October 8, 2010


Peruvian author gets Nobel Prize for works on politics, tyranny (Hillel Italie, 10/08/10, Associated Press)

Like such recent Nobel laureates as Herta Mueller and Doris Lessing, Vargas Llosa is a dissenter from communism, a former party member who ran for president of Peru in 1990 as an advocate of privatization and remains a critic of leftist leaders such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

The author of more than 30 novels, plays, and works of nonfiction, he is known for his expansive language, his alertness to the profound and the profane, and his fierce and dark disdain for tyranny.

“Vargas Llosa’s style is a kind of baroque style — long sentences, complicated sentences. The writer in English closest to his style is William Faulkner, who influenced so many of the Latin American writers,’’ says Edith Grossman, the English-language translator for novels by Vargas Llosa and South American Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

“He has a great range of styles and a great range of subjects, from comedies of manners to really profound political analysis. He is thought of as very political, but ‘The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto’ [‘Los Cuadernos de Don Rigoberto’] is immensely funny and I don’t think there’s a political word in it.’’

Mario Vargas Llosa: an unclassifiable Nobel winner: Novelist William Boyd pays tribute to 'a great chroncicler of the highs and lows of our carnal and passionate adventures as human beings'. A preview from tomorrow's Guardian Review (William Boyd, 10/08/10, The Guardian)
Cosmopolitanism, pluralism, conviviality, worldliness, multi- lingualism, audacity, comedy, experimentalism, are all epithets that can be attached to his name and his work. Aunt Julia is probably my favourite novel of his – for obvious reasons – but the body of work that Vargas Llosa has produced since his first novel, The Time of the Hero in 1963, is both prodigious and admirable. The range is remarkable – from the surreal fantasies of the radio soap operas in Aunt Julia to the baroque comedy of Captain Pantoja and the Special Service; from weighty historical epics such as The War at the End of the World and The Feast of the Goat to the whodunit thriller-style of Who Killed Palomero Molero? Vargas Llosa is very hard to classify and pin down as a writer: he has written short novels and very long novels, comic novels and deeply serious novels, straightforward realistic novels and recognisably South American "magic-realist" novels. Perhaps this unclassifiability has been seen as a disadvantage. Indeed, when one compares Vargas Llosa to his great South American literary rival Gabriel García Márquez one is reminded of Archilochus's old fox and hedgehog adage: "The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing." Márquez, a hedgehog novelist if there ever was one, received his Nobel in 1982 at the age of 55. Vargas Llosa received his at the age of 74. Almost 30 years later the day of the fox has arrived – it inevitably comes around, even if it takes a little longer.

There is another consideration when it comes to Vargas Llosa. His reputation as a writer is trammelled by the controversial public events in his own life, namely the political voyage he has made from the left of South American politics to the libertarian right. Both reasons perhaps explain why this prize – for which he is routinely considered a contender each year – has been comparatively late in coming. He is a great South American novelist but one who combines that continent's vibrant and malign profusion, its energy and crazy humour, with what might be termed a European intellectual rigour. His scholarly and imaginative interpretation of Flaubert and Madame Bovary, The Perpetual Orgy, perhaps illustrates that capacity of his mind most effectively.

Few novelists today have combined the public man and the private artist so prominently as Vargas Llosa – how many novelists have run for president, as Vargas Llosa did in the 1990 elections in Peru? Perhaps it's fair to say that his political adventures have tended to obscure the very real achievements of his novels and their manifest literary ambition. One of the blessings of winning the Nobel (among its few curses) is that it does focus attention once more on the work, and Vargas Llosa's oeuvre deserves to be reconsidered in its own right. And while it's true that the historical novels, with their forthright and fascinating reinterpretations of South American political upheavals and machinations, seem the most obviously hefty and momentous, my own private celebration will concentrate on other works in the Vargas Llosa canon.

It's most present in Aunt Julia but it could be argued it is the leitmotif of all his works of fiction: Vargas Llosa has continually celebrated the sexual and amatory electricity between men and women – that ticking clock that animates almost all of us, whether to delightful or disastrous effect, or both. Sometimes it is explicit (in all senses of the word) in a novel such as In Praise of the Stepmother or The Bad Girl, but such a concern runs as a life-enhancing note through almost everything he has written. Intriguingly, in an attempt to derail his presidential bid in 1990, his opponents used to read out the more shocking and sexually candid sections of his novels over the radio in an attempt to encourage voters to shift allegiance. Maybe it worked: certainly Vargas Llosa didn't win. His readers, I suspect, were secretly very grateful – it meant he could continue writing.

Vargas Llosa, in all his multifacetedness, in spite of and as well as his many rare gifts and talents as a novelist, remains fundamentally a great chronicler of the highs and lows of our carnal and passionate adventures as human beings – our many mishaps and shameful duplicities, our rare nobility and rarer moments of pure happiness. His work reveals what the novel does best – in that it "gets" the human condition better than any other art form. Vargas Llosa's novels understand and reproduce the absurd and melancholy tragicomedy of our lives and their occasionally inspiring moments of pure happiness. The Nobel is hugely merited and I suspect Vargas Llosa will be very pleased. But then he'll say to himself: it's only a prize, it's the books that matter.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 8, 2010 8:55 AM
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