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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear