Mario Vargas Llosa

Since 1901, there had been over a hundred winners of Nobel Prizes in literature — a literary who’s who that doesn’t include Tolstoy, Ibsen, Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, Luis Borges, Ezra Pound, Zola and Twain. Despite these sad omissions, the prize marches on, preferring traditional idealism over literacy audacity. Yet, this year’s winner of this prestigious honor — Mario Vargas Llosa — exemplified both of these values in his seminal works on culture and politics in Latin America.

Born in Peru, Vargas Llosa grew up during a tumultuous and violent time in his native country, and later used his formative experiences to write incisively about military, politics and society, not only in Peru but also in the wider Latin America. He