The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s a brilliant choice. Unlike some of the Nobel committee’s more dubious awards, Vargas Llosa is a storyteller with an important message to share. Moreover, he is not some stuffy academic – he’s been actively engaged in the world, a voice for moderation in fanatical times.
And most importantly, his books are a joy to read. He’s frequently compared to another South American, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize in 1982. Both writers are part of the Latin American Boom. While many American writers retreated into the minimalism of Raymond Carver, the Boom authors wrote sprawling, worldly, intensely entertaining works that hovered on the edge of reality. The multi-generational saga of the doomed Buendias in One Hundred Years of Solitude is an excellent example of Boom fiction.
Two great books show the incredibly range of Vargas Llosa.
Aunt Julia and the Script Writer is a deranged masterpiece, a comic coming of age story about young Mario, who has fallen in love with his sexy aunt. Interleaved with this story are the tales of a Bolivian script writer, who has enthralled Lima with his radio soap operas. The book grows progressively more absurd and surreal, as the comic inventions of the script writer lead to real-world chaos.
A reviewer on Amazon referred to The War of the End of the World as “Macondo meets Jonestown”. That’s an apt description of this epic novel, based upon real events. Set in Brazil in the 19th century, the book is centered on Canudos, a religious cult that essentially secedes from the rest of the country. It becomes a safe haven from oppression, until the army decides to wipe them out.
What makes Vargas Llosa’s work so appealing to me is his concern for individuals, not mass movements. He’s been an a foe of dictators, whether they be Fidel Castro or Alberto Fujimori (who he ran against in 1990). Suspicious of ideology, he was lauded by the Nobel committee for:
“his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”.
Vargas Llosa demonstrates that writers can do more than just tell stories – they can influence their times by actively participating in society.