Mario Vargas Llosa: Reaction in Latin America turns on Nobel winner’s political views

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Now that Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature, an award seen as a victory for Spanish-language and Latin American letters, comes the backlash over the Peruvian author’s politics.

Vargas Llosa, 74, known for his novels such as ‘The Time of the Hero’ and ‘The War of the End of the World,’ is also strongly identified with ‘boom'-era writers in Latin America who initially supported leftist political movements but eventually moved rightward in their views -- much like the last Nobel Prize winner in literature from the region, Mexico’s Octavio Paz.

‘What a horror!’ the novelist Luisa Valenzuela told the Mexican daily La Jornada at the Frankfurt book fair in Germany upon hearing the news (link in Spanish). ‘With the political swerve that Mario took, I would have preferred Carlos Fuentes.’

On Twitter, some reaction was even fiercer. One user wrote: ‘Nobel Prize given to racist fascist pro-Hispanic, anti-Indigenous rights writer Mario Vargas LLosa LatAm is backyard of Europe.’


Why such severity of critique?

The Nobel Prize in literature, awarded once a year to an author for literary output in any language, is invariably viewed through a political lens, particularly in Latin America, where writers often play prominent roles as so-called public intellectuals. As news of Vargas Llosa’s win spread, many writers and lit-lovers in Latin America generally felt that Vargas Llosa deserved the prize for his long trajectory and beloved novels, but attention also turned to Vargas Llosa’s political views.

An almost orthodox liberal, the author supports same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of drug use. Yet he also reserves his strongest criticism in the political sphere for hard-line leftist leaders in Latin America, including President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and former President Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Vargas Llosa considers himself, above all else, an opponent of dictatorships, both left and right.

Speaking on air to CNN Español after receiving the Nobel, Vargas Llosa made reference to previous authoritarian regimes in Peru, and even to the Franco regime in Spain, as targets of his political passions (link in Spanish).

‘I can say in a certain way that I’m an expert in dictatorships,’ the author said. ‘Maybe that’s why dictatorships appear so much in my novels, and maybe that’s why I’m critical of all dictatorships, without exception.’

In another CNN interview, the author was asked what he would say if he had a chance to meet Chavez or Castro in person. His response was blunt and stone-faced: ‘That they should leave, that they should leave the government, that they are a barrier to progress in their countries.’

L.A. Times book critic David Ulin, citing author and professor Ilan Stavans in a piece in The Times, notes that Vargas Llosa’s career as a writer is often rendered in a binary: before and after the 1990 presidential election in Peru.

Vargas Llosa, spurred by his opposition to nationalization reforms under Peruvian President Alan Garcia (then in his first term in office) ran in the 1990 race as a right-leaning free-market candidate. He lost that race to little-known Alberto Fujimori -- who now sits in prison for human rights crimes.

‘Before, he was a writer and an apprentice politician; literature was his obsession,’ Stavans told Ulin. ‘Afterward, it was no longer fiction that mattered to him. He became a first-rate essayist instead.’

Vargas Llosa also became identified with abandoning Latin America for Spain, which is what the author did, taking Spanish citizenship after losing the 1990 election. This move was also seen as a betrayal in some intellectual circles. His open and expressive affinity for Spain, which he’s reiterated in interviews since Thursday’s prize announcement, doesn’t win Vargas Llosa points among those who regard him as antagonistic -- or at least indifferent -- to indigenous-rights movements in Latin America.

The author is quoted as saying in 2003, while commenting on indigenous movements in Latin America in general (link in Spanish): ‘Development and civilization are incompatible with certain social phenomenons, the principle being collectivism. [...] The indigenism ... that appears to have been forgotten is now behind phenomenons such as the señor Evo Morales in Bolivia.’

Two years later, Peru’s neighbor Bolivia elected Morales, its first indigenous president in history -- a moment regarded as a victory for long-oppressed indigenous groups in the Andean region. Vargas Llosa was unimpressed, dismissing Morales in 2008 as a ‘typical Latin American criollo [Spaniard born in the Americas], a Spanish-speaking mestizo, who is finishing off Bolivia.’ (Link in Spanish.)

(Morales, for the record, is an Aymara Indian.)

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City