The selection Thursday morning of Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for literature raises a familiar question: Why him? Why now? On the one hand, Vargas Llosa is without question a writer of stature, a central figure — along with his one-time friend and fellow Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez — in the Latin American “boom” generation of the 1960s and 1970s, the author of such major novels as “The Time of the Hero,” “The Green House” and “Conversation in the Cathedral.” That alone distinguishes him from the last two recipients of the prize, Jean-Marie Gustave le Clézio and Herta Mueller, neither of whom was what anyone would call a household name.
At the same time, although Vargas Llosa has continued to work steadily — his most recent novel, “The Bad Girl” (2007), is an updating of sorts of “Madame Bovary” — he hasn’t published a truly significant literary work since 1981’s “The War of the End of the World.” In part, suggests Ilan Stavans, editor of “The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature” and a professor at Amherst College, this has to do with his immersion in politics, which culminated with his unsuccessful 1990 run for the Peruvian presidency. “When it comes to Vargas Llosa,” Stavans says, “there are really two careers: before and after the election. Before, he was a writer and an apprentice politician; literature was his obsession. Afterward, it was no longer fiction that mattered to him. He became a first-rate essayist instead.”
That’s a fascinating distinction, framing Vargas Llosa as representative of what Andre Malraux called “l’homme engagé.” The first Latin American to win the Nobel since Mexico’s Octavio Paz in 1990, he has been an advocate for nearly 50 years of a certain kind of writerly engagement, not in terms of politics per se but the public life of the mind. In such a context, writers are not merely artists but instigators; they stir up a cultural conversation and participate in the fallout in a variety of ways. Think of Vaclav Havel, who went from being a playwright and dissident to president of the Czech Republic. It’s a different model than we’re used to in this country, but Vargas Llosa fits it on a number of levels — “as a multi-genre writer,” notes Ruben Martinez, who holds the Fletcher Jones chair in literature and writing at Loyola Marymount University, “a public figure and a politician. Even when he made his shift, he didn’t change his métier.”
The shift to which Martinez refers is Vargas Llosa’s move from left to right, which was seen as a betrayal in certain quarters. An early supporter of the Cuban revolution, he broke with Fidel Castro in the early 1970s and eventually ran for president of Peru as a right-center conservative. After he lost, he left the country and became a Spanish citizen; he did not return to Peru for seven years. This too, Stavans points out, was considered a betrayal; “It had an enormous reverberation,” he says. “It was said he didn’t know how to lose.” And yet, while there’s certainly merit to that argument, Vargas Llosa has a more expansive point of view. In a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Vargas Llosa explained: “Ever since I was young, it has been my ideal to become a citizen of the world. … I don’t want to feel like a foreigner anywhere. If there is for me a fundamental idea of civilization, it is this.”
Such an idea is a radical one, especially for a writer so identified with a single territory, a single region; his argument that “this will be the great battle of the 21st century, the battle against borders, against this provincial, small, petty vision that defines a human being through the idea of a nation” is multicultural in the most fundamental sense. In that regard, he is the progenitor of a new generation of Latin American writers, most notably Daniel Alarcón, born in Peru and living in Oakland, who see a kind of drift, a collapse of traditional cultural or geographic borders, as their birthright in an increasingly undifferentiated world. “It’s impossible,” Alarcón writes by e-mail, “to overstate his importance in the cultural life of Peru — how influential he has been and continues to be. I was so happy when I heard the news, so absolutely thrilled, I felt as if I’d won something too!”
As such, it may not matter that, as an author, Vargas Llosa’s best days as a novelist are behind him, although in his time, he was a vivid stylist, moving fluidly from the broadest to the most narrow canvas, exploring the interplay of the individual and society. Indeed, this is where his life and his work intersect, where the writer and the public figure become one. “The overarching theme of his work as a writer of novels, plays and essays,” notes UCLA comparative literature professor Efraín Kristal, the author of a book on Vargas Llosa, “is the disproportion between life and the imagination: the sense that the hopes and desires of individuals are always greater than their ability to fulfill them. In his literary world, unhappiness and suffering are as inevitable as the two responses with which his characters try to cope with their unavoidable feelings of dissatisfaction: rebellion and fantasy.”