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Peruvian Writer Mario Vargas Llosa on the Importance of Literature

June 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the world's leading writers, speaks with Jeffrey Brown about his new book and how he folds history and contemporary politics into his writing.
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MARIO VARGAS LLOSA, Author, “The Dream of the Celt”: Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses.

JEFFREY BROWN: Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, Mario Vargas Llosa told his audience a story — his own. 

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: Once upon a time, there was a boy who learned to read at the age of 5. This changed his life. Owing to the adventure tales he read, he discovered a way to escape from the poor house, the poor country, and the poor reality in which he lived. 

JEFFREY BROWN: The acclaimed storyteller, one of the most celebrated writers in the Spanish-speaking world and beyond, learned from the tales of others. 

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: Reading was such an enrichment of my life. And it was that pleasure that I had as a very young reader probably that is the origin of my vocation. 

JEFFREY BROWN: So here’s a younger version of the writer, huh? 

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: Yes. That’s probably of the ’70s, huh? 

JEFFREY BROWN: Vargas Llosa and I met recently at the Americas Society in New York to talk about his life and work. 

He was a key figure in the Latin American boom that began in the 1960s and ’70s, when the literature of a continent burst on the worldwide scene, the product of writers including Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia, Julio Cortazar of Argentina, Carlos Fuentes of Mexico. 

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: It was a fantastic experience to share it with so many writers. It was very interesting, not only because the rest of the world discovered Latin American literature, but because Latin Americans discovered that they had a literature of its own that was, until then, I would say, very isolated and concentrated in very, very small minorities. This has changed very much since then, very, very much. 

JEFFREY BROWN: The Peruvian-born Vargas Llosa helped lead the way, with novels that explored contemporary Latin American life and politics, from comedy to tyranny, as well as its layers of history. 

His new novel, titled “The Dream of the Celt,” paints on an even wider canvas. It’s based on a real-life character, an Irishman named Roger Casement, who in the early 1900s went to the Belgian Congo and later the Amazon and wrote scathingly of colonialism’s abuses and horrors. 

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: And I think the great merit of Roger Casement is that he was the first European denouncing this, and denouncing this not as an, let’s say, exceptional phenomenon, but as a natural consequence of what colonialism is in its roots. 

JEFFREY BROWN: When you have a real-life character — and you have done this before, to great effect — how much freedom of imagination do you allow yourself? 

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: Yes. 

Total freedom. I investigate, and I take notes. And all this, for me, is just an exercise to put into action inventiveness, fantasy. In general, I think my freedom of invention is not limited when I use historical characters. 

JEFFREY BROWN: I would imagine, knowing a number of your other novels, that when you heard of this story, you were drawn to it because it allowed you to look at history and a lot of these important themes, right? 

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: Oh, I — yes. 

I have been always fascinated and seduced by history, which I think is very close, very close to literature. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Different ways of telling a story.. 

(CROSSTALK)

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: Yes, telling a story, and also of creating a kind of order, an artificial order that puts some sense in this chaos in which we live. 

And the other reason why I like these, let’s say, large subjects is because I have lived in a country, in a region in which all these basic problems are not yet solved. If you live in America or in France or in Britain, these basic problems are, in a way, already solved, you know? But in Latin America, Peru, Colombia, or Ecuador, or Cuba, or Venezuela, these basic problems are yet unsolved. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, Vargas Llosa has been a writer very much engaged in the history of his own time. In 1990, he plunged directly into the political arena, running unsuccessfully for the presidency of Peru. 

And a long-running column on politics and culture for the Spanish newspaper El Pais is distributed to this day throughout Latin America. A collection of those essays, titled “Touchstones,” is available in English. 

Vargas Llosa says that, for Latin American writers of his generation, literature was never an isolated endeavor. 

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: We were trained as writers with the idea that literature is something that can change reality, that it’s not just a very sophisticated entertainment, but a way to act. 

Today, these ideas have disappeared, practically, among the new generations. Now the young writers consider that it’s too pretentious to think that literature can produce this kind of — but then, when I was young, when I started to write, we were totally convinced that literature was a kind of weapon. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you still think that? 

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: Let’s say with less naivete, with less optimism back when I was young, but, still, I don’t accept the idea that literature can be just entertainment and that there is no (INAUDIBLE) consequences of literature in the real world. 

If this is true, I think it gives the writer a kind of responsibility that is not only literary, but also moral. 

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mario Vargas Llosa, nice to talk to you. Thank you. 

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: Thank you very much.