Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa wins Nobel Prize


It was 5:30 a.m. Thursday in New York when Mario Vargas Llosa took a long-distance call.

The Peruvian author was awake, preparing for a Monday class at Princeton University by rereading “El reino de este mundo” (“The Kingdom of This World“), a 1949 novel by the late Cuban author Alejo Carpentier.

His wife Patricia walked over, an anxious look on her face, and handed the 74-year-old novelist the telephone.

“News at this hour tends to be bad,” Vargas Llosa says he thought.

The man on the line — “a voice I couldn’t understand very well” — said he was the secretary-general of the Swedish Academy. “The line went dead, of course.”

The man called back and delivered the news: In 14
minutes, the Academy would open its famous white doors and announce to
the world that Vargas Llosa was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for

“I thought it was a joke,” Vargas Llosa recalled Thursday afternoon at a packed news conference at New York’s Instituto Cervantes, where he addressed the world’s media in Spanish, English and a bit of French.

An Italian novelist friend was the victim of such a
prank years ago, Vargas Llosa explained. “I told my wife, ‘We need to
wait until this is confirmed to call our children.'”

In awarding the Nobel to the author of some of the most celebrated literature in Latin America,
the Academy praised “his cartography of structures of power and his
trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.”

In elegant and clear prose, Vargas Llosa has chronicled the machinations of power and the powerful in Latin America in narratives that engrossed readers in the most intimate details of a character’s life.

Whether writing about a dictator in Santo Domingo
— the “goat” in his acclaimed novel “The Feast of the Goat” — or about
the mysterious woman who consumes a man’s life in “The Bad Girl,”
Vargas Llosa masterfully captured the essence of modern times and what
drives people to their fates.

The Nobel recognition had for decades eluded Vargas Llosa.

Many of his friends thought Vargas Llosa had been
snubbed for the prize because of his early denunciation of the Fidel
Castro regime in the 1970s, when most of the intellectual left
continued to support Castro despite his jailing of poet Heberto Padilla and his censorship of the arts and literature.

Others thought his run for the presidency in Peru had perhaps negatively affected his candidacy for the prize.

“For many years I was sure that I was not a
candidate, and that if I had been, I had been sidelined,” Vargas Llosa
said Thursday.

So thought his friends, who shared Vargas Llosa’s “great joy.”

“This time, the Swedish were on the money: Mario is the most important living writer in the Spanish language,” writer Carlos Alberto Montaner said. “In his case, there is another circumstance: He is, simultaneously, the leader of those in Latin America who defend freedom against all odds.”

In 1990, Vargas Llosa ran for the presidency of Peru — he lost to Alberto Fujimori — and brought his campaign to Miami, where he has been a favorite author of the Miami Book Fair International since its early days.

Disappointed by Peruvians’ approval of Fujimori’s rule, he obtained Spanish citizenship and lived between homes in Madrid and London.

“His decision to move from being a writer and a political analyst to a political actor is rooted in the crisis that Peru was undergoing in the 1980s,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a politics and international relations professor at Florida International University.

Vargas Llosa participated in the Miami Book Fair International in 1985, 1989, 2001 and 2003.

“Every time we have presented him he has had a phenomenal welcome from the public. Every venue has been at full capacity,” said Alina Interian, director of the Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College. “People like everything about his works — his narrative, his ideas, his characters. He has the respect of this community.”

Vargas Llosa received an honorary degree from Florida International University in 1990 and taught a humanities course for graduate students in 1991. His son, Alvaro, also lived in Miami and was El Nuevo Herald’s editorial page editor.

“Vargas Llosa”s books are really shrewd and
sophisticated political analysis,” said Gamarra, whose university
office was next to Vargas Llosa’s. “He moved from his origins as an
analyst on the left of center to the most intellectually coherent
perspective on the right in the world today; profoundly democratic but
firmly on the right.”

Gamarra pointed to Vargas Llosa’s column in Madrid’s El Pais on Sunday as an example of the shift.

“His criticisms of Chavez and Castro are not
knee-jerk,” Gamarra said. “They are intellectual indictments with a
profoundly theoretical base.”

Son Alvaro told McClatchy Newspapers:
“Although it’s not the spirit of the prize, in practical terms it’s
also an award for Cubans and Venezuelans fighting for freedom. … It’s
a great day because it’s a recognition of an uncommon body of work and
because the recipient is a tireless defender of freedom.”

He added: “The family is very happy because now we
never again have to give explanations or apologies as to why they
wouldn’t give him the prize year after year.”

At the news conference Thursday at Instituto Cervantes, a center dedicated to the promotion of the Spanish language in the United States, Vargas Llosa said his award was also a recognition of “a very energetic, creative, modern language” and how far it has come.

“When I started to write Spanish was practically ignored by the rest of the world,” he said.

He spoke of his humble beginnings in publishing when a group of doctors in Spain who were voracious readers of short stories were the first to publish him in 1969.

“At that time it was very difficult for a writer of short stories to find a publisher,” he said.

He also affirmed his identity, despite his Spanish
citizenship and years living abroad: “I am Peruvian,” Vargas Llosa
said, then added, Flaubert-style: “Peru soy yo I am Peru even if some Peruvians don’t like it. Fujimori tried to take away my nationality and Spain
gave me refuge. But I am grateful to my country for what I am — a
writer. It gave me the experiences that are the basis of my writing.”

The novelist, who is spending this semester in Princeton University
as the 2010 Distinguished Visitor in the Latin American studies
program, said he expected literature’s most prestigious prize — which
comes with $1.5 million — to change the pace of his daily life, but not his writing.

He planned to turn in his Sunday column to El Pais, even if hastily written, on time Friday.

“I thought that these months I was going to spend in the United States would be very quiet, very different from my life in Madrid or Lima,” Vargas Llosa said. “My life will be a life in a madhouse. I will try to survive.”


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