October 2010

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Much Ado About Mario Vargas Llosa

Not since Octavio Paz twenty years ago has a Latin American won the Nobel Prize for literature. So when the news of a new Nobel Prizer winner hit that Thursday morning, everyone was talking about Mario Vargas Llosa. Everyone had read him. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone liked him -- for now, at least. The Argentine arts and culture magazine Revista Ñ interviewed Vargas Llosa only two hours after it was announced that he had won. Apparently Llosa had spent most of his day in the New York Public Library Research branch. Vargas Llosa told journalist Xavi Jaen that he was ¨fascinated¨ by the library.

Although I suppose that´s not really that curious; if you spend some time in libraries in other countries you quickly come to realize that doing research for free in the NYPL is about as close to a republic of letters as it gets. Vargas Llosa walks through Central Park, and doing other extremely human things, before sitting down to work on his next book-length about “the society of the spectacle.” (That sounds like an interesting project in and of itself.) He also discusses a new novel to be released in November by Spanish publishing house Alfaguara called El sueño de la celta, or The Celtic Dream based on the life of Irish revolutionary Roger Casement and rubber plantations (he was a British delegate in the Belgian Congo). Vargas Llosa explains that he became interested Britain’s delegate in the Congo after reading a biography of Joseph Conrad.

An article in the Uruguayan publication El Espectador reports that Vargas Llosa’s students at Princeton have given him gifts, among them a stuffed animal hippopatmus, an animal he has said on occasion to admire because they “enjoy making love.”

Colombian writer Hector Abad Faciolince wrote an endearing write-up of his friend titled, “Vargas Llosa: the intellectual flame” that came out in Spain’s El Pais. Faciolince begins:

In the last few months I´ve read (or re-read) a large number of his books, an experience that at the end of which I don´t hesitate to classify as -- although it sounds rather highfalutin -- monumental. For starters the dimension of his oeuvre is of Balzacian proportions, nearly fifty volumes. But quantity is least important. Corín Tellado [prolific Spanish writer of romance novels] has a vaster bibliography. The terrifying part is that all of these works are technically impeccable, and in terms of register, from the humorous and the light-hearted, the gracefully polite (my least favorite), to the most historically and psychologically complex.

One thing is for sure: Vargas Llosa’s books will be at the front of most American bookstores for the next few months. And I guess that’s a good thing. Some have already speculated this could mean more attention to Latin American literature and the Spanish language. As a translator, I really hope so. As a reader I could care less, as I think most people do. Besides, we already got Roberto Bolaño fever. Do we need Vargas-Llositis too?

Bolaño -- so often the embodiment of that coyly grinning emoticon -- has written a plethora of interesting, unique, even harsh critiques of the Boom writers, although he always spoke reverently of this year’s Nobel Laureate. I found in a copy of Vargas Llosa's first, amateurish, unpredictable and authentic works, Los jefes/Los cachorros, together about 30,000 words prefaced by an essay by Bolaño. In it, he names Los cachorros the most “bitter” of his favorite boom novels, but as in most of his essays, his spontaneity brings us to somewhere much stranger and more poignant, pointing out its ¨musicality¨ and ¨velocity¨ (this later term I suspect he pulled from Italo Calvino). He goes on to say that the work resembles Conversation in the Cathedral, an ambitious, very different type of work. He has similarly good things to say about Los jefes, what Bolaño deems his first book. I will point out that neither of these two short volumes has been translated, although they certainly deserve to be.  

For someone whose written dozens of fantastic novels, essays, plays, op-eds of such high literary quality the question arises, is Vargas Llosa a genius? Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet argues that “MVLL is by the Latin American writer that most makes people want to be writers. Among other things, he has demonstrated that it’s not necessary to be a genius to write masterpieces, and that the best material for a narrator is memory and curiosity, as well as imagination and madness.”

For centuries genius was enigmatic, inspired, even rare. It was the fruit of melancholy, alienation, rejection. Today it’s a word we avoid using. Michel Foucault blamed us for creating them. Harold Bloom ran to their defense, defining them as self-absorbed visionaries. More recently Malcolm Gladwell gave us a formula for it: 10,000 hours + good timing. So we’re led to believe that the people who revolutionize our world are pretty much just like us, only that they revolutionize our world. Vargas Llosa is like me, except that he’s much better at it than I am, goes that train of thought. The Secret Miracle -- three hundred pages of novelists explaining how they write, among them Mario Vargas Llosa -- makes it clear that the “miracle” or genius behind novel-writing is no longer so “secret.” In his forward, Peruvian-American writer Daniel Alarcón reveals that he’s written some five novels in addition to his acclaimed novel Lost City Radio. None of the others have been published. As he put it, he knows "how ridiculous it is for someone who´s written only one novel to be assigned the task of editing a book about how to write one." But he´s not the only one lacking experience; many of the authors from this collection are novices with only two or three novels under their belt. A strange selection for consultants about the novel, but Alarcon explains that The Secret Miracle “is to provide a glimpse into the way others approach the same task.”     

