Transcript from an interview with Mario Vargas Llosa during his visit to the Nobel Museum in Stockholm on 23 May 2014.
Who has most inspired you as a writer?
Mario Vargas Llosa: I had of course the models of great writers and many … very important for me was the case of Flaubert for example. And the reason was that unlike all the writers who seemed geniuses since they were born, Flaubert had to work a lot in this life to achieve master works. So in his case talent was something that was the result of perseverance, discipline, the will to be a good writer. And when I … I love Flaubert since I read his first novel which was Madame Bovary, I read a lot about his life and I discovered that when he started he was not a genius at all, but he was a very, let’s say, common writer who wrote under the influence of his models and that his originality and really his talent is something that he achieved through discipline and very, very hard work. So that gave me the, let’s say, a kind a method for writing which I think was very, very important because I felt that I was not a genius at all so, that I wanted to write good books I had to work. And Flaubert was a great inspiration because he was a writer that had built his talent, his genius through very, very hard work, to a very deep commitment with his vocation, what he wanted to achieve. So he helped me enormously, not only by the beauty and the richness of his books but also because he managed not being a born genius, to build his genius through effort, commitment, perseverance, discipline.
How important are your origins in your writing?
Mario Vargas Llosa: I was born in Peru, but I spend my first ten years, not in Peru but in Bolivia. Then when we returned to Peru, I lived in Piura, in Lima and then I have lived in Spain, in France, in England in the Unites States and I’ve been moving all the way. I think my Peruvian roots are very important for me because the first images that my memory has preserved are related to Peru. The kind of Spanish that I speak, is the Peruvian Spanish which of course is part of the Spanish but with certain nuances, with a certain music. And in this sense, I can say that I am a Peruvian writer, but I am not nationalistic, I am a declared enemy of all forms of nationalism. So, I think for me has been as important as to be born in Peru, to have spent so many years in France, so many years in England. I think all places in which I have lived have produced the writer that I am.
I think this is another very important knowledge that you receive being a writer, everything that you do is something that contributes to build your personality, to build your sensibility. I think this nationalistic vision is so limited, is so provincial, put you in such a restricted space to understand problems, to understand life that it is very, very important to leave it to yourself to build this kind of rationalistic or nationalistic perspective. And I think literature helps you a lot to overcome this very limited perspective of life. What you discover reading, you know, authors from different languages, from different traditions, is that the common denominator is much more important, much more larger than this localistic, regionalistic, nationalistic kind of perspective. So, in this sense I consider myself a citizen of the world and I think literature has helped me very much to have this attitude. I belong, of course, to Peru, but I belong to Latin America, I belong to the Spanish-speaking world, which means a lot of traditions and at the same time I feel in a way that I owe a lot to French culture or to English culture, to culture of my time. And I would like very much a world where people from all places consider themselves belonging to all places and achieve this kind of goal through culture. Culture is the great instrument to overcome the geographic, cultural or religious limitations that you have and understand the rest and participate of everything that is good, important, beautiful in other cultures, in other traditions, in other countries.
What were your childhood dreams?
Mario Vargas Llosa: I had the dream which at that time seemed totally impossible, to be a writer because I enjoy reading so much that I had the idea that life concentrated to tell stories, to invent stories, would be something absolutely fantastic. But it seemed impossible, because at that time there were not many Latin Americans who were only writers, so the writers that I knew were writers only for holidays or for weekends. They were professionals, there were lawyers, there were diplomats who had their lives completely consecrated to different professions and that people who practised literature as a hobby, an eventual hobby. And I didn’t want to be a writer only of Sundays and holidays. So, my dream at that time was to be a writer, but it seemed something impossible. Then I discovered that it was a city in the world in which apparently it was possible to be only a writer, and that was Paris. Since I was very young, I had the idea that I should organise my life in order to reach Paris, because in Paris it was possible to be only a writer. And in fact, something of the sort happened to me because when I finished university, I studied to be a lawyer and at the same time for pleasure, humanities. When I finished university, I got a grant to make a doctorate in Spain, in Madrid, I was in Madrid a year and a half and then I moved to Paris.
And finally, in Paris I could organise my life in order to, not only to be exclusively a writer, but to get jobs that let me free time to write and to read and. So it was in Paris that I became a professional writer as I had thought when I was a boy. And I lived seven years in Paris working as a journalist, as a teacher first and then as a journalist, but there were jobs that gave me a lot of free time so I could consecrate most of my time to write. Which I was very lucky because that what I was longing since I was very young. To write books, to write novels, to write short stories, to write plays, I thought it was the most extraordinary activity in the world. And it was in Paris in a way that I could organise more and more my life with enough free time, in order to consecrate most of my time to writing. I finished my first novel there, my second novel and I was writing my third novel when I moved from Paris to London where I went to teach. And teaching in a London university was something very pleasant because I taught literature, Latin American and Spanish literature, and it was a kind of job that let me a lot of free time for writing. I can say that I really became a real writer in Paris, in London, in Europe.
Does literature play a part in today’s world?
