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Nobel lit prize winner: writing ‘alerts us to oppression’

Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa spoke of the power of writing and the need to defend liberal democracy during his Nobel lecture on Tuesday at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, writes contributor Charlotte West.

Nobel lit prize winner: writing 'alerts us to oppression'

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.

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US duo win Nobel for work on how heat and touch spark signals to the brain

US scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian on Monday won the Nobel Medicine Prize for discoveries on receptors for temperature and touch.

US duo win Nobel for work on how heat and touch spark signals to the brain
Thomas Perlmann (right), the Secretary of the Nobel Committee, stands next to a screen showing David Julius (L) and Ardem Patapoutian, winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

“The groundbreaking discoveries… by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have allowed us to understand how heat, cold and mechanical force can initiate the nerve impulses that allow us to perceive and adapt to the world,” the Nobel jury said.

The pair’s research is being used to develop treatments for a wide range of diseases and conditions, including chronic pain. Julius, who in 2019 won the $3-million Breakthrough Prize in life sciences, said he was stunned to receive the call from the Nobel committee early Monday.

“One never really expects that to happen …I thought it was a prank,” he told Swedish Radio.

The Nobel Foundation meanwhile posted a picture of Patapoutian next to his son Luca after hearing the happy news.

Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival, the Nobel Committee explained, and underpins our interaction with the world around us.

“In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived? This question has been solved by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates.”

Prior to their discoveries, “our understanding of how the nervous system senses and interprets our environment still contained a fundamental unsolved question: how are temperature and mechanical stimuli converted into electrical impulses in the nervous system.”

Grocery store research

Julius, 65, was recognised for his research using capsaicin — a compound from chili peppers that induces a burning sensation — to identify which nerve sensors in the skin respond to heat.

He told Scientific American in 2019 that he got the idea to study chili peppers after a visit to the grocery store.  “I was looking at these shelves and shelves of basically chili peppers and extracts (hot sauce) and thinking, ‘This is such an important and such a fun problem to look at. I’ve really got to get serious about this’,” he said.

Patapoutian’s pioneering discovery was identifying the class of nerve sensors that respond to touch.

Julius, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco and the 12-year-younger Patapoutian, a professor at Scripps Research in California, will share the Nobel Prize cheque for 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.1 million, one million euros).

The pair were not among the frontrunners mentioned in the speculation ahead of the announcement.

Pioneers of messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which paved the way for mRNA Covid vaccines, and immune system researchers had been widely tipped as favourites.

While the 2020 award was handed out in the midst of the pandemic, this is the first time the entire selection process has taken place under the shadow of Covid-19.

Last year, the award went to three virologists for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.

Media, Belarus opposition for Peace Prize?

The Nobel season continues on Tuesday with the award for physics and Wednesday with chemistry, followed by the much-anticipated prizes for literature on Thursday and peace on Friday before the economics prize winds things up on Monday, October 11.

For the Peace Prize on Friday, media watchdogs such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists have been mentioned as possible winners, as has the Belarusian opposition spearheaded by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Also mentioned are climate campaigners such as Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future movement.

Meanwhile, for the Literature Prize on Thursday, Stockholm’s literary circles have been buzzing with the names of dozens of usual suspects.

The Swedish Academy has only chosen laureates from Europe and North America since 2012 when China’s Mo Yan won, raising speculation that it could choose to rectify that imbalance this year. A total of 95 of 117 literature laureates have come from Europe and North America.

While the names of the Nobel laureates are kept secret until the last minute, the Nobel Foundation has already announced that the glittering prize ceremony and banquet held in Stockholm in December for the science and literature laureates will not happen this year due to the pandemic.

Like last year, laureates will receive their awards in their home countries. A decision has yet to be made about the lavish Peace Prize ceremony held in Oslo on the same day.

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