That said, I think there are perhaps two potential readers for this book: the beginner novelist who wants some tips from the pros, or the daring reader -- that’s read most of the twenty or so authors featured -- curious as to how they perform this "miracle."

The collection of authors evades definition. Suffice it to say that if it were a party, it wouldn’t be boring. They are young, old, popular, obscure, Anglophones, Hispanophones, Francophiles, and Stephen King. Their responses are about as different as they are from one another. Authors’ answers range from loquacious to terse, from funny to fuck you.   

When asked about the difference between a novel and a short story Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat responds: “Someone said a short story is like a date and a novel is a marriage. I tend to agree. It’s easier to wrap an entire short story around your head than it is a novel. A novel has inevitable surprise, more time and opportunity to roam and digress from the central idea. A short story forces you to focus more closely. It’s tighter, more economical. I won’t start a novel until I have a big chunk of free time ahead. I can write a short story with distractions in my life.”

Stephen King -- same question -- replies, “Novels are longer and have more shit in them.” How is the novice writer to resolve these kinds of contradictions? Simple: which writer do you like better? For the reader interested in this process, well, you start anxiously anticipating Stephen King’s responses.  

Alarcón explains that authors were invited to 826 Valencia, the non-for profit writing center that Dave Eggers began, to chat with aspiring writers. The Secret Miracle was a way to expand those questions to a larger audience. Perhaps it would have been better to keep the sessions intact. When their answers to the same question appear side-by-side you’re wondering how any writer can learn anything from any of this. When asked, “Do you write in sequence?” Haruki Murakami answers, “Always in sequence.” Rodrigo Fresan says, “Absolutely not” and Colm Tóibín writes, “Of course I do. Is there any other way to write?” Michael Chabon physiologically agrees, “Always. Can’t imagine skipping around. When I have tried to do it I feel nauseated and unable to proceed.” Once again, the curious reader might find this an interesting point of comparison for their favorite authors, if their favorite authors include Mario Vargas Llosa, Roddy Doyle, Haruki Marukami, Aleksander Hemon, Gary Shteyngart, Yuylin Li, Alejandro Zambra, Amy Tan, and Dinaw Mengestu.  

Peruvian novelist Santiago Rocangliolo -- who reads one book per week -- has some advice for reading: “There are lots of good books to read. There’s no need to obsess yourself with the bad ones. There are also good books that you read at the wrong time. In those, cases it’s better to wait and try again later.” I read that on page 33 and thought, maybe this isnt’t the right time, but went on anyway.

Question: “How important is humor?” Answers: “Indispensable”; “Irony maybe” ; “The most important thing”; “It’s great when it works.” This last zinger is from Stephen King. He's being ironic, one would think. Although, I can’t recall any funny moment in a Stephen King book, except for maybe the clown from It.   

Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin -- who has a already written an elaborate autobiographical piece about his literary creation, “Underwood, 1919” -- is the only writer that evidences the artistic potential of the creative process. Bellatin in his usual macabre magic of zigzagging logic and elusive prose, sabotages the book's proposition: anyone can do it anyway they like. Bellatin’s mixes natural states of being with his own habits as a reader and writer. What seems like advice is hollow decoration. He writes, “What becomes fundamental is only the exercise of write. It is placed above other considerations. The act of looking at one letter then another appearing, then finally completing the word.” Bellatin essentially sanctifies typing. He has other propositions, no less as seemingly true or absolutely ludicrous. Aren’t all books as “separating one letter from another”? While reading many books at once don’t they become spaces? As he says “Questions of this sort, it seems to me, the more absurd the better.”

Rather than offer answers, Bellatin asks questions, just as he should. If there were ever a clear definition for art it might be something that presents questions, and for literature -- naturally rhetorical -- even more so. The Secret Miracle most succeeds as a series of quotidian interviews with a diverse group of authors. Maybe sections by author, rather than by question would have been better. The index is useful and makes The Secret Miracle into something of a reference guide. Then again, I admit I skipped a few sections in favor of the ever-capricious Stephen King who answers, “Are you always a novelist? Can you ever turn it off?” with “On some level I guess. It’s an embedded part of my personality. Are you ever able to turn it off? Sure.” Alarcón told you from the outset that this is mostly for fascination sake, so just be fascinated. There’s no need to act like these are geniuses.

Besides, as staff writer Roger Angell revealed on his blog, the New Yorker rejected him a long time ago. Well, I'm sure there´s no hard feelings and in no time flat they´ll be publishing his new essay on Guy Debord's concept of the Society of the Spectacle. Come to think of it, maybe Vargas Llosa isn’t that excited. After all, once you get the Nobel, the rest is downhill: the next time you make big news, chances are you´ll be dead.

Jesse Tangen-Mills is a writer and translator living in Bogotá, Colombia, where he contributes to local arts and culture magazines.