November 8, 2012

Plagiarism claims dog this year’s Guadalajara Book Prize winner


Alfredo Bryce Echenique

It’s been oh, a month or two, since the last big plagiarism scandal broke — though Jonah Lehrer’s banality always seemed like more of a problem than his self-plagiarism — but the Guadalajara Book Fair (happening November 24-December 2) has just come to save us from our boring lives, where no one ever gets elected and the weather is always mild and unthreatening.

Back in September, they announced the winner of their Literature in Romance Languages Award, one of the most prestigious and financially rewarding prizes in the Spanish-speaking literary world; it was inaugurated in 2008, with the first award going to António Lobo Antunes, and carries a purse of $150,000.

This year, the jury gave it to Alfredo Bryce Echenique, a Peruvian writer, author of Un mundo para Julius, La vida exagerada de Martín Romaña, No me esperen en Abril and, most recently, El huerto de mi amada.

The problem is that Echenique, who has also worked as a journalist, was accused in 2009 of plagiarizing sixteen articles by fifteen different writers, in articles of his own that appeared in the Spanish dailies La Vanguardia and El Periódico de Extramadura, in the Spanish-Mexican magazine Jano, and subsequently in Peruvian periodicals. At the time, Peru’s copyright agency found him guilty and charged him $57,000.

But with the awarding of the Guadalajara prize, the whole matter has been reopened and a group of writers has written an open letter denouncing the decision. At issue is whether lousy ethical behavior in one part of an author’s career should be held against his or her other work (and this may indeed be an extension of the question of whether an author’s lousy behavior in any sphere should influence how their work is received).

Adam Critchley over at Publishing Perspectives has reported on the debate:

In an article entitled “The Ethics of a Profession” published in the Mexican newspaper Reforma, Mexican author Juan Villoro joined the attack on the jury’s decision: “Plagiarism is the literary equivalent of doping in sport. Does a footballer that won the World Cup but tested positive in 16 other matches for doping deserve the Golden Ball? Of course not.”

“What is at stake, more than the reputation of a writer with an accomplished career, is the way in which culture is disseminated in Mexico,” he said.

A more sympathetic response came from novelist Fernando del Paso, who won the award in 2007, and said that “I think he should renounce the prize, but it’s not easy to renounce $150,000.”

It’s worth pointing out that in 2002 Echenique won the bunker-buster of all Spanish-language literary prizes, the Planeta (the MobyLives article on this year’s Planeta is here), which hands out €601,000 (why the extra €1,000? mysteries, mysteries). So Echenique may not be exactly hurting for either money or official recognition.

For his part, Echenique claims that the attacks are retribution for his stand, along with Mario Vargas Llosa and other Peruvian writers, against the human rights abuses committed by the government of former president Alberto Fujimori.

The Guadalajara prize jury, meanwhile, has said that its decision is final.



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.