Mario Vargas Llosa: "Through writing, one can change history."

vargasllosa.jpgPeruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature today. Why should you read him?

The committee praised Vargas Llosa for "his cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat." His first novel, The Time of the Hero (I've always preferred the Spanish title, La ciudad y los perros: The City and The Dogs), was denounced by the military for its unsavory depiction of military culture and boarding school. One thousand copies were publicly burned.

He wrote about living under the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría in the 1969 Conversation in the Cathedral, and later about the dictatorship of General Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in The Feast of the Goat.

Vargas Llosa also ran for president of Peru in 1990 and after losing, declared he was done with personal involvement in politics. In an interview with Emily Parker of The Wall Street Journal in 2007, he said, "Words are acts. ... Through writing, one can change history." He told Parker that he viewed literature as a vehicle for political thought in societies where speech and civil society were repressed: "If you live in a country where there is nothing comparable to free information, often literature becomes the only way to be more or less informed about what's going on."

That's not to say he is all social and political critique: For a writer who said he once believed that "serious literature never smiled," he's produced several witty, light novels. His 1977 novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, was an irreverent send-up of his first marriage. It was adapted in the American film Tune in Tomorrow (starring ... Keanu Reeves). And his 1988 In Praise of the Stepmother is a darkly funny erotic novel.

I'm skipping around to recommend what I've read from his oevre. But if you're scared away by the thought that his novels are dense, didactic critiques of power, don't be. His writing is precise and human, and if nothing else, his win should encourage a reading of Latin American authors beyond the standard freshman English set of magical realists.

-- Phoebe Connelly