Award ceremony speech



Presentation Speech by Per Wästberg, Writer, Member of the Swedish Academy, Chairman of the Nobel Committee for Literature, 10 December 2010.

Per Wästberg delivering the Presentation Speech for the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature
Per Wästberg delivering the Presentation Speech for the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature at the Stockholm Concert Hall.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2010
Photo: AnnaLisa B. Andersson

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, esteemed Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Mario Vargas Llosa’s writing has shaped our image of South America and has its own chapter in the history of contemporary literature. In his early years, he was a renewer of the novel; today, an epic poet of not only Latin American stature. His wide embrace enfolds all literary genres.

He is hard to classify. From the provincial city of Arequipa in Peru emerged: a citizen of the world, a Marxist transformed by Castro’s misdeeds into a liberal, a losing presidential candidate later to appear on his country’s postage stamps, an epic poet and historian,  a satirist, an eroticist, an essayist and columnist addressing most issues – including football and fear of flying. As a reporter from the world’s flashpoints, he recalls Graham Greene.

Vargas Llosa has led us through unfamiliar milieux with an authority that lends the authenticity of a 19th-century explorer. He links the narrative tradition of Balzac and Tolstoy to the modernistic experiments of William Faulkner.

Rebellion against an authoritarian father sparked an opposition against circumstance that extended into a youthful escape to literature and imagination. The rebel remains his protagonist – also in the forms of Flora Tristan and her grandson Paul Gauguin, fighting the conventions of their times, or the Irishman Roger Casement who, in a new novel by Vargas Llosa, exposes slavery in the Congo of Leopold II.  Nota bene, revolt is successful only as narrative; as long as tyrannical fathers exist in our lives and societies, revolt remains permanent.

Vargas Llosa uses fiction to penetrate the shrouds of power and explore the obsessions of its exploiters. The halls of boarding schools and the corridors of administrations stand against indomitable open-air inhabitants, though the latter seldom triumph in defying regulation and imposition. History crushes Vargas Llosa’s figures but not their consciences.

In Latin America, writers are charged with the moral duty of not collaborating in injustice. But the demand for commitment can cripple desire and imagination. Vargas Llosa’s novels never bow to diktat; they are polyphonic and open to interpretation, emphasising the diversity of Latin America’s social and ethnic patterns. He lends voice to the silenced and oppressed – an aesthetic feat and an ethical act. He has an unreserved interest in people – from presidents to prostitutes – and nothing is alien to him, from the arrogance of statesmen to love’s subtlest plots.

In his dark picaresque, The War of the End of the World, Vargas Llosa is fascinated by fanatics and their world vision. A prophet foresees the end of the world in 1900 and assembles an army of shabby misfits that frustrates Brazil’s military forces. Another fanatic, Mayta in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, is an Indian quadroon in an underground leftwing sect, first idealist, then terrorist in a Peru on the brink of disintegration. It is a confrontation with youthful revolutionary romanticism. And it is to the mire of social and political chasms that Vargas Llosa has led us, with serene linguistic agility, ever since his early novels, The Time of the Hero and The Green House.

Vargas Llosa’s late novel about the abuse of power, The Feast of the Goat, depicts the Dominican Republic’s tyrant, Trujillo. Servility and despotism are portrayed with brutal intensity, the horrors balanced by compassion and humanity. Among the bizarre detail is the revelation that the dictator coerced the country’s poets into petitioning the Swedish Academy to award his scarcely learned wife the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Vargas Llosa has an eye for the foolishness of innocence and the lethargy of evil. He is unusual in his ability to depict men’s friendship as well as sadistic penalism and hierarchical vanity. He prefers the compromises of common sense to radical utopias. In his book about Flaubert, Vargas Llosa disarmingly claims that he and Emma Bovary have in common “our taste for pleasures of the flesh rather than of the soul, our respect for senses and instincts, our preference for this earthly life above all else”.

He writes of love and its absence,  of the seduction of violence and the rare triumph of justice. In his erotic entertainments he is a playful ruffian unafraid of self-mockery. Or, as he expressed it: “There is no great art without a measure of folly, since great art expresses the entirety of human experience, where intuition, obsession, madness and fantasy play their part just as ideas do.”

Vargas Llosa believes in the force of literature. Without literature there would be no rendition of mankind’s possibilities and hidden places. It is a bulwark against prejudice, racism and intolerant nationalism, since in all great literature, men and women of the entire world are equally alive. It is harder to suppress a people that reads a lot.

So he has fought for freedom of expression and for human rights regardless of geography, and has done so with a passion for liberty and with political courage and common sense – these not always in harmony in important writers. In a time of tiresome narcissism he is what Zola, André Gide and Camus embodied: an example and a bellwether.

My dear Mario Vargas Llosa; you have encapsulated 20th-century history in a bubble of imagination. It has floated on air for 50 years and shines still. The Swedish Academy congratulates you. Please step forward to receive this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature from the hand of His Majesty the King.

Estimado Mario Vargas Llosa! Usted ha encapsulado la historia de la sociedad del siglo veinte en una burbuja de imaginación. Ésta se ha mantenido flotando en el aire durante cincuenta años y todavía reluce. La Academia sueca le felicita. ¡Acérquese y reciba el premio Nobel de literatura de este año de la mano de su Majestad el Rey!

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2010

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