A thousand copies of Vargas Llosa’s novel were burned at the academy…


Tahitian Landscape, Paul Gauguin, 1893

From The Guardian:

When Vargas Llosa was awarded the 2010 Nobel prize for literature, the Swedish Academy praised his “cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” That assessment could still apply to The Dream of the Celt as it applied also to his epic 1984 novel of a millenarian cult, The War of the End of the World. Based on events in Bahia, Brazil, in the late 19th century, the novel focused on a charismatic preacher Antonio Conselheiro, who exhorts followers to build a new city in defiance of a national government that decides to destroy him and his utopia. Vargas Llosa has often been drawn to such fanatical historical figures at odds with society. In The Way to Paradise (2003), for instance, he became besotted with the painter Paul Gauguin. “Gauguin thought that great art needed barbarous people,” he says, “that too much civilisation was the end of great art … Black art was discovered after Gauguin and because of him. Gauguin was the first who had the idea to go to the primitive cultures because the power of creativity is there, rational civilisation has completely castrated the creative spirit.

Casement was practically the same. He was saying: ‘These people are not barbarous. We are doing criminal things against them because they are poor and not so strong as we are.’ That was really a revolutionary idea at the time.”

Vargas Llosa came to Casement not through the Peruvian connection, but through reading a biography of Joseph Conrad. “Conrad had a very naive idea that colonisation was bringing modernity, Christianity and commerce to this barbarous people. Casement was instrumental in giving Conrad a much more realistic idea of what was going on. They became quite close friends. There is a letter in which Conrad says to Casement: ‘Without you I would never have written Heart of Darkness‘. So I became very curious and thought, who was this Casement, you know? I started to investigate.”

Some critics have found Vargas Llosa’s novel overburdened with the fruits of this three-year investigation, but when he first achieved literary success it was through plundering not other people’s biographies for material, but his own. In 1963, aged 27, he won the Premio Biblioteca Breve and the Premio de la Crítica Espanola for his debut novel La ciudad y los perros (published in English as The Time of the Hero) set among cadets at a Peruvian military school and drawing on his experiences at Lima’s Leoncio Prado military academy to which his father had sent him aged 14.

So stinging was his portrayal of the school’s macho, bullying ethos that several Peruvian generals charged the book with being the product of a “degenerate mind”, who had been paid by Ecuador to undermine the army’s prestige. A thousand copies of the book were burned at the academy.

By then, Vargas Llosa had already worked as a crime reporter, studied in Lima and Madrid, and made the fruitful decision to abandon paid journalism in favour of struggling to write fiction.”I decided I’m going to try to be a writer and consecrate my time and my energies to writing. I would survive doing marginal jobs. That was a very important moment in my life,” he told one interviewer. He was also married to a relative 10 years his senior. He had eloped aged 19 with his maternal uncle’s sister-in-law Julia Urquidi in 1955. Their eight-year marriage supplied the material for his most famous novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977), a comic fiction about a student and aspiring writer who falls in love with his uncle’s sister-in-law and befriends a manic Bolivian soap opera writer. He dedicated the book “To Julia Urquidi Illanes to whom this novel and I owe so much.” Urquidi later gave a rather different account of the relationship in her memoir, Lo que Varguitas no dijo (What Little Vargas Didn’t Say).

“Mario Vargas Llosa: a life in writing”, Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian