Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa: In praise of reading and fiction

Some compatriots accused me of being a traitor, and I was on the verge of losing my citizenship when, during the last dictatorship, I asked the democratic governments of the world to penalize the regime with diplomatic and economic sanctions, as I have always done with all dictatorships of any kind, whether of Pinochet, Fidel Castro, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Imams in Iran, apartheid in South Africa, the uniformed satraps of Burma (now called Myanmar). - Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel Lecture December 7, 2010

Nobel Lecture December 7, 2010
An excerpt (full text here)

Since every period has its horrors, ours is the age of fanatics, of suicide terrorists, an ancient species convinced that by killing they earn heaven, that the blood of innocents washes away collective affronts, corrects injustices, and imposes truth on false beliefs. Every day, all over the world, countless victims are sacrificed by those who feel they possess absolute truths. With the collapse of totalitarian empires, we believed that living together, peace, pluralism, and human rights would gain the ascendancy and the world would leave behind holocausts, genocides, invasions, and wars of extermination. None of that has occurred. New forms of barbarism flourish, incited by fanaticism, and with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we cannot overlook the fact that any small faction of crazed redeemers may one day provoke a nuclear cataclysm. We have to thwart them, confront them, and defeat them. There aren’t many, although the tumult of their crimes resounds all over the planet and the nightmares they provoke overwhelm us with dread. We should not allow ourselves to be intimidated by those who want to snatch away the freedom we have been acquiring over the long course of civilization. Let us defend the liberal democracy that, with all its limitations, continues to signify political pluralism, coexistence, tolerance, human rights, respect for criticism, legality, free elections, alternation in power, everything that has been taking us out of a savage life and bringing us closer – though we will never attain it – to the beautiful, perfect life literature devises, the one we can deserve only by inventing, writing, and reading it. By confronting homicidal fanatics we defend our right to dream and to make our dreams reality.

Noble Prize in Literature lecture in Spanish

In my youth, like many writers of my generation, I was a Marxist and believed socialism would be the remedy for the exploitation and social injustices that were becoming more severe in my country, in Latin America, and in the rest of the Third World. My disillusion with statism and collectivism and my transition to the democrat and liberal that I am – that I try to be – was long and difficult and carried out slowly as a consequence of episodes like the conversion of the Cuban Revolution, about which I initially had been enthusiastic, to the authoritarian, vertical model of the Soviet Union; the testimony of dissidents who managed to slip past the barbed wire fences of the Gulag; the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the nations of the Warsaw Pact; and because of thinkers like Raymond Aron, Jean Francois Rével, Isaiah Berlin, and Karl Popper, to whom I owe my reevaluation of democratic culture and open societies. Those masters were an example of lucidity and gallant courage when the intelligentsia of the West, as a result of frivolity or opportunism, appeared to have succumbed to the spell of Soviet socialism or, even worse, to the bloody witches’ Sabbath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

As a boy I dreamed of coming some day to Paris because, dazzled by French literature, I believed that living there and breathing the air breathed by Balzac, Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Proust would help transform me into a real writer, and if I did not leave Peru I would be only a pseudo Sundays-and-holidays writer. And the truth is I owe to France and French culture unforgettable lessons, for example that literature is as much a calling as it is a discipline, a job, an obstinacy. I lived there when Sartre and Camus were alive and writing, in the years of Ionesco, Beckett, Bataille, and Cioran, the discovery of the theater of Brecht and the films of Ingmar Bergman, the Theatre National Populaire of Jean Vilar and the Odéon of Jean-Louis Barrault, of the Nouvelle Vague and the Nouveau Roman and the speeches, beautiful literary pieces, of André Malraux, and what may have been the most theatrical spectacle in Europe during that time, the press conferences and Olympic thunderings of General de Gaulle. But perhaps I am most grateful to France for the discovery of Latin America. There I learned that Peru was part of a vast community united by history, geography, social and political problems, a certain mode of being, and the delicious language it spoke and wrote. And in those same years, it was producing a new, forceful literature. There I read Borges, Octavio Paz, Cortázar, García Márquez, Fuentes, Cabrera Infante, Rulfo, Onetti, Carpentier, Edwards, Donoso, and many others whose writings were revolutionizing narrative in the Spanish language, and thanks to whom Europe and a good part of the world discovered that Latin America was not the continent only of coups, operetta despots, bearded guerrillas, and the maracas of the mambo and the cha-cha-cha but of ideas, artistic forms, and literary fantasies that transcended the picturesque and spoke a universal language.

From that time to this, not without stumbling and blunders, Latin America has made progress although, as César Vallejo said in a poem, Hay, hermanos, muchísimo que hacer [There is still, brothers, so much to do]. We are afflicted with fewer dictatorships than before, only Cuba and her named successor, Venezuela, and some pseudo populist, clownish democracies like those in Bolivia and Nicaragua. But in the rest of the continent democracy is functioning, supported by a broad popular consensus, and for the first time in our history, as in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and almost all of Central America, we have a left and a right that respect legality, the freedom to criticize, elections, and succession in power. That is the right road, and if it stays on it, combats insidious corruption, and continues to integrate with the world, Latin America will finally stop being the continent of the future and become the continent of the present.

