Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Nobel Prize winner

For 2010 is the great Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who was laureled “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” A superb writer was recognized for his “idealistic tendency,” after all. I take back everything I’ve ever said against the Prize. All sins, except maybe Harold Pinter, are forgiven! (But I am also through with trying to predict the winners, even though I’ve managed to describe one leg of the elephant in each of the past two years.) This year’s is an entirely unexpected and richly deserved award for one of the world’s most distinguished writers, who has earned the international audience the Prize should attract to him.

Vargas Llosa’s novels include:

La ciudad y los perros (1963). The Time of the Hero, trans. Lysander KempGrove (1966).

La casa verde (1966). The Green House, trans. Gregory Rabassa (1968).

Conversacion en la catedral (1969). Conversation in the Cathedral, trans. Gregory Rabassa (1975).

Pantaleon y las visitadoras (1973). Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, trans. Ronald Christ and Gregory Kolovakos (1978).

La tia Julia y el escribidor (1977). Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, trans. Helen Lane (1982).

La guerra del fin del mundo (1981). The War of the End of the World, trans. Helen Lane (1984).

Historia de Mayta (1985). The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, trans. Alfred MacAdam (1986).

Quien mato a Palomino Molero? (1986). Who Killed Palomino Molero? trans. Alfred MacAdam (1987).

El hablador (1987). The Storyteller, trans. Helen Lane (1989).

Elogio de la madrastra (1988). In Praise of the Stepmother, trans. Helen Lane (1990).

Lituma en los Andes (1993). Death in the Andes, trans. Edith Grossman (1996).

Travesuras de la niña mala (2006). The Bad Girl, trans. Edith Grossman (2007).

Born on March 28, 1936, in Arequipa, Peru, Vargas Llosa was educated at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, which became the raw material for his first novel, The Time of the Hero, published when he was just twenty-two. It was his second novel, though, that made Vargas Llosa one of the central figures in the “boom” in South American fiction. The Green House is about a brothel in the Peruvian jungle. Appropriately, the language is lush and overgrown, and the stories thickly interwoven. Vargas Llosa pared back his style in subsequent novels, but he had made his mark.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter remains his best novel. (Biographical note: Vargas Llosa married his own aunt Julia Urquidi in 1955 and remained married to her for ten years.) The story of the love affair between the teenaged narrator and his aunt alternates with the outlandish soap-opera scripts of Mario’s boss Pedro Camacho. One of the funniest novels ever written, it is also one of the most profound meditations on the life of writing.

Like most Latin American intellectuals, Vargas Llosa started out as a Leftist, but he became progressively disgusted with Leftist intellectuals. “Although they are not accustomed to pick up a rifle or throw bombs from their studies,” he told the Washington Post, “they foment and defend the violence.” Vargas Llosa declined to romanticize the terrorism of the Shining Path, the Maoist guerrilla organization in his native Peru, while remaining an implacable critic of dictatorial regimes and a strong advocate of Peru’s slow continuing democratization. He is unapologetic about the political direction of his work. “It is a moral obligation of a writer in Latin America to be involved in civic activities,” he says.

In 1991, Vargas Llosa ran for president of Peru as a champion of the free market. Calling his approach “popular capitalism”—the people of Peru, he said, “are very humble people and they have all discovered how controls don’t work”—he saw those who were pushing toward freedom as the true Latin American revolutionaries. “Fidel [Castro] was once the road to progress,” Vargas Llosa said. “Now he is antediluvian, a dinosaur.” In response, pro-Cuban rebels firebombed Vargas Llosa’s campaign headquarters in Lima.

In the first round of voting, Vargas Llosa led with 31 percent, but independent candidate Alberto Fujimori took a surprisingly strong 29 percent. Even though he was a centrist, Fujimori won the backing of the defeated Leftist candidates, and despite running without an explicit platform, he overwhelmed Vargas Llosa in the runoff. The novelist wrote a memoir of his campaign experience for Granta, and then retired from electoral politics to concentrate upon literature.

Update: Commentary is making freely available “The Miami Model,” an essay by Vargas Llosa published in the magazine in 1992. John Podhoretz, the magazine’s editor, reflects upon Vargas Llosa’s award here. He describes Vargas Llosa as a “liberal in the classic sense of the word, a believer in and advocate for Western-style free speech, free markets, and free inquiry,” but “not a conservative in any sense of the word.” I defer to John’s greater political wisdom. My only quarrel is with his suggestion that Vargas Llosa cannot be a conservative, because “[h]is work is often frankly libertine. . . .”


Paul Joseph Strassfield said...

How do you know? What about Philip Roth?

D. G. Myers said...

I watched the announcement live at 7:00 EST. I was so startled that I nearly spilled my coffee in my lap.

Philip Roth remains the greatest living novelist, but Vargas Llosa was a worthy choice.

Perpetual Pilgrim said...

I've only read The Bad Girl and found it decent but uninspiring.To me it was overly reminscent of a certain genre of "man obsessed with girl" that I primarily associate with Romance language literature, for lack of a better grouping term (French, Italian, Spanish)...and it's not a trope that is my cup of tea. Perhaps I should give some of his other work a try, now, though...

dan m. said...

If the Nobel committee and D.G. Myers somehow enjoy the same author I feel immediately compelled to the library. I'm looking forward to it.

jeff mauvais said...

Vargas Llosa's recent collection of essays, Wellsprings, is a thoughtful examination of the relationship between history and literature in Latin America, and well worth reading.

Evie said...

To quote someone I respect and admire, despite our differing political views:

"Since conservatives do not attribute unstated views to those they oppose, I can write with a clear conscience from now on."

Richard Barager said...

I read John Podhoretz regularly in The Weekly Standard and agree with him most of the time, but I, too, felt a twang of dissonance at the suggestion in his article that writing a powerfully erotic novel disqualifies one from being a true conservative. I'm not even certain living a libertine life disqualifies one from being a true conservative, at least not from being a small government/personal liberty/pro-small business/strong-national defense conservative (true enough, I think, even for John).

Hard to touch all the bases all the time.

D. G. Myers said...

To quote someone I respect and admire

It reads like criticism, though it sounds like praise, Evie.

At all events, I see that Andrew Seal is tweeting that Vargas Llosa’s award is making “reactionaries happy,” and then he links to this post.

What goes around comes around, I suppose.

But you can always count upon Seal to display the vacuousness of Leftist rhetoric in its purest form.

Jonathan said...

Did Time-Life do a series of books or television programs about ideological epithets of the 1960s that I missed?

I mean, are people who in all likelihood weren't old enough to remember the Berlin Wall coming down even allowed to use the word "reactionaries"?

Guy Pursey said...

I was reading Britain's only well-known (for all I know, only) investigative journalism paper this evening and couldn't help but think of you. An excerpt from this fortnight's Private Eye (No. 1273):

"[...] there's a puzzle here. The Swedes favour figures ranging from the moderate to the far left, with Naipaul the only manifest reactionary picked since the 1980s; and Vargos Llosa is a right-winger who identified himself with Reagan and Thatcher when running for office. So how did he slip through?

"What may be significant is that he publicly criticised Israel's invasion of Gaza in early 2009, thereby aligning himself with the liberal consensus rather than the neo-cons. Can it be coincidence that less than two years later the academy chose him, having previously let almost three decades pass since his last acknowledged major novel?"