Mario Vargas Llosa / WikimediaUpon granting Mario Vargas
Llosa (b. 1936, Peru) the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy
declared that he deserved the prize “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant
images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat
.

What is that all
about?

Well, gringos who live
in well-educated, law-abiding, democratic, human rights-respecting countries
north of the Rio Grande may have a right to be puzzled. But for Latin
Americans, who know all too well the dark cruelties and cruel rages of
dictatorships, it means a lot. Vargas Llosa is that rare specimen who is both
an academic and a man of action, an artist and an activist, a complex,
passionate personality and a hard-headed politician. In the dark days of
tyranny, he stood for democracy; when the literary world was agog over the
post-modern dissolution of the person, he stood for humanity. Vargas Llosa is
above all a humanist.

Many novels from his
voluminous corpus have been popular successes: The Time of the Hero (1963), Conversation
in “The Cathedral”
(1969), The War of
the End of the World
(1981), The Real
Life of Alejandro Mayta
(1984), Who
Killed Palomino Molero
(1986), Death
in the Andes
(1993) and Feast of the
Goat
(2000). But he has also written significant literary criticism,
including Garcia Marquez: Story of a Deicide (1971), The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and “Madame
Bovary”
(1975), A Writer’s Reality (1990), The Language of
Passion
(2001) and The Temptation
of the Impossible
(2004), as well as his memoir, A Fish in the Water (1993).

Vargas Llosa’s
literary generation, the Boom, which
signified the globalization of Latin American literature, wanted at one and the
same time to bring Latin American literature to the level of European and North
American literatures and still have it play the socio-political role previous
generations had assigned to it. Thus, while the Boom revolutionized Latin American literature from a formal
perspective, it continued its tradition of political protest and social
commentary.

Examples of this by
other Latin American writers from Vargas Llosa’s generation are: The President and Men of Maize by Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemala, 1899-1974), A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel
Garcia Marquez (Columbia, b. 1927), Where
the Air is Clear
and Old Gringo by
Carlos Fuentes (Mexico, b. 1928).

The writers of the Boom revived the historical novel as a
vehicle of political protest and social commentary. For these writers, the reality
of Latin America was a novel in itself. Thus, Vargas Llosa’s first work, The Time of the Hero, is a highly
autobiographical historical novel about
Peruvian
society during Manuel A Odria’s nine-year (1948-1957) dictatorship,
highlighting its horrific cruelties and traumatizing impact on the national
Peruvian psyche.
The microcosm of Odria’s Peru in
the novel is Leoncio Prado Military Academy, which Vargas Llosa attended for
his secondary education.

The War of the End of the World is
another historical novel, which has as its background the popular uprising led
by a religious fanatic, Antonio Conselheiro, “The Counselor,” in Bahia (Brazil)
towards the end of the 19th century. In the eventual demise of “The Counselor”
and his ten-thousand-strong following Vargas Llosa articulates a poignant
condemnation of all forms of fanaticism, be they religious, political or
otherwise. The War of the End of the
World
is considered by most critics Vargas Llosa’s best executed novel.

The Feast of the Goat, another historical
novel, deals with the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic
from 1932 until his assassination in 1961. Vargas Llosa effectively recreates
the horror of that historical trauma through the story of Urania Cabral, a
victim of Trujillo’s infamous insatiable sexual appetite, for which he was
nicknamed “The Goat”. In this novel Vargas Llosa effectively illustrates the
horrific extremes of a despot’s egocentrism. Another important theme of this
novel is the cowardice of a dictator’s accomplices, best illustrated by the
protagonist’s father, Agustin Cabral, who is unable to deny Trujillo’s request
for his daughter’s virginity.

Though inspired by
the darkest chapters of Latin American history, through these novels Vargas
Llosa wanted to enthuse his readers around the world to work towards putting an
end to Latin America’s endless succession of despotic regimes.

Vargas Llosa personally
tried to bring change to Latin America in general, and to Peru, in particular,
when he ran for president in 1990. He ran on a neoliberal platform that
proposed
a drastic economic
austerity program
that frightened most of the country’s poor. This program emphasized the need
for privatization, a market economy, free trade, and most importantly, the
distribution of private property
. Vargas Llosa won
the first round with 34 percent of the votes but lost to Alberto Fujimori in
the subsequent runoff.