I never felt like a foreigner in Europe or, in fact, anywhere. In all the places I have lived, in Paris, London, Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin, Washington, New York, Brazil, or the Dominican Republic, I felt at home. I have always found a lair where I could live in peace, work, learn things, nurture dreams, and find friends, good books to read, and subjects to write about. It does not seem to me that my unintentionally becoming a citizen of the world has weakened what are called “my roots,” my connections to my own country – which would not be particularly important – because if that were so, my Peruvian experiences would not continue to nourish me as a writer and would not always appear in my stories, even when they seem to occur very far from Peru. I believe instead that living for so long outside the country where I was born has strengthened those connections, adding a more lucid perspective to them, and a nostalgia that can differentiate the adjectival from the substantive and keep memories reverberating. Love of the country where one was born cannot be obligatory, but like any other love must be a spontaneous act of the heart, like the one that unites lovers, parents and children, and friends.

I carry Peru deep inside me because that is where I was born, grew up, was formed, and lived those experiences of childhood and youth that shaped my personality and forged my calling, and there I loved, hated, enjoyed, suffered, and dreamed. What happens there affects me more, moves and exasperates me more than what occurs elsewhere. I have not wished it or imposed it on myself; it simply is so. Some compatriots accused me of being a traitor, and I was on the verge of losing my citizenship when, during the last dictatorship, I asked the democratic governments of the world to penalize the regime with diplomatic and economic sanctions, as I have always done with all dictatorships of any kind, whether of Pinochet, Fidel Castro, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Imams in Iran, apartheid in South Africa, the uniformed satraps of Burma (now called Myanmar). And I would do it again tomorrow if – may destiny not wish it and Peruvians not permit it – Peru were once again the victim of a coup that would annihilate our fragile democracy. It was not the precipitate, emotional action of a resentful man, as some scribblers wrote, accustomed to judging others from the point of view of their own pettiness. It was an act in line with my conviction that a dictatorship represents absolute evil for a country, a source of brutality and corruption and profound wounds that take a long time to close, poison the nation’s future, and create pernicious habits and practices that endure for generations and delay democratic reconstruction. This is why dictatorships must be fought without hesitation, with all the means at our disposal, including economic sanctions. It is regrettable that democratic governments, instead of setting an example by making common cause with those, like the Damas de Blanco in Cuba, the Venezuelan opposition, or Aung San Suu Kyi and Liu Xiaobo, who courageously confront the dictatorships they endure, often show themselves complaisant not with them but with their tormenters. Those valiant people, struggling for their freedom, are also struggling for ours.

A compatriot of mine, José María Arguedas, called Peru the country of “every blood.” I do not believe any formula defines it better: that is what we are and that is what all Peruvians carry inside us, whether we like it or not: an aggregate of traditions, races, beliefs, and cultures proceeding from the four cardinal points. I am proud to feel myself the heir to the pre-Hispanic cultures that created the textiles and feather mantles of Nazca and Paracas and the Mochican or Incan ceramics exhibited in the best museums in the world, the builders of Machu Picchu, Gran Chimú, Chan Chan, Kuelap, Sipán, the burial grounds of La Bruja and El Sol and La Luna, and to the Spaniards who, with their saddle bags, swords, and horses, brought to Peru Greece, Rome, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Renaissance, Cervantes, Quevedo, and Góngora, and the harsh language of Castile sweetened by the Andes. And with Spain came Africa, with its strength, its music, and its effervescent imagination, to enrich Peruvian heterogeneity. If we investigate only a little we discover that Peru, like the Aleph of Borges, is a small format of the entire world. What an extraordinary privilege for a country not to have an identity because it has all of them!

The conquest of America was cruel and violent, like all conquests, of course, and we should criticize it but not forget as we do that those who committed pillage and crimes were, for the most part, our great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers, the Spaniards who came to America and adopted American ways, not those who remained in their own country. Such criticism, to be just, should be self-criticism. Because when we gained our independence from Spain two hundred years ago, those who assumed power in the former colonies, instead of liberating the Indians and creating justice for old wrongs, continued to exploit them with as much greed and ferocity as the conquerors and, in some countries, decimating and exterminating them. Let us say this with absolute clarity: for two centuries the emancipation of the indigenous population has been our exclusive responsibility, and we have not fulfilled it. This continues to be an unresolved issue in all of Latin America. There is not a single exception to this ignominy and shame.

I love Spain as much as Peru, and my debt to her is as great as my gratitude. If not for Spain, I never would have reached this podium or become a known writer and perhaps, like so many unfortunate colleagues, I would wander in the limbo of writers without luck, publishers, prizes, or readers, whose talent – sad comfort – posterity may one day discover. All my books were published in Spain, where I received exaggerated recognition, and friends like Carlos Barral, Carmen Balcells, and so many others were zealous about my stories having readers. And Spain granted me a second nationality when I could have lost mine. I have never felt the slightest incompatibility between being Peruvian and having a Spanish passport, because I have always felt that Spain and Peru are two sides of the same coin, not only in my small person but in essential realities like history, language, and culture.

