Critic's Notebook: Mario Vargas Llosa's work and life push boundaries

Although the Nobel Prize for literature winner's literature and essays are distinctly Peruvian and meant to engage the public, he is also a man who believes in a borderless existence in the world.

56600732 - Mario Vergas Lalosa won Nobel Litreture Prize Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa smiles during a news conference after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Justin Lane / EPA / October 6, 2010)





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The selection Thursday morning of Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for literature raises a familiar question: Why him? Why now? On the one hand, Vargas Llosa is without question a writer of stature, a central figure — along with his one-time friend and fellow Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez — in the Latin American "boom" generation of the 1960s and 1970s, the author of such major novels as "The Time of the Hero," "The Green House" and "Conversation in the Cathedral." That alone distinguishes him from the last two recipients of the prize, Jean-Marie Gustave le Clézio and Herta Mueller, neither of whom was what anyone would call a household name.

At the same time, although Vargas Llosa has continued to work steadily — his most recent novel, "The Bad Girl" (2007), is an updating of sorts of "Madame Bovary" — he hasn't published a truly significant literary work since 1981's "The War of the End of the World." In part, suggests Ilan Stavans, editor of "The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature" and a professor at Amherst College, this has to do with his immersion in politics, which culminated with his unsuccessful 1990 run for the Peruvian presidency. "When it comes to Vargas Llosa," Stavans says, "there are really two careers: before and after the election. Before, he was a writer and an apprentice politician; literature was his obsession. Afterward, it was no longer fiction that mattered to him. He became a first-rate essayist instead."

That's a fascinating distinction, framing Vargas Llosa as representative of what Andre Malraux called "l'homme engagé." The first Latin American to win the Nobel since Mexico's Octavio Paz in 1990, he has been an advocate for nearly 50 years of a certain kind of writerly engagement, not in terms of politics per se but the public life of the
mind.