November 2010

Local Boy Makes Good

Former Colegio La Salle Student Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Edward Young

He was sheltered by these lands when he was a boy, he grew up and studied between us and today he wins the Nobel Prize in literature, in fact, it is unprecedented. Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, (a resident of England and Spain, and a Spanish citizen) spent his earliest years in Cochabamba, and is the first South American in 28 years to be so honored.

Perhaps more importantly from a literary standpoint, Vargas Llosa also married a Cochabambina. His first wife, Julia Urquidi Illanes, who was thirteen years his senior, is the illustrious "Aunt Julia," and focus of the beloved novel "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," which was made into a Hollywood movie set in New Orleans called, "Tune in Tomorrow." The original story, set at a radio station in Lima, described their times creating soap-operas from foreign (mostly Cuban) scripts. Allegedly, the scripts were purchased by the pound.

Urquidi Illanes had her own take on the marriage, and published a memoir, "Lo que Varguitas no dijo" (What little Vargas didn’t say) in which she described her version of the marriage. She died in March of this year in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. They had divorced in 1964 after ten years of marriage, when Vargas Llosa announced that he had fallen in love with his wife's niece, Pamela, to whom he is still wed.

The previous South American to win was Llosa’s arch-nemesis, Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Once close friends, the laureates have not spoken in over thirty years, since Llosa punched Marquez in the face at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Neither of them have addressed the content of their dispute.

Appropriately, Vargas Llosa’s award came during the International Feria de los Libros in Cochabamba, and his most recent public appearance here, at the Palacio Portales in 2003, was to give a literary lecture. It is safe to say that few cities its size in the world have the commitment to culture that Cochabamba has. Let's hope that receiving this signal honor will inspire a return visit soon for our now most famous literary son.

Born in Arequipa, Peru, where his father worked for Panagra, the first international airline in South America (see: "Aviation in Cochabamba," CochaBanner, April, 2010), Vargas Llosa moved to Cochabamba after his parents divorced in his infancy. His mother told him that his father had died. He first attended grade school at Colegio La Salle, learning to read at age five. In an era when schoolboys read serious texts and not comic books, learning to read was a revelation. It opened a door for what he instinctively knew would be his life's work.

Vargas Llosa's maternal grandfather was a Peruvian diplomat in Bolivia who helped support his daughter. When the grandfather was posted back to Peru, the entire family returned. Unexpectedly, Vargas Llosa’s father re-entered his life, and sent him to a military school. Writing was something of an escape from that rigidity, and writing poetry especially was a form of protest to his father’s patriarchal sensibility.

Vargas Llosa with fellows from Colegio La Salle

What do Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Anton Checkov, Emile Zola, Leo Tolstoy, Andre Malraux, Marcel Proust, W. H. Auden, Arthur Miller, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James and Henrik Ibsen have in common, besides being a group of the most important writers of the twentiethcentury? All were passed-over by the Nobel Prize in Literature committee (perhaps in a misguided interpretation of Nobel’s use of the word "idealisk" or idealism in his charter for the prize) in favor of such literary luminaries as Bjørnstjerne Martinus Bjørnson, Paul Johann Ludwig Heyse, Carl Friedrich Georg Spitteler, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, Henrik Pontoppidan and -- well, you get the idea. More Swedes have won the award than Asians.

Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the academy, said in 2008 that, "Europe is still the center of the literary world. The United States is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature." With that sort of prejudice (and one suspects that at least some members of the literature committee speak English) no wonder Asia, with more than half of the world’s population, is left relatively Nobel-less. However, Engdahl’s successor, Peter Englund, spoke up in defense of the Western Hemisphere, saying, "In most language areas...there are authors that really deserve and could get the Nobel Prize, and that goes for the United States, and the Americas as well."

In addition to Garcia Marquez, Llosa joins Chileans Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral as the only South Americans to appear on the committee’s radar. Their diploma cited "his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat." Llosa himself, who was defeated for the presidency of Peru on a neo-liberal platform in 1990, has said that, "South Americans prefer promises to reality."

That quote speaks of Llosa’s personal transformation, from an early idealist, and liberal supporter of Castro’s revolution, to his recent incarnation as a moderate conservative and critic of Castro and Hugo Chavez. He was an active politician for about three years.

"I was disappointed by the selection," said Cochabambino Miguel Fernandez, an anthropologist, educator and contemporary of both Jaime Escalante and Llosa. "I would have preferred that Jorge Luis Borges had won before his death in 1986. He influenced all the modern Latin American writers, from Marquez to Fuentes and, of course, Llosa." Critic Harold Bloom considers Borges the most eminent South American writer of any century.

Borges began publishing before the modern "boom" in South American writers in the nineteen-sixties; and thus came to influence them and the predominate school of “magical realism” best epitomized by Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude.” Inevitably, more recent writers have reacted and somewhat eclipsed the magic-realism mode, and Vargas Llosa has been a part of that trend as well. He is one of the few regional writers to have made a career in journalism, which kept him aware of the political arena in a way that academics might not have been.

With that in mind, let us give the man himself the final word. In an interview in England’s Guardian newspaper in 2002, Vargas Llosa described his credo when he said that, "The writer’s job is to write with rigor, with commitment, to defend what they believe with all the talent they have. I think that’s part of the moral obligation of the writer, which cannot be only purely artistic. I think a writer has some kind of responsibility at least to participate in the civic debate. I think literature is impoverished, if it becomes cut from the main agenda of people, of society, of life."

Vargas Llosa’s maternal grandfather was a Peruvian diplomat in Bolivia

The name of Vargas Llosa actual wife is Patricia Llosa.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s website:

Cochabamba: History Heritage Through Architecture

Cochabamba has two foundations. The first one was on August 15th, 1571 by the Captain Geronimo de Osorio in lands of Orellana’s García Ruiz; the second was on January 1st, 1574 by Don Sebastian Barba de Padilla in the Kanata’s valley, named Villa de Oropeza. Some buildings from that period are still preserved. Among them, there are lots of churches, the town council, Santivañez Street, the Mayorazgo house and the Chimba-chica house.

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