Friday, October 08, 2010

A few thoughts on Mario Vargas Llosa

By the standards of our current 24-hour news cycle, it's old news already: Mario Vargas Llosa was announced yesterday as the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature. An interesting and, by some accounts, odd choice - not so much based on his literary reputation as the timing. Why him, and why now - especially as he hasn't written anything that most literary critics from around the world would call a major or important work in a good 20 years? Well, after the Nobel Committee (in)famously awarded last year's Peace Prize to Barack Obama, well before he had accomplished anything of note as President, all bets were pretty much off. No one can fathom the murky depths of these white, left-leaning Europeans' reasoning.

Still, I'm not here to say he's not deserving of the honor. First, who the heck am I to say; and second, from the little experience I do have with his work, his talents and ability to craft an interesting story are indeed impressive. I own three of Llosa's books, and I've read two: The Storyteller and Death in the Andes (the one I haven't read yet - though my blog partner Mutt has, I note in passing - is The War at the End of the World). Both of these books in my opinion are noteworthy for the insight they provide into the culture, mythology and practices of various peoples indiginous to Peru in general, and the high Andes Mountains in particular.

It was only about a month ago when I happened to be reading Death in the Andes, and one night I went with a group of people I work with for drinks after COB. Somehow the rambling conversation got around to books and someone asked me what I happened to be reading. I told them it was Llosa's book, and a few people within earshot looked at me as if another head had just sprouted from my left shoulder. Because human nature is what it is, I felt initially a little sheepish, but then quickly recovered and explained that one of the main reasons I read at all is because I want to expand my knowledge of the world, I want to experience different worlds and cultures and ideas - if only vicariously, through the words and lives of others real and imagined.

Discovering Llosa's work is as good a chance as any for anyone who's of that mindset to do the same. Both of these books vividly portrayed a world of opaque, humid, mysterious jungles; ancient ruins and tribal rituals; poisonous animals and fierce, painted warriors disappearing like vapor into the dense foliage. Yet they also provactively juxtapose these remnants of an older order with more modern trappings and problems - chief among these being the encroaching machinery of Western civilization and warfare, and the ongoing struggle between democracy and dictatorship. I believe that Llosa overarching aim is to help those outside of his country to understand and appreciate the rich cultural heritage of Peru and South America in general; while at the same time encourage and rally his own people to recognize their own contributions to the world and not allow these to be tainted by the corruption and greed of the few rich and powerful.

One can also appreciate in Llosa's work a unique blending of popular genre fiction with the mythologies and traditions mentioned above. For example, Death in the Andes could easily be read as a detective novel, a whodunit of sorts, set in the exotic and mysterious setting of a remote Andean village. A modern policeman travels from the city (Lima) to investigate the disappearance of three construction workers, and finds himself dealing with ancient forces and beliefs well beyond his power to comprehend - or control. His latest book, The Bad Girl, was supposedly a modern re-telling of Madame Bovary, which is an interesting - and bold - choice in its own right. And his forthcoming novel, Celtic Dream, tells a story of the real-life historical figure Sir Roger Casement, an Englishman who supported the Irish rebellion and also, notably, defended the cause of native tribes in the Belgian Congo and the Amazon region against British colonialism and exploitation.

To sum up, Llosa, like other great Nobel laureates before him (Halldor Laxness, Sigrid Undset and Naguib Mahfouz come to mind), offers a treasure trove of experiences and stories - only available from a particular culture - to hungry minds that want to experience something new and different every time that they crack open a book. Take him on, or any one of the aforementioned writers for that matter, and you'll experience more than just a good read - you'll gain some wisdom, too. And who couldn't use a little more of that?

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