The Nobel Prize for Literature is that one roulette where the odds are highest against the punters. This year, which saw some feverish betting on the American writer Cormac McCarthy and Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, the Nobel committee decided to confer the award on Mario Vargas Llosa, a towering figure of the Latin American Boom, ‘Bien Guapo' (the handsome one) to his countrymen in Peru.
The Boom, an avant garde movement that constituted Latin America's brush with literary modernism during the 1960s, was also intensely political. Llosa, like his other Boom comrades — Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez — played by the rules, dwelling on issues with political and social implications, devoting journalistic research to sharpen the realism. But unlike most of them, Llosa also successfully transcended the Boom, managing to ride out Lima's transition from “the strangest, saddest city” (Herman Melville's description) to something more hopeful.
The two Llosa must-Reads
Set in the Dominican Republic, The Feast of the Goat (Faber, R399) deals with the assassination of dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. An edgy account of the corruption caused by absolute power and the suffering unleashed by mindless violence.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (Faber, R299) is an autobiographical and entertaining account of aspiring writer Mario Varguitas, who works at a radio station that broadcasts soap operas. On the way, he has an affair with his aunt, causing a scandal in his immediate surroundings.
Llosa's career charted the entire political spectrum, beginning with a membership of the Cahuide, a dogmatic, Stalinistic arm of Peru's then-outlawed Communist Party, moving on to a wholehearted championing and admiration for the Cuban Revolution (though secretly he had also complained about the way Cuba was treating its homosexuals), to his loss of faith in that socialist idyll and his lurch Right, ending in an unsuccessful run for the Peruvian presidency in 1990 in a bid to oppose the incumbent's plan of nationalising financial organisations.
His writings worked out a trajectory of their own, his initial works marked by a bitter realism as seen in The Time of the Hero (1963) that critiqued the Peruvian military establishment, The Green House (1965) and Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), a scathing attack on Manuel Odria's dictatorship. Later, mythic figures would appear in the apocalyptic narrative of The War of the End of the World (1981) while The Bad Girl would see a post-feminist take on Madame Bovary.
For his electoral setback, Llosa, the artist, had blamed the Peruvians' faith in imagination than a respect for facts, in spite of the latter's grinding poverty and a traumatic, two-decade long brush with civil war, battling Shining Path, the guerrilla outfit. However, his literary legacy persists. Granta recently brought out a list of 22 best Spanish-language novelists, foremost being Santiago Roncagliolo, a fellow Peruvian living in Spain. Llosa had indeed prepared the ground for a ripe harvest.