Nobel Chat

The Politics of Literature: An interview with Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa

Why do intellectuals hate democracy? Was Borges a fascist? The contentious 2010 Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa talks to Michael Moynihan.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist and winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, is considered a political novelist because his politics aren’t the politics of most novelists. In the pantheon of modern Spanish-language fiction you’ll find a surplus of writers informed by radical thought—think Jose Saramago, Roberto Bolaño, Eduardo Galeano, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But Vargas Llosa is an outlier, an apostate from radicalism turned habitué of the classical liberal world, a former supporter of the Cuban Revolution transformed into an evangelist for free markets and free trade. And in a literary milieu charged by ideology, this means something.

It is difficult to separate Vargas Llosa’s politics from his fiction writing—the attentive reader will divine much about his worldview from his novels. But one needn’t read tea leaves because he is an unapologetically political figure. In 1990, Vargas Llosa embarked on a brief, ambitious, and ill-fated political career, running for president of Peru, an election he lost to the corrupt and thuggish Alberto Fujimori. These day he engages the political world with tub-thumping opinion columns in the Spanish daily El Pais.

Back in May, I sat down with Vargas Llosa at Oslo’s Grand Hotel after he delivered a coruscating speech to the Oslo Freedom Forum on “literature, freedom, and power.” He speaks in heavily-accented English, but fluidly and lyrically, with both force and deliberation. He is thoughtful on topical political matters (“The idea of Europe is a great idea; it deserves to succeed...a counterpoint to the monsters; the United States and now China”) but expansive and polemical when discussing the intersection of politics and literature.

The following is an edited and slightly condensed transcript of our conversation.

You said in your Oslo Freedom Forum lecture that “good literature is always subversive.” It reminded me of Orwell’s essay “The Prevention of Literature,” where he attacked those writers in thrall to Soviet communism.

You don't perceive the subversiveness of literature when you live in a free society. When you live in a free society you have the feeling that literature is just entertainment. But when democracy disappears, when a totalitarian regime replaces democracy, you feel immediately how literature becomes a very important vehicle to say what you cannot say otherwise. And it's an instrument to resist what you are facing. Authors are sometimes not aware of what they are accomplishing in an authoritarian society. Literature is a living demonstration that things are not going well in an authoritarian society.

But this isn’t an advocation of didactic fiction.

No, not at all. You can make experimental literature and have this subversive effect. And that is the reason why all dictatorships are so suspicious of literature. Otherwise, they would let literature flourish. No, they are always very worried; they want to control it, they establish censorship. On this, there is no exception. Fascist or communist, it is exactly the same. Control literature because there is some kind of danger there. And I think there is some kind of danger, even if it is not immediately identifiable.

What about the middle way between authoritarianism and dictatorship? I know you have written about Hugo Chavez, for instance, and one can get Mario Vargas Llosa’s books in Caracas.

Oh, but with great difficulty. It is because in Caracas you still have a margin of freedom. But in Cuba—ask that Cuban journalist that is here [at the Oslo Freedom Forum]. He was telling me the way in which I am read in Cuba. It’s fantastic, you know? There are lists of people who want to read a certain book. Some times they are rented, sometimes it’s like a library, from individuals. [Dissident writer] Yoani Sanchez told me that she met her husband because she discovered that he had a novel of mine, The War of the End of the World. So she called him and said, "Is it true that you have a novel by Vargas Llosa?” He said, “Yes, but there is a list. But we can meet.” And they got married. I saw her recently and I said, “Is this story true?” She said, “Of course it is true. Thats why I am interested in what you are writing now. My sentimental future depends on it."

In open societies you have the impression that you are just enjoying literature, that it won't have any affect on your life. But literature always has an affect on life, even if it's not so visible. But when you have a dictatorship, this is so immediately visible. Literature becomes an instrument to resist, to communicate things. And this is so in right-wing dictatorships and in left-wing dictatorships. It becomes a non-conformist activity, reading becomes a risk. It's very, very important to keep alive this thing that can't be controlled, because literature can never be totally controlled. Television can. Cinema can.

Why have so many novelists been swayed by dictatorship? From Gabriel Garcia Marquez to, say, the reaction of many French intellectuals to Solzhenitsyn.

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You remember what Camus wrote, that a very intelligent man in some areas can be stupid in others. In politics, intellectuals have been very stupid in many, many cases. They don’t like mediocrity. And democracy is an indication of mediocrity; democracy is to accept that perfection doesn’t exist in political reality. Everybody must make concessions in order to coexist peacefully and the result of this is mediocrity. But this mediocrity, history has demonstrated, is the most peaceful way to progress, prosperity, and to reduce violence. And intellectuals are much more prone to utopias.

After the collapse of communism, what is the utopian instinct amongst intellectuals and writers now?

There is none. That is why they are so desperate and confused. You remember Foucault—who was one of the best thinkers of his generation—he supported Ayatollah Khomeini! He was so disappointed with communism that he decided that the Khomeini utopia was the right one! That gives you, I think, a very vivid example of the way in which some intellectuals detest democracy.

In your case, I have seen more references to your politics—classical liberalism—than I have for many other novelists.

But the reason is because I am an exception. There are so few writers and intellectuals who are classical liberals without any kind of shame [about their politics].

Borges didn’t get the Nobel Prize because of his support for Pinochet. Were your politics an issue when you won the Literature Prize?

Borges unfortunately did wrong things. He accepted the invitation to be decorated by Pinochet, which was a very big mistake. He did it not to make a kind of solidarity, a gesture for the dictatorship; he did it because he despised politics so much that he was prepared to....[trails off]. But I think it was a very, very bad mistake. He was very courageous during the Second World War when Argentina was in favor of fascism. He was a deep defender of the Allies.

He detested Peronism in such a way that he became so infatuated with the military, which I think was also wrong. But he wasn’t a fascist. He was a conservative. But I don’t think his work is contaminated by these attitudes.

Should it affect how we read his books, in the way it does with [Norwegian Nobel laureate and Nazi sympathizer] Knut Hamsun or Ezra Pound?

Oh no, not at all. The literature of Borges is great literature that overcomes all types of political prejudices. He is one of the greatest writers of our times, one of the most original. And from the point of view of language, he has changed the Spanish literary language in the way that only writers like Cervantes have. It’s extraordinary because it’s a language in which emotions, sensations were much more important than ideas. For a long time, there was no writer in the Spanish-speaking world for whom ideas became as important as in Borges’s writing. He was an exception to a very strong tradition—precision, rationality. All this is new.

What are you working on now?

I finished a novel, El héroe discrete, that will be published in September in Spanish. It’s a novel set in contemporary Peru. It’s about the changes in Peru over the last ten years which are very, very important. A new middle class. All the new, successful entrepreneurs in Peru come from very poor, poor families—even peasant families. This is the background of the novel.

Are you glad you didn’t win the Peruvian presidency?

Now I am glad. I wasn’t when I lost. But I am very lucky. I wouldn’t have survived [had I won]. Certainly not. But it was a very interesting experience. It was pedagogical. I discovered how difficult it was to be honest and coherent in politics.