Luis Alberto de Cuenca (Madrid, 1950) is a philologist, poet, translator and essayist. He has a Ph.D. in Classical Philology, and has been director of the Institute of Philology of the CSIC (Superior Council for Scientific Research), director of the National Library of Spain, as well as Secretary of State for Culture. He won the Premio de la Crítica prize with La caja de plata in 1985 and the National Translation Prize for Cantar de Valtario in 1987. Among the authors he has translated are Homer, Euripides, Callimachus, Charles Nodier and Gérard de Nerval. In 2010 he was elected as Numerary of the Royal Academy of History, and took up his post on February 6, 2011. His acceptance speech was titled “History and Poetry”. Some of his work has been translated into French, German, Italian, English and Bulgarian.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Luis Alberto, we’ll start with something easy: a childhood memory.
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —A boy in a little apron sitting on a wing armchair, with a pointed paper hat, like a cone, which was meant to look like Napoleon’s.
Carmen Sanjulián: —If you were an animal, which animal would you be?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Well, I already am an animal, because when you get down to it we’re all animals, more or less developed, but still animals at the end of the day. But if I were, and if I believed in reincarnation, I’d like to come back as one of three animals which I think are wonderful because of the great role they always play in the epics: a dog, an eagle or a horse.
Carmen Sanjulián: —What makes you angry?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —For example, arriving late. I’m very punctual.
Carmen Sanjulián: —And what makes you laugh?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Comedy films. For example, I’m fascinated by North American silent movies.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Is there anything you would never lend?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —I always end up lending things which I should never have leant: books, the things I love most in the world.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Madrid. What does that word bring to mind?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Something wonderful, and aside from that, my roots, because I’m from Madrid, going back seven or eight generations, so… for me, it’s a wonderful place and I love living there. It’s beautiful in spite of everything.
Carmen Sanjulián: —History and poetry. What ties them together?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Amongst other things, in representations of the muses, Clio and Calliope, the muse of poetry, are always side by side so, in that sense, they have always had a very close link, even from ancient times. And looking at it from another angle, the great primitive epic poems were the most important historical source before the beginning of recorded history. The ancient Greeks used Homer in their learning and they believed that what Homer recounted had really happened. Then, poetry was also history at some point in its conceptual development.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Is love a nightmare?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —And a wonderful dream, it’s both and, in general, it’s both at the same time.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Are you nostalgic about anything?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —I am… about practically everything. The etymology of nostalgia is the Greek for the pain of returning, the pain we always feel when we return, like Ulysses when he went back to Ithaca. We’re always returning to things in our lives, and each time we leave shreds of ourselves along with way.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Why do we lie?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Because lying is necessary. Borges says, in “Fragments of an Apocryphal Gospel”, a wonderful prose poem which includes in Praise of Darkness, that no one is capable of spending 24 hours without having lied, and having absolutely had to do so, at least ten times.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Your favourite writer.
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Now that I’ve mentioned Borges, Borges.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Night or Day?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Day, every time. The night terrifies me, it frightens me. Night is the messenger of death.
Carmen Sanjulián: —What do you fear?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —I fear the passing of time which consumes us at an increasing rate each day and I’m afraid of the dark, for example. I’m also afraid of the night, those sorts of things. Not horror films, though. I do like them.
Carmen Sanjulián: Is it really possible to forget?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Speaking about precisely that, Cernuda said “I can forget you, but not ignore you”. It is possible to forget, but there are things which can’t be ignored, even if they can be forgotten.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Is there pleasure in sadness?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Yes, sadness can be one of the important psychological resources we use to deal with life, because man is the only animal capable of being happy at times and sad at others. Happiness and sadness are categories that are only found in the human animal.
Carmen Sanjulián: —A library.
