Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, fondly remembered his childhood companions of Captain Nemo, d’Artagnan, and Jean Valjean while reflecting on the power of literature during his Nobel lecture.
Speaking on Tuesday at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, he discussed the threat of literature to authoritarian regimes as well as the role of books in preserving democracy and pluralism.
The 74-year-old Peruvian author described the ups and downs in his career as a writer, wondering at times “whether writing was not a solipsistic luxury in countries like mine, where there were scant readers, so many people who were poor and illiterate, so much injustice, and where culture was a privilege of the few.”
He nevertheless “kept writing even during those periods when earning a living absorbed most of my time.”
He said that literature not only makes life livable, but can also be a path to freedom.
“Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers. They do this because they know the risk of allowing the imagination to wander free in books,” Vargas Llosa said.
Writing, he added, unites the world “by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs, and prejudices that separate us. When the great white whale buries Captain Ahab in the sea, the hearts of readers take fright in exactly the same way in Tokyo, Lima, or Timbuktu.”
“The shudder is the same in the reader who worships Buddha, Confucius, Christ, Allah, or is an agnostic, wears a jacket and tie, a jalaba, a kimono, or bombachas,” Vargas Llosa said.
In our age of “fanatics, of suicide terrorists” who threaten nuclear disaster despite their small numbers, we need to “thwart them, confront them, and defeat them,” he continued.
“Let us defend the liberal democracy that, with all its limitations, continues to signify political pluralism, coexistence, tolerance, human rights, respect for criticism, legality, free elections, alternation in power, everything that has been taking us out of a savage life and bringing us closer – though we will never attain it – to the beautiful, perfect life literature devises, the one we can deserve only by inventing, writing, and reading it,” Vargas Llosa said.
As a child, he longed to live in Paris, where he believed that breathing the “air breathed by Balzac, Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Proust would help transform me into a real writer.”
He acknowledged the impact French literature and writers have had on his professional discipline, but the most profound effect of his time in France during the 1960s was “the discovery of Latin America”.
“There I learned that Peru was part of a vast community united by history, geography, social and political problems, a certain mode of being, and the delicious language it spoke and wrote. And in those same years, it was producing a new, forceful literature,” Vargas Llosa said.
He only began to truly appreciate his native country through the reflection allowed by the geographical and cultural distance of living abroad.
“Latin America was not the continent only of coups, operetta despots, bearded guerrillas, and the maracas of the mambo and the cha-cha-cha but of ideas, artistic forms, and literary fantasies that transcended the picturesque and spoke a universal language,” he said.
Vargas Llosa quoted a fellow Peruvian novelist, José María Arguedas, who called Peru the country of “every blood.”
“I do not believe any formula defines it better: that is what we are and that is what all Peruvians carry inside us, whether we like it or not: an aggregate of traditions, races, beliefs, and cultures,” he said, adding that Peru is subsequently “a small format of the entire world” due to its conglomeration of native Indian, Spanish, African and Roman traditions.
Although recognizing the violence of the European colonial legacy, Vargas Llosa took a self-reflexive view on the tumultuous state of affairs in Latin America.
“For two centuries the emancipation of the indigenous population has been our exclusive responsibility, and we have not fulfilled it,” he said.
Vargas Llosa continued on to say that nationalism, along with religion, has been the source of most major conflicts in history.
“Nothing has contributed as much as nationalism to Latin America’s having been Balkanized and stained with blood in senseless battles and disputes, squandering astronomical resources to purchase weapons instead of building schools, libraries, and hospitals,” he said.
Llosa concluded his speech by describing literature as “an absolute necessity so that civilization continues to exist, renewing and preserving in us the best of what is human.”
“Because ours will always be, fortunately, an unfinished story. That is why we have to continue dreaming, reading, and writing, the most effective way we have found to alleviate our mortal condition, to defeat the corrosion of time, and to transform the impossible into possibility,” he said.
Vargas Llosa is one of Latin America's most significant novelists and essayists after having risen to fame in the 1960s with novels such as The Time of the Hero (La ciudad y los perros) and Conversation in the Cathedral (Conversación en la catedral).
He will receive the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature on Friday at the Stockholm Concert Hall.