Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat’. Vargas Llosa has contributed to Granta many times since Granta 4: Beyond the Crisis, in 1981. A whole issue of the magazine, Granta 36: Vargas Llosa for President, was dedicated to the novelist’s campaign for the Peruvian presidency in 1990. Here, two Peruvian contributors from our Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists issue, Carlos Yushimito and Santiago Roncagliolo, discuss their fellow countryman’s prize,and how it reflects on his politics and his literature.
OB: Carlos, you’ve expressed reservations about Vargas Llosa’s politics and suggested that perhaps we should limit the discussion to his literature. But the relationship between politics and literature is exactly what’s interesting here. Should the Nobel Prize be given to a writer who has played an explicit role in political discourse? Even if the prize is given for the books, it sends a certain message, doesn’t it?
SR: I think Vargas Llosa is the last of a particular line. Garcia Marquez appeared in photos next to Fidel Castro, and Carlos Fuentes with Clinton; while Vargas Llosa was himself a presidential candidate. Theirs was a generation fascinated by power. Our generation, on the other hand, is much less trusting of power. I for one feel like all the things I’ve believed in have collapsed one after the other: the socialism of my parents’ generation, 90s capitalism, even the libertarian ideal of democracy. I’ve seen how, in a democracy, the rich can behave like dictators – even censoring information or books.
This is why I find it so difficult to defend an idea with quite the same verve as the previous generation. Vargas Llosa has often said that he envies the certainties of the religious. I envy Vargas Llosa’s certainty. I would love to be that sure of something – of anything. But I think it’s precisely that lack of certainty that makes me a storyteller. My stories show a world without truth, where the line between good and evil has become very blurred.
CY: Santiago, I’d qualify slightly what you say about our generation. It seems to me that we are just as fascinated – if not more so – by power than our predecessors; it’s just that this fascination is expressed in terms and in areas that are less collective, and more private (the market is a force as real as any dictator of a banana republic, for instance). But actually, there are many political paradigms that we read quite differently. Which isn’t to say that, as writers, we don’t continue to intervene politically; after all, we publish – that is, make public – what we think, what we feel, what we deem important. Despite the open-to-all nature of the internet, the book still confers on us some symbolic privilege as citizens (wrongly, in my view, but undeniably).
But to get back to the subject of our debate: the biggest divide between us and the writers you name is that, for all of them, the line between a writer’s political or social commitment and his writing, is much vaguer. Vargas Llosa, in particular, possesses an optimism which we have been gradually losing, and which is a happy remnant not just of a culture of the Left – which he still has, in spite of everything – but also of the political edge that new Spanish American fiction inherited from the European avantgarde: the idea that linguistic forms can be the agents of change – insofar as they help to shape, or indeed create, a new reader in society. I would say that, now, those of us writers who share a similar sensibility (a disillusioned one, if you like, but here again there are many degrees of disillusionment) have a better sense of what we can and can’t do within literature and outside it. However you look at it, we don’t have the same ambition to wield authority outside of the text.
SR: Perhaps you’re right, although there are things which just won’t happen again. My first memory of Vargas Llosa is seeing him at one of his electoral rallies. Fifteen thousand people had turned out to hear him, and at one point he called his opponents ‘cacasenos’. For a whole week, the city kept asking: What the hell is a ‘cacaseno’? We’d never before had writers with such drawing power – nor politicians with such large vocabularies.
I suppose the writers of the Latin American ‘boom’ lived through a pivotal time. For one thing, they were writing what Spaniards couldn’t write under Franco’s censorship regime; but as well as this, the whole world was looking at Latin America. In the wake of the Cuban Revolution, it seemed that the world’s great political shifts would happen right there, in the United States’ backyard. Today, it’s not so exciting being a Latin American writer. It’s sexier to be a Palestinian woman writer, for example.
CY: Political correctness has never produced good literature. That’s why I think it’s dangerous to think of literary activity in terms of what’s attractive biographically, and not in terms of what really ought to matter, which is the text. For that same reason I don’t think the commercial interest in Latin American writers has exhausted itself: after all, Latin America is still producing good books which are worth discovering. A female Palestinian writer is not necessarily a good writer just because she’s Palestinian and a woman – just as a male author isn’t a good writer just because he’s Chilean. Bolaño’s reception in the English-speaking world would seem to confirm this last point. We read Bolaño because he writes well, and his popularity is absolutely justified. It would be a mistake to interpret this as meaning that Latin American writing is still in fashion simply because it’s Latin American It’s interesting that Bolaño and Vargas Llosa should come together, at this particular moment, like two great paradigms. Giving the Nobel to Vargas Llosa rewards, with unquestionable literary justice, the best kind of writer that the Boom had to offer. The interest in Bolaño, meanwhile, recognizes a different model: one that is more marginal, more corrosive, but equally legitimate as regards the market and American academia. In any case, what’s undeniable is that the recognition given to both these writers reinforces the growing political importance of Spanish in the world. In an ideal dialectic, this would contribute to the conservation – or creation – of a sort of ideal reader in our language: more ambitious, more demanding, less passive. It seems to me that there are reasons for optimism: both those models go beyond mere publicity with the quality of their works. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see what happens in a few years’ time, but these two examples could also be showing us another way of thinking about books published in Latin America and Spain itself, one not focussed principally on Spain (as happened with the Boom), but aimed at the USA, for example, which is gradually becoming the new world hub for Spanish-language publishing.
SR: And just what is a Latin American writer? I’ve no idea. Vargas Llosa’s next novel is the story of an Irishman. He also wrote the story of a French painter – Gauguin. And The Bad Girl takes place in Europe and Japan. Bolaño’s detectives travel through Africa and many of his characters live in Barcelona or Paris. In my opinion, what these two authors have in common is their boldness. Vargas Llosa has always taken risks, always tried out new ways of writing, without ever getting bogged down in his own creative past. And Bolaño was always implacably himself, and did things his own way.
If Vargas Llosa is the last of a certain line, Bolaño is the first of a new one. He is an author disenchanted with utopias, like Michel Houellebecq. The author of a world without truth.
CY: That’s an interesting question, but difficult to answer in a few lines. Perhaps now we see everything through a different lens which makes us read outside the tradition of national literatures – a tradition which wasn’t defined exclusively by the spaces that were represented (be they local or cosmopolitan), but rather by the urge or need to write in order to understand or question national identities. This was already partly the intention of previous generations, but with Bolaño and perhaps with ourselves as substitutes (I hesitate to use the word ‘heirs’), the idea of identity starts to shift, becoming less stable, less certain.This leads us to question not just the role of the state but also of other institutions. And that means we have a greater affinity with some authors than with others. What I mean is that it’s possible to continue being a Peruvian or Mexican or Panamanian writer without giving up that national label, but also without giving up our individual roles, which find common ties in language, imagination and expectations. I think it was Lévi-Strauss who reminded us that we shouldn’t just study people through their archives, but also by being witness to their dreams. Perhaps archives do tend to standardise our sensibilities in the global sphere, but I still like to think that there is something in our collective dreams – not just our individual ones – that marks us out.