Prizes, from the Oscars to the Heisman Trophy to the Nobel, matter not at all to me, which is perhaps why I was surprised to find that so many of my friends were surprised last October when Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Everyone I spoke to seemed to be surprised for different reasons: “They usually don’t give it to someone who is so widely read,” “I thought the Latin American boom was over,” and “Why would they honor a right-winger?”
To the first point, I suppose there is some bias against an author who is not only popular but whose best-known novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, is a humorous work. (Many of my own left-leaning friends seemed to think it inappropriate for a writer from the developing world to produce comic fiction.) I suppose, too, there is a feeling among Eurocentric critics that the Latins received their due decades ago. (And then again, I’ve detected some animosity among my Latin American friends toward Vargas Llosa for having spent so many years away from his homeland living in the fleshpots of Spain and France.)
As for the perception of Llosa as right wing, the subject himself dismissed it, correctly I think, in a 1985 essay, “Nicaragua at the Crossroads.” “For a reason as mysterious as the street directions in Managua, the defense of freedom of expression, elections and political pluralism gain one the reputation, among Latin American intellectuals, of being right wing.” And, one might add, among some American and European intellectuals as well.
Perhaps some of the surprise at Vargas Llosa’s award came from the fact that he has deserved it for so long that many thought that at his age—he was born in Peru in 1936—time had passed him by. In truth, he probably deserved it 30 years ago, by which time he had already published seven superb works of fiction and two groundbreaking volumes of literary criticism, The Perpetual Orgy (1975), his study of Flaubert and Madame Bovary, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Story of a Deicide (1971), a book, by the way, largely responsible for positioning his friend to win the Nobel Prize in 1982.
By then, unfortunately, he was more internationally famous for punching out Garcia Marquez in a 1976 altercation involving Vargas Llosa’s wife than for his own work. (The only known blood letting between future Nobel Prize winners.)
“Literature is an absolute necessity so that civilization continues to exist, renewing and preserving in us the best of what is human so that we do not retreat into the savagery of isolationism.”
Almost certainly politics of various sorts had something to with making Vargas Llosa wait so long for the honor. In my naiveté, I always assumed that a writer should win the Nobel Prize for simply being great. Should you reply that the definition of great is subjective, I would argue that however you would define it, it applies to Mario Vargas Llosa. As a writer of fiction he is perhaps not quite on a level with Garcia Marquez—that is to say he has never written a novel as brilliant as One Hundred Years of Solitude—but Vargas Llosa is both more prolific and diverse than his old friend and battery mate.
His fiction has been richer and more far ranging than the work of any Latin author to reach our shores. To name just a few: The Time of the Hero (1963), a semi-autobiographical account of his time at a military school remarkable for its use of multiple perspectives; Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977), a coming-of-age novel compared favorably by many to The Catcher in the Rye; the dark, foreboding The War of the End of the World (1981), his novel about revolution in Brazil; Death in the Andes (1993), perhaps the closest he has come to the magical realism associated with the most renowned Latin writers of the last half century; political thrillers such as The Feast of the Goat (2000); and a realist fable, The Bad Girl (2006).
He is, by way of comparison to the 2001 Nobel winner, V.S. Naipaul, a writer of far greater imaginative gifts and a reporter and political analyst of comparable insight as exemplified in Writing the Tiger (1995), his account of the battle for human rights in Guatemala (co-written with Spanish journalist Santiago Aroca), and The Language of Passion (2001), his collection of political essays in which he casts a cold eye from the new world back on the politics of the old.
In his native language, only the Mexican poet, critic, and essayist Octavio Paz (Nobel winner, 1990) challenged Vargas Llosa’s stature as a man of letters, but Paz, who died in 1998, wrote no fiction.
If Vargas Llosa had never written a single novel, his nonfiction alone would have merited the Nobel. As Clive James wrote in Cultural Amnesia, his true strength “is undoubtedly in the essay. His collected essays written between 1962 and 1982 ... make the perfect pocket book for getting up to speed with how the bright baby-boom students of Latin America won their way toward a solid concept of liberal democracy ...”
