Mario Vargas Llosa, plagiarist?

Oh my, how potentially embarrassing. And just as he’s won the Nobel lit-prize, too:

A writer has accused Mario Vargas Llosa of having plagiarized his 1978 book, The Death of the Goat, in his recent work, The Feast of the Goat.

The Peruvian Nobel laureate admitted to having been “inspired” by the earlier book, but claims that “to say I plagiarized would require a dialectical leap. Plagiarism has criminal connotations.”

But Bernard Diederich, a former correspondent for Time magazine in Central America and the Caribbean, says that “Vargas Llosa plagiarized parts of my book, without giving me the credit”. The author, whose nationality is not given, said that his book was the first work to explain in detail the conspiracy which ended with the death of the Dominican dictator, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, in 1961.

“Vargas Llosa didn’t just copy elements of my book, but also an error,” Diederich says. “I will reveal it in court.”

A comparison of some paragraphs shows certain similarities. Vargas Llosa denies that they are the results of plagiarism. However, he does admit that his book was in part inspired by that of Diederich: “His book was, for me, a very rich source of information. It’s a magnificent work, but too little read.”

Translation mine. Linkage added.

Here’s a more scholarly look at the Vargas Llosa book in question. There are some quotes in Spanish which go untranslated; here’s the first. It’s Vargas Llosa talking about his writing process:

I was in the Dominican Republic [in 1975] for about eight months and heard a great many anecdotes on a topic which seemed inevitable in all the conversations of Dominicans: the Trujillo era. I also read some books on this personage, about the conspiracy that ended with him, about the vertiginous repression. And out of all that, what impressed me most was the conduct of personages like the general, Roman, important conspirators who caused the conspiracy to fail. Why did it fail? Because the principal conspirators were paralyzed by what they had done…Trujillo was still with them, alive even though his corpse was there.

So Vargas Llosa acknowledges reading “some books”, although he doesn’t say which ones. It’s very likely that Diederich’s work was among them, since it would have been directly relevant to his research, and it was the most important journalistic one on the subject of Rafael Trujillo.

As yet, nothing has been proved, and since I don’t have a copy of either book, I can’t say for certain whether I think this really is plagiarism or not. I will say, however, that I can hardly wait to see how this pans out in court. At the very least, maybe Diederich’s book will finally get the wider audience that even Vargas Llosa admits it deserves. If the similarity of the titles is anything to go by, this could get quite interesting.

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1 Response to Mario Vargas Llosa, plagiarist?

  1. Although I would in no way compare myself as a writer to Vargas Llosa, I have written on historical topics, the fruits of reading, travel and interviews. Even though I was writing “straight” history and not a historical novel, I can’t say for certainty I haven’t picked up some echoes of previous writers,and a very sharp eyed author of one book may discover I picked up an error (though a very minor matter, presented as speculative) from his fictional work.

    Some historical novelists DO include a bibliography or, as Margurite Yourcentar does at the end of “Memoirs of Hadrian”, an learned essay on research methodology and sources. Of course, the story of the research was of interest in itself, and Yourcenar’s “Notes” are something of a literary work that stands alone.

    I don’t recall seeing similar notes in other Latin American novels “based on true events” and I assume he’s like most writers, reading everything and absorbing some things that may or may not find an outlet at a later point.

    Of course, one needs to remember that “Feast of the Goat” is a fictional story set around the assassination of Rafael Trujillo. Bernard Deiderich’s reportage has a somewhat similar subtitle (“Trujillo: the death of the goat”), but is not presented as fiction. I wouldn’t be surprised if Varga Llosa absorbed what would be direct quotes in Diederich as dialog in his novel, for example.

    I’m not particularly fond of Vargas Llosa’s politics (and as a political novelist, his works are open to critique from a purely political point of view, although as a work of art, it’s hard not to like Urania Cabral, the (fictional) future World Bank executive, and be horrified by the (fictionalized) Trujillo. And — as a WORK OF FICTION — it spurred me to read more about the “real” Trujillo regime.

    A lawsuit is probably not going to go anywhere, though as everyone knows, in the U.S. anyone can sue anyone else for anything. Frankly, that’s why I write and publish (and work for a publisher) in Mexico. I don’t write nearly as much as I’d like, being tied up with fact checking as it is, and can’t imagine having to spend hours huddled with lawyers over contracts likely to be longer than the published work. I think even our most complex contract (written for our U.S. subsidiary) is only seven pages.

    “Feast of the Goat” reads like Vargas Llosa, not a reporter’s book, and it isn’t the reporter’s book. Punto.

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