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7 October 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for literature

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

By Caroline Crampton

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.

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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.