MUMBAI: One of the most interesting aspects to this year’s award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to the Peruvian writer , Mario Vargas Llosa , is not his suitability to receive it. Anyone who has read his novels, such as his best known one, the wonderfully high-spirited and charming Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, would know that he is an excellent choice. But what is interesting is that, after being a perennial candidate for years, he had appeared to have dropped out of favour recently.
The eminences of the Swedish Academy who choose the winner would probably deny being influenced by anything other than literary merit. But looking at exactly when certain distinguished writers got their prize (and, even more, when several less-than-distinguished ones got theirs) suggests that other factors did count. How else can one account for Winston Churchill’s prize, in 1953, for his heavily ghost written history of World War II— from Swedish academics uneasily aware of how their country had sat it out?
Looking at the list one can guess at other influences like the Cold War (Pasternak in 1958, Solzhenitsyn in 1970)), the anti-apartheid movement (Gordimer in 1991), support for Israel (Agnon and Sachs in 1966) and unease over the rise of China (Xingjian in 2000) or Islamic extremism (Naipaul in 2001). One influence that seems to have been particularly strong in the past decade is a kind of Eurocentricism that is as much anti-Americanism.
This was shown indirectly in awards to fairly obscure European writers like Elfriede Jelinek (2004), Jean-Marie le Clezio (2008) and last year’s Herta Muller, but such sentiments were clearly expressed in remarks in 2008 by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Academy, when he said that American writers were “too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the centre of the literary world”.
Even more dramatic was the Nobel Prize lecture delivered by the 2005 winner, Harold Pinter, a rigid opponent of American policies, who raged that, “The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. “
“You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”
Pinter’s particular focus was on George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but in its sweep and deep-seated anger it drew from deeply left-wing European roots that identified the USA as the fount of all right-wing, pro-market policies.
And it was this identification that seemed to have knocked Vargas Llosa out of the running for the Nobel because of his open espousal of centre-right — the so-called neoliberal — policies which, unlike with most writers, didn’t just stop at words, but lead to a campaign for the presidency of his native Peru in 1990 which he only narrowly lost.
Of course, as is the reality with the political issues particular to any country, Vargas Llosa’s leanings were complex and specific both to Peru and South America. Like many South American intellectuals, most famously the Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he had started off as a supporter of the communist revolution in Cuba. But he had become disenchanted with the obvious human rights abuses in Cuba and also the evident economic failure of many socialist regimes. In particular, in Peru, he was shocked by the severity of the violently Maoist Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, uprising, and this is what led him close to the conservative politicians who were battling it.
Vargas Llosa did not, in fact, join the parties of these politicians, but association with them was enough to damn him among European leftists. This paralleled the case of another perpetual South American Nobel candidate, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, whose persecution by a left-wing government was seen as proof of his right-wing credentials. Borges never got the Nobel, and Vargas Llosa seemed even less likely to when he started his own neoliberal party, Movimiento Libertad, which allied with far more conservative politicians who saw Vargas Llosa as more likely to win the presidency.
In the presidential election of 1990, Vargas Llosa lost to a politician, Alberto Fujimori, who was to prove far more controversial and authoritarian than he would have been. But the damage was done, and it was simply perpetuated by subsequent stories, like his feud with his erstwhile friend, the left-wing hero Garcia Marquez (which culminated in an actual fight where Vargas Llosa punched the Colombian novelist in the face) or the rumoured presence in his studio of a picture of one of the biggest hate figures for the Left, the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. If Pinter’s win was to be taken as a sign of the Swedish Academy’s sympathies, then Vargas Llosa was never going to get the Prize.
But perhaps things have changed — Engdahl quit last year — or perhaps these things are cyclical, and rather than any fixed viewpoints, what the Academy’s choices reflect is the conversation over literature, politics and life that any group of people will have. This year’s citation for Vargas Llosa says that he got the prize for “his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” This points to a focus on individual rights which is central both to simple humanitarianism and also — though European Leftists would disagree — market-led neoliberalism.
In making this choice, for this reason, the Academy seems to have done just what is expected of it, which is not to go by rumours and prejudices, but to look at the work itself. And as an example of why Vargas Llosa is fascinating, there is not just all his considerable body of work over the years, but also his most recent book, published this year, which has not been translated from Spanish, but whose subject matter signals its exceptional interest.
Titled El Sueno del Celta, or ‘The Dream of the Celt’, Vargas Llosa has said that it is based on the life of Sir Roger Casement, a remarkably fascinating figure. An Irishman who worked for commercial interests around the world, Casement became aware of the immense abuses of the Western colonial powers in places like the Congo and Peru. He worked to bring these to light, causing real social change and awareness of basic human rights, but he also fell afoul of the British Empire when he started working directly for Irish liberation.
Casement became party to a number of anti-British plots in the early 19th century, including attempts to cause an armed rebellion in India and to ally with the German Empire to fight the British. Caught by the British, he was subjected to a sensational trial, which included the controversial step of making public diaries that detailed his homosexuality. Despite a strong campaign in his favour, Casement was hanged in 1916. Vargas Llosa seems to have found in him a great figure to write about the importance of human rights and freedom in all aspects, and it is in the choice of such subjects that will be found the best answer to all those who tried denying him the Prize that he has now so deservedly received.
Source: The Economic Times