On Mario Vargas Llosa, and how to win a Nobel

Speculations on the announcement of the 2010 Nobel laureate, first published on the Prospect blog, October 2010

Much, it seems, to his own surprise, Mario Vargas Llosa has just become South America’s first Nobel laureate for literature since Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez won in 1982. Llosa was born in Peru in 1936; he contested and narrowly lost the 1990 presidential election there, and became a Spanish citizen in 1993. The Nobel, according to a magnificently pithy press release on the Swedish Academy’s excellent website, was awarded “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”

This is both elegantly put and of a piece with other recent awards. Herta Müller in 2009 was praised for depicting “the landscape of the dispossessed;” Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio in 2008 for being the “explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.” By my reckoning, that makes three years in a row of geographical metaphors on the Academy’s part—cartography, landscape and exploration—and an interesting emphasis on literature’s ability to take readers on a journey beyond their own experience, into the passions and struggles of other lives. There’s even, dare I say it, a sense of great literature as a kind of outsider art, sticking it to the complacency of the world’s “reigning civilization” by, among other things, thinking outside of the English language.

This was certainly the impression I got when I interviewed the president of the Nobel committee for literature, Per Wästberg, earlier this year for Prospect—and talked, among other things, about his own fascination with journeys, and his astonishing personal history of political and literary activism. By any measure, Vargas Llosa is a dazzling internationalist and bringer of often esoteric literary preoccupations to bear on a global audience—not to mention a passionate advocate of literature as an art with a direct bearing on life, and on the question of how to live. Or, as he put it with considerably more eloquence in this 1997 piece on literary engagement:

Literature, which owes its life to freedom, helps us to understand that freedom does not come out of a clear blue sky; it is a choice, a conviction, a train of thought that needs to be constantly enriched and tested.