Javier Marías has complained in the past that his father and other great writers won nothing. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty
His novels are lauded by critics and readers alike but when Spain's government wanted to show its admiration for one of the country's leading authors, Javier Marías turned down its €20,000 (£16,000) prize.
Marías said he had rejected the national narrative prize for his novel The Infatuations because of a lifelong aversion to receiving public money.
He is on record as a critic of the way Spain hands out state-backed literary prizes, complaining that many great writers – including his father, the philosopher Julián Marías – never won anything.
"All my life I have managed to avoid state institutions, regardless of which party was in government, and I have turned down all income from the public purse," he said. "I don't want to be seen as an author who is favoured by any particular government."
Marías said he had turned down a similar prize worth €15,000 earlier this year, and he had asked fellow members of Spain's Royal Academy of Literature not to consider him for the annual Cervantes prize, considered one of the most prestigious in the Spanish-speaking world.
"I don't want this to be taken as a snub," said Marías, who expressed his gratitude to the jury for naming him the winner. But jury members were not so pleased. "With this gesture, Marías devalues one of the few Spanish literary prizes that is not subject to the interests of publishing companies," said last year's winner, Marcos Giralt Torrente.
Marías's decision was an embarrassment for the culture ministry, which had told jury members that he would be happy to accept the prize. "He still figures as the prizewinner, even if he turns it down," a spokeswoman said. "The jury even took into account the fact that this might be the case, but they still thought The Infatuations was the best novel of the year."
Jury members were not so clear. "Everybody supposed that he would accept it, but someone did ask what would happen if he turned it down," one member told El País newspaper. The culture ministry representatives allegedly replied that he only turned down state-funded travel.
In a column for El País last year, Marías said he was shocked that his father had never received a prize, nor other late writers such as Jaime Gil de Biedma, Juan Benet or Juan García Hortelano, nor living talents such as Eduardo Mendoza or Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
"It is absurd that Spain should have such prizes," he wrote. "It is a country that hates to publicly recognise anybody's talent." Marías, widely considered a Nobel prize candidate, said his stance did not extend to international awards.
In 2010, the artist Santiago Sierra turned down Spain's national arts prize, complaining that he could not take a prize from a socialist government that was fighting wars and giving money to banks while taking it away from the welfare state.