“Why do you think that all dictatorships have tried to control literature? They have established systems of censorship…”
This interesting remark was made by Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa at a press conference at the Instituto Cervantes last Nov. 3. He has written over 30 works of fiction and non-fiction, and is also a columnist of the Madrid newspaper El Pais, which is circulated throughout Latin America.
At the presscon at the Instituto Cervantes, the 80-year-old Peruvian-born novelist said about writing, “Dictators [and] dictatorships are right in being suspicious of this kind of activity, because I think this activity develops in societies a critical spirit about the world as it is…”
Vargas Llosa speaks from experience, having observed the various oppressive regimes that were established at various periods in Latin America, and weathered the authoritarian regime of dictator Manuel Odría, who came to power in Peru in 1948, when Vargas Llosa was 12.
A former presidential candidate in Peru, Vargas Llosa has been involved in politics most of his life. “It’s very difficult for a Latin American writer to avoid politics,” he said in October 2010, after learning that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize that year. “Literature is an expression of life, and you cannot eradicate politics from life.”
The restrictive controls that Odria imposed on social life were among the factors that influenced Vargas Llosa to reject systems that arbitrarily restrict individual freedoms and leaders who abuse power and flout the law through the imposition of their will.
He expressed this mindset as a recurring theme in his body of work, exploring despotism, military violence, and rebellion in some of his novels, among them The Time of the Hero (1963), Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), The War of the End of the World (1981), and the Feast of the Goat (2000). His decision to take this path in his writing garnered him the Nobel Prize for literature in 2010, which he received “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”
He wrote those works fearlessly, knowing full well the risks that a writer takes for defying the status quo. As he told Time magazine in 1984: “If you are killed because you are a writer, that’s the maximum expression of respect, you know.”
For those who are new to Vargas Llosa, which novel of his should be read first? At the presscon, UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies director Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo asked him which of his numerous novels he would recommend that she ask her students to read, by way of introducing him to them.
After some thought, Vargas Llosa chose the novels that he said were the hardest for him to write: Conversation in the Cathedral, The War of the End of the World, and The Storyteller (1987).
Conversation in the Cathedral is based on the Odria years and Vargas Llosa’s experiences as a student activist at the time. The protagonist Santiago Zavala has a conversation with Ambrosio, a chauffeur, in a bar called the Cathedral. The narrative revolves around their stories and examines corruption in the Peruvian government. “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” is the second sentence in the novel—a very good question we can ask about our own country.
The War of the End of the World is based on true events in Brazil during the late 1800s. Antonio Conseilhero is a preacher heralding the end of the world during a time of economic crisis and the end of slavery. He gathers followers from among the poor and together they establish their own town. Troops are sent in to quell the cult and violent battles ensue.
The Storyteller was influenced by a 1958 trip to the Amazon jungle. Saul Zuratas leaves his life in the city to become a storyteller (hablador) for the Machiguenga natives. The novel explores the question of what to do with indigenous peoples: leave them to their traditional ways, or teach them modern ways through the intervention of missionaries, ethnographers, and other outsiders, who may be seen as bullies and dictators who seek to impose their ways on a secluded tribe?
Vargas Llosa will deliver a lecture at and receive an honorary professorship from the University of Santo Tomas tomorrow (Nov. 7), and receive an honorary doctorate from De La Salle University on Nov. 8.
His first visit to Manila was in 1978, when, as president of Poets, Essayists, and Novelists International, he met with the group’s Philippine members. This was during the Marcos regime and his description of that period is unequivocal. “It was a dictatorship,” he said.
For millennials who are clueless about the truth regarding the Marcos dictatorship, or older people who have amnesia about what really happened during that time, read Vargas Llosa to know the workings of dictatorships and why they ultimately fail, and literature’s role as societal critic, watchdog, and defender of freedom.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember.