Have you read anything by Mario Vargas Llosa?
In Mario Vargas Llosa, the Swedish Academy has picked a Nobel laureate that can’t be questioned in terms of stature or literary significance. The Peruvian may have been a rank outsider with the British bookies, but his name (unlike the last two laureates) is globally recognisable, and his body of work is as wide-ranging and eclectic as it is deep and thoughtful. If Vargas Llosa isn’t yet on your shelf, now may be the time to put him there. By KEVIN BLOOM.
Have you read anything by Mario Vargas Llosa? This was the question that appeared on the Nobel Foundation website soon after the announcement was made that the Peruvian novelist had won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. At 4pm on the afternoon of Thursday 7 October, the poll was tracking 47 percent “yes” and 53 percent “no” – a result that, although not ideal, wasn’t too bad. The last two years had seen winners announced that left otherwise self-assured literary types scrambling for Wikipedia; at least the name Vargas Llosa was recognised outside his native country. In fact, next to France’s Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, who won in 2008, and Germany’s Herta Muller, who won last year, the award of the Nobel to Vargas Llosa came as something of a relief. Here was a man who was already part of the Canon, and no excruciating arguments would need to be fashioned in justification of his worthiness.
For example, where a search for Le Clezio and Muller on the Paris Review website yields zero results (even today), a search for Vargas Llosa throws out 19 entries. The importance of this observation lies in the fact that the Paris Review, since its launch in 1953, has been one of the world’s pre-eminent locations of the literary interview – writers from William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway to Jorge Luis Borges and Toni Morrison have provided insight to their craft on its pages. Not to stretch the point, but the magazine has also earned a reputation as “one of the single most persistent acts of cultural conservation in the history of the world”, and yet two of the last three Nobel literature laureates don’t feature in its archives. With Vargas Llosa, the Swedish Academy appears to have made amends.
Take the response of this year’s laureate to a question put by the Paris Review in 1990 concerning his greatest quality and biggest fault: “I think my greatest quality is my perseverance. I’m capable of working extremely hard and getting more out of myself than I thought was possible. My greatest fault, I think, is my lack of confidence, which torments me enormously. It takes me three or four years to write a novel – and I spend a good part of that time doubting myself. It doesn’t get any better with time; on the contrary, I think I’m getting more self-critical and less confident. Maybe that’s why I’m not vain: my conscience is too strong. But I know that I’ll write until the day I die. Writing is in my nature. I live my life according to my work. If I didn’t write, I would blow my brains out, without a shadow of a doubt. I want to write many more books and better ones. I want to have more interesting and wonderful adventures than I’ve already had. I refuse to admit the possibility that my best years are behind me, and would not admit it even if faced with the evidence.”
After that interview, Vargas Llosa would go on to publish six works of fiction and eight works of non-fiction, bringing his lifetime total of works, including plays, to 30. His major book over this later period would be The Feast of the Goat, a political thriller set in the Dominican Republic that deals with the assassination –and its aftermath – of the real-life dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Published in 2000 in Spanish and 2001 in English, The Feast of the Goat was only the second of Vargas Llosa’s novels set outside his native Peru (the first being The War of the End of the World, his major pre-1990 novel), and its impact was significant. Through a blend of fact and fiction and a graphic approach to the acts of torture and violence perpetrated by the Trujillo regime, Vargas Llosa provides a detailed narrative insight into one of the most brutal periods in South American history. A film version of the novel, directed by Vargas Llosa’s cousin Luis Llosa and starring Isabella Rosellini, was released in 2005.
Photo: A sweet smell of profit! Ulla Berkewicz, head of German publishing house Suhrkamp holds up books of one of her authors Mario Vargas Llosa, after he was announced as the 2010 Noble Prize winner of literature, at the book fair in Frankfurt, October 7, 2010. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
But despite the success of The Feast of the Goat, it remained The War of the End of the World, published in 1981, that Vargas Llosa was most proud of. His first attempt at a historical novel, the book dramatises the cult of Antonio Conselheiro, a 19th century Brazilian preacher who taught that the End of Days was nigh and that the evidence for it could be found in the replacement of the Empire of Brazil with a “devil’s” republic. The book’s central dramatic event is the War of Canudos, a conflict between the state of Brazil and 30,000 armed monarchists that occurred in the northeastern province of Bahia in 1897, and which culminated in the deadliest civil war in Brazilian history. The War of the End of the World was cited by Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano (author of 2666 and The Savage Detectives) as Vargas Llosa’s greatest accomplishment, and renowned literary critic Harold Bloom included it in his “Western Canon”.
New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, writing shortly after Vargas Llosa was named the 2010 Nobel literature laureate, pointed to both The Feast of the Goat and The War of the End of the World as novels that were just one aspect of the writer’s “miscellany of subjects and styles”. She also directed attention to his “delightfully post-modernist confections” in the books Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (a semi-fictionalised account of an 18-year-old student who falls for a 32-year-old divorcee), Who Killed Palomino Molero? (a murder mystery that examines the darker side of human nature in 1950s Peru), and The Bad Girl (a rewrite of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, where the narrator is a Peruvian expatriate recounting his decades-long obsession with a woman he met as a teenager).
“Two related themes, however, thread their way through all the novels of Mr Vargas Llosa,” noted Kakutani. “These themes are a fascination with the human craving for freedom (be it political, social or creative) and the liberation conferred by art and imagination. Indeed, storytelling itself remains a central concern in the author’s work, in both his taste for willfully complicated narratives and his philosophical preoccupation with the ways in which subjectivity acts as a distorting prism for our apprehension of the world.”
What Kakutani didn’t refer to in her appraisal were two events in the life of Vargas Llosa that were highlighted in many of the other pieces that appeared in the world’s media following Thursday’s announcement. The first was a punch-up with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, another South American who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in a Mexican cinema in 1976. According to the Guardian, it happened like this: ‘Mario!’ exclaimed Marquez happily on seeing his old literary chum after a film premiere in Mexico City. He marched towards the Peruvian, arms outstretched as if for an embrace. ‘How dare you come and greet me after what you did to Patricia in Barcelona!’ Vargas Llosa reportedly shouted and decked the Colombian with a right hook. Mexican writers ran around looking for steaks to put on the Colombian's eye. Patricia, it turns out, was Mario's wife.” What did Marquez do to Patricia? He “consoled” her, apparently, after Vargas Llosa moved to Stockholm to live with a Swedish air stewardess. He also advised Patricia to divorce his old friend.
The other event in Vargas Llosa’s life referred to in the world’s media was his 1990 run-off against Alberto Fujimori for the Peruvian presidency. The writer had started off his political career as a supporter of the Cuban revolutionary government of Fidel Castro, but over the years he’d moved increasingly to the right. By the time of his battle with Fujimori he was the head of a centre-right coalition known as Frente Democratico, and his presidential campaign was characterised by proposed economic austerity measures that frightened the country’s poor. He was defeated partly because the competition read lewd passages from his novels to shock the Peruvian electorate.
In light of this last fact, Kakutani was making a profound statement by ignoring the infamous punch and unsuccessful presidential bid of Vargas Llosa. She was saying that a reflection on the life of a Nobel literature laureate should be first and foremost a reflection on his work. The answer of Vargas Llosa to the final question of the Paris Review in 1990 would appear to add context to this view. “Why do you write?” the illustrious magazine asked the master novelist, playwright and essayist. “I write because I’m unhappy,” he said. “I write because it’s a way of fighting unhappiness.” DM
Main photo: Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, speaks at a news conference in New York City October 7, 2010. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi.