Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for literature

The 74-year-old Peruvian author, playwright and essayist is honoured by the Swedish Academy.

Mario Vargas Llosa is the 2010 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Making the announcement, the Swedish Academy explained it was honouring the Peruvian author "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat".

Vargas Llosa, who also ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of Peru in 1990, is the author of more than 15 novels, including The Time of the Hero (1966), The Green House (1968) and, more recently, The Feast of the Goat (2000), a fictional recreation of the assassination of the Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo.

In an interview with Vargas Llosa in 2002, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, found him to be reflective about his thwarted political ambitions. Looking back on his failed presidential bid, the author said:

The whole thing was a mistake, but an understandable mistake, considering the state of Peru at the time. People came to me to ask me to run, it was an instinctive decision, but it was wrong of me. But I learned a lot about myself, about Peru and about politics.

Here is Cowley again, reviewing Vargas Llosa's collected essays in 2008:

Vargas Llosa is a sensualist and aesthete. He is an advocate of the good and orderly society, of the liberal democratic, yet there is something deep within him that longs imaginatively for disorder and chaos. He is aware of a deep duality in our nature: the conflict between reason and instinct, between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, between self-control and the transgressive. In a fine essay on Death in Venice, he writes with acuity and empathy of the rapid decline, in late middle age, of Thomas Mann's Gustav von Aschenbach, an austere and distinguished writer, a model of rectitude and self-discipline who, on a trip to Venice, falls uncontrollably in love with a beautiful boy. Von Aschenbach sickens, succumbing entirely to his obsession. His pursuit of the boy brings not release from tortuous desires, but more misery, humiliation and, ultimately, death.

"How can we define this subterranean presence which works of art usually reveal involuntarily . . . [and] without the author's permission?" Vargas Llosa asks. "Freud called it the death wish, Sade desire in freedom and Bataille, evil." What does Vargas Llosa call "it"? Unfortunately, he has little gift for aphorism, so this will have to do: "It is the quest for the integral sovereignty of the individual that pre-dates the conventions and rules that every society -- some more, some less -- imposes in order to make coexistence possible and prevent society from falling apart and reverting to barbarism."

This slow, stately sentence is characteristic of his often ponderous style. His grand, declamatory tone -- "Stand aside, I'm coming through", as it were -- is an authorial mannerism, and unintentionally self-parodic. It is as if an issue cannot be resolved until he has written about it.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era