Conversation: The Life and Work of Nobel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa. Photo by Daniele Devoti.
Earlier Thursday, the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. The award cited the literary giant “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”
Vargas Llosa has written more than 30 novels, plays and essays, including “Conversation in the Cathedral,” “The Green House” and “The Feast of The Goat.” In 1995, he won the Cervantes Prize, the highest literary honor for contributions to Spanish literature.
I spoke about the life and work of Vargas Llosa with Efrain Kristal, a UCLA professor of comparative literature and of Spanish and Portuguese, and an expert on Latin American literature. He is the author of “Temptation of the Word: The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa.”
A transcript is after the jump.
JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown, and today joining us is Efrain Kristal. He’s a professor of Spanish and comparative literature at the University of California at Los Angeles, and he’s here to talk to us about the winner for the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, Mario Vargas Llosa. For those who don’t know, perhaps who haven’t read Vargas Llosa, what makes him one of today’s leading writers?
EFRAIN KRISTAL: He’s one of the master storytellers of the 20th century. He is also a master of literary technique who was able to take folk marian approaches to shifting temporal and spatial planes to a new level. He was first famous for writing three very strong novels in the 1960s in which he explored the corrosive impact of corruption on individuals, on communities and on society at large. And then in the 1970s there was a turning point in his career. He began to turn to humor, to irony, to a literary technique in which he alternated literary registers and was very concerned about the theme of the fanatic. In the first period he wrote a masterpiece about corruption and society called “Conversation in the Cathedral.” And in the second period he wrote another masterpiece called “The War of the End of the World” about how fanaticism can lead to enormous human cataclysm.
JEFFREY BROWN: Put him in some historical context, because, of course, he’s part of this generation of hugely influential and talented writers in Latin American — Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes — what was Vargas Llosa sort of facing and what did he and others change?
EFRAIN KRISTAL: In the 1960s they were facing a very turbulent moment in Latin American history in which on the one hand these were writers who were deeply concerned about social and political issues, on the other hand they were also deeply concerned about aesthetic literary issues as well. So on the one hand they were concerned about events such as the Cuban Revolution — at the beginning very sympathetic to it — at the same time they were fascinated by the writing of Jorge Luis Borges. They found a way of combining their political commitment with literature of the highest order.
JEFFREY BROWN: He had sort of an interesting relationship with Garcia Marquez, I guess, the sort of famous punch in the nose at one point, but I guess friends later on or?
EFRAIN KRISTAL: They were very close friends at the beginning of their careers. In fact Vargas Llosa wrote a wonderful book about Garcia Marquez’s novels. And then I think they had personal and political differences, which distanced them, but in recent years there has been some nice rapprochement.
JEFFREY BROWN: And Vargas Llosa, of course, entered politics himself. He lost in a bid for the presidency of Peru, and I gather that wasn’t a real happy experience for him. But he has been a very engaged writer.
EFRAIN KRISTAL: From the beginning. In his young period he was engaged with socialist causes. He became disenchanted with socialism, Cuban socialism, in particular. And then he had a turn when he ran for the Peruvian presidency. If there has been one element that has been consistent throughout his career as an individual engaged with politics, it’s the defense of human freedom and also his contempt for dictatorships of any kind.
JEFFREY BROWN: You told us about some of his early years. One of my favorites of, I guess it’s the later period, is “The Feast of the Goat,” where he really takes on sort of raw power directly. He’s still writing, of course. How has his writing changed over the years or more recently?
EFRAIN KRISTAL: “The Feast of the Goat” is a wonderful novel in which he finds the right synthesis between the two themes that had concerned him in the early period. It is both a novel about how an individual and a series of individuals can corrupt a whole society and a novel about fanaticism and its detrimental effects on the world as well. He’s been extremely active, which is also a very nice reason why getting the Nobel Prize is nice, offering the Nobel Prize to a writer who is extremely active. In recent years he has written novels such as “The Bad Girl,” a novel which is a kind of tour de force in the sense that earlier novels by Vargas Llosa used to alternate between a realistic register and a more fantastic register. This novel is a novel where each chapter can be simultaneously read in a realistic register or in the fantastic register. It’s really an accomplishment that only a writer of his caliber could do.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you finally, if I could, about him personally. You’ve gotten to know him I guess over the years.
EFRAIN KRISTAL: Yes, he’s an extremely charming person. He’s deeply, deeply cultured, has a prodigious memory and he’s also has an insatiable curiosity about everything. He’s also a very generous spirit. He makes everyone he speaks with have the sense that they are important, because he is actually genuinely interested in them. Of course, eventually whatever he gets out of the conversation might appear in his novels, but the curiosity and generosity of his spirit is truly genuine.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Efrain Kristal of UCLA on the life and work of the Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, thank you very much.
EFRAIN KRISTAL: Thank you very much.