Last Thursday, October 7, the Swedish Academy announced its decision to award the 103rd Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010 to one of its perennial candidates: Mario Vargas Llosa. It constituted the first return of the most prestigious literary prize to the Spanish language in exactly two decades, and the ultimate triumph of almost fifty years of professional explorations in a career that was rocketed to stardom in 1962 with the publication of his first novel, The Time of the Hero.
In the world of Hispanic letters Vargas Llosa has long transcended his Peruvian origins, but to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s let us start from the beginning and place him at Arequipa, in southern Peru, where he was born in 1936; let’s place him in Piura, up north, near the border with Ecuador, where he lived as a child, where he attended school and where he gained the detailed knowledge of his country’s geography and the social landscape of the countryside that so vividly pervades his earliest work; let’s place him in Lima, at last, as a young man from the province studying literature at the Universidad de San Marcos, in the capital, before heading across the ocean to Madrid, to Paris, to attain a PhD and to earn his living as a writer.
Which he did, most emphatically, leaving an indelible footprint in the literature of the 1960s and in the phenomenon commonly known as the “Latin American boom,” whose starting point some have dated at the publication of The Time of the Hero. By the time Vargas Llosa followed up his tremendously influential first novel with The Green House, in 1966, the boom was more than established. The likes of Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Carlos Onetti, Augusto Roa Bastos and Carlos Fuentes were all household names and Vargas Llosa, the youngest one of the lot by a decade, was right in the thick of it.
The Green House, the tale of a mythic brothel in the Amazonian town of Piura, merited Vargas Llosa the Premio Rómulo Gallegos, South America’s most important international literary prize at the time. It also showcased the development of Vargas Llosa’s daring narrative style, blending discrete situations into a single dialogue and thus confusing the present with the past. Arguably his most notorious and substantial contribution to the new narrative of the final third of the XX century, Vargas Llosa fully explored the possibilities of intermingling narrative voices, of the same anecdote being narrated by different characters, in different tenses, at different chronological points and yet of it being experienced (read, as it were) all at once in a linear section of the book. This technique becomes most sophisticated, and also most challenging, in Vargas Llosa’s third, and perhaps most accomplished novel, Conversation in the Cathedral, published in 1969. The first section of the novel is almost an academic experiment in narrative forms that forces the reader to make an active effort in the construction of the chronology, highlighting both the prominent role of the reader in the creative process, the power and simultaneously the vulnerability of the writer, and the inexorable dependence of one on the other (reader on writer and vice versa).
In literary terms, the Swedish Academy might as well have awarded Vargas Llosa the Nobel Prize forty years ago, in 1970. Except, of course, that this is not the way the Academy works, and by the time Vargas Llosa published Conversation in the Cathedral, Gabriel García Márquez had already published One Hundred Years of Solitude, which propelled him into worldwide acclaim, eventually becoming the face, the signature, of the “Latin American boom,” of magic realism and of everything (good and bad) that is associated with it. Incidentally, it also merited García Márquez the Nobel Prize in 1982, almost thirty years before his friend-turned-foe, Mario Vargas Llosa.
But in 1970 it was the time for Alexander Solzhenitsyn, not for García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, or anybody else to win the prize, because the boom was still a recent phenomenon, and the significance of it was still to be assessed, and Vargas Llosa was just 34 at the time, and had written only three novels – good as they might have been – and he would still have time to prove his mettle. And also, because the Academy is humanistic, more than literary (in the strictest sense of the word), and, after all, when he did get it in the end, it was not for his exploration of narrative structures and his developments of new forms of expression, but “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”
Power and resistance, revolt and defeat are, indeed, some of the dominating subject matters in the oeuvre of Vargas Llosa. Concerned with the military institution from his very first novel, The Time of the Hero, Vargas Llosa dissects the workings of the established sources of power, from the family nucleus, to the conventions of society at large, the moral exigencies of the Church and the more obvious political and dictatorial structures of government with great versatility, sometimes recycling the lessons learned during his most experimental period, from 1962-1969, but also with the development of a new aesthetic during the period between 1973 and 1988, when his exploitation of popular culture, colloquial speech and lurid subject matters placed him at the heart of the unimaginatively-termed “Post-boom” movement.
Vargas Llosa has been a prolific writer throughout his career, both in terms of his production of fiction and non-fiction (primarily literary essays). That the quality of some of his later books does not reach the level of his first three novels can hardly count as a fair criticism. Following a short spell of political life in Peru, which saw him lose to Alberto Fujimori in the presidential campaign of 1990, Vargas Llosa returned with renewed vigor to the world of literature. In the last ten years he has produced works dealing with Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic (The Feast of the Goat), Gaugin’s travel to Tahiti (The Way to Paradise), a reworking of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (The Bad Girl) and a critical essay of Onetti’s work. The feeling during this period was that Vargas Llosa’s ultimate ambition was, all along, to convince the Academy that he was worthy of the Nobel Prize. In turn, the Academy’s apparent reticence to recognize his work led to a running joke about the relationship between the two. On Thursday, when the secretary of the Swedish Academy called on Vargas Llosa’s phone in New York to give him the news and tell him that the announcement would be made public 45 minutes later, the line cut out. He was left to wonder whether such joke had reached his house line, whether he had been subjected to a crude prank. He only had to wonder for 45 minutes: then, he was being interviewed by the press of the world. He claimed to be surprised. He claimed he wasn’t even aware the prize was awarded during October. Whether or not his surprise, his ignorance, was genuine, the gracious humility with which he received the news was fitting of a true gentleman. And, who knows, maybe he, too, thought the Academy would bypass him forever. Happily, rightfully, it hasn’t. Hooray, Mario! (And in the background, silently, a whisper to Phillip Roth, that there is hope still).
PUBLISHED IN THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2010.