Leonard Cohen was pleasantly surprised to learn this week that he has been awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Letters. Since the 1980s, the 76-year-old singer-songwriter from Montreal has been showered with countless tributes from both sides of the Atlantic, but these have generally recognized his musical talent. His literary side includes poetic work and two audacious novels written decades ago, The Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966).
Outside the English-speaking world, awareness of his writings followed in the wake of his impact as a musical star. Cohen's solid fame as a crooner explains why much of his poetic body of work is available in Spanish thanks to publisher Chus Visor, who publicly stated on Wednesday his opinion that Cohen is a better poet than a singer. His words echoed the defensive voices in the Prince of Asturias Awards jury, who seem aware that their decision is a controversial one. In the past, this prestigious award has gone to the likes of Paul Auster, Amos Oz, Margaret Atwood and Ismail Kadaré.
Since 1967, after publishing his second and until now last novel, songwriting and singing have been Cohen's main occupation. True, he was an admired poet in Canada and a cult novelist in underground circles when he landed in New York, ready to join the great countercultural insurrection. He was unfortunately late for that, but the hypnotic beauty of his drunken sprees earned him a recording contract and a large following, especially considering that his age and his looks made him stand out like a sore thumb amid all the long-haired singer-songwriters of the hippy era.
Following the success of I'm Your Man (1988), Cohen toured Spain on several occasions to sold-out venues. Another connection to Spain came through his personal interest in the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, whose home in Fuente Vaqueros he visited. Several years later, Cohen and García Lorca came together spiritually when the pioneering flamenco singer Enrique Morente used their poems as the basis of his seminal 1996 album Omega.