Five years ago, when the Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa was asked his opinion on the possibility of his winning the Nobel prize were, he replied:
“Let us not even think of it…”
Indeed, Mario Vargas Llosa’s turn at the Nobel has come in exasperatingly late, when not only him, but many of his admirers had given up on the honour coming his way.
In the words of Carlos Fuentes, when Garcia Marquez (Gabo) won the award in 1982, he won it ‘on behalf of all writers of his generation from Latin America.’ Twenty-eight years later, the Nobel to MVL is a restatement of the recognition that the Amazonian flow of literature from Latin America- during and after Gabo’s generation so richly deserves.
Llosa’s relative lack of recognition in the English-speaking world is probably the reason that I came so late to his writings, a decade after discovering and relishing Gabo’s writings.
A few years ago, while on a short visit to the US, I came across a book on the Zapatistas. In an interview given to Gabriel Garcia Marquez sometime after the Zapatista peasant rebellion in Mexico in 1995, the masked Marxist leader Subcommandante Marco explained that after Cervantes and Shakespeare it were the contemporary Latin American writers who moulded the minds of his generation. Besides Garcia himself and others, he named Mario Vargas Llosa, quickly adding that he influenced, despite his ideas.
This last observation flummoxed me. How can an author influence one’s mind despite his ideas?
As I read works by Llosa and about him, I discovered that this cryptic comment heightened the tribute to Llosa. In 1990 he made a bid for the presidency of Peru as a candidate of the Right. His espousal of free market ideas, support for the American invasion of Iraq and his denigration of the ex-communist regimes in Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba makes him an odd ball among Latin American intellectuals.
However, this is in contrast to the causes he has espoused as a writer and what led Sub- commandante Marcos to remark that Llosa has inspired his generation of rebels, despite his ideas. This terse comment about Llosa is a revelation into the author’s political ideas that have veered off to almost an extreme right wing slant.
But Llosa has been much more than a caricature image that the above description might conjure.
For more than forty years, Llosa has been the most eloquent literary voice from Peru, its leading storyteller, a novelist in the magical realist genre of Jose Borges, Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and a host of other Latin American novelists.
For me, Llosa remains an enigmatic figure as a person, embodying two opposite tendencies at the same time. As a writer, he certainly stands on the left, his empathy for his people clear as a crystal, especially in works like The Storyteller and even in his much more recent The Bad Girl.
My discovery of this dual character started with the first book that I read and which happened to be The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, a novel about a failed revolution in Peru.
When I first encountered Llosa in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, I was swept off my feet at the sheer literary and imaginative power of the writer. I went on to devour, in quick succession, most of his 20 or so books published in English. Unlike Garcia Marquez, Llosa has been very uneven in his works. I think it is mainly because of his experimentation and ambition to be a complete writer, tackling different genres. Somewhere, Marquez has remarked that he does not read theory. Llosa, however, is well familiar with literary theory, and some of his writing perhaps bears a reflection of this.
I rank The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta as not only among Llosa’s finest, but also as the last of his finest works. His subsequent works have been disappointing, though marked by an occasional flash or a spark. Among his earlier works is his own favorite- The War at the End of the World.
This long epic novel is set in 19th-century Brazil and written in the style of 19th century novelists like Leo Tolstoy. It is a work sans any experimentation and has a straightforward narrative. Even so, this novel brims with ideas, thereby forcing the reader to question the notion of progress. The episode that Llosa picks from Brazils history is a prolonged struggle by a millenarian movement to oppose the Republic. This is strange because the Republic is actually opposed to the landlords who rule over the majority of the people, who turn out to oppose the Republic! I think what Llosa wanted to examine in the book was the subjective resistance of a people- in the Marxist sense–the superstructure dominating the base.
Another fascinating work is The Way to Paradise in which he recounts the lives of Paul Gaughin and his grandmother, who was a socialist- feminist in the 19th century. Both seek different routes to paradise. Whereas the grandmother likes to take the world head on, Gaughin seeks his heaven in a remote island in the Pacific- Tahiti, among a primitive community of Tahitians. This book impressed me, not only for the insights it provided about Paul Gaughin himself, but also about impressionism and painting as an art form. Later, while standing before world-famous paintings in the museums of Vienna and elsewhere, I would remember Llosa as my mentor in art appreciation.
As I furiously raced through his works, one book led to another, and I got introduced to other Latin American writers, above all to Tomas Eloy Martinez, Cesar Aira, Horacio Moya and, of course, Roberto Bolano, who tragically passed way at the young age of 50 in 2002 and has earned posthumous fame in the English-speaking world.
Though Llosa has established a familiar style, he is at heart an experimentalist. This has been evident right from the start, with the publication of his first novel, The Time of the Hero when he was just 25. Even in that early novel–a tedious though rewarding read–there are multiple narratives, shifts in time and space, and in the battle between the reader and the writer, the initial incursive strides of the reader in the first 250 pages are short-lived.