Literature and Liberty

Renowned Mexican historian and journalist Enrique Krauze on how Mario Vargas Llosa's novels revealed Latin America's soul -- and exorcised its demons.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The work of Mario Vargas Llosa, in its purest essence, is borne of a fundamental indignation — a radical criticism of the many faces of oppression and fanaticism. There was the oppression of military juntas in his first novels, the social injustice and political corruption in Conversación en La Catedral, the religious fanaticism of The War of the End of the World, the wretched guerrilla utopianism in Historia de Mayta, and, of course, the authoritarian caudillismo of Rafael Trujillo, the paradigm of a Latin American Dictator, in La fiesta del Chivo. Yet in all of this, what Vargas Llosa’s writing is not — and never has been — is literature with an argument. Rather, Vargas Llosa offers the world a sophisticated artistic re-creation of the extremes and vices of human misery, written in order to reveal that reality — and exorcize it.

Then there is the playful side — and it’s thrilling in his literature, having made countless men and women laugh and smile worldwide — which seems an oasis of liberty or a game that Vargas Llosa uses to replenish the soul after the tremendous effort required by his libertarian novels. Through affectionate dreams and reveries, Vargas Llosa’s novels escape his other demons.

Vargas Llosa is the opposite of a "conservative" writer. He is a liberal intellectual. And it is today, faced with the currents of intolerance that persist in Latin America, that we will at last vindicate the legitimacy of a liberal democratic telling of history. It is a liberal project, a civilizing project par excellence; it is what founded our nations, and it is what Vargas Llosa brings to life in his life and his works. Faced with authoritarian power, the liberal soul makes no distinctions. Vargas Llosa, it’s true, believed in the Cuban Revolution and did so for a decade, because he believed it was his fate to be a liberator of men. But he also had the courage to tear himself away from that same revolution when he became aware of its irreversible totalitarian direction. With the same substance and conviction, he has criticized military dictators and corrupt governments around the globe. It was he who baptized Mexico’s PRI as "the perfect dictatorship." And no novel can outdo his treatment of the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo regime, with his combination of literary excellence and radical moral critique.

It was not only in novels that Vargas Llosa defended liberty. He has also done so in his columns in El País and Reforma. As an essayist and reporter, he was like a young soldier fighting for liberty. And indeed, he often carried himself straight to the mouth of the wolf (to Baghdad, Gaza, Congo, Haiti, Darfur). He has never ceased to draw criticism for his works. But the voice that counts to him is his internal voice — and the imperative of truth.

His triumph this Thursday is also that of Peruvian literature. This tragic and diverse country has finally won the Nobel it deserves. The Spanish language also counts a victory. The Nobel, as almost everyone knows, passed over Jorge Luis Borges, and most thought it would pass over Vargas Llosa as well. With this honor, the Swedish Academy honors not only Vargas Llosa but itself, by returning to a tradition of honoring the best candidates.

And the prize comes at the best possible moment for Latin America. Caudillismo, militarism, redeemer ideology, populism, and fanaticism are all still present in our countries. And yet over the last 20 years, our march toward democracy has been permanent. After Octavio Paz, Vargas Llosa has been its staunchest defender.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize is an act of justice toward literature and toward liberty. They are two inseparable words.

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