Awards Season

'Cartographer of Power' Vargas Llosa A Phenomenal Choice for Nobel

Mario Vargas Llosa

Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, seen here in April 2010, has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Vargas Llosa was awarded the prize in part, the committee said, for offering a "cartography of structures of power." Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images Europe hide caption

itoggle caption Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images Europe

"It is a moral obligation of a writer in Latin America to be involved in civic activities," Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once said.

Words he has taken seriously.

In six decades of public life, Vargas Llosa has had more second acts than Norman Mailer: he was a candidate for Peru’s presidency, a political columnist, the director of International PEN, a crusading journalist, even a neo-liberal proponent of the free market. But the sentence is most aptly applied to Llosa’s work as a novelist, for which he won the Nobel Prize today.

It’s a phenomenal choice.

For the past 40 years Llosa has spun alternate mythologies to the ones imposed on Latin Americans from above. His first major novel, Conversation in the Cathedral, unfolds in the 1950s during the dictatorship of Peruvian general Manuel Odria and is a ferocious indictment of the way military rule warps but does not completely obscure reality. The first pages of the novel, seen through its main character's eyes, describe a city that is crumbling: "At what precise moment had Peru f*cked itself up?" the character asks.

Vargas Llosa’s frank questions about power reverberate through all of his books. What makes him significant, though, is not this backbone of steel or his shape-shifting political ideas — he was once a supporter of Castro, later a disillusioned communist, later still a center-left candidate — but the restless, searching way in which he has crabwalked across history and genres. His early novels, written so clearly in earnest, gave way to satires and parodies, and later still to books like Aunt Julia and the Script Writer, free-wheeling, occasionally Updikean novels in which desire can wreak comical havoc on lives.

Across Vargas Llosa’s oeuvre, these two worlds — politics and sex — twine together in a portrait of the destructive human tendency towards irrationality. The difference between his massive 1981 novel, The War of the End of the World, a novelization of an uprising in 19th-century Brazil, and The Feast of the Goat, his 2000 novel about the assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, is telling. The former is a deadly serious historical text, while the latter reads like a political thriller, full of Trujillo’s sexual perversion.

Vargas Llosa will no doubt be a controversial choice, as he has written a lot and some works are more successful than others. He is a protean writer, however, whose churn over four decades has been as dependable and seasonal as tropical storms. He has never apologized for it. "The novelist who doesn't write about what deep down stimulates and inspires him," Vargas Llosa says, "is inauthentic and most likely a bad novelist." He had his validation today.

John Freeman is the editor of Granta magazine and a frequent book reviewer for NPR.org.

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