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Any library. For example, this morning I saw a wonderful one, in Trinity College, so that’s the one I’d choose. But I’ve also seen dream libraries, such as the Joanina library in Coimbra, for example, the Vatican library, or I don’t know… the Michelozzo Library of San Marco in Florence. There are so many beautiful libraries… Higgins’s library, inPygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, the Irishman. There are so many sublime libraries…
Carmen Sanjulián: —What are today’s legends?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —The same ones that have always been around. I don’t think our concept of what a “legend” is has changed much. Legends explain the world around us, they allow us to dream that there might be an explanation for things. And then there’s another concept, another meaning of the word legend which refers to a role model. You can say “Kennedy is a legend”, or “Eddy Merckx is a legend in cycling”, but that’s not what you’re asking about in your question. The meaning we’re referring to here is more the meaning of a legend as a sacred, real, or primeval story and, in that sense, we’re exactly the same today as the cavemen were, a bit more brutal, but very similar.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Do you think about old friends much?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Yes, of course I think about old friends. Lots of them are gone, because I also lived through a very turbulent time in Spain’s history during the ’80s, when a few irresponsible politicians advised people to take drugs and said nothing mattered. Lots of them went down that path and of course I think about them. They left this Earth much earlier than they should have.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Film or theatre?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Film.
Carmen Sanjulián: —A colour.
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Yellow.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Why?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —What’s funny is that having just said film instead of theatre, yellow is a colour that theatre actors hate because, in fact, Molière died on stage dressed in yellow.
Carmen Sanjulián: —A wish.
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Well, for example, seeing as we’re here in Ireland, I’d wish for a united Ireland, for Ulster to belong to the Republic once more.
Carmen Sanjulián: —What does Ireland bring to mind? What do you like about Ireland?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —Lots of things. I love that we have our Catholic faith in common, for example. I’m amazed at how down-to-earth people are, and how friendly they are. I say that because I’ve known lots of Irish people, before coming to Ireland, a country I’m only getting to know now. And I’m also fascinated by its marvellous history. And I think what amazes me the most about Ireland is that during the dark ages, between the 6th and 8th centuries, up in the scriptoria in the monasteries, the monks took on the legacy of the classical tradition and rescued it, hidden away from the rest of the world on a remote island, and preserved all of Greco-Roman heritage for us.
Carmen Sanjulián: —We’re going to finish with a poem; it’s called “Ireland”.
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —It’s from the book Sin miedo ni esperanza, from 2002.
Carmen Sanjulián: —What inspired this poem?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: —It came about at a meeting of National Library directors, back in 1998, where I met the then director of the National Library of Ireland, which I visited earlier today. I met her and thought she was a wonderful lady, she seemed so fascinating and unpretentious, so down-to-earth, such a nice person, that I decided to write an ode to Ireland. I was bored at the meetings and I wrote a poem.
Por Edward, lord Dunsany, que cantara
las gestas de un caballo de madera
en un cuento muy bello; por el libro
de Kells, iluminado por los ángeles;
por nuestra fe católica, basada
en la benevolencia de María
y no en la crueldad del dios hebreo;
por San Patricio, que te dio las cruces
de piedra que jalonan tus caminos;
por el héroe Cuchulainn y por Molly
Bloom, que lo atrajo hacia sus senos
y le dijo que sí, que lo quería,
en la última frase del Ulysses,
yo te saludo, Irlanda, esta mañana
de septiembre en que todo está borroso
menos la geografía de tu isla,
desde donde me envías a la cárcel
un mensaje cargado de futuro.
For Edward, Lord Dunsany who regaled
the heroic deeds of a wooden horse
in a beautiful tale; for the Book
of Kells, illuminated by angels;
for our Catholic faith, founded
on the kindness of Mary
and not the cruelty of the Hebrew God;
for St. Patrick, who gave you the crosses
made of stone that mark your paths;
for the hero Cuchulainn and for Molly
Bloom, that drew him to her breasts
and told him Yes, she loved him,
in the last phrase of Ulysses,
I salute you, Ireland, this September
morn in which all is blurred
but for the geography of your isle,
from where you sent to me in prison
a message loaded with future.]
(Translated by Emer Cassidy)