Peruvian Novel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa
Just occasionally, a bunch of old men in Stockholm get it right. In contrast to the new Nobel Peace Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who burst into tears in his Chinese cell, 74-year-old Mario Vargas Llosa laughed on hearing he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week. A joke, surely?
The Peruvian novelist’s response recognized that for all his deep commitment to literature, his personal life, which incorporates marriages to an aunt and a cousin was, as he said, too “unpredictable and complex” to fit the model expected of a Laureate in the 21st century. His own model is Flaubert, the case of a vocation built with great pain, “through patience, hard work, stubbornness and conviction”.
In a 1990 documentary, Vargas Llosa explained: “For me, literature is similar to what literature was for many writers in the 19th century – not a specialization, not a profession in which you have to seclude yourself, but a way of living that opens the door to many experiences.”
His novels, from Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter toThe Feast of the Goat, display a variety and an amplitude that are rooted in the passions and contradictions of his life. “Everything I have written has been based on personal experience.”
I came to know Vargas Llosa in the Eighties when my family lived in Peru. He gave me the idea for a novel, The Dancer Upstairs, about the capture ofAbimael Guzmán, leader of the ruthless Shining Path guerrillas, above a ballet studio in Lima.
In 1990, when Vargas Llosa stood for president, he was chastised by his adviser Mark (now Lord) Malloch Brown for his reluctance to turn his back on the old political system and confront Shining Path’s Maoist leader head on. To the relief of many, he failed to win that election: the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, thinking perhaps of Václav Havel, worried that: “He will be able to sign his name on decrees, but he won’t be able to write a single page once he is president.”
Oddly, his lack of a killer-instinct in politics has served him better than his political rivals. The agronomist who pipped him for the presidency, Alberto Fujimori, is now in prison; as is Guzmán.
And though now based in New York, Vargas Llosa seems to exercise more genuine power in his own country than the current president, Alan García (whose 1987 nationalisation of the banks first tipped Vargas Llosa into the political arena). As García scrabbles in a desperate way to protect himself from charges of human rights abuses – notably, the massacre of up to 250 Shining Path prisoners in 1986 – it is Vargas Llosa who speaks and acts for Peru, without this impeding his literary output. A monumental novel on the Irish nationalist and traitor Roger Casement is due out next year.
For his many admirers, last week’s news restores prestige to an award that has routinely ignored the most deserving candidate, not least Graham Greene and Jorge Luis Borges. After an adventurous political journey, which led him from Marxism to Thatcherism, Vargas Llosa has emerged on the side of literature. As a young Communist living in Paris in the late Fifties, he had fierce discussions defending Sartre over Borges with friends like Cabrera Infante who argued the opposite. As he admitted this week: “It is they, of course, who were right.”
One argument famously resulted in the black eye that he gave García Márquez, on whom he had written his doctoral thesis. This, for what it’s worth, is Cabrera Infante’s version: Vargas Llosa’s wife Patricia, upset that he might have lost his heart elsewhere, was told by García Márquez: “If you want to get Mario back, there’s only one way: you must pretend to have an affair with someone he’s jealous of. There’s only one person in the world he’s jealous of. Me.” When Patricia revealed the strategy, next time Vargas Llosa saw García Márquez, in Mexico, he punched him.
Today, 28 years after García Márquez won the Nobel Prize, Vargas Llosa has no obvious literary rivals. Still, his motive for writing remains the same: “In my case, literature is a kind of revenge. It’s something that gives me what real life can’t give me – all the adventures, all the pleasures, all the suffering. All the experiences I can only live in the imagination, literature completes.”
Source: Nicholas Shakespeare