Reality and romance

Author José Ovejero receives Alfaguara Book Prize for his latest novel 'La invención del amor'

José Ovejero standing at his computer at his home in Madrid.
José Ovejero standing at his computer at his home in Madrid.BERNARDO PÉREZ (EL PAÍS)

"So when are you going to write a love story? So when are you going to write a love story? So when are you going to write a love story?"

José Ovejero's friends kept pestering him with this question, and he has finally answered: La invención del amor (or, The invention of love), Ovejero's latest work will shortly be released after winning the Alfaguara Book Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the Spanish language.

The writer from Madrid will take home 130,000 euros for the unpublished novel, which was chosen over 801 other manuscripts from 19 countries.

This is will be the fifth literary award for Ovejero, 54, an author known for writing in a wide range of styles, has written poetry and essays in addition to his novels. Twenty years ago, he won his first prize for a book of poems called Biografía del explorador (or, Biography of an explorer); more recently, he won the Anagrama Essay Prize for La ética de la crueldad (or, The ethics of cruelty).

After receiving the prestigious Alfaguara award, his book will be made available to a market of 400 million Spanish speakers.

La invención del amor is an exploration of love as a search, refuge and escape from personal and social crisis. The story takes place in Madrid and follows the life of Samuel, a single 40-year-old who is a partner in a construction equipment company. Samuel falls in love with a woman who happens to be dead, and from that moment on he begins reinventing his life. This search makes him push back his own limits to explore today's Spain.

I am a chameleon; I look for the best format for the story that I want to tell"

"It is a novel filled with single people and crises that grows and branches out, with curiosity for the immediate as a starting point," said the prize jury. "The narrator-protagonist turns us into accomplices by speaking to us directly about loneliness, love and the ability for personal reinvention and self-deception."

"I couldn't understand why they kept asking me to write about love if it is a recurring theme in my books," he said in a telephone interview from Pennsylvania.

But in this novel, Ovejero no longer looks sideways at love. Instead, he addresses it head-on while simultaneously reflecting on Spain's teetering social reality. Just like the main character in his book, a phone call seems to have changed Ovejero life. The call came one morning at 5.30 when Manuel Rivas, president of the Alfaguara Book Prize jury, informed the author that he was the winner.

"I won't be entering any more competitions," notes Ovejero, who considers literary awards to be to writers what science grants are to researchers: they enable them to work with some degree of funding and peace of mind.

Humble and well respected by the industry, Ovejero has a considerable readership, due to his varied writing style. The variety allows him to explore literature in different ways.

"Although there are writers who are able to say it all using the same type of composition, I cannot do that. I am a chameleon with regard to the story that I want to tell, and I look for the best format for what I want to convey," he explains.

When asked about his literary influences, Ovejero says that he has never considered any one author to be his role model, but after thinking for a couple of seconds, he quickly mentiones Primo Levi, author of If This Is A Man.

Ovejero's style is derived from Levi and other prominent authors including, the members of the Latin American boom: Borges, García Márquez, Cortázar, and Vargas Llosa. In terms of contemporary works, he likes the work of Coetzee, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and the Nobel prize winner Elfriede Jelinek.

La invención del amor borrows elements of culture from both cities that the author calls home: Madrid and Brussels. He wrote this novel mostly in the Belgian city, but the story takes place in Madrid. He had been thinking about writing such a book for years, but he did not begin it until completing the essay La ética de la crueldad. Only then did he began writing; often while standing up, as is his unconventional habit.

The winning novel is part of a surfacing literary trend in which love has returned to the center of the plot and serves to capture reality.

"In my novel, Samuel begins to feel connected to someone again, and this new reality makes him feel everything else, the real world around him," says the author.

Ovejero knows that the novel no longer belongs exclusively to him. Soon readers and the friends who kept asking him for a love story will have the chance to see how love can transform.

"In time, you realize that readers make whatever interpretations they want. Writing a novel is like starting a chess game: you move the first pieces, then you hand the board over to the readers."

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