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Shocker! The Nobel Prize goes to Vargas Llosa– who actually deserves it

October 7, 2010


Mario Vargas Llosa


Two lessons, not mutually exclusive, emerge from Mario Vargas Llosa’s surprise Nobel Prize for Literature, announced earlier today. 1) The predictive abilities of bookies are no greater than those of book reviewers; 2) the Swedes are having fun with us (scary thought, that).

One thing we can all agree on, Vargas Llosa’s selection is well deserved, even though he wasn’t on the list of authors favored by British oddsmakers. We’re reduced each year to quoting gaming houses like Ladbrokes because the Swedes keep their selection process a more closely guarded secret than the Vatican.

Based on Ladbroke’s oddsmaking, the leading contenders as of midweek were American novelist Cormac McCarthy, Japanese novelist Haruki Murukami, and Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

By yesterday, though, more reasoned analysis began to arrive. Lee Smith, writing in The Weekly Standard, noted that since the Swedes are contrary and unpredictable, “forecasting the Nobel Prize for Literature is less like handicapping the ponies than shooting craps…”

Mark Asch, in The L Magazine, wrote on Tuesday, with what now seems spooky prescience: “Consensus is that poets, South Americans and Scandinavians have been underrepresented in the selections of recent years (though not as much as black Africans); safe picks for geographical distribution would probably include the perpetual candidates Llosa and Fuentes, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer and Syrian poet Adonis.”

By whatever alchemy, the inscrutable Swedes have arrived at a splendid selection. Vargas Llosa is the author of more than 30 novels, plays and essays, including his breakout novel, The Time of the Hero (English translation, 1966), The Green House (1968), and Conversations in the Cathedral (1975), considered by some his masterpiece.

My favorite among his novels, and I expect this is true of many of his readers, will always be Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a deliriously inventive and romantic novel about a young writer who falls in love with his aunt. To some extent, it mirrors Vargas Llosa’s own youth, when he eloped with an aunt named Julia.

Perhaps Vargas Llosa’s Nobel will not only draw renewed attention to his work, but to South American literature generally, especially magical realism, which had its international vogue in the early 1980s, culminating in a 1982 Nobel for Vargas Llosa’s  one-time friend, Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Vargas Llosa’s career took a long turn into politics when he ran for the Peruvian presidency as leader of a center-right reformist coalition in 1990. Losing to Alberto Fujiomoro after a protracted run-off, Vargas Llosa left for Europe, where he obtained Spanish citizenship and spends most of his time in London.

In his later years, Vargas Llosa has concentrated on writing. His 2002 novel, The Feast of the Goat, a fictional account of the reign and assassination of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Leonidis Trujillo, is generally viewed as among his best.

In announcing Vargas Llosa’s Nobel, the nominating committee said, he was chosen “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” If anyone has the least guess as to what that means, please, please let me know.

What are the Swedes up to, awarding the Literature Prize (and its $1.5 million stipend) to a writer who is not only world famous but also relatively accessible and great fun to read? Instead of some obscure French or Eastern European naval-gazer? Your guess is as good as mine.

But one thing seems certain: Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s aging greatest living writer, can give up on the prize now. It seems unlikely the Swedes, in their diabolical calculations, will bestow it on another Latin American anytime soon. Before today, the last Latin American to win was poet Octavio Paz, in 1990.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2010 4:26 pm

    Bravo, bravo! I love this man. Yeah, what a shocker.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 7, 2010 6:11 pm

    It’s something to celebrate, eh?

  3. Eileen permalink
    October 7, 2010 7:26 pm

    I really loved “Aunt Julia” too, but I’m glad you said it first, since I was a little embarrassed I’d only read his most whimsical book.

    I just heard Vargas Llosa interviewed on NPR, and he said
    “In general, a writer would like to think that the best book that he has written is the book that he is writing, and the next book will be even better. Maybe if this is not true, it is very useful to keep the illusion alive.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 7, 2010 10:24 pm

      I interviewed him once, a very long time ago, at the Biltmore Hotel in Miami. It was just after his misadventures in electoral politics. A tall, solid handsome man with impeccable manners and more warmth than was really required in dealing with a provincial journalist. But none of that would have mattered if I did not like Aunt Julia so much.

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