And the Nobel goes to…Vargas Llosa
The last time a South American writer got a Nobel Prize was in 1982 — Gabriel García Márquez from Colombia. The last time a writer in the Spanish language won the Nobel Prize was in 1990 — Octavio Paz from Mexico. This year the Swedish Academy has decided to add the Nobel feather in the cap of yet another Latin American writer. Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru has won it “for his cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.”
While responding to the Nobel news at a press conference in New York, Vargas Llosa said, “Latin America seemed to be a land where there were only dictators, revolutionaries, and catastrophes. Now we know that Latin America can produce also artists, musicians, painters, thinkers and novelists.” He can make such a boastful claim because of his involvement with “the boom generation” (comprising authors such as Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortázar of Argentina and Carlos Fuentes of Mexico) that catapulted Latin America to the world literary scene in the 1960s. And he has done so not only in the capacity of a fiction writer but also in the role of a journalist, filmmaker, political activist, academic and critic.
Vargas Llosa is considered to be one of the most read Latin American writers, and he was being tipped to win the Nobel for quite some time now. He came close to winning the prize on several occasions, just as he came close to winning the Peruvian presidency in 1990 only to lose out to Alberto Fujimori. His defeat alienated him from the Peruvians who probably saw him a bit too Europeanised for Latin America. Taking his cue from writers such as Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, Vargas Llosa left Peru for Europe at the age of 22 and spent much of his early writing career in the Old World. He worked as a journalist in Paris, language teacher in Spain and visiting professor in London. He got his PhD from the University of Madrid in 1976 for his dissertation on Garcia Marquez. He eventually returned to Peru in the 1980s, and got involved in politics. An enthusiastic supporter of Fidel Castro in his early days, Vargas Llosa swerved from political left to political right to vie for the election from the conservative Democratic Front Movement (Fredemo) party.
Ironically, a writer, who got noticed for writing against the military academy in his first novel, The Time of the Hero (1963), and seeing hundreds of his books being burnt in public, loses his radical wings and opts for an economic view that highlights individual freedom and the role of a privileged educated leader in shaping civil society, an idea that he poses in his El Hablador (The Storyteller, 1987). Disenchanted with Peru, Vargas Llosa applied for and received Spanish citizenship in 1994. He is at present living in the US, teaching at Princeton University.
Nevertheless, his love for Peru pervades almost all his writing. He got international recognition as a writer for his second novel, The Green House, which is set in one of his childhood homes of Peru. The corruption within the military posted near his hometown Piura, nestled between the jungle and desert, occupies a special place in the novel. The corruption of his native country is explored in his next novel, Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), an experimental fiction that interlaces stories with histories.
Vargas Llosa never liked the regimented life of the military. As a young man he was sent to the military academy by his father who did not approve his son’s passion for poetry. He eventually studied literature and law at the Major National University of San Marcos in Lima. In 1955, he married his aunt Julia Urquidi, an account of which is fictionalized in his fifth novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977). He got divorced from his first wife in 1964 and married his cousin Patricia Llosa, and had three children. It seems his life is no less interesting than his fiction. In 1976, Vargas Llosa ‘famously’ punched Garcia Márquez in a Mexican theatre in front of a packed audience. They have not talked to one another ever since. Although neither has opened his mouth about the incident, strange stories about adultery or jealousy are in circulation.
Llosa’s 1981 novel, The War of the End of the World, set in Brazil, recounts the heavy-handed attenuation of a fanatical religious movement in the nineteenth century. Repeatedly, Vargas Llosa tries to expose the inefficacy of bureaucracyboth civil and militaryand identifies it as a root cause of Latin American drawbacks. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1985) and Who Killed Palomino Molero? (1987) are cases in point.
Llosa’s bitter experience of the presidential election (expressed in his 1994 memoir A Fish in the Water) led him to reflect on Peru’s social and political degradation in Death in the Andes (1993). However, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (1998) departs from his previous political concern. In it, he records the disintegration of a character called Don Rigoberto, which imaginatively constructs the erotic escapades of his ex-wife. His epistolary novella, Letters to a Young Novelist (1997), explores the life and work of a writer. Vargas Llosa is always interested in sharing his ideas about the writing process. Along with Marquez he wrote The Novel in Latin AmericaMadame Bovary, curiously titled The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary (1986) and Writers and their Reality (1991) are examples of his critical work. His collection of essays, Making Waves, covers a wide range of issues such as his political career, the Cuban revolution, twentieth-century literature and pop culture. (1968). His study of Flaubert’s
In 2000, Vargas Llosa brought out The Feast of the Goat, which is both fiction and fact as it centres on the Dominican Republic’s sadistic dictator Rafael Trujillo. The author’s use of the non-linear style form to blur the categories of time and space fictionalizes the facts of Trujillo’s reign between 1930 and 1960. In his next novel, The Way to Paradise, (2003), Vargas Llosa compares the life of his progressive grandmother with that of the artist Paul Gauguin. He goes on to show how travelling can dislocate one from the familiar location of one’s cultural norms. He becomes even more candid in his latest novel, The Bad Girl (2007). Set in 1950s’ Lima and various cities worldwide, the book follows a Peruvian boy’s obsessive love for a girl who changes identities and countries to suit her needs.
His long writing career and versatility suggests his voracious reading habit. He indulges in intense research for most of his work. In an interview, he once claimed, “I am better at judging other people’s work than my own. I know that I have finished a book when I feel I can no longer correct it, that I should start doing something else or else I will ruin it. But total satisfaction I never have. I always want to continue making it better, but at the same time I don’t want to fall into a trap of trying to make it perfect. That becomes paralyzing.”
This critical outlook gives impetus to many of his works. His work befuddles the boundary between reality and fiction, and invites readers to reach their own conclusions. El Hablador (The Storyteller), for example, is a metanarrative in which a writer is writing about writing. The readers are invited into the personal story of the author. The author introduces a storyteller from the Machiguengas tribe from the Peruvian Amazon. The novel begins in Venice, when the author chances on a photograph of an Amazonian tribe. He then starts talking about his Jewish friend Saul Zuratas, suggesting a possible connection between the tribal storyteller and his ethnographer friend. When at the end of the novel, the author ‘decides upon’ his hypothesis, the reader receives an ”I knew that” kind of satisfaction. The novel thus involves two storytellers in which the author is investigating the second one’s transformation (rite-of-passage) from a university student to a tribal storyteller. These two storytellers are poles apart in their attitude towards a preservation of indigenous culture. Saul’s attitude is scorned as ‘primitive’ by the ‘modern’ author.
The author asks, ”In order not to change the way of life and the beliefs of a handful tribes still living, many of them in the Stone Age, the rest of Peru abstain from developing the Amazonian region? Should sixteen million Peruvians renounce the natural resources of three quarters of their national territory so that the seventy or eighty thousand Indians could quietly go on shooting each other with bows and arrows?…Should we forgo the agricultural, cattle raising, and commercial potential of the region so that the world’s ethnologists could enjoy first-hand kinship ties, potlaches, the rites of puberty…No Mascarita, the country has to move forward… Do you think polygamu, animism, head shrinking and witch doctoring..represent a superior form of culture? ” (21-24)
Saul retorts, saying, ”inferior, perhaps, if the question is posed in terms of infant mortality, the status of women, polygamy, handcrafts or industry” (24).
The Storyteller is a signature text that helps us understand Vargas Llosa’s novelistic theatre. He is an extremely crafty writer who creates and acts out situations that draw readers to imaginatively engage with real issues under fictive garbs. Looking at his prolific career, one can simply heave a sigh of relief hearing of the Nobel and say: “It’s about time! Bravo!”