Mario Vargas Llosa: This was the reality because Peruvian society at that time became subject to terrorism, oppression and Fujimori’s dictatorship. The brutality expanded to all levels of society. There was a strict curfew that produced this extraordinary explosion of sex life and sexuality in the private spaces where one had to dwell. It was the only way you could escape the terrible threat of the real world.
During those years, all the principles and moral limitations disappeared. It was a time of the explosion of a terrible freedom. In my novel, I wanted to describe this paradox. I also described how, in those years, yellow journalism was used by dictators to create paralysis among adversaries.
WorldPost: As a Nobel laureate, what was your reaction to the Swedish Academy’s extraordinary decision not to award the Nobel Prize for literature this year because of the sexual abuse scandal affecting some of its members?
Vargas Llosa: I never thought that this kind of scandal would happen in Sweden! We have stereotyped the vision of countries. Yet we now see that the Swedes are humans too, and so these kinds of things can also happen in Sweden. It’s been a shock for many people, and it is a pity there are no Nobel Prizes for literature this year. But there will be two prizes awarded next year, and this is a compensation.
WorldPost: That seems part and parcel of a kind of cultural revolution going on today with the #MeToo movement. Do you empathize with that?
Vargas Llosa: Of course, I think it is right to denounce abuses against women. These abuses are everywhere, so I have total sympathy for this movement as far as it is for more justice, more democracy, more equality of opportunities for women and men.
But feminism now has a kind of problem. It has become very sectarian, very dogmatic, and I think you have to criticize and oppose these trends. For example, recently we have had a big debate in Spain when a group of feminists attacked Nabokov’s “Lolita,” which I think is one of the greatest 20th century novels. They attacked it because they claim the main character is a pedophile. With this criterion, literature will disappear. It is grotesque! If you respect literature you must accept not only the very idealist, altruist vision of human beings but also the infernal vision of them.
Georges Bataille said that in human beings, there are angels and devils. Sometimes the angels are important, but for literature, devils are important too. Literature is a testimony of what we want to hide in the real word. This is the raison d’être of literature. You cannot attack literature for our vices and prejudices and stupidities. I think this is very important because I am convinced that the feminist movement’s voice should be heard, but I don’t accept this idea of censorship for literature or for culture in general.
WorldPost: In your 2015 essay, “The Civilization of the Spectacle,” you wrote with deep regret about the negligible influence of ideas in today’s world. That essay gave you the tag of a “progressophobe,” whose premise of “Notes on the Death of Culture” is widely rejected by the younger generation. Are they wrong?
Vargas Llosa: Yes, because they have been brought up in a culture where images are much more important than ideas, so they resist the superiority of ideas. For the first time, in a culture that is totally global, without differences between East and West, we are all part of this new culture in which images are the great protagonists.
Young people today tend to think that images can form modern creative citizens. They don’t. Images create a passive citizen, more easily domesticated than the citizen formed by ideas. I am certainly convinced that ideas are much more important than images. During my lifetime, I have witnessed this power of ideas — and the decisive battles over ideas fought by public intellectuals.
Some of them became fascinated by communism and Marxism. Though dominant for a while, these intellectuals were, in fact, against real progress. That is the subject of an autobiographical book I am currently writing in which I describe the political evolution from the Marxism of my adolescence toward democracy and then to liberalism. There are seven essays about seven liberal thinkers who were very important for my own evolution, among them Adam Smith, José Ortega y Gasset and Isaiah Berlin. These are cases of intellectuals who resisted the radical trend of the left that ended in social disaster.
WorldPost: Your first novel, “The Time of the Hero,” published in 1962, was in a way the beginning of your belligerent literary evolution. Your anger toward your authoritarian father and the Peruvian military establishment set the tone of your literary voice. Would you agree?
Vargas Llosa: That is true. At that time, I was very much influenced by Sartre’s ideas — that words are acts and that you write things that could make a difference in history or solve problems. Writing was a way to participate in the creation of a different kind of society: freer, more just, more liberal. Those were very influential ideas for a young writer like me who came from a third-world country where literature had such a small audience.
Thus, the ideas of Sartre encouraged me to become a writer and made me understand that writing was not only for creating pleasure but also a tool for change. There was a lot of naiveté in these ideas, but I think the existential thinkers at that time were very encouraging for young writers, particularly in third-world countries.
WorldPost: The late Nadine Gordimer, a fellow Nobel laureate and novelist, once said that the novelist is the “historian of the unrecorded.” Is that the way you see it?
Vargas Llosa: Absolutely, that is a very good definition. History and literature are faces of a coin. They are so close, and in many cases, the literary version of a historical part prevails over a historian’s account. For example, we believe Tolstoy is absolutely right when describing the Napoleonic wars in literature. Probably historians are more accurate, but it doesn’t matter. The way literature impregnates the imagination is what matters.
I like literature that is still very close to living experiences. I don’t like very much the idea of the writer completely isolated, secluded in a library. I can read and enjoy these writers, like Jorge Luis Borges, for example, but I don’t want to be this kind of writer.
All writers are autobiographical. In some writers, this is more explicit and obvious, in others more hidden. But I don’t think you invent anything out of nothing. The main point of departure is always the personal memory of actual experience.
This interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.