Mario Vargas Llosa: Nobel committee appreciates what authorities didn't always

Peruvian-born Mario Vargas Llosa wins the 2010 Nobel Prize for literature, making him the first Latin American to do so since 1990.
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer and literary giant in the Spanish-speaking world, was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy announced Thursday.

Vargas Llosa, 74, whose body of work includes more than 30 novels, essays and plays, is the first South American writer to win the coveted prize since Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian storyteller who is much better known in the English-reading world than Vargas Llosa. García Márquez won in 1982.

In part because of the spotlight García Márquez drew to South American literature, Vargas Llosa's best-selling work has been widely translated in English, French, Swedish and German.

Like many Nobel laureates, Vargas Llosa has written works that his country's authorities didn't appreciate. "The Time of the Hero," released in 1963, described some of his harsh experiences in a military academy, and school officials burned 1,000 copies.

In their tribute to Vargas Llosa, the Swedish Academy cited a theme of "the individual's resistance" in announcing the honor.

The prize was given, officials said in a statement, "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat."

When a representative of the academy reached Vargas Llosa on Thursday morning, the newly minted laureate sound surprised and reflective. "Writing has been such a fantastic pleasure for me all my life that I cannot believe that I am honored and recompensed for something that has been a recompense in itself, you know?" he said in a transatlantic phone conversation.

Some of his best-known works include "The Green House," "Conversation in the Cathedral," "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," "A Fish in the Water: A Memoir," "The Feast of the Goat" and "The Storyteller." He has been praised for his unblemished examination of hypocrisy, most often training an eye on Peruvian society and politics. But he has also produced humorous work and detective stories.

Vargas Llosa, who was born in Arequipa, Peru, spent some of his early years in Bolivia, but his family returned to Peru in 1946.

His ambitions to be a writer were opposed by his father, who sent him to military school.

Leaving Peru for a while, Vargas Llosa worked as a language teacher and journalist in France. When he returned, he became heavily involved in the country's politics and in 1990 became a candidate for president. He lost in a runoff and returned to writing.

In the phone conversation Thursday, Vargas Llosa discussed what writers should do. "I think writers are citizens, too, you know, and have the moral obligation to participate in the civic debate, in the debate about the solutions to the problems that societies face," he said. "That doesn't mean that I think that writers should become professional politicians. . . . I never wanted to become a professional politician. I did it once because the situation in Peru was deeply, deeply serious."

His other honors include winning the Cervantes Prize in 1995, the highest literary honor in the Spanish-speaking world.

Vargas Llosa is teaching this semester at Princeton University.

The announcement continues the drought for American writers. No American has won the literature prize since novelist Toni Morrison in 1993.

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