A few random thoughts on Mario Vargas Llosa


Understand that writers are not necessarily good teachers, or even good people.

– T. C. Boyle

Hearing that Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel prize for literature this year was like hearing that a ghost had won it. That’s because the Vargas Llosa who wrote the great book that won the prize no longer exists.

Sure, he’s still there physically. But other than that, it’s like he’s just a whole other person. He’s no longer that great writer. He’s the body that the spirit abandoned. A great writer’s shambling, moaning zombie, perhaps. But he is no longer that person.

This isn’t easy for me to write. A lot of people I like, admire and respect are unreservedly pleased for him. They’ve read his good stuff, no doubt, and that’s why. The stuff of 40-odd years ago. I have yet to read it. Perhaps if I had, I’d feel differently; at the very least, I’d be sighing with happy nostalgia for the Vargas Llosa that was. But I’ve read his recent stuff–that is to say, his shit, and I have to say, the Vargas Llosa of today is not a writer I can admire. Maybe the one from 40-odd years ago is, but he’s dead, Jim.

What killed the great Mario Vargas Llosa? Was it an illness, an accident, a suicide? Or was it murder?

To understand how Vargas Llosa went from being a great writer to being the ghost of one, you have to look at what happened to so many others over the last 40-odd years. They started out young, idealistic, typically somewhere on the left end of the political spectrum. They were progressives. They were poets, they were songsters, they were political militants. They weren’t afraid to tell all the truth, and tell it slant. They were full of a fiery energy that bade fair to frizzle up everything old and stagnant and unfortunate enough to stand in its way.

But then something happened between then and now. They lost it, that fire. Instead of frizzling up the old and stagnant, they became it. And they frizzled up from within.

Look what happened to Christopher Hitchens. Or to David Horowitz. Both started out as rather good writers, promising Trotskyists; both ended up as loathsome, lying neo-cons, vile enough to make a saint retch. Just something inherent in Trotskyism, some virus, some flaw that makes the adherent turn from perpetual revolution to perpetual imbecility? Just something inherently weak and debilitating in the left in general?


There are plenty of other writers from that era who did not abandon their initial political leanings. Ursula K. Le Guin is still a feminist, still opposed to war, still asking radical literary questions as an elder stateswoman of American Lit. She has only grown more brilliant over time. Gabriel García Márquez stayed on the left, won his Nobel and kept writing, and remains beloved and admired (by me, and yes, I have read his latest. It’s not shit. He is still true to his own voice.)

It is entirely possible, in other words, to be a great writer, and a leftist, up to one’s dying day. One’s physical dying day, that is, since great writing is about as close to immortality as anyone can get.

Even those who did not physically live out the era still kept their gemlike flame. Che Guevara, who died the year I was born (just a little over two months after, in fact) is not only more popular than ever, he is also recognized as a fine writer in his own right. His diaries all stand as classics. And why not? A man who could turn phrases like “Let’s be realists and do the impossible” deserves to be an immortal.

I’m sure the great Vargas Llosa, who won the prize posthumously as it were, is an immortal, or ought to be one. And that’s what makes the zombie who schlepps around wearing his name and face and clothing such a sad travesty. We’re still getting around to how he got dead, though.

As leftist politics fell out of vogue in Latin America through the latter 1960s, and into the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of lefties went right. Teodoro Petkoff, a guerrilla in early-1960s Venezuela, wound up in the 1990s as the finance minister to conservative president Rafael Caldera–and, not coincidentally, overseeing one of the worst financial catastrophes in Venezuela after the Caracazo. His policies were orthodox neoliberalism–pure Chicago School stuff, all by the Bretton Woods book. And they just about ruined Venezuela, not to mention any credibility that Petkoff ever had. His leftist guerrilla cred was as the dodo. He may have remained a pithy and scathing writer–even somehow managing, in the midst of economic collapse, to scare up the money to start his own newspaper, now sacred to the purpose of attacking Venezuela’s current president. But he has become a corpse himself. Hardly anyone buys Tal Cual. No one can take him seriously, not even the opposition with whom he now runs (and still gets into vicious verbal brawls, when not busy slinging mud at Chavecito.) Washington may sponsor him, and the foreign press may fawn on him, but at home it means nothing. His own presidential efforts have been a flat failure.

So, incidentally, have those of none other than Mario Vargas Llosa. How flat? Well, he fucked off for Spain soon after. Suddenly, Peru was no longer good enough for him? Draw your own conclusions. But yes, he ran as a neoliberal or neo-con, and yes, he failed dismally as one. Just like Teodoro Petkoff.

What made these two once-fine writers dead? Just some wasting disease inherent in ex-leftism, I guess.