In an interview
given to the Spanish paper El Pais
two days after the Nobel announcement, Vargas Llosa said he would have
preferred to have won the presidency of Peru over the Nobel Prize, explaining
that he felt he would have been able do to more for his people as their head of
state.

Vargas Llosa has
also engaged in parody. His humorous works, however, are not devoid of social
commentary and didactic messages.
Captain
Pantoja and the Special Service
(1973), for example,
criticizes the absurdity of military discipline, and through it, strict
disciplinary systems in general. His highly autobiographical Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977) contains
a stern warning for young writers: never settle for mediocre literature. The
novel is autobiographical to the extent that it is based on Vargas Llosa’s
collegiate and post-collegiate years in Lima (1953-1958) as well as his first
marriage to Julia Urquidi. Both these novels are highly erotic, a constant
element of Vargas Llosa’s work, which, in my opinion, reaches its highest
intensity in
The Bad Girl (2006); this work has been compared to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, one of Vargas Llosa’s major influences, the other being William
Faulkner. Like Flaubert, Vargas Llosa wants to highlight his view that, while
sexual liberation is a major human achievement, it is many times accompanied by
its antithesis: sexual slavery.

The
laureate is a strong defender of literature’s importance for humanity.
In the last essay of A
Writer’s Reality
, a
collection of literary essays on some of the classic works of twentieth-century
world literature, Vargas Llosa affirms the importance of literature in these
words: “without Literature we would become barbarians.”

“The
fraternal bond,” he adds, “which literature forms among human beings,
compelling them to dialogue and making them aware of a common base, that of
forming part of the same spiritual line, transcends all time barriers.” Vargas
Llosa has also defended the role of the writer as an important member of
society, particularly in his fiction. The Storyteller (1987) is a novel
about an indigenous tribe, the Machiguenga in the Amazon, whose individual
units are solely connected to one another by a storyteller who goes from
settlement to settlement and speaks for countless hours to an attentive and
reverent audience about what he has seen in his travels.

Vargas Llosa has been called
the architect of contemporary Latin American literature. This title seeks to
recognize the literary revolution he brought about both formally and
thematically. This twofold achievement is best exemplified by
Conversation in “The Cathedral”, the author’s most ambitious work from a formal perspective, and his personal
favorite, as he points out in the prologue. This novel reconstructs Odria’s
Peru, through a conversation between the son of a now ruined politician and his
former chauffeur that evokes an infernal existence. This conversation takes
place at a bar, “The Cathedral,”
where the lowest stratum of society congregates, in the heart of the inferno
that was Odria’s Lima. Vargas Llosa has described the structure of the novel as
that of a column into which other stories enter and from which they exit at
different points.

Vargas Llosa’s most recent
work, The Dream of the Celt (2010),
is another heavily politically-charged historical novel based on the life of Roger
Casement, a British diplomat, which exposed the terrible treatment of
native workers in the Congo by the Belgian government. The British
then sent Casement investigate the situation of Indians working in the
extraction of rubber in the Amazon in the region of Putumayo, on the border
between
Colombia and
Peru. In this novel Vargas Llosa continues his untiring defense of the Amazon
jungle, which he began with his second novel, The Green House (1966); this novel won him the prestigious Romulo
Gallegos International Novel Prize.
These
are only a few of the reasons why he is one the most influential literary
figures both in and outside Latin America.

From an
ideological perspective, Vargas Llosa has been one of the most outspoken voices
for human rights both in and outside Latin America. Although he has written
many articles and essays as well as delivered many speeches defending human
freedom, it is through his fiction that he has gotten his message across more
effectively. This irony embodies the thesis of A Writer’s Reality, which is that literature, whose source and
center is human experience, can communicate fundamental human truths more
effectively than rhetoric.

This is the faith
of our Nobel laureate: in solving humanity’s problems literature can play a
role that is more important and effective than that played by politics. Thus,
the Swedish Academy could have not made a better decision than giving Vargas
Llosa the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Miguel Alejandro Valerio holds a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and
a Master of Arts in Spanish and Latin America Literature from St. John’s
University, New York. His poetry and literary criticism has appeared in
Spanish, Italian and English language literary journals in the United States
and Latin America. He had the tremendous pleasure of meeting Mario Vargas Llosa
three days before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. On that
occasion he told the Nobel laureate: “I hope they give you the Nobel soon.”  

Miguel Alejandro Valerio holds a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and a Master of Arts in Spanish and Latin America Literature from St. John’s University, New York. His poetry and...