Of all the years I have lived on Spanish soil, I remember as most brilliant the five I spent in a dearly loved Barcelona in the early 1970s. Franco’s dictatorship was still in power and shooting, but by then it was a fossil in rags, and especially in the field of culture, incapable of maintaining its earlier controls. Cracks and chinks were opening that the censors could not patch over, and through them Spanish society absorbed new ideas, books, currents of thought, and artistic values and forms prohibited until then as subversive. No city took as much or better advantage of this start of an opening than Barcelona or experienced a comparable excitement in all fields of ideas and creativity. It became the cultural capital of Spain, the place you had to be to breathe anticipation of the freedom to come. And, in a sense, it was also the cultural capital of Latin America because of the number of painters, writers, publishers, and artists from Latin American countries who either settled in or traveled back and forth to Barcelona: it was where you had to be if you wanted to be a poet, novelist, painter, or composer in our time. For me, those were unforgettable years of comradeship, friendship, plots, and fertile intellectual work. Just as Paris had been, Barcelona was a Tower of Babel, a cosmopolitan, universal city where it was stimulating to live and work and where, for the first time since the days of the Civil War, Spanish and Latin American writers mixed and fraternized, recognizing one another as possessors of the same tradition and allied in a common enterprise and certainty: the end of the dictatorship was imminent and in democratic Spain, culture would be the principal protagonist.

Although it did not occur exactly that way, the Spanish transition from dictatorship to democracy has been one of the best stories of modern times, an example of how, when good sense and reason prevail and political adversaries set aside sectarianism for the common good, events can occur as marvelous as the ones in novels of magic realism. The Spanish transition from authoritarianism to freedom, from underdevelopment to prosperity, from third-world economic contrasts and inequalities to a country of middle classes, her integration into Europe and her adoption in a few years of a democratic culture, has astonished the entire world and precipitated Spain’s modernization. It has been moving and instructive for me to experience this near at hand, at times from the inside. I fervently hope that nationalism, the incurable plague of the modern world and of Spain as well, does not ruin this happy tale.

I despise every form of nationalism, a provincial ideology – or rather, religion – that is short-sighted, exclusive, that cuts off the intellectual horizon and hides in its bosom ethnic and racist prejudices, for it transforms into a supreme value, a moral and ontological privilege, the fortuitous circumstance of one’s birthplace. Along with religion, nationalism has been the cause of the worst slaughters in history, like those in the two world wars and the current bloodletting in the Middle East. Nothing has contributed as much as nationalism to Latin America’s having been Balkanized and stained with blood in senseless battles and disputes, squandering astronomical resources to purchase weapons instead of building schools, libraries, and hospitals.

We should not confuse a blinkered nationalism and its rejection of the “other,” always the seed of violence, with patriotism, a salutary, generous feeling of love for the land where we were born, where our ancestors lived, where our first dreams were forged, a familiar landscape of geographies, loved ones, and events that are transformed into signposts of memory and defenses against solitude. Homeland is not flags, anthems, or apodictic speeches about emblematic heroes, but a handful of places and people that populate our memories and tinge them with melancholy, the warm sensation that no matter where we are, there is a home for us to return to.
Peru is for me Arequipa, where I was born but never lived, a city my mother, grandparents, and aunts and uncles taught me to know through their memories and yearnings, because my entire family tribe, as Arequepeños tend to do, always carried the White City with them in their wandering existence. It is Piura in the desert, mesquite trees and the long-suffering burros that Piurans of my youth called “somebody else’s feet” – an elegant, sad name – where I discovered that storks did not bring babies into the world but couples made them by doing outrageous things that were a mortal sin. It is San Miguel Academy and the Varieties Theater where for the first time I saw a short work I had written produced on stage. It is the corner of Diego Ferré and Colón, in Lima’s Miraflores – we called it the Happy Neighborhood – where I exchanged short pants for long trousers, smoked my first cigarette, learned to dance, fall in love, and open my heart to girls. It is the dusty, pulsing editorial offices of the paper La Crónica where, at sixteen, I stood vigil over my first arms as a journalist, a trade that, along with literature, has occupied almost my entire life and, like books, has made me live more, know the world better, and be with men and women from everywhere and every class, excellent, good, bad, and execrable people. It is the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, where I learned that Peru was not the small middle-class redoubt where I had lived until then, confined and protected, but a large, ancient, rancorous, unequal country, shaken by all kinds of social storms. It is the clandestine cells of Cahuide where, with a handful of San Marcos students, we prepared the world revolution. And Peru is my friends in the Freedom Movement with whom for three years, in the midst of bombs, blackouts, and terrorist assassinations, we worked in defense of democracy and the culture of freedom.

Stockholm, December 7, 2010

Translation by Edith Grossman

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