By Ricardo Gutiérrez-Mouat, Department of Spanish & Portuguese and Director, LACS Program
October 8, 2010
In 1962 a novel called La ciudad y los perros won the Biblioteca Breve Prize sponsored by the editors of Seix Barral, the most dynamic publishing house in Spain at that time. The novel, in which the “perros” of the title does not refer to actual dogs but to the cadets of a military school in Lima, Perú (in English it was translated as The Time of the Hero), brought to prominence a theretofore little-known Peruvian writer who by then was living in Paris, and launched the Boom of the Latin American novel.
The standard catalog of Boom novels includes Carlos Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night, and two more of Vargas Llosa’s novels of the 1960s: The Green House and Conversation in the Cathedral, where the cathedral in question is not an ecclesiastical institution but a bar in Lima where a young and eager journalist strikes up a conversation (after going out in search of the lost family dog...) with his father’s ageing driver about certain family secrets related to the dictatorial regime that ruled Perú in the 1950s. Conversation in the Cathedral was its author’s first foray into that Latin American narrative sub-genre known as the novel of dictatorship. His most recent incursion in the annals of dictatorship was the equally monumental The Feast of the Goat (2000), which deals with the seemingly eternal Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic.
Both these dictatorship novels, and others such as The War of the End of the World, illustrate Vargas Llosa’s conviction that the best novels must be and have always been total novels, his term for a desired autonomy of fiction. These novels also illustrate the intimate connection in Vargas Llosa’s works between politics and literature. As he’s been saying a lot these days, in response to the thousand media interviews of which he’s been the target after being announced as the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize, literature can use politics for its own purposes but politics cannot use literature to get a message across without compromising the integrity of fiction and becoming propaganda.
In Latin American history there have been a few major writers who were also presidents or vice-presidents of their countries: Sarmiento in late nineteenth-century Argentina, Rómulo Gallegos in Venezuela (for less than a year in 1948), Sergio Ramírez in the Nicaragua of the 1980s. Vargas Llosa came very close in 1990 to joining that dubious honor roll but lost in the second round to Alberto Fujimori, an unknown agronomist of Japanese descent, who years later faxed his presidential resignation from Tokyo and is now serving a 25-year sentence in a Peruvian prison for “crimes against humanity.” Vargas Llosa’s political ideas have evolved considerably since the 1960s when he was a Castro supporter. Yesterday, at a news conference in New York, he excoriated the Castro regime in Cuba and Chávez’s autocratic regime in Venezuela. Since the 1980s Vargas Llosa has advocated the defense of individual freedoms and an open society, but he has also been criticized for suggesting that the Indians of the Peruvian highlands should accept the benefits of modernity even at the cost of their Indian identity.
After his first three novels Vargas Llosa was deemed a serious if not a somber writer but he proved his detractors wrong with his two comic masterpieces of the 1970s: Captain Pantoja and the Special Service and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, both made into films (as were La ciudad y los perros and The Feast of the Goat). Watch at your own risk. Vargas Llosa also experimented with the erotic genre in In Praise of the Stepmother and The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, and has written two extraordinary “indigenist” novels: The Storyteller and Death in the Andes, the second of which did not go down well with his indigenist critics. (He also riled nationalist critics when he accepted Spanish nationality in 1993, though he never stopped being Peruvian and living, during the southern hemisphere’s summer months, in Barranco, a seaside district of Lima.) Vargas Llosa’s latest published novel –The Bad Girl—was a runaway success in various languages. His readers eagerly await the publication this November of his new novel, El sueño del celta, based to a large extent on the historical figure of Sir Roger Casement, the British consul who denounced human rights abuses in the Belgian Congo and in the Peruvian Amazon in the early years of the twentieth century.
To demonstrate Vargas Llosa’s controversial political positions, The New York Times reports in its digital edition of 10/7 a comment by Spanish-born Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II (the author of a biography of Che Guevara and an ardent supporter of the Cuban regime) to the effect that Vargas Llosa’s Nobel is well deserved but that the recipient is “deplorable as a citizen and as a person.” I absolutely disagree. I’ve met Mario several times, including the week he spent at Emory in April 2006 delivering the Richard Ellman lectures, and I’ve always found him the most generous of celebrities and charismatic of writers. More importantly, he remains a huge public figure at a time when most younger writers avoid controversial pronouncements and political issues for the sake of their own careers and Facebook accounts. Vargas Llosa is a model citizen of the world at a time when citizens are morphing into consumers. I like to think that the Nobel Prize rewards a writer not only for his or her literary merits but also because he or she shows some concern for the world of the author’s readers.
Further Reading. For Vargas Llosa’s ideas on the novel, one recommendation is my own article “Vargas Llosa’s Poetics of the Novel and Camus’ Rebel” (World Literature Today, 1993 Spring; 67, 2: 283-90). The best recent book on Vargas Llosa is Efraín Kristal’s Temptation of the Word: The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa (1998).
Photo: Mario Vargas Llosa at Emory, April 2006. From left to right: Ricardo Gutiérrez-Mouat, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gyula Kodolányi. Courtesy of Ricardo Gutiérrez-Mouat.
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