Many of these essays, and many more recent ones, are included in two thick, juicy volumes that have been reissued by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. They are a feast for the intellectually horny. In no other living author—perhaps in no author who ever lived—is one likely to find a more vibrant intellect brought to such an extraordinary range of topics:
—On Faulkner’s influence on South American fiction: “He is perhaps the only contemporary novelist whose work can be compared in volume and in quality with the great classics...” and “He wrote in English but he was one of our own.” ( Making Waves, p. 131)
—His disillusionment on rereading Sartre: "...it is unlikely that his creative work will last... his ideas and his position on issues were more often wrong than right... he contributed with more talent than anyone else to the confusion of our times.” ( Making Waves, p. 131)
—On Che and Castro’s Cuba: “The Cuban Revolution that Che helped to establish after an epic campaign in which he was the second great protagonist is now a pathetic sight, a small, oppressive and retrograde enclave, completely shut off from all forms of change ...” ( MW, p. 295)
—On the curious lack of public intellectuals in America: “In the United States there are good writers and important intellectuals, but these two aspects rarely come together in one person.” ( MW, p. 306)
“The United States might now be without rivals in the military and political spheres, but culturally it is a giant with feet of clay.” ( MW, p. 308)
—On Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona: “Maradona complicates the division that we thought to be valid between a scientific, typically European football and an artistic, Latin American football. The Argentinean forward is both of these things at once and neither of them in particular; he is a curious amalgam ... as has happened in literature, Argentina has produced a style of football which is the most European expression of being Latin American.” ( MW, p. 170)
—On bullfighting: “... there is no rational argument that can justify the cruelty behind this beautiful spectacle, the inhumanity that underlies the indescribable grace, elegance, courage and drama that a great bullfight can achieve.” ( Touchstones, p. 213)
—On Nabokov: “... it is difficult to imagine among the writers of this century anyone less interested in popular and contemporary issues—even in reality itself, a word that, he wrote, meant nothing if it were not placed between inverted commas ... ” ( Touchstones, p. 106)
—On the trend toward electronic reading devices: “I simply cannot conceive how any non-pragmatic and non-functional act of reading... can derive from a computer screen the same feeling of intimacy... I am convinced, though I can’t prove it, that with the disappearance of the book literature would suffer a severe, perhaps even mortal blow.” ( Touchstones, p. 142)
Taken together, the essays in Making Waves and Touchstones offer a clear, concise manifesto—I don’t think that’s too simple a word—of the artistic, intellectual and political aims of the greatest living man of letters. Nothing, he seems to believe, dates faster than artistic radicalism. (Or as he wrote in an essay on Andre Breton, “I think that the passage of time has deconstructed surrealism both historically and culturally.” Touchstones) Intellectually, the mission of literature is “to arouse, to disturb, to alarm, to keep men in a constant state of dissatisfaction with themselves.” ( Making Waves) And politically, he has, over the years, lost his taste for “utopias, those apocalypses that promise to bring heaven down to earth: I know now that they usually lead to injustices as serious as those they hope to put to right.” ( Making Waves)
All these ideas crystallize in his Nobel lecture, In Praise of Reading and Fiction, a scintillating 40-page volume that makes an ideal graduation gift for those with aspirations of a career in writing or for a lifetime of reading. Proper tribute is paid to his hero, Camus, who, along with Orwell, proved that “a literature stripped of morality is inhuman” and to Malraux, who recognized “that heroism and the epic are as possible in the present as in the time of the Argonauts, The Odyssey, and The Iliad.”
Vargas Llosa makes a rousing and lucid defense of the necessity for literature, not simply against the totalitarian mentality but to vacillating intellectuals of the West who somehow have never been sure that the existence of literature makes for a better world. Literature “is an absolute necessity so that civilization continues to exist, renewing and preserving in us the best of what is human so that we do not retreat into the savagery of isolationism ... a world without literature would be a world without desires or ideals or irreverence ...” Lost would be “the capacity to move out of one’s self and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.”
Happily, In Praise of Reading and Fiction not only serves as a map of where Vargas Llosa has been but a guide to where he will continue to be for years to come.
Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.