Mario Vargas Llosa: Literature is of course something that gives you enormous pleasure. That is essential. Good literature is an extraordinary experience of pleasure, of entertainment, but it is not only that. I think good literature is something that enrich very much, your sensibility, your imagination and I think good literature, great literature develops in readers a critical attitude towards the world. When you return to real life after experiencing the beauty, the richness of war and peace, of Don Quijote, of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, all very great worlds of literature, I think you are much more sensible to the deficiencies of real life to everything that is wrong because it’s unjust, unfair or brutal in the world as it is. So, I think this critical attitude towards the world which I think is essential to change things, to improve society and to correct the deficiencies of the real world, is something from what you are much more aware if you are impregnated of good literature. I think that is one of the most important social and political and moral effects of good literature. You understand better what is wrong in life, you discover that real life is never apt to fulfil your appetites, your desires, your dreams. I think this is an essential aspect of progress because if you don’t have citizens that are aware that things are wrong, that things are insufficient to fulfil the expectations of society, you are not mobilised to change things, to reform what is wrong and in this sense I think literature, in particular, and culture in general, play a fundamental role in what is civilisation, what is progress.
I am convinced that, for example, democratic culture, culture based on freedom, on respect of human rights, was something that was possible because we had people that were sensibilized by art, by literature, by culture in general, about the sufferance, the injustices, the inequalities, the abuses who were so extended in real life. So, I think literature is pleasure but it’s also a very important instrument to move forward in life. And that is the reason why all dictators have been always trying to create systems to control literature. They were aware that in literature they had an enemy, someone who was a way of resisting abuses and particularly this kind of total control that a dictatorship tried to impose in a society.
What do you think of the Swedish Academy’s motivation for your Nobel Prize?
Mario Vargas Llosa: I think it is true that one of my major preoccupations has been power. Not only political, but also social, economic power, probably because I was born in a country and in a region in which power were synonymous of brutality. We have had so many kinds of dictatorship in Latin America. Things are changing, fortunately, but when I was young, when I was a boy, Latin America was a region full of military dictatorships and that was synonymous with brutality, with brutal imposition of ideas, of attitudes, of behaviours. So, this is a kind of theme or subject that reappear constantly in my work and I think in my stories there is always a great respect and admiration of people that in spite of this kind of environment in which forced brutality are the main reasons to behave and to act and fulfil your daily life, are able to resist, to fight and to demonstrate that this is not /- – -/, that things can change, that life can get better, that societies can be freer than they are. And I think in this kind of fighting against the established order enrich themselves, enrich, let’s say, a superior kind of moral value. I think this kind of people are the heroes of my stories and I think in a way this is more or less synthetized in this description, of the reasons for why the Swedish Academy gave me the Nobel Prize.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Mario Vargas Llosa: Work very hard, enjoy what you are doing. I think it is essential when you have a literary vocation to feel that writing, practicing this vocation, you are receiving the most important rewards for what you are doing. And I think if you work with this kind of feeling, it is much more possible that what you’ll write will be good literature, that you will succeed as a writer. That if you write in a mechanical way, as if you were practicing any other kind of work or job. I think writing or composing or painting is also a job, of course, but it’s a very special kind of job in which practicing the job you are already receiving a fantastic kind of reward for what you do. You are doing something in which you are realising yourself, accomplishing yourself something that was a very important necessity of your own personality in order to be, how can I say, loyal with yourself. That would be my advice to a young writer – enjoy what you do, be very serious self-critic of yourself and receive this kind of compliments that is to be satisfied with what you are doing.
How did you react to being awarded the Nobel Prize?
Mario Vargas Llosa: It was a very big surprise. I had really discarded the possibility of receiving the Nobel Prize. I was in New York at that time because I was teaching at Princeton but living in New York. I usually start to work very early, it was five in the morning I think. I was preparing a lesson that I had to deliver the next day. It was, I think, 5 a.m. and suddenly I saw my wife appear where I was working, with the telephone and with a very strange attitude, like she was having a kind of mystical trance. She didn’t say a word and she gave me the telephone. And what was funny was I thought immediately, someone in the family is very ill or is dead, because it was 5 in morning. And then I took the telephone, and I couldn’t hear anything because there were all kind of electric, you know, sounds, but suddenly I heard very far away “Swedish Academy”. And then I was cut. So, I said to my wife, “He has said Swedish Academy” and she was still in state of trance, of mystical trance. And immediately after, the telephone rang again and this time I could speak, and I was told “I am the secretary of the Swedish Academy and you have received the Nobel Prize in Literature”. And I was so surprised that I could only react with a stupid question. I said, “Is that official?” and I was told “It will be in half an hour. Open the radio and the television and you will see.” And that was all, and I was talking to my wife and I said, “Do you think this is true?”.
And I remember that we were in Rome, several years ago, in which there was a fantastic misunderstanding because an Italian writer had received a call like this, and he was naïve enough to call the press to say, “I have been told that I have received the Nobel Prize” and it wasn’t true. It was a joke which had been played on him of his so-called friends. And we were talking, and I said, “And what about if this is some kind of joke?”, like the joke that was done to Moravia, Alberto Moravia, you know. But then we were hesitating if we would call our children, or we expected the half an hour, but finally we decided that it was true and so we called two sons and our daughter. They were very surprised of course. And at 6 o’clock New York time, it was given the news everywhere, in radios, in TV. And what was even more incredible, is that half an hour later, I had at least twenty newspaper men at the door of my apartment in New York, 6.30 in the morning. Mostly from Nordic TVs and radio stations, Dutch, Norwegian, Sweden, it was incredible, you know. I am still thinking, is this true or a kind of fairy tale, you know. That I have been living in since.
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