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Home run for Hispanic humanist
Mario Vargas Llosa richly deserves his Nobel Prize for Literature.
What is that all about?
Well, gringos who live in well-educated, law-abiding, democratic, human rights-respecting countries north of the Rio Grande may have a right to be puzzled. But for Latin Americans, who know all too well the dark cruelties and cruel rages of dictatorships, it means a lot. Vargas Llosa is that rare specimen who is both an academic and a man of action, an artist and an activist, a complex, passionate personality and a hard-headed politician. In the dark days of tyranny, he stood for democracy; when the literary world was agog over the post-modern dissolution of the person, he stood for humanity. Vargas Llosa is above all a humanist.
Many novels from his voluminous corpus have been popular successes: The Time of the Hero (1963), Conversation in “The Cathedral” (1969), The War of the End of the World (1981), The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984), Who Killed Palomino Molero (1986), Death in the Andes (1993) and Feast of the Goat (2000). But he has also written significant literary criticism, including Garcia Marquez: Story of a Deicide (1971), The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and “Madame Bovary” (1975), A Writer’s Reality (1990), The Language of Passion (2001) and The Temptation of the Impossible (2004), as well as his memoir, A Fish in the Water (1993).
Vargas Llosa’s literary generation, the Boom, which signified the globalization of Latin American literature, wanted at one and the same time to bring Latin American literature to the level of European and North American literatures and still have it play the socio-political role previous generations had assigned to it. Thus, while the Boom revolutionized Latin American literature from a formal perspective, it continued its tradition of political protest and social commentary.
Examples of this by other Latin American writers from Vargas Llosa’s generation are: The President and Men of Maize by Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemala, 1899-1974), A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Columbia, b. 1927), Where the Air is Clear and Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes (Mexico, b. 1928).
The writers of the Boom revived the historical novel as a vehicle of political protest and social commentary. For these writers, the reality of Latin America was a novel in itself. Thus, Vargas Llosa’s first work, The Time of the Hero, is a highly autobiographical historical novel about Peruvian society during Manuel A Odria’s nine-year (1948-1957) dictatorship, highlighting its horrific cruelties and traumatizing impact on the national Peruvian psyche. The microcosm of Odria’s Peru in the novel is Leoncio Prado Military Academy, which Vargas Llosa attended for his secondary education.
The War of the End of the World is another historical novel, which has as its background the popular uprising led by a religious fanatic, Antonio Conselheiro, “The Counselor,” in Bahia (Brazil) towards the end of the 19th century. In the eventual demise of “The Counselor” and his ten-thousand-strong following Vargas Llosa articulates a poignant condemnation of all forms of fanaticism, be they religious, political or otherwise. The War of the End of the World is considered by most critics Vargas Llosa’s best executed novel.
The Feast of the Goat, another historical novel, deals with the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic from 1932 until his assassination in 1961. Vargas Llosa effectively recreates the horror of that historical trauma through the story of Urania Cabral, a victim of Trujillo’s infamous insatiable sexual appetite, for which he was nicknamed “The Goat”. In this novel Vargas Llosa effectively illustrates the horrific extremes of a despot’s egocentrism. Another important theme of this novel is the cowardice of a dictator’s accomplices, best illustrated by the protagonist’s father, Agustin Cabral, who is unable to deny Trujillo’s request for his daughter’s virginity.
Though inspired by the darkest chapters of Latin American history, through these novels Vargas Llosa wanted to enthuse his readers around the world to work towards putting an end to Latin America’s endless succession of despotic regimes.
Vargas Llosa personally tried to bring change to Latin America in general, and to Peru, in particular, when he ran for president in 1990. He ran on a neoliberal platform that proposed a drastic economic austerity program that frightened most of the country’s poor. This program emphasized the need for privatization, a market economy, free trade, and most importantly, the distribution of private property. Vargas Llosa won the first round with 34 percent of the votes but lost to Alberto Fujimori in the subsequent runoff.