But the zombie of Vargas Llosa, like that of Petkoff, gives a convincing impression of still being alive. It walks, it talks (mostly gibberish, nowadays), and it gets into fights. (It once, famously, sucker-punched the still-leftist, very-much-alive Gabo–who metaphorically clobbered his ex-friend by grinning, black eye and all, for the camera, knowing himself to be blameless.)

Sometimes the zombie-Vargas Llosa takes its son Alvaro along for the ride, tag-team fashion. Alvaro Vargas Llosa isn’t a ghost, he’s an unborn wraith. He was never alive. But like his father, he’s a very lifelike spook. He, too, writes fictions, even if they’re not labelled as such. (An egregious error? Au contraire, it’s part and parcel of the overall degeneracy that’s seeped into western culture as the right has become ascendant.) He’ll never win any prizes for them; none that matter, anyway. Vargas Llosa père has passed his degeneracy on to Vargas Llosa fils.

It really is frightening to watch the two of them somnambulating–or would be, if it weren’t so comical. Because neither one enjoys any great credibility in LatAm anymore, not since the people keep electing and re-electing leftists, ignoring the groans of the living dead. Both Vargas Llosas regularly get trucked into Venezuela, where they give big speeches to tiny audiences, gibberish to the effect that there’s no freedom of speech anymore since that Castro-communist Chavecito came to power. Meanwhile, public, independent and community media have multiplied in Venezuela, thanks to government funding, greatly diversifying the spectrum of political views expressed. The thing is, it’s all happening on the left. On the right, the commercial media remain stagnant, and no one seems to want to talk about how many eyeballs they’ve lost. Or how the loss of RCTV’s public-airwaves licence was actually due to repeated vio
lations, most dating back decades before Chavecito, of Venezuelan broadcast standards, and not censorship. No one on the right, indeed, is saying anything worth paying attention to at all. (That’s why they keep losing elections, too.)

But I guess it’s uncharitable of me to point all that out; after all, we’re supposed to speak no ill of the dead. I really should look up the works of fiction that Vargas Llosa wrote before he became a zombie. I’m sure I will appreciate them, in the same abstracted way I can appreciate the genius of poor, batshit-crazy Ezra Pound–by divorcing the brilliance of the language from the worm-ridden fascist skull from whence it sprung.

And then, perhaps, I will wish the ghost of Mario Vargas Llosa all happiness in his posthumous prize–a prize no less surreal, in my eyes, than Barack Obama’s pre-emptive Nobel for peace, or that of Henry Kissinger.

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3 Responses to A few random thoughts on Mario Vargas Llosa

  1. Nolan says:

    If you look at the cannon of “great” Latin American writers, at least the mainstream ones, few had the same political path he did. Borges was a reactionary who even embraced an award from Pinochet near the end of his life, but he was also of a different generation.
    As far as MVLL’s contemporaries go, Julio Cortazar was a socialist until his death, Garcia Marquez is an anti-imperialist who always has had sympathy with the left, Funetes and Ernesto Sabato have been more in their countries political mainstream but have long been anti-imperialists. Manuel Puig was also a leftist until his death.
    One big difference between Vargas Llosa and the rest is his attempt to be a politician. While others have gotten involved in politics and often appointed to some bureaucratic position, Vargas Llosa is the only one who thought he was important enough to run for president. Since then he’s spent more time in Europe than Peru, not that it stops him writing as much propaganda as possible.
    He is far from my favorite author, and it’s a shame that Borges and Cortazar both died without this honor, but at the same time anything that promotes Latin American literature isn’t too bad.

  2. Slave Revolt says:

    Very well said, Bina.
    It’s all part of the game, global capitalist ruling class putting it’s stamp of approval on apologists for empire, the enforces of global capitalist pillage.
    But we have to promote left oriented artists and writers. There are precious few Eduardo Galeanos, and a bounty of aspiring Vargas Llosas.
    Whatever brings the paper home.

  3. Thanks, guys!
    And yeah, I guess anything that raises LatAm’s literary profile on the global stage isn’t a bad thing. Just a pity they couldn’t have given it to him when he was still young, on the left, and writing things worth reading. That might have turned him a different way than he ultimately went–maybe. (I could be wrong…)
    Then again, maybe they felt they had to balance all those leftist Nobelists from LatAm–García Márquez, Neruda–with a ‘tard? I’m finding a lot of great commentary on Aporrea to the effect that the prize has lost its shine of late. Maybe I’ll translate some.
    BTW, I saw an excellent quote today on the tweeter, from the late great Uruguayan poet, Mario Benedetti: “You have to read Vargas Llosa, not listen to him.” I guess that says what needs to be said: his books are great, his speeches (and “journalism”) are not.

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