The Revenge of the Novel

Mario Vargas Llosa, the new Nobel laureate, has always seen fiction as much more than just stories.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

On Thursday the Swedish Academy announced that the 2010 Nobel Prize for literature would go to Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, citing "his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat."

The academy’s decision was heralded by many in the Latin American press and in scholarly circles as long awaited, if not overdue. The Buenos Aires paper Clarín began its lead story by announcing that Vargas Llosa had "finally succeeded to that place for which he had been an eternal candidate."

Indeed, many have speculated that if Vargas Llosa had not been granted this great honor, despite a career of accolades including all the highest awards in the Spanish-language literary world, the reason had to be the writer’s political views, which are famously somewhat to the right of most of his peers. That rumor was echoed by the website of the Spanish news agency Efe, which in its article covering the award referred to "the rumor, extended throughout the world . . . that the Nobel had not been withheld from him for lack of literary merit, but for the controversy generated by his enthusiastic, orthodox, and militant liberalism." As La Nación in Buenos Aires wrote, "Admired for his description of social realities, on the political plane his right-of-center positions have attracted the hostility of an intellectual milieu that tends toward the left." This sentiment was corroborated by Spanish writer and fellow member of the Spanish Royal Academy Álvaro Pombo, who said in Efe that the announcement "isn’t going to please [Vargas Llosa’s] enemies, and Hugo Chávez will call him a counterrevolutionary."

While the Swedish Academy’s characteristically brief rationale gives no hint as to political motivations or the lack thereof, the elements of Vargas Llosa’s work it chose to highlight give some sense of what artistic impulses may have led the novelist to the political positions that have engendered such controversy.

The two concepts plucked out by the academy are "power" and "the individual." By describing Vargas Llosa’s writing as a "cartography of structures of power," on one hand, and "trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat" on the other, the academy essentially identified his literary contribution as twofold: an analytic of how structures of power works and an aesthetic representation of individuals’ resistance to that power. In other words: philosophical liberalism.

Most biographies of Vargas Llosa note his early leftist proclivities and support of Fidel Castro, followed by a move to the right starting with his public criticism of the Castro regime for the imprisonment of Cuban poet Herberto Padilla in 1971, and leading to an embrace of economic liberalism culminating in his candidacy for the Peruvian presidency at the head of a right-of-center coalition. His 1963 breakthrough novel, La ciudad y los perros (The Time of the Hero), which was based on his own experience as a student at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Lima and roundly criticized by the Peruvian military for its negative depictions of military life, could be read as supporting politics that would later shift.

But in fact the primary ethical concerns of Vargas Llosa’s writing do not seem to have largely changed throughout his life. If his first great novel explored the suffocating and often humiliating milieu of a military academy through the eyes of its young students, who strive to become individuals against the enforced uniformity of institutional power, his latest book, El sueño del celta, which will be released on Nov. 3, is also fundamentally concerned with the plight of individuals and with the desire for self-determination. The book is based on the life of a historical figure, the Irish nationalist Roger Casement. As his Spanish-language publisher Alfaguara writes in the book’s promotional copy, "the author spent three years reconstructing the life of this defender of human rights, a British diplomat who ended up actively fighting in the cause for Irish nationalism."

Vargas Llosa himself, however, notes something else about Casement that attracted his attention, namely, that "he led an adventurous and really novelesque life." This last remark suggests one possible link between Vargas Llosa’s political interests and his creative motivation. In a lecture he delivered in Edinburgh in 1986, the author spoke of the power of fiction to intervene in human reality, a power he felt had even greater sway and potential in the Latin American context. Speaking of the program of censorship instituted by the Inquisition in the conquered territories and extended in the form of a prohibition on novels that lasted until the wars of independence, Vargas Llosa remarked that the censors "did not realize that the realm of fiction was larger and deeper than that of the novel. Nor could they imagine that the appetite for lies — that is, for escaping objective reality through illusions — was so powerful and rooted in the human spirit that, once the vehicle of the novel was not available to satisfy it, the thirst for fiction would infect — like a plague — all the other disciplines and genres in which the written word could flow."

But if the culture of censorship led to a present condition in which, as he said then, "we are still victims in Latin America of what we could call ‘the revenge of the novel,’" because "we still have great difficulty in our countries in differentiating between fiction and reality," he also identifies in this condition a kind of saving grace, attributable to the writer’s art: "We novelists must be grateful to the Spanish Inquisition for having discovered, before any critic did, the inevitably subversive nature of fiction."

If fiction has that power for Vargas Llosa, it does so because in a world where realities can be controlled and peoples deluded, fiction can and does undermine mass-produced certainties with the questions and dreams of those who choose, for one reason or another, to differ.

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon professor in the humanities and chair of the department of German and Romance languages and literatures at the Johns Hopkins University.