The power of Mario Vargas Llosa's words led the political writer to Nobel Prize
Friday, October 8, 2010
Too often, a Nobel morning has a literary critic running for cover or, at the very least, for Google, to learn exactly who, in the capricious eyes of the Swedish Academy, has merited the coveted award. Not so on Thursday. The 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature has gone to a writer whose name is well known to and widely venerated by the global literary community: the deeply intellectual, undeniably talented Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.
Vargas Llosa has been a perennial candidate for the prize, his name raised year after year as an obvious choice since the 1980s. He might easily have won after the brilliant early novels of his career: "The Time of the Hero," "The Green House," "Conversation in the Cathedral," all published before 1975. But as time passed and he continued to produce an impressively versatile body of work -- "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," "The Feast of the Goat," "The Bad Girl" -- so, too, did hope that he would be recognized by Stockholm. When asked by an editor several years ago why the prize had eluded him, he replied with a wry smile that he was hardly the politically correct choice.
If that is true, it was certainly not for literary reasons. Vargas Llosa's novels have garnered as much praise from the left as from the right, from serious critics as well as from the masses. In Latin America he is read by consumers of pulp novels as avidly as by scholars. Far less predictable in genre than other Latin Americans who have been singled out for the prize -- Gabriel García Márquez, for instance, or Pablo Neruda -- Vargas Llosa's work can be deadly serious or effervescently funny, his political essays searing, his literary criticism defiantly highbrow. According to the Nobel committee, he has won the award "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat."
For years, the gossip was that Stockholm would never recognize him because his politics were conservative, though many of his positions -- on gay rights, for example -- have been to the left of center. In 1990, he ran for president of Peru as a candidate of the right, in a fiercely contested race against Alberto Fujimori. When he lost in the election, he angered Peruvians by taking Spanish citizenship.
In 1997, when President Fujimori was in the full flower of his regime, Vargas Llosa's book "Making Waves" was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award for literary criticism. I happened to be on the board of directors of the NBCC at the time. We received a call before the awards ceremony from a Peruvian who wanted to know exactly where Vargas Llosa would be sitting. Flustered to learn that Vargas Llosa would not be in an assigned seat, the caller slammed down the phone. As it turned out, Vargas Llosa was in Europe at the time and could not attend the event at New York University. When I called Vargas Llosa to tell him about the call, he said, "Oh, the Fujimoristas do that to me all the time. They just want to scare the hell out of me." Three years later, he produced his masterwork, "The Feast of the Goat," a blistering account of the last days of Dominican Gen. Rafael Trujillo's evil empire.
For all his bracing work decrying totalitarian strongmen, Vargas Llosa is no radical revolutionary. He has been described as an intransigent neoliberal, a man with unshakable convictions that his country and people need strict economic discipline, membership in the world market and tough austerity measures at home.
It wasn't always so. Vargas Llosa began his career, as did many budding writers of his generation, as an unabashed leftist. A supporter of Fidel Castro, student of Marxism and member of a secret communist cell, he moved to Paris in the early 1960s, where he fell in with a circle that included García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortázar. But his sentiments quickly changed when the Castro regime imprisoned the outspoken poet Herberto Padilla. As time passed, Vargas Llosa became convinced that socialism and liberty were impossible bedfellows and, by the 1980s, he was saying so unequivocally, in speeches and essays that left no doubt that he had strong political aspirations. But politics, he later admitted, was a thankless, punishing pursuit, "bringing to light the absolute worst in a person."
The two decades since that failed presidential run have been remarkably productive for Vargas Llosa. He has written no fewer than 15 new books and firmly established himself as the most successful and prolific Latin American writer of the past quarter-century. The Nobel is only the most recent laurel in a career that has earned him the Cervantes Prize, the Prince of Asturias Award, the Planeta and countless honors around the globe. But he has always been far more read within the Spanish-speaking world than outside it.
He has titillated his readers by marrying his aunt and then writing about it; marrying his cousin and writing about that, too. In truth, he has written as easily about love as he has about tyranny, as nimbly about rabid dictators as about powerless artists; he has given us "Vargas Llosa light," in delightfully erotic (thinly veiled autobiographical) stories, and "Vargas Llosa dark," in elaborately researched and profoundly illuminating historical novels. In November, he will add yet another of these to his burgeoning opus: "The Celt's Dream," about Sir Roger Casement, the indefatigable battler for civil rights.
But perhaps the most winning aspect of Vargas Llosa's career is his deep and abiding humanity. Generous in friendship, unfailingly curious about the world at large, tireless in his quest to probe the nature of the human animal, he is a model writer for our times. It is such a pleasure for me to write at last: This year, the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to an indisputable winner.
Marie Arana, a former editor of Book World, is the author of "American Chica," "Cellophane" and "Lima Nights."