Toward the end of what many consider Mario Vargas Llosa's best novel, The War of the End of the World, he reflects on a Brazilian baron's disgust with politics. It "had always bored him, wearied him, impressed him as being an inane, depressing occupation, since it revealed human wretchedness more clearly than any other." It was something the baron took part in "not out of some heartfelt vocation," but because he feared the "vast stupidity, irresponsibility, or corruption of others."
Avid readers of Vargas Llosa, who this week won the Nobel Prize for Literature, have long assumed that he shares his character's feelings about politics. It's fair to suggest that the 74-year-old Peruvian author from early works like The Time of the Hero to later novels like The Feast of the Goat, with their portrayals of cruel military schools and sadistic dictators views Latin American politics with similar disdain. And yet he was nonetheless driven to enter politics with a 1990 run for president in Peru in no small part by a certain misanthropic distrust harbored by every chronicler of the continent's travails. In Latin America, Vargas Llosa said Thursday, it's "inevitable" that "literature deals with power" and standing up to it.
But even though Vargas Llosa's presidential bid failed, the Nobel is a triumphant affirmation of his politics as well as his prose. Vargas Llosa began his career berating the Latin American right; spent the middle of it rebuking the Latin American left; and in his later years has championed the pragmatic, post ideological politics that is finally beginning to drive real development in Latin America, from the Baja to Brazil. In that sense, Vargas Llosa's Nobel recognizes the trajectory of Latin America as well as that of one of its most elegantly powerful writers: today the region's future belongs to those building functioning institutions more than to those seeking dramatic revolutions.
Like most writers of Latin America's literary "boom" generation that came of age in the 1960s, Vargas Llosa was a leftist in his younger years. And the Latin American left was once in vogue with those who award the literature Nobel to left wingers Pablo Neruda of Chile in 1971, and Colombia's Gabriel García Márquez in 1982 not just for masterpieces like García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude but also because it defied the brutal right-wing dictatorships that blackened the region during the Cold War (even if it excused the communist regime in Cuba) and flipped its middle finger at the U.S.
Yet, while his buddy García Márquez was scuba diving with Fidel Castro, Vargas Llosa grew disillusioned with leftism, particularly the rigid dogma and fiscal profligacy taking hold in many Latin governments. When he punched García Márquez in the eye in 1976 over a spat involving Vargas Llosa's wife, it was also a foreshadowing of the political pelea that lay ahead between the Peruvian and the beard-and-beret set.
But the Nobel committee was moving in Vargas Llosa's direction too. At the end of the 1980s Latin America's Lost Decade statist economic policies had bankrupted the region, including Peru, while the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union would leave Cuba a pauper. The region's leftist literati lost some of their luster as well. Mexican author Octavio Paz, who like Vargas Llosa now championed capitalist democracy, won the Nobel in 1990. A year later, Vargas Llosa summed up Latin America's destructive political self-deceptions when he called Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled without interruption since 1929, "the perfect dictatorship" because it was "camouflaged" to look like a democracy.
The PRI finally fell in 2000, but so did the notion, which dominated the 1990s, that free-market neoliberalism was Latin America's solution. The new economics may have generated wealth, but it exacerbated the already epic gap between rich and poor during that decade, and Vargas Llosa once again had to adjust his intellectual lens. Weary of ideologies, he and many other prominent Latin writers encouraged a path between the poles "I absolutely hate authoritarianism on the right or the left," Vargas Llosa told an interviewer in 2007 and most Latin leaders, including leftists like Lula in Brazil, were on the same page.
Today, as a result, "the distance between the region's left-of-center and right-of-center democratic politicians and parties is finally narrowing" in favor of an "eclectic blend," Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, wrote recently in AméricaEconomía. And to a large extent, especially in Brazil, Chile and even Peru, the middle path has so far worked.
Politics can indeed be a wretched occupation, and Vargas Llosa wasn't a very good politician when he tried it. But at least Latin American governance is moving away from the savage allegory imagined in his 1966 novel The Green House, in which a character insists she'd rather live in the Peruvian jungle because "people are nicer back there." And for that evolution Latin Americans can partly thank their writers, like Vargas Llosa, whose inevitable chronicles of the political jungle offer us a vision of the continent's promise as well as its perils.