A Nobel Laureate in the Family
October 13, 2010
Alvaro Vargas Llosa
Washington Post Writers Group
WASHINGTON—A few days ago, I received an early-morning phone call from my father, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa: “The secretary of the Swedish Academy has just told me that I have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2010. They will announce it in nine minutes.”
I shared my joy with him and thanked him for liberating me from a question with which I have been pestered for a couple of decades—“Why did your father not receive the Nobel Prize this year?” Then I thought how different Latin America would be by now if its political economy had resembled his approach to literature.
The driving principle of my father’s life has been that there is no shortcut to accomplishment. No literary muse ever guided his pen; every word resulted from excruciating discipline. Although things are changing in Latin America, development and prosperity for those in my generation were not expected to be the children of effort but of poetic justice. Because the continent had been wronged during its colonial past, metaphysical forces, it was believed, would undo the injustice of its backward condition. Those forces could take the form of revolution in poor nations or self-destruction in rich ones, never of painstaking, cumulative personal effort by Latin Americans themselves. My father, meanwhile, toiled on, persuaded that redemption—in his case from the condition of an aspiring man of letters born in a peripheral nation, educated in public schools and obliged at one point to take on seven small jobs in order to make ends meet—does not come from impersonal forces.
He became globalized well before Latin America’s political economy did. Like some of his elders—particularly Argentine literary giant Jorge Luis Borges—and contemporaries such as Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he abolished borders early in his career. He absorbed everything the outside literary world had to offer: language, images, ideas, techniques. His imagination blended those influences with his own experiences and intuition; the result was a unique way of expressing his own roots. With many exceptions, in much of Latin America the dichotomy between naive indigenous literature and “European” literature—meaning an uncritical absorption of everything Spanish or French—had dominated the arts. A new generation of writers to which my father belongs replaced the false dichotomy with something at once local and global.
At the time, almost everything else in Latin America pointed in the opposite direction. The continent was one huge mental barrier against the outside world. While decision-makers in much of the region were navel-gazing through the 1960s and ’70s, the generation of the so-called “Latin American literary boom” was busy demolishing the walls of protectionism, prejudice, self-doubt and envy in its own trade. This did not make for a less aboriginal Latin American literature. The rest of the world recognized it as uniquely rooted.
Another cue I hope younger readers take from my father is that being a “public intellectual” carries responsibility.
Observers in developed nations have difficulty understanding the influence that public intellectuals have in poorer ones—somewhat akin to the magic powers attributed to storytellers who preserve the memory of a tribe. But few actors on the Latin American scene have contributed more to the region’s underdevelopment than its public intellectuals, with immeasurable help from some of their American and European peers who quenched their thirst for utopia by espousing in exotic lands the kinds of horrors of which they themselves would have been the prime victims if they had taken place at home.
My father broke with that decades ago, opting for a quite solitary, often misunderstood defense of individual freedom. This cause is more widely supported in Latin America today, a region where the notion of self-effort is growing rapidly, as the millions who have left poverty through enterprise account for, and where the dust of anti-Western protectionism is being blown off by the winds of globalization. But it took a long time, and in some parts authoritarianism still weighs heavily on societies.
Which is why, in response to the kind e-mails, letters and calls from Cubans, Venezuelans and other oppressed people that my family has received in the past few days, I say by way of consolation: Let’s hope the Nobel Prize for Literature 2010 makes your circumstances feel a tiny bit less dark.
Alvaro Vargas Llosais Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His weekly column is syndicated worldwide by the Washington Post Writers Group, and his Independent Institute books include Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.
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