Monday, December 27, 2010


As the winter nights come upon us early, descending on all around with chill and a darkness deepened by the cold, one thinks back to warmer days--especially those of the almost perfect autumn just past. Not just because of the vivid yellows and reds of the leaves, autumn was well-night perfect this year also because of news from Oslo that the Nobel Prize in literature had been awarded to the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa.

It was commonplace to decry last year's bestowal of the Nobel Peace Prize upon Barack Obama, just as many had ridiculed the decision to give it to Al Gore in 2007, but it is well to remember that the Peace Prize occasionally goes to those who richly deserve it. One thinks, for instance, of Aung San Suu Kyii; and Liu Xiaobo, who won the award this year, certainly deserves the award if anyone does, since he, like Aung, has risked his life in his attempt to bring greater freedom to his countrymen (and thereby also to the world at large, which means, dear reader, to you and me). If the Peace Prize has has an ideologically spotty record, the Prize in Literature recently has been well bestowed. Despite what the fashionable critics say about the irrelevance of the writer's life to his work, it is good to see the occasional writer live out the principles he enjoins in his work--for this reason, it was gratifying that Orhan Pamuk, who has had to leave his native Turkey and beloved Istanbul because of remarks he has made about his countrymen's historic slaughter of Armenians, won the Prize in 2008. Not only does he write impressively, but he has had to pay a price for his views. And last year the prize went to Herta Mueller, a writer who suffered a great deal in her native Romania for speaking out, as much as was possible, against Nikolai Caucescu's brutal regime.

Although he has been to some extent ostracized for his lack of adherence to left-wing dogma, Vargas Llosa hasn't had to suffer as Mueller and perhaps Pamuk have. He does, however, certainly live his beliefs. Early on, he was a devoted Marxist, but as he has grown older his views have moved rightward, and while he is no George W. Bush or Sarah Palin (no one who thinks of himself as a citizen of the world can ever be that), he has felt the pressure because of his views from those among the international intelligentsia with whom he consorts. A number, particularly in Europe, have found his views so far beyond the pale that they have in very strong terms denounced his receiving the Nobel, but to show just how small their pale is, one need only remember that the supposedly reactionary Vargas Llosa espouses essentially unrestricted immigration from poor countries to wealthier ones. (See his essay "Los inmigrantes" in his volume of essays entitled El lenguaje de la pasion, an essay that begins, appropriately enough for so quixotic a thesis, by recounting an experience he had while visiting some friends in La Mancha.)

No, Vargas Llosa's conservativism, which he with reason calls neo-liberalism--in the old nineteenth-century British sense of open trade and general democracy--is a generous thing, born of a large spirit that seems to relish the physical delights of daily existence and move with a genuine concern for the good of his fellow human beings, particularly those in Latin America who because of corruption and kleptocracy have been cheated of a standard of life that might otherwise have been theirs. Over time he has seen again and again how the seductive promises of one Messianic leader after another have deceived the poorly-educated Latin American voter into thinking that there is a short and easy way to national prosperity, with the result that everyone suffers, everyone, that is, except for the Messianic leader. Anyone who thinks that the caricature is a thing of a dimly-remembered past inhabited by Speedy Gonzales and the Frito Bandito need look no further than Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez is hardly more sophisticated than the Caudillo in the 1970s film The In-Laws. But the cast of extras in Venezuela doesn't get to go home at the end of the day--they get to live the movie week after week, month after month, as their economy implodes, their institutions crack up, and foreign investment slips away with the tide. This conviction that real people suffer for the sins of egomaniacs paving their own success with the misery of their countrymen is what seems to have motivated Vargas Llosa's growing conviction, and it certifies his humanity along with his integrity, since it is based not on concern for himself but on concern for those whose potential is often squandered by others who take the easy way to their own material success.

I see, however, that this present essay does what Vargas Llosa's never do, and that is stry much beyond the concrete and particular, so herewith some specific observations. Perhaps his longest essay is his magical memoir El Pez en El Agua, in which he recounts his early life and education in the Peru of the 1950s and, in alternating chapters, his run for the presidency of that country in 1990. Although the campaign was unsuccessful, the early life and education was spectacularly fruitful. It contains a wonderfully rich experience of life in Bolivia and Peru, as a student, a denizen of the bars of Lima, an occasion patron of brothels, as a student of distinguished Peruvian historians, as a cub reporter, aspiring playwright, and, most colorfully of all, husband of a woman sufficiently older and closely enough related to him to be called his "Aunt Julia." He writes about all this with the what he elsewhere attributes to the great Mexican writer Octavio Paz--the language of passion, a writing that clearly delights in the remembrance of the rich fabric as he turns it over in the image-house of memory. This delight comes out very well in the ironic detachment and good humor with which he writes about his own naivete and false steps. And he manages it all in a Spanish whose clarity is such that the beginner in Spanish can relish the entire pageant.

But delightful as this romantic narrative is, the other narrative, the one in which he recounts the presidential campaign of 1990, contains the essential political vision. The narrative glistens with veins of ore like those in the fabled Peruvian silver mines. There are his observations on the dangers of Alain Garcia's nationalization of the private sector over the course of the 1980s: perhaps the greatest cautionary tale is about what happened when the government nationalized the banks. Over time it apparently became difficult for those who didn't support the government to take out the large loans necessary to start businesses. (This produced a particularly striking impression when I read it in the early days of the Obama presidency as the Federal government was bailing out the investment banks. If they government would eventually become a major partner in a major bank, would it--because of separation of Church and State--begin to deny funds for, say, the construction of a large downtown church building? Never mind that now: as we learn this week, the government of New York City is actively engaged in making the controversial case for the construction of the mosque close to Ground Zero.) Another rich insight comes in the chapter entitled "El intelectual barato" ("The cheap intellectual") about those who congratulate themselves on their liberal credentials while being bought off by precisely those corrupt politicos who destroy the very freedoms that these writers claim to cherish. It is the best meditation I know on the subject, one with obvious relevance in our own day when we hear--rather, do not hear--everywhere those who claim to be the boldest for women's rights say nothing, nothing at all, about the almost unimaginable suffering of women in some of the Islamic regimes around the world, nay, some of the Islamic enclaves in Western Europe.

But we are back to where we started. Although he is a first-rate novelist, essayist, and literary critic (his study of Les Miserables is one of the best pieces of criticism I know), he will live enduringly in part because all of this writing flows from the hand and mind of one who believes enough in what he says to have lived the ideals he presses, however self-effacingly, on others.

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