Super Mario

A brilliant writer with remarkable political gifts, Mario Vargas Llosa is a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

Counterpoints Latin America Literature

 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. 

There is also Mario the admirable orator. He has taught a great deal in universities up and down the world, from Berlin to Princeton, but I think most of Mario the superb lecturer who can illuminate so well a theme or a person whom he is introducing, and he can do that in English and Spanish and I expect French also. Once in 1982, he introduced in the Ateneo in Madrid a Spanish edition of my history of the world. It was a tour de force. I asked him for a copy of what he had said. “But Hugh I had no notes,” was his answer.

I first met Mario in London in 1970. At that time, although he had published several magnificent novels, he was not widely known outside Peru. He was teaching, I think, in a school in Hampstead. We met at the flat in Gloucester Road of the Cuban exile writer, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, a friend of mine since I went to Cuba in 1961.We were all of us exiles from the Left, for Mario had had an enthusiastic left-wing stage in the Sixties which is not dealt with in A Fish in the Water, though I am sure that it will be in another memoir one day. 

After that, I saw quite a lot of Mario, and he and Hernando de Soto invited me to a conference in Peru in 1982 to discuss the legacy of the Spanish empire De Soto, with his justification of capitalism The Other Path, seemed the hero of the time and Mario was mentioned as a possible minister of culture if he were to win the presidency of Peru at the next election. But Mario began to realise that he himself had very remarkable political gifts and it was he who emerged as the leader of the traditional Peru with a party he founded which seemed to articulate the hopes of the free marketeers. He came to a dinner I gave for Margaret Thatcher to meet writers in 1982.

Mario’s eventual presidential campaign was conducted with brio and much courage, though he was ultimately defeated by the more earthy Japanese-Peruvian Alberto Fujimori. But now the supreme winner is Mario. Congratulations!