Let us hope the Nobel does not scare people away from the incomparable thrills of reading Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa,says Arul Mani
IN EXPLAINING this year’s choice, the Swedish Academy’s 18 worthies chose words that might have been useful at an embalming. To choose a writer for his “cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat” is to propel him into a zone of funerary silence reserved for writers we’ll never read because we think they are great, and our antennae disrespectfully small. Vargas Llosa, 74, deserves a friendlier introduction — if you haven’t heard of him before.
Twenty years ago, a news feature on Doordarshan carried a snippet about a writer who was standing for president in Peru and I fell in love. Not with his lupine good looks, nor with the foolhardiness of his attempt, but with the erotic bristle of the consonants in that mouthful of a name. That moment of silliness led to months of fruitless searching — I eventually found The War of the End of the World at an outfit that specialised in textbooks and civil service manuals.
I PICKED my way through the book — an account of the 1895 Canudos uprising in Brazil. I found echoes of Bengaluru’s madmen and their enthusiasm — a counterpart for every language supremacist, every Eelam lobbyist, every purveyor of alternative medicine, every prophesier of millenniary hi-jinks I’d met, each a reminder of how much the convulsions of the past are still with us.
I emerged from it weeks later as someone who has had to pick his way through a maze. I had never come across a novel so ambitious in form, in its mixing of dialects, in its vision of history. I had enjoyed reading Marquez, but after this he seemed no more than a snakeoil salesman running through his patter. Years later, Llosa would describe this novel as the farthest he has ever gone to reach the ideal of the ‘total novel’, an exhaustion of the possibilities of the form.
The Swedes didn’t get him wrong — they didn’t get him right. The artificers of fictional labyrinths in our time are portentous, self-absorbed bores; what sets Vargas Llosa apart is the sense of fun, the infinite zest that animates his writing. While talking of the bewitchment he aims to produce, he once said, “It’s important that the intellectual element dissolves into the stories. That must seduce the reader, not by their ideas but by their colour. I am a writer of the 19th century: the novel for me is still the novel of adventures.”
This zest shows up in novels of pure whimsy, where we make the acquaintance of characters like Captain Pantoja and Don Rigoberto. One must organise a battalion of whores for armymen and write about it to his superiors. The other, in between setting up elaborate sexual shenanigans, writes beautifully abusive letters (which he never posts) to feminists, Rotarians and others who seem to privilege a collective identity over the individual.
After reading Llosa, Marquez seemed no more than a snake-oil salesman running through his patter
If you amble through the archives, there are other Senor Llosas you may meet. The unabashedly polemical commentator on current events, the defender of globalisation, the advocate of Thatcherite economics, the man who characterised the Inca civilisation as a beehive society, the writer of unrestrained love letters to Madame Bovary, and the relentless needler of other Nobel laureates.
That’s the sort of stimulation universities promise you but never deliver.