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Super Mario
November 2010

 Mario Vargas Llosa: A richly-deserved Nobel Prize (GETTY IMAGES)

"It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last [tears] which she was destined to shed." These are the last words in Henry James's great novel, The Bostonians. They relate to an ultra-feminist who falls in love with and marries a charming reactionary. I quote them because once when talking to Mario Vargas Llosa about books he had recently read he came up with the quotation without referring to any text. The memory recalls the fact that Mario is the best-read friend I have, in all languages. If I were to ask him something about Tirant le Blanc, that extraordinary Valencian novel by Joannot Martorell in the 1490s, he would also immediately remember how in the last pages an Englishman rather surprisingly becomes emperor of Constantinople. That, my masters, was a feat as remarkable as a Peruvian becoming a Nobel Prize-winner for Literature. Mario, incidentally, wrote a splendid introduction to the first French edition of Tirant in 2003. He rightly entitled his essay "Roman sans frontières".

That is certainly what we think when we hear of Mario's brilliant novels also. Aunt Julia, the inspiration being Mario's first wife, is plainly a Peruvian but we can imagine her anywhere — in Paris, for example, where Mario has been so happy. Did he not say that a month in Paris is like reading a long admirable historical novel? That was when he was a student in Paris in the 1950s. A man who has written so well of Brazil in that extraordinary reconstruction The War of the End of the World (1981) is not to be limited to any geographical boundaries. Another international novel was The Feast of the Goat, where the reputation of the dictator of Santo Domingo, Trujillo, was destroyed once and for all. There is also a new novel based on the English explorer and traitor Roger Casement, which is a work for all time. Yet Peru is always there. The Time of the Hero was his most original novel of the 1960s and then there is the remarkable study of that inglorious terrorist movement, the Shining Path, Death in the Andes

We should not limit ourselves to his novels. He has written a fine autobiography, A Fish in the Water, which is surely the best personal record of a Latin American writer of our times that can only be admired for its honesty as well as its eccentricity (the scenes of life in a newspaper in the 1950s take some beating and his nostalgic memories of the brothels of old Lima are stunning). But now Mario is known as an accomplished essayist and he writes with great style and profundity on a regular basis in the Spanish liberal newspaper El País. It speaks much for that journal's editors that they are prepared to publish on a regular basis such a writer as Mario whose views are now essentially, though creatively, conservative. Mario has written political articles but I think that his friends will recall best essays like those written about his journeys — for example, the remarkable series of articles which he wrote about the early days of the United States occupation of Iraq. 

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