Vargas Llosa: Nobel Goes for Well-Known Name

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Juan Medina / Reuters

Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, poet, essayist and journalist, was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy announced today. The academy honored him "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat." He is the first Latin American writer to win the prize since Octavio Paz in 1990.

The Nobel tends to be given as a lifetime achievement award — it goes to a writer, not to a particular work — and Vargas Llosa, 74, earned it with decades of critically acclaimed writing across literary genres. Born in the small southern Peruvian town of Arequipa in 1936, he was brought up in Bolivia by his maternal grandparents after his parents divorced. He returned to Lima for military school, then studied law, and afterward he lived abroad for nearly two decades, spending time in Spain, France and England. It was during that time that he began writing novels. His 1963 novel, The Time of the Hero, which drew on his military school experiences and exposed the corruption he encountered there, catapulted him onto the literary scene. Among his other well-known novels are The Green House, Conversation in the Cathedral and the epic saga War of the End of the World, a fictional narrative aabout the 19th century uprising in the Brazilian town of Canudos, which the influential American literary critic Harold Bloom cites in his list of the essential works of the Western canon.

Interviewed by The Paris Review in 1990, Vargas Llosa ascribed his "obsessive desire to write" to his time at military school. "It was an extremely traumatic experience which in many ways marked the end of my childhood," he said, "the rediscovery of my country as a violent society, filled with bitterness, made up of social, cultural, and racial factions in complete opposition and caught up in sometimes ferocious battle. I suppose the experience had an influence on me; one thing I’m sure of is that it gave rise to the great need in me to create, to invent."

Like many other prominent Latin American writers, Vargas Llosa coupled his urge to invent with an urge to record and comment. He has had a prolific career as a journalist, essayist and critic; among his notable critical works is a study of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And like many writers in the Latin American tradition, he has been politically active, moving over the decades from the left (he supported Fidel Castro) to a more conservative position. His autobiographical A Fish in the Water chronicles his unsuccessful run for president of Peru in 1990.

In his fiction, Vargas Llosa is a storyteller in the 19th-century mode, one who seeks to "abolish the distance between the story and the reader." He told The Paris Review: "I think it’s very important that the intellectual element, whose presence is inevitable in a novel, dissolves into the action, into the stories that must seduce the reader not by their ideas but by their color, by the emotions they inspire, by their element of surprise, and by all the suspense and mystery they’re capable of generating."

Vargas Llosa has a high international profile; he is widely read in translation, has served as president of the PEN international association of writers, and in 1995 was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the highest literary honor in the Spanish-speaking world. In winning the Nobel, he joins an elite group of Latin American writers: Paz, Garcia Marquez, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. He has taught and lectured around the world; this fall he is in residence at Princeton University, where he was notified of his win. "I am very grateful to have received this privilege," Vargas Llosa told CNN en Espanol Thursday morning. "The truth is I did not expect it. It was a surprise ... but a pleasant surprise."

It was a pleasant surprise for many armchair Nobel enthusiasts as well, after two years of dark-horse candidates. There is no publicized short list for the prize and nominations are kept secret for 50 years, so literary critics and journalists worldwide are reduced to an annual October ritual of frenzied speculation. The night before the announcement, British betting house Ladbrokes had the American novelist Cormac McCarthy on top, with odds of 3/1, followed by Japan's Haruki Murakami (5/1) and Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o (11/2); Vargas Llosa was at 25/1. Earlier this week, handicapping half a dozen Latin American authors' chances for victory, the blog The Millions counted Vargas Llosa's name recognition as a possible strike against him. Now, of course, he's as recognized as a writer can be.