Vargas Llosa’s win means no Nobel ‘year of the poet’

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Once a year, as is my way, I use these pages to once again remind the Carnegie Mellon community that it should read. I time my monologue to immediately follow the release of the Nobel Prize in literature, largely because it falls somewhat early in the academic year and also allows me to obsess for a week over the lives, politics, and bets surrounding a number of authors whose names you have probably never heard.

This year was widely (if you are reading in the literary betting circles) heralded as the “year of the poet,” a trend picked up by The Guardian and NPR, and seemingly started by David Williams, who sets the Nobel odds at Ladbrokes — yes, you can bet on who you believe will win the Nobel Prize in literature. Poets dominated the list: Tranströmer, Adonis, Ko Un, Zagajewski. I would have been quite pleased with a poet winning, which would have been the first since the 1995–96 double-header of Seamus Heaney and Wislawa Szymborska. The 14 years in between have been too long without. However, the year of the poet was not to be.

The prize was also not to be for Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Born in Kenya, he began writing in English, but later abandoned English, changed his name (from James), and decided to write in Gikuyu so that his mother and his people could read his work. Yes, he really had everything going for him. As an African, the Swedish Academy could not (again) be lambasted for being too Euro-centric; as an activist writer he had been imprisoned and wrote his novel Devil on the Cross on sheets of toilet paper; he has leftist, Marxist leanings; he is highly regarded by critics; and he has been actively writing for over 40 years. He’s perfect. Had you asked me last Wednesday, I would have been confident that Ngũgĩ had it.

But the thing about the Swedish Academy is that its decision process is much less than transparent, and the writers who you might believe fit the perfect model of a laureate, let alone the best writers across generations, may not be awarded the prize. So while the academy did decide last Thursday to choose a candidate who would grant it a year’s reprieve from being decried as Euro-centric, it was not an African, but a South American.

Mario Vargas Llosa took the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” Big words from the Swedish Academy, as always. If you aren’t sure how to begin delving into Vargas Llosa’s cartographies of power structures, let me direct you to his 1977 novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a novel about an aspiring writer named Mario who becomes smitten with his uncle’s sister-in-law, Julia. The novel is based on Vargas Llosa’s own life — he did actually marry his uncle’s sister-in-law Julia when he was 19 and she was 32. The novel itself is smart, poignant, and at times funny, capturing life in Peru through Mario’s own experiences and the serials that are being written and broadcast over the radio. (Think precursors to daytime soaps.) And the radio serials used throughout the book are useful not only as plot devices but as a reminder of a time when literature, through these radio plays, was admired both as creative art and as entertainment. And since I understand that books are difficult these days, you could watch the (what I have to imagine is terrible) 1990 Hollywood adaptation of Mario’s life, our aspiring future Nobel laureate played by a young Keanu Reeves.

But apart from his novels, Vargas Llosa has written a few plays and a number of non-fiction and critical works. The Perpetual Orgy is an in-depth and actually fascinating study on Madame Bovary. A Writer’s Reality is a series of critical essays on a number of his novels, providing us the details of his creative process for Aunt Julia... and showing us how much of that is based on his own life. In A Writer’s Reality, he also details his process: where he has difficulties, what takes more re-writes, and where he sees his greatest successes. It is a compelling book for aspiring writers.

Of course another way to understand his methods would be to attend Princeton, where Vargas Llosa is teaching as the 2010 Distinguished Visitor in the university’s Latin American Studies Program. (He is also teaching a course on Jorge Luis Borges, one of the Nobel-misses who very much deserved to win, but never did.) Princeton, of course, was quick to announce his prize and point out his long history with the university, as the new laureate visited in 1992 and has a series of his papers housed in one of its libraries.

But not just familiar to Princeton, Vargas Llosa is certainly a writer much more known to Americans, especially compared to recent winners Le Clezio and Müller — and while they may not have gotten fanfare and signage in bookstores in America, expect displays for Vargas Llosa. The author’s publisher has already announced, “We are so proud to publish Mario Vargas Llosa. As of this morning we are reprinting all 10 of our paperback titles and we already have in place major bookseller promotions, and no doubt we will be reprinting many more times in the months to come.”

Yet for all his work, Vargas Llosa is a relatively safe pick; he is a known quantity — a respected writer, but not revolutionary. As M.A. Orthofer, founder of The Complete Review and one of the most qualified and diverse Nobel critics, expressed it, “Too much of his work has been too workmanlike and conservative.” And maybe, for the academy and for Americans, this is for the best. He isn’t difficult to read; he isn’t abstract; he isn’t a poet. He is eminently approachable, evenly written, and will be broadly available. So in terms of my quest to remind us all to pick up literature to read for fun, to learn about the world, to take an imaginative vacation, Vargas Llosa is the ideal laureate.