In an interview given to the Spanish paper El Pais two days after the Nobel announcement, Vargas Llosa said he would have preferred to have won the presidency of Peru over the Nobel Prize, explaining that he felt he would have been able do to more for his people as their head of state.
Vargas Llosa has also engaged in parody. His humorous works, however, are not devoid of social commentary and didactic messages. Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973), for example, criticizes the absurdity of military discipline, and through it, strict disciplinary systems in general. His highly autobiographical Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977) contains a stern warning for young writers: never settle for mediocre literature. The novel is autobiographical to the extent that it is based on Vargas Llosa’s collegiate and post-collegiate years in Lima (1953-1958) as well as his first marriage to Julia Urquidi. Both these novels are highly erotic, a constant element of Vargas Llosa’s work, which, in my opinion, reaches its highest intensity in The Bad Girl (2006); this work has been compared to Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, one of Vargas Llosa’s major influences, the other being William Faulkner. Like Flaubert, Vargas Llosa wants to highlight his view that, while sexual liberation is a major human achievement, it is many times accompanied by its antithesis: sexual slavery.
The laureate is a strong defender of literature’s importance for humanity. In the last essay of A Writer’s Reality, a collection of literary essays on some of the classic works of twentieth-century world literature, Vargas Llosa affirms the importance of literature in these words: “without Literature we would become barbarians.”
“The fraternal bond,” he adds, “which literature forms among human beings, compelling them to dialogue and making them aware of a common base, that of forming part of the same spiritual line, transcends all time barriers.” Vargas Llosa has also defended the role of the writer as an important member of society, particularly in his fiction. The Storyteller (1987) is a novel about an indigenous tribe, the Machiguenga in the Amazon, whose individual units are solely connected to one another by a storyteller who goes from settlement to settlement and speaks for countless hours to an attentive and reverent audience about what he has seen in his travels.
Vargas Llosa has been called the architect of contemporary Latin American literature. This title seeks to recognize the literary revolution he brought about both formally and thematically. This twofold achievement is best exemplified by Conversation in “The Cathedral”, the author’s most ambitious work from a formal perspective, and his personal favorite, as he points out in the prologue. This novel reconstructs Odria’s Peru, through a conversation between the son of a now ruined politician and his former chauffeur that evokes an infernal existence. This conversation takes place at a bar, “The Cathedral,” where the lowest stratum of society congregates, in the heart of the inferno that was Odria’s Lima. Vargas Llosa has described the structure of the novel as that of a column into which other stories enter and from which they exit at different points.
Vargas Llosa’s most recent work, The Dream of the Celt (2010), is another heavily politically-charged historical novel based on the life of Roger Casement, a British diplomat, which exposed the terrible treatment of native workers in the Congo by the Belgian government. The British then sent Casement investigate the situation of Indians working in the extraction of rubber in the Amazon in the region of Putumayo, on the border between Colombia and Peru. In this novel Vargas Llosa continues his untiring defense of the Amazon jungle, which he began with his second novel, The Green House (1966); this novel won him the prestigious Romulo Gallegos International Novel Prize. These are only a few of the reasons why he is one the most influential literary figures both in and outside Latin America.
From an ideological perspective, Vargas Llosa has been one of the most outspoken voices for human rights both in and outside Latin America. Although he has written many articles and essays as well as delivered many speeches defending human freedom, it is through his fiction that he has gotten his message across more effectively. This irony embodies the thesis of A Writer’s Reality, which is that literature, whose source and center is human experience, can communicate fundamental human truths more effectively than rhetoric.
This is the faith of our Nobel laureate: in solving humanity’s problems literature can play a role that is more important and effective than that played by politics. Thus, the Swedish Academy could have not made a better decision than giving Vargas Llosa the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Miguel Alejandro Valerio holds a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and a Master of Arts in Spanish and Latin America Literature from St. John’s University, New York. His poetry and literary criticism has appeared in Spanish, Italian and English language literary journals in the United States and Latin America. He had the tremendous pleasure of meeting Mario Vargas Llosa three days before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. On that occasion he told the Nobel laureate: “I hope they give you the Nobel soon.”
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