As a university student in Lima in the 1950s, Mario Vargas Llosa and his friends used to engage in animated debates about Sartre and Camus. They read French essays, novels and poetry. With the exception of a few North American intrusions like Hemingway, Faulkner and John Dos Passos, French ideology was predominant. If you aspired to be a writer, he said, the goal was to make it to Paris.
Today, in a tent in South Wales, at the Hay Literary Festival, the Peruvian Nobel Laureate admits that it was naïve to think getting to Paris could kick-start your literary career (although it worked for him). It was in Paris however, where he discovered that Latin America too had great writers. Previously, he’d believed that he came from a folklorist tradition — not the kind of literature that transcends frontiers. But then he discovered the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier in translation, and it opened the door to a whole host of Latin American contemporaries.
Literature is a word that recurs often in Vargas Llosa’s hour-long conversation. Literature, he says, is what addresses the gap between what we are and what we’d like to be. It allows us entry into a world that is richer, more imaginative and fantastical than our ordinary lives. “When we read War and Peace,” he says, “and return to the real world, we see how poor and mediocre our lives are… it makes us criticise our life, and in this way, literature can be the engine of change and transformation in our lives.”
Vargas Llosa believes that great literature is a defence against racism, prejudice and excessive nationalism. This is why, he says, authoritative regimes consider literature dangerous — because literature promotes free thinking, and free thinking makes you question official truths. All dictatorships try to control or censor literature, but despite this, he says, the most creative times for literature are times of crisis.
Vargas Llosa is a deeply political writer; he even ran for the Peruvian presidential elections in 1990, but lost. “I never wanted to be president,” he says, “But I was forced into a political career for various reasons… At the time I had an official explanation for why I lost — there were such a large number of Peruvians who loved my books so much, they preferred that I had time to write books instead of being president. At least, that was the consolation I gave myself.”
It is natural for a writer to try and make sense of the society he lives in, and to criticise it, Vargas Llosa says. Politics is part of the writing, but it cannot be used solely to address injustices, because then it is limited to the moment, cannot transcend, makes for bad literature. “Literature can use politics, but when politics uses literature, it becomes propaganda.” Better to go into reportage or journalism if you want to engage in that, “because for this kind of fighting, you do not need poetry, plays, or novels.”
Vargas Llosa calls himself a Flaubertian writer — one who believes, like Flaubert, that the author in his book must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere. From time to time, like today, sitting in a rain-soaked tent in Hay, the author manifests himself and makes himself visible... thank God for that!