Mario Vargas Llosa, the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for literature, is one of the greatest novelist of the last half-century and a leading champion of liberty. Long rumored to have been a candidate for the Nobel Prize, Vargas Llosa was nonetheless caught by surprise when the Swedish Academy announced this year’s award. Privately, many cognoscenti speculated that Vargas Llosa, despite his impressive and enduring achievements as a writer of novels, short stories, plays, memoirs, and literary and cultural criticism, would continue to be passed over by the Academy because of his public and controversial embrace of “neo-liberalism.”
Once an ardent supporter of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, an avid student of Marxist theory, and briefly, a member of the Peruvian Communist Party, Vargas Llosa became nearly as famous in the 1970s and 1980s for his controversial political conversion to classical liberalism as for his precocious literary accomplishments. In 1990, having already garnered nearly every major international literary award for such novels as The Green House (1968), Conversation in the Cathedral (1975), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1982), The War of the End of the World (1984), and The Storyteller (1989), Vargas Llosa ran a nearly successful campaign for the Peruvian Presidency (losing narrowly in the second round of balloting to a then little-known agronomist, Alberto Fujimori). Brilliantly recounted in Vargas Llosa’s 1993 political memoir, A Fish in the Water, his campaign for the presidency was a revolutionary call for the radical liberalization of the economy, the privatization of the public sector, the wide distribution of private property, the end to collusion between a corrupt national government and elite economic interests, a comprehensive expansion and protection of human and civil rights, a rigorous respect for the rule of law, and an end to the authoritarian and paternalistic rule of both the left and right that had plagued Latin America for nearly two centuries.
Early in his career, Vargas Llosa, who embraced his role as a firebrand of the literary and cultural left, was an intimate friend and colleague of “the Boom” generation of Latin American writers that included Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, José Donoso, and Julio Cortázar, all early supporters of Castro and celebrants of the socialist future of Latin America. But in the early ‘70s, during the so-called “Padilla affair,” Vargas Llosa became increasingly disenchanted with Fidel’s political persecution of homosexuals and his increasing censorship of Cuban writers. In the coming years, as his interest in classical liberal thought grew, Vargas Llosa became more intimately acquainted with the writings of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Isaiah Berlin.
Vargas Llosa’s critics in the press and the academy have often characterized his political transformation as reactionary. His more severe critics insisted that as he moved ever farther to “the right” his literary work suffered. They have been wrong on both counts. Among the Nobel laureates’ finest and most powerful novels are his 1984 historical epic, The War of the End of the World, a Latin American War and Peace that depicts a bloody civil war in late 19th-century Brazil, The Storyteller (1989), Vargas Llosa’s brilliant reworking of Kafka’s Metamorphosis set among the isolated indigenous peoples of the Peruvian jungle, and The Feast of the Goat (2002), his wrenching novel about the sanguinary rule of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Not only are these later works among the author’s best, they are also perfectly consonant with Vargas Llosa’s early and long-standing commitment to personal liberty and political freedom, and with his life-long animus towards abuses of power, most particularly those of an oppressive government. What has changed over the decades since Vargas Llosa first achieved literary celebrity in the mid-1960s is not his passionate eloquence on behalf of those who seek freedom or his willingness to say “no” to power, but rather his reasoned assessment of how best liberty is to be sought and preserved.
Michael Valdez Moses is Associate Professor of English at Duke University editor of the journal, Modernist Cultures, and author of The Novel and the Globalization of Culture (which contains a chapter devoted to Vargas Llosa). He is a contributing editor for Reason.