January 2011

Jesse Tangen-Mills


Mario Vargas Llosa: The Stateless Statesman

In a letter to a friend in 1966, Julio Cortázar complained that yanqui critics misunderstood his work because it wasn’t stereotypical Argentina -- in his words, “gauchos, mate and señoritas.” He added that they wouldn’t understand Carlos Fuentes either, but Mario Vargas Llosa -- him they would get. The implication is that Vargas Llosa wrote books about Latin America that yanquis could understand. His novels dealt with the things they associated with that other dark continent: dictators, love, exotic landscapes, and machismo.

So what would Cortázar say, forty years later, with a graying Vargas Llosa at the podium in Stockholm, now the author of seemingly countless novels, plays, essays? He would probably be the first to point out that his speech contained the same themes from fifty years ago: once again, dictators, love, exotic landscapes, and machismo.

The 74-year-old Peruvian took the occasion of his acceptance of the prize to speak out against Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez (dictators); thank his supportive wife Patricia (love); remember the Bolivia of his childhood (exotic landscapes); and diss Gabriel Garcia Márquez (machismo).

The second of the boom writers to win a prize after Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Vargas Llosa made no secret of to whom he owed some of the prize. In reading his short list of boom authors, as well as naming their matron and agent Carmen Barcells, he was essentially bowing his head to his fellow members in what is probably the most important group of novelists in the twentieth century.

Regardless of what Cortázar -- name-checked in Vargas Llosa’s speech -- may have seen as commercial or cliché, the boom writers were the first in many respects. At a time when hardly anyone read anything translated from Spanish in the anglophone world, they had name recognition in a little over a decade. Thanks to the translations of Alastair Reid and Gregory Rabassa, in tandem with the multiculturalism movement in the States, they quickly entered the canon. Until then, influence south of the border had been a one-way street. Latin America read the French, then the Americans, but not until the boom were they too read in other countries. Even more amazingly, perhaps, they were read by other writers from the developing world.  

Of course, the boom writers didn´t get there by themselves. They owe much to the largely international hispanophone republic of letters, which began at the end of the nineteenth century. Largely indebted to the French, these -- for the most part -- poets created a literature that was at once original and international. Nicaraguan Rubén Darío pointed out that Latin American literature was unique in that it essentially came from nowhere, with hardly any real traditions to speak of. Their example of experimentalism and optimism would inspire writers in the 1920s and '30s, like Peruvian José Maria Arguedas, whom Vargas Llosa cited in his speech. In fact, Arguedas's fusion of Marxism, anthropology, and fiction interested Vargas Llosa enough to write an entire book of criticism about him (although it reads almost as an indictment of his work).

Vargas Llosa likewise credited another Peruvian modernist, César Vallejo. Although Vallejo is best known for his otherworldly poetry, he also wrote novels, plays and essays. By the end of his life began leaning towards social activism, somewhat like Vargas Llosa himself, only Vallejo was an outspoken Marxist. The American poet Clayton Eshleman has devoted much of his life to rendering Vallejo´s verse in English. (Vallejo is also the dying poet protagonist of Roberto Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain.)

But of the long list of writers honored, one was clearly missing, his Colombian rival, Gabriel García Márquez. Here was the machismo: Vargas Llosa engaging in the sort of bravado unusual in a Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Considering that Vargas Llosa wrote a book -- yes, a book -- about García Márquez (Gabo) in 1971, the omission was a major insult. And is it really just coincidence that shortly after Vargas Llosa’s prize was announced rumors of a new Gabo novel next year began to circulate?

Their tiff dates back to a drunken scuffle at party in which Vargas Llosa dropped García Márquez with a punch in the face. They stopped speaking, and given García Márquez’s support of the Fidel regime, and Vargas Llosa’s support of other neoconservative figures, the distance between them just widened.

When García Márquez received the prize in 1982, he had a blowout. Accompanied by accordion, dressed in a ruana, wearing traditional indigenous shoes, he might as well have been Juan Valdez. Had they given Gabo the prize this year, instead of then, now that he hardly even visits Colombia, or publishes anything in it for that matter, it would not only seem foolish to play to a stereotype -- it would be seen as deeply hypocritical. Post-Nobel Gabo was a different writer altogether. As an icon and journalist (writing two full length works of creative nonfiction, or new journalism, one recently published by NYRB Classics), he became deeply involved in Colombia’s civil conflict of the '80s and '90s, although his involvement would end with the escalation of the conflict, as well as his 1999 cancer diagnosis. Then the aging Gabo began to withdraw from the limelight. He’s remained relatively quiet in his Mexico City home ever since.

Vargas Llosa may have told his audience in Stockholm that he doesn’t want a fate like Gabo's -- that is, to be a “statue” -- but it is too late. His now-solidified literary stardom combined with his outspokenness have quickly transformed him into a stateless statesman. In what will no doubt be the most important speech of his life, he denounced modern day “dictators,” but didn’t so much as whisper about Latin America’s biggest problem for the last 20 years: the war on drugs. (On other occasions he has called for the legalization of drugs; that didn't make it into this speech.) The torrential rains falling everywhere from the Amazon to Cancún because of climate change, which have killed, injured, or displaced thousands, weren’t mentioned either. (As I write this, Cancún is currently hosting a United Nations meeting about climate change, where Bolivian president Evo Morales accused the first world of “ecocide.”)

Vargas Llosa´s political message in Stockholm seemed to be this: as long as we have democracy, everything will be OK. But despite the a few decades of liberal democracy, life for most Latin Americans hasn’t greatly improved. Vargas Llosa is a writer from another era, we can’t fault him for his anachronisms. Besides, his contribution to literature as a writer and a public intellectual have been monumental. But I can't help wonder: what would Cortázar have said when the whole world was listening?