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Mario Vargas Llosa wins Nobel for literature

The Peruvian writer and onetime presidential candidate is honored for his 'cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat.'

October 08, 2010|By Reed Johnson and Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times
  • Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa waits at the Institute of France in Paris in 2008 to receive the Institute World Prize from the Simone and Cino del Duca Foundation. Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature on Oct. 7, 2010.
Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa waits at the Institute of France in Paris… (Reuters )

Reporting from Los Angeles and New York — Like some other recent Nobel literary laureates, Mario Vargas Llosa, the prolific Peruvian novelist, essayist and playwright and former center-right presidential candidate, has been known as much for his controversial political views as for his books.

But Vargas Llosa's politics, like his ironic fiction, are not easily typecast.

As a critic of both right- and left-wing authoritarianism, the 74-year-old author has expressed his wariness of utopian thinking, populist cults of personality and the notion that flawed human beings are capable of building an earthly paradise.

"The idea of a perfect society lies behind monsters like the Taliban," he once said in an interview. "When you want paradise you produce first extraordinary idealism. But at some time you produce hell."

At a Thursday news conference in New York, where he discussed the news that he had been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, Vargas Llosa expressed his gratitude to the Swedish Academy for making him the first Spanish-language author to win the prize since the Mexican writer Octavio Paz in 1990.

"I think in this case the Nobel Prize is not only a recognition of a writer and of one work, but also … of the Spanish language, the language in which I write, a very energetic, creative modern language that is a common link, common denominator, for at least 500 million people," said the author, who lives part of the year in Madrid but is now teaching at Princeton University.

Along with such contemporaries as Mexico's Carlos Fuentes, Argentina's Julio Cortazar and Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa brought worldwide attention to a new wave of Latin American writers and the roiling social and political landscapes that they depicted.

An incisive and satiric social observer, Vargas Llosa forged his reputation with early novels such as his 1963 debut, "The Time of the Hero," a semiautobiographical tale of adolescent cadets enduring a harsh military academy, and later ones such as 1981's "The War of the End of the World," a sprawling, cinematic work about Brazil's disastrous Canudos war of the 1890s, in which a peasant-slave revolt was brutally crushed by the government.

Among his recent works, "The Feast of the Goat" (2000) recounts the reign of Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic military strongman, from two different historical viewpoints.

"I have always been very critical of all kinds of dictatorships, dictatorship from the left, dictatorship from the right," Vargas Llosa said at Thursday's gathering. "I have criticized the Cuban dictatorship as I criticized the Chilean dictatorship in times of [Augusto] Pinochet."

In bestowing its award, the Swedish Academy commended Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat."

A more whimsical and tender side of Vargas Llosa's writing surfaces in novels such as "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter." Inspired by the author's youthful real-life romance with an older woman, it reads like a soap opera written by a wise philosopher scrutinizing his past illusions.

No stranger to controversy and confrontation, Vargas Llosa carried on a decades-long feud following a physical brawl with Garcia Marquez, his left-leaning fellow Nobel laureate, that has been variously described as an ideological dispute and/or a romantic dust-up involving Vargas Llosa's wife. Whatever the cause, it left the Colombian writer prominently sporting a black eye that was captured in a photograph and widely reproduced in newspapers.

Politically, over the decades Vargas Llosa has journeyed from a youthful infatuation with Fidel Castro's communist revolution to becoming an outspoken advocate of free-market liberal democracy as the system most conducive to protecting individual freedom and curbing absolutist power.

As a Peruvian presidential candidate in 1990, he pitted himself against both the brutal Maoist guerrilla insurgency Shining Path and right-wing candidate Alberto Fujimori, whose repressive regime in later years was a frequent target of the writer's passionate rhetorical opposition.

In the essay "A Fish Out of Water," published in 1991 in the British literary magazine Granta, Vargas Llosa wrote an account of his failed campaign, in which he expressed his discouragement with Peru's and Latin America's chronic problems.

"Countries today can choose to be prosperous," he wrote. "The most harmful myth of our time, now deeply embedded in the consciousness of the Third World, is that poor countries live in poverty because of a conspiracy of the rich countries which have arranged things to keep them underdeveloped, in order to exploit them."

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