In contrast to the widespread puzzlement that characterized Herta Mueller’s Nobel Prize win last year, the international response to Mario Vargas Llosa’s honor is hardly one of surprise. Consistently topping out the Academy’s rumored short-list, the Peruvian author’s long-overdue tribute breaks a Euro-centric spell that has overly privileged European writers in the past six years. It is also the first time since Gabriel García Marquez’s win in 1982 that a South American author has won the prestigious prize — a fact made all the more timely with the recent news of Granta’s first ever “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue.
García Marquez, who, along with Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes, comprised the core members of the Latin American New Wave during the ‘60s and ‘70s, took to Twitter this morning with a playful message directed at his newly honored friend: “Cuentas iguales” (“Now we’re equals”). The Colombian author’s congratulatory sarcasm points to the implication that the 28-year gap between their Nobel-winning recognition is not a function of deservingness so much as timing and politics.
But bureaucratic logistics within the international literary community have been the least of Vargas Llosa’s career-related power struggles. A poster child for paternal and political oppression — a common, if almost cliché, feature among revolutionary artists — Vargas Llosa was sent to military school at 14 after his father discovered his poetry, and the Peruvian military later burned a thousand copies of his first novel, The Time of the Hero, which was based on his adolescent experience there. He has traversed the political spectrum — from youthful support of the Cuban Revolution to a free market presidential candidacy platform — and caused personal scandals by eloping with his aunt while still a teenager and later giving García Marquez a black eye over a private disagreement (the two didn’t speak for nearly 30 years).
That said, Vargas Llosa’s fiction has been consistent in its commitment to the exploration of power dynamics — from governmental to marital levels — and the Swedish Academy fittingly honored him “for his cartography of structures of power and [for] his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” He draws heavy inspiration from Peru despite having intermittently lived in self-exile for decades, but his literary influences vary from Gustave Flaubert, about whom he wrote a non-fiction study, to William Faulkner, who he described as “the writer who perfected the methods of the modern novel.” As such, Vargas Llosa’s works are characterized by storytelling craftsmanship and clever narrative flourishes such as interlacing dialogues (most notably used in his novel The Green House, later used as self-parody in Captain Pantoja and the Special Service) and temporal narrative shifts (masterfully, if unconventionally, featured in Conversation in the Cathedral).
In addition to his 17 novels and short story collections, Vargas Llosa has written ten books of literary criticism, three plays, co-directed a movie based on Captain Pantoja, and has worked as a journalist, lecturer, and university professor.