The Nobel committee can be justly cheered for awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature 2010 to the Peruvian writer, journalist, essayist and politician Mario Vargas Llosa. Widely accepted as one of the luminaries writing in the Spanish-speaking world, he occupies a place at the same table as Octavio Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges. The Swedish academy has lauded his work “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat”.
Vargos Llosa is an intensely political writer – totalitarian regimes, power, corruption, individual liberty are themes that resonate in his work. Witness: The Time of the Hero, The Feast of the Goat, The War of the End of the World. That is understandable when keeping in context the brutal political regimes of Latin America of the last century. He even ran for the Peruvian Presidential election in 1990, which he subsequently lost to Alberto Fujimori. (Presently Fujimori is in jail for corruption and human rights abuses while Vargos Llosa is making his way to Stockholm – perhaps there is justice in this world!) Yet, Vargos Llosa has also written about love and lovelorn artists and intrepid cops and betrayal, all the while tangoing with genres such as comedy, thriller, mystery, historical epics with the famed sanguinity of a Latino. (As an aside: he married his aunt and wrote about it; married his cousin and wrote about that too – did I forget to mention that even at the age of 74 he looks rather dishy? And that he is one of the protagonists in the literary world’s most famous feud where he punched his good friend Marquez in the eye and the two were incommunicado for thirty years? Ah, the chameleon-like persona of a writer!) His literary output is prodigious: a dozen plus novels, several works of non-fiction, plays, essays and magazine pieces.
It is generally agreed that Mario Vargos Llosa’s Nobel was a long time in the coming – he had been a contender since the eighties, but as he himself commented he would not make a politically correct choice for the academy. Therefore let’s thank the committee for not making us google the name of this year’s Nobel-Lit winner, and rejoice with reading/re-reading his works. If you have not read Vargos Llosa before, a logical question at this point would be: where do I begin?
Vargos Llosa, as I mentioned earlier, can be enjoyed at many levels. Don’t let the Nobel deter you, Llosa does lite as well as dark! You could dive into the deep end by picking up the historical epic The War of the End of the World; swim over to the middle with Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, inspired by the aunt he married; pirouette with the political thriller The Feast of the Goat. Or you could pick up a slim novel, 150 pages long, titled Who Killed Palomino Molero? Don’t be misled by the number of pages or pick it up as the half-hour reading before bed time: this book will have you turning the pages like the proverbial calendar pages zipping in old Bollywood films that indicate passage of time.
My introduction to Vargos Llosa was in the mid nineties with Who Killed Palomino Molero? I picked up the book at a friend’s place – the premise of a detective thriller seemed ideal for the Sunday noon slot between a parantha brunch and a leisurely siesta. In my defense I was naïve – I had never before encountered a master who could elevate a genre with such finesse. Tautly written, atmospheric, with a gripping pace, the novel takes you by the jugular from the first paragraph. Witness:
“Sons of bitches.” Lituma felt the vomit rising in his throat. “Kid, they really did a job on you.” The boy had been both hung and impaled on the old carob tree. His position was so absurd that he looked more like a scarecrow or a broken marionette than a corpse. Before or after they killed him, they slashed him to ribbons: his nose and mouth were split open; his face was a crazy map of dried blood, bruises, cuts, and cigarette burns. Lituma saw they’d even tried to castrate him; his testicles hung down to his thighs.
Set in Peru in the 1950s near an air force base the narrative opens with the corpse of a young man found brutally murdered. Two local policemen, Lieutenant Silva and Officer Lituma, set out in the heat and dust to investigate. The two don’t have much going for them, not even motor transport. Laced with ironies, superbly characterized, the story scorches to its ultimate resolution. When I finished reading it I knew without a shadow of doubt that the novel would be on my top ten favourite reads list. What concerned me more, what seized me absolutely was the brilliant manner in which the writer had taken a crime novel and transcended it to an exploration of the elusive nature of truth. It was a bravura performance and Vargos Llosa, from that point on, had me hooked.
Read it to discover the magic for yourself. And if you do, and are similarly taken in by the characters, you can find Officer Lituma again in the novel Death in the Andes.
As for the Nobel victory, Vamos Vargos Llosa! Now for the next book.