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10.07.10

60-Second Guide to the Nobel Lit Winner

Mario Vargas Llosa won literature’s top prize, and now you’re probably scrambling to learn anything about him. Here’s what you need to know.

Why He Won:

Though the British betting firm Ladbrokes put Vargas Llosa’s odds this year at a relatively slim 25-1, he’s been talked about as Nobel material for years (even decades at this point), and it’s easy to see why. He has the combination of sterling literary credibility and political activism—that bid for Peru’s presidency certainly helped—that the Nobel committee can’t seem to resist.

Why It Was a Surprise:

The notoriously left-leaning Nobel committee normally picks writers of a similar political persuasion, but Vargas Llosa has long been a prominent political supporter of the right. And let’s be honest, people have actually heard of him and most Nobel winners aren’t even known to their own publisher (see Elfriede Jelinek).

By the Numbers:

He has written over 30 novels, plays, and essays. So better start reading…

Here’s Where to Start:

The War at the End of the World

A masterful fable based on historical events of the 19th century, The War at the End of the World centers on a mysterious preacher in Canudos, Brazil. Called the Counselor by his followers, he preaches love, repentance, and opposition to the fledgling republic. As more and more of Brazil’s poor, sick, and criminal flock to his banner, the state sends out forces to crush his movement. This violently sweeping work is considered by many to be his best—and rates a place in Harold Bloom’s western canon.

Feast of the Goat 

Perhaps Vargas Llosa’s most popular book. His 2001 re-creation of the horrifying regime of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo follows the man himself and his bloated cabal as assassins conspire against him, and a woman named Urania Cabral, a World Bank lawyer, returns home to confront her father, a fallen official who tried to trade her for Trujillo’s good graces. Part Greek tragedy, part 20th-century morality tale, it’s a bleakly comic tale of political and moral corruption.

Compare Him to:

All the greats, but especially Flaubert (he wrote a whole book about his love of Madame Bovary and then wrote his own version called The Bad Girl), Balzac, and other state-of-the-nation novelists. But don’t forget Sarte, Camus, and Faulkner.

On Background:

Born in the small Peruvian town of Arequipa in 1936, he attended military school in Lima—the inspiration for his first novel, The Time of the Hero , praised by critics and burned by the military.

He began writing novels during his almost two-decade expatriation in Spain, France, and England. Though writing abroad, his work took Latin America as its subject, exploring the intersection of politics, culture, and everyday life. He was one of the leading lights of the 1960s boom in Latin American literature, along with his longtime friend and fellow Laureate Gabríel Garcia Márquez, with whom he later had an epic argument that culminated in a fistfight in a theater in Mexico 30 years ago.

Fueling the feud was Vargas Llosa's political drift from the left to the right. Along with Marquez he was a vocal supporter of Castro, but by the 1990s he had become a free-marketer promoting budgets cuts during his failed run for president of his home country.

And he can throw a punch…

Vargas Llosa is the first South American to win the prize since 1982 when it was given to Gabríel Garcia Márquez, Vargas Llosa’s longtime friend, whom Vargas Llosa punched in the face in 1976 and has been feuding with ever since. Speculation abounds as to the reasons for the feud, but a recent biography of Marquez says it has something to do with Vargas Llosa’s wife, Patricia. According to the biographer, Dasso Saldivar, Vargas Llosa ran off to Stockholm with a Swedish stewardess he met while traveling. Patricia, distraught, went to Márquez, her husband’s best friend, for advice. Sources tell Saldivar that Márquez’s advice was to leave Vargas Llosa; other sources say something more happened between the two. In any case, Vargas Llosa came home, and when he next saw Márquez, in a theater in Mexico, he hit him with a left hook and gave him a black eye. Whatever the initial cause of the feud, it has continued for 30 years, expanding into their professional and political lives, with Vargas Llosa refusing to republish a popular essay on One Hundred Years of Solitude, and calling Marquez “the courtier” for his continued close association with Castro. The feud is "personal, prolonged, public, petty, and so encrusted with ancient anger that only the participants (and possibly not even they) can remember how it started.”

Today, however, signs of a rapprochement came via Twitter as Marquez tweeted cuentas iguales (“we’re equals.”). Rather neutral for a congratulations, but a step in the right direction.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Lucas Wittmann is the Books Editor at The Daily Beast.

Josh Dzieza is an editorial assistant at The Daily Beast.