The Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”.
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The wave of creativity that has swept through Latin American writing since the 1960s has turned the region into an engine for change on a global scale and Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the major figures in this Latin American renaissance. He was born in Peru in 1936 and his life, like his writing, straddles the old worlds of North America and Europe and the new worlds of the south.
As a writer, Llosa is clearly indebted to Latin American culture, but also to old world writers like William Faulkner and Gustave Flaubert. His output has been ceaseless and prolific and includes essays, criticism, memoirs, as well as journalism and plays. But he is most famous for his novels, starting with The Time of the Hero (1963), which had an immediate impact. In this novel, he draws on his own experience of attending a military academy in Lima and attacks both Peruvian military traditions and the rigidity of Peruvian society. In response, the army organized a book burning at his old school, and Llosa has remained a controversial figure who has succeeded in antagonizing both the left and the right. He has always been a politically committed writer. In his early career, Llosa was a Marxist, but he has moved to the centre right. What gives consistency to his position is a deep hostility to authoritarianism, a commitment to freedom and to individuality that makes him sceptical of collective identities.
For Llosa, literature gives readers a kind of third eye and enables them to see what is lacking in the real world. It sews the seed of a revolutionary attitude and great novels give us an appetite for the impossible. Llosa’s writing has always been experimental, as he explores different ways of telling a story, of depicting the passage of time, and of combining fact and fiction. His novels are very varied, but whatever form they take, they are interested in the interrelationship between politics and the individual and explore the private histories of nations.
The early novels are characterized by seriousness and darkness. The Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), for example, uses the form of a murder mystery to criticize authoritarianism and rightwing dictatorship. This phase was followed in the 1970s by more playful, comic novels, with strong elements of satire and parody. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977), for example, follows the career and romantic life of a young writer which it intersperses with scenes from a soap opera. Then Llosa moved into historical novels, with books such as The War of the End of the World (1981), an expose of fanaticism, self-delusion and violence, based on the real confrontation between the young Brazilian state and a lunatic sect.
Llosa’s political engagement actually saw him run, unsuccessfully, for President of Peru in 1990. While he is no longer interested in professional politics, he is still committed to participating in politics through his writing. And he will continue to write. Writing is his vocation. He is driven by the need to speak and to try whatever means might make that speaking more powerful.
By Georgia Brown, for Nobelprize.org
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Vargas Llosa’s first novel, published in Spanish as La Cuidad y Los Perros (The City and the Dogs), is set in a military academy in Peru, the Leoncio Prado Academy, which the author himself attended. When published, it caused such a stir that the academy’s authorities burned 1,000 copies of the book in protest. The novel explores army codes and strict military hierachy, telling of a group of young cadets struggling to survive in a bullying and violent environment, a situation eventually leading to the murder of one of their number. The book was later filmed by Peruvian director Francisco Lombardi.
This comic novel set in 1950s Lima tells of a student and aspiring writer – Marito – who falls in love with his uncle’s sister-in-law, 13 years his senior. Marito also befriends a manic Bolivian scriptwriter, who’s producing soap operas daily for a local radio station. The plot is loosely based on the story of Vargas Llosa’s own first marriage, at the age of 19, to the then 32-year-old Julia Urquidi, who was indeed his aunt by marriage. Urquidi later gave a rather different account of her relationship with Vargas Llosa in a memoir, Lo que Varguitas no dijo (What Little Vargas Didn’t Say).
Hailed as a tragic masterpiece, the novel was inspired by true events in Baha, Brazil, in the late 19th century. At a time of economic decline following the breakdown of the Empire of Brazil, the poor are drawn to a charismatic preacher, Antonio Conselheiro, who is predicting the end of the world. Condemned by the church, Conselheiro takes his rag-tag band of followers to build a town at Canudos, set to be a new utopia. But Canudos exists in defiance of the national government, and violent conflict ensues when armies are sent to bring the prophet to order.
A savage portrait of political tyranny through the story of dictator Rafael Trujillo, “the Goat”, whose bloody rule of the Dominican Republic lasted from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. The novel follows the ageing Generalissimo through his last day on earth as his assassins circle, showing him as a grotesque character whose failing body is no bar to his preening machismo. A contrasting narrative strand explores the human impact of Trujillo’s evil regime through the story of a woman betrayed in childhood by her father to the dictator’s sexual depravity. The damage done by dictatorship is seen to continue after his death, as the effects of the old regime persist. The novel was praised for its vividness but criticised by some as heavy-handed.
Vargas Llosa’s most recent novel features Ricardo Slim Somorcio, who, as a teenager in Peru in the 1950s, first meets a poor immigrant girl, Lily, and falls in love. But Lily suddenly disappears. Throughout the subsequent four decades, during which Ricardo works as a translator in various locations in South America and Europe, he keeps re-encountering “the bad girl”, who has her eyes set firmly on the pursuit of money and power. Ricardo remains obsessed with her. At each meeting though Lily appears in a radically different disguise, chameleon-like, professing not to know him.
