We all expected it. Another year, another Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to some northern European whom no one has ever heard of, let alone read. For the Swedish Academy, which has been responsible for awarding the world’s most prestigious literary prize to the likes of un-translated lightweights Selma Lagerlöf, Sigrid Undset and Harry Martinson and yet failed to recognise the genius of Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, such blunders have become routine.
The 2010 award looked as though it would follow suit. Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, virtually unknown outside of his homeland, was said to be a shoe-in thanks to the award’s Scandinavian bias, while Polish unpronounceable Adam Zagajewski was receiving his fair share of bets. Instead, the committee made their first inspired choice for nearly a decade, honouring novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.
At a frail 74, most of the literary community thought Llosa would go the way of Borges and pop his clogs before he could bank the cheque (the Nobel cannot be awarded posthumously – as Ghandi, frontrunner for the Nobel Peace Prize when he was shot, found to his cost). But, decades overdue and in the nick of time, Llosa has finally accessed the Nobel hall of fame.
Born in 1936 in Peru’s second city, Arequipa, Llosa was a short story writer and journalist before finding fame and financial independence at the age of 27 with his first novel, The Time of the Hero. Based on his experiences in Lima’s Leoncio Prado Military Academy, the book’s criticism of Peru’s military led to some in the country’s political strata calling it the work of ‘a degenerate mind’. It was Llosa’s first taste of political uproar, which would eventuate in the writer unsuccessfully running for president several decades later.
In the 1960s and 70s, Llosa became a linchpin of the Latin American Boom, a literary movement powered by, among others, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. The group shot out of the doldrums of Latin America’s literary scene and startled Europe and America with its brash magic realism and fantastical plots. This was all the more welcome since Europe’s own literature was suffering from a prolonged post-war working class moan.
Llosa has long been overshadowed by the more charismatic professional self-promoter Gabriel García Márquez. Indeed, the two were for decades inseparable – though their friendship ended, like all great literary alliances, when Llosa punched Márquez squarely in the face on the steps of the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City in 1976.
But while Márquez’s plots twist and turn like a snake under a fork, but never actually travel, Llosa is the master of literary movement. Encapsulating the essence of the continent in every book that he writes, South America’s greatest living novelist is starting to receive the recognition he deserves. And, in a world in which South America looms large on the horizon of the future, reading Llosa goes some way to understanding the political behemoth of tomorrow.
For more info on the Nobel Prize in Literature, see www.nobelprize.org
The best of Llosa
The Time of the Hero (1963)
Llosa’s bildungsroman is an accomplished experimental narrative told from multiple perspectives, and documents the rise of xenophobia and militarism in Peru’s youth in the 1950s. The book was so accurate in its portrayal that the military academy satirised in the novel orchestrated a mass burning of 1,000 copies of the book, claiming that Llosa was in the pay of neighbouring Ecuador.
Conversation in the Cathedral (1969)
One of Llosa’s best known and most widely applauded works, this novel is set in Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría and is an exploration of the corruption and failure of the country’s political system.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977)
The most autobiographical of Llosa’s novels, the plot is set in Peru and tells the story of an 18-year-old student who falls in love with a divorcee 14 years his senior. As the student’s fortunes rise and fall with the relationship, this books looks at both the practical and creative aspects of writing.
The War of the End of The World (1981)
Llosa’s first novel set outside his native Peru. With drought and the end of slavery precipitating economic decline, the poor of the backlands clash with the old political elite, each vying for control of South America’s most powerful nation, Brazil.
The Feast of the Goat (2000)
Set in the Dominican Republic, Llosa’s greatest novel portrays the assassination of dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in a penetrating look at the relationship between sexuality and power in Latin America.