature.

"Literature has had more golden moments. These are times of momentous and historic changes, principally owing to the fabulous development of technology, because human relations are seriously changing. People don't know what to do and this is reflected in literature."

First Published: Mar 20, 2006 15:54 IST