Mario Vargas Llosa was born on March 28, 1936 in Arequipa, Peru to Ernesto Vargas Maldonado and Dora Llosa Ureta. After his parents divorced, he grew up with his mother and grandfather in the city of Cochabamba in Bolivia. The family moved to Piura, Peru in 1946 where his grandfather held an appointment as a civil servant. His parents were reunited in 1947 and settled in Lima. Mario Vargas Llosa went to a Catholic school in Lima. Later his father sent him to the military school, Leoncio Prado.
After graduating from Colegio Nacional San Miguel in Piura, Mario Vargas Llosa studied law and literature in Lima and Madrid. In 1955, he married Julia Urquidi. In 1959, he moved to Paris where he worked as a language teacher and as a journalist for Agence-France-Presse and the national television service of France. As an author, he had an international breakthrough with the novel La ciudad y los perros (1963; The Time of the Hero, 1966). This novel, which builds on experiences from Leoncio Prado, was considered controversial in his home land. A thousand copies were burnt publicly by officers from Leoncio Prado.
In 1964 Mario Vargas Llosa divorced Julia Urquidi. The following year, he married his cousin, Patricia Llosa. After having lived alternately in Paris, Lima, London and Barcelona, he returned to Lima in 1974. In 1975 he was elected to the Peruvian Academy. He has lectured and taught at a number of universities in the USA, South America and Europe. In 1990 he ran for the Presidency representing the FREDEMO alliance in Peru, but lost the election. In 1994 he was elected to the Spanish Academy, where he took his seat in 1996. In recent years he has lived in Barcelona, Madrid, Lima, Paris and London. His well known works include Conversación en la catedral (1969; Conversation in the Cathedral, 1975), La guerra del fin del mundo (1981; The War of the End of the World, 1984) and La fiesta del chivo (2000; The Feast of the Goat, 2001). He is also a noted journalist and essayist.
|Works in English|
|The Time of the Hero / translated by Lysander Kemp. – New York : Grove Press, 1966. – Translation of La ciudad y los perros|
|The Green House / translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa. – New York : Harper & Row, 1968. – Translation of La casa verde|
|Conversation in the Cathedral / translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa. – New York : Harper & Row, 1975. – Translation of Conversación en la catedral|
|Captain Pantoja and the Special Service / translated from the Spanish by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ. – New York : Harper & Row, 1978. – Translation of Pantaleón y las visitadoras|
|The Cubs and Other Stories / translated from the Spanish by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ. – New York : Harper & Row, 1979. – Translation of Los jefes|
|Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter / translated by Helen R. Lane. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982. – Translation of La tía Julia y el escribidor|
|The War of the End of the World / translated by Helen R. Lane. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984. – Translation of La guerra del fin del mundo.|
|The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta / translated by Alfred Mac Adam. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986. – Translation of Historia de Mayta|
|The Perpetual Orgy : Flaubert and Madame Bovary / translated from the Spanish by Helen Lane. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986. – Translation of La orgía perpetua : Flaubert y “Madame Bovary”|
|Who killed Palomino Molero? / translated by Alfred Mac Adam. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1987. – Translation of ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero?|
|The Storyteller / translated by Helen Lane. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989. – Translation of El hablador|
|Three Plays / translated by David Graham-Young. – London : Faber, 1990|
|In Praise of the Stepmother / translated by Helen Lane. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990. – Translation of Elogio de la madrastra|
|A Writer’s Reality / edited, with an introduction by Myron I. Lichtblau. – Syracuse, N.Y. : Syracuse University Press, 1991|
|Literature and Freedom. – St. Leonards, N.S.W. : Centre for Independent Studies, 1994|
|A Fish in the Water : a Memoir / translated by Helen Lane. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994. – Translation of El pez en el agua|
|Death in the Andes / translated by Edith Grossman. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996. – Translation of Lituma en los Andes|
|Making Waves / edited and translated by John King. – London : Faber, 1996|
|Bloom. – Dublin : Kingstown Press, 1996|
|The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto / translated by Edith Grossman. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998. – Translation of Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto|
|The Feast of the Goat / translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 2001. – Translation of La fiesta del chivo|
|Letters to a Young Novelist / translated by Natasha Wimmer. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 2002. – Translation of Cartas a un joven novelista|
|The Way to Paradise / translated by Natasha Wimmer. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003. – Translation of El Paraíso en la otra esquina|
|The Language of Passion / translated by Natasha Wimmer. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003. – Translation of El lenguaje de la pasión|
|The Bad Girl / translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman. – New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007. – Translation of Travesuras de la niña mala|
|Touchstones : Essays on Literature, Art and Politics / selected, translated and edited by John King. – London : Faber, 2007|
|The Temptation of the Impossible : Victor Hugo and Les misérables / translated by John King. – Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2007. – Translation of La tentación de lo imposible : Victor Hugo y Los miserables|
|Wellsprings. – Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2008|
About the Contributor
John Purcell (aka Natasha Walker) is the author of The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy published by Random House Australia. The Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings reached the top ten on the Australian fiction charts and Natasha/John was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist and third highest selling Australian debut author in 2012. The trilogy has since sold over 50,000 copies in print and ebook and has been translated into French, Korean and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for over twenty-five years. While still in his twenties he opened John’s Bookshop, a second-hand bookshop in Mosman in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Now he is the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au.