The Cartography of Power: Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel Prize in Literature 2010

On Thursday, October 7, 2010, the Swedish Academy awarded the 103rd Nobel Prize in Literature to the Peruvian novelist, essayist and intellectual Mario Vargas Llosa. It was the first time in twenty years that the prize was awarded to a writer who conducts his/her trade in Spanish language. In the world of Hispanic literature, few names could be paired with Vargas Llosa’s in terms of stature and accomplishment. So much was confirmed by the Spanish establishment long before the arrival of the Nobel, when they awarded him the Premio Príncipe de Asturias in 1986 and the Premio Cervantes, the equivalent of the Nobel within the Spanish Academy, in 1994. Ever since that moment, the latest, there was a sense of expectation among Spanish readers around the nomination of the Nobel Prize in Literature. At first, it was almost a sense of inevitability, turning the question more into a debate of when would the Swedish Academy acknowledge Vargas Llosa’s work, rather than whether they would do it. But as the years passed and over a decade went by without any signs of the Academy turning in the direction of the author of The Time of the Hero, an uneasy suspicion that Vargas Llosa might be ignored forever grew progressively stronger. Luckily for him, the Academy and cosmic order, he hasn’t been.

In literary terms, Vargas Llosa’s most valuable service came with the publication of his first three novels: The Time of the Hero is still today considered to be a literary landmark in the publishing business in Spain. Published in 1963, it is often taken to be the starting point of the marketing phenomenon that came to be known as the ‘Latin American boom’. It rocketed Vargas Llosa into immediate success, and popularized a nascent tendency in Latin American literature, with young writers focusing on local experiences, highlighting the different characteristics of their respective countries and emphatically distancing themselves from the dominant cultural force that was Spain. The Time of the Hero (Spanish title, La ciudad y los perros, literally ‘The City and the Dogs’) tells the story of a generation of schoolchildren at the military academy Leoncio Pardo, in Peru, where the strict and violent culture of the army shapes (and misshapes) the lives of the pupils (known as ‘The Dogs’ by the final-year students at the school). Fragmented tales woven into each other through narrative flashbacks provide a dynamic structure; however, the real focus of the novel lies in the exploration of the mechanisms in place whereby the dominant elements of society – the family, the establishment, the army –enforce their power over individuals.

Four years later, Vargas Llosa published The Green House, his second novel, which gives a detailed account of life in the Peruvian Amazonas, and in particular in the town of Piura, where the establishment of a brothel, ‘The Green House’, significantly changes the life of the locals. The Green House consciously explores the diversity of cultures in the jungle near Piura, patently contrasting the traditions of indigenous people with those of ‘civilized’ Christians. Yet, in literary terms, Vargas Llosa’s experimentation with non-linear narrative structures, the development of the dialogue as a descriptive tool embedded within the narration, and the simultaneous unfolding of chronologically discrete tales in this novel constitute its most durable accomplishment.

Precisely these are the prevailing features of Conversation in the Cathedral (1960), arguably Vargas Llosa’s most refined novel. A highly complicated vision of the perverse workings of a dictatorship (General Odría’s in Peru in the 1950s) and the catastrophic consequences it carries for society at large and individuals in particular, Conversation in the Cathedral contains some of the most sublime passages to be found in Latin American literature altogether. 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). Subsequently, the narrative unfolds at a staggering pace, progressively unveiling the circumstances that lead to the opening passage in a vain effort to answer the main question of the book, dónde se jodió el Perú (when did Peru go to the dogs), a leitmotiv that recurrently creeps back into the narrative and that has become the most easily recognizable sentence associated with this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Vargas Llosa’s later work, with the possible exception of The War of the End of the World, (1981), has been criticized for failing to reach the standards of his first three novels. Nevertheless, the Swedish Academy in its concise explanation of its choice for the award states Vargas Llosa’s “cartography of structures of power” as one of the merits that led to the selection of the Peruvian as this year’s winner. Such structures of power are constantly scrutinized by Vargas Llosa in many of his later work, from Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, where social scruples and Christian morals are questioned, to The Feast of the Goat, where the extent of the dictatorial rule of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic is mapped in a novel that has more than just echoes of Conversation in the Cathedral.

Vargas Llosa did not win the Nobel Prize in 1970, after his three most important novels had been published, but in 2010, when his dedication, constancy and discernment had been proven over and over again. Now that he has attained the highest recognition in the world of literature, his reputation, and his popularity, no doubt, will finally reach similar levels in the English-speaking establishment as it has enjoyed for the past two decades in the Hispanic world. The time might be right, at the same time, to revisit part of the often-discredited ‘Latin American boom’, which produced some of the most striking experiments in narrative structure found in any language. For that, I thank the Swedish Academy – and Mario Vargas Llosa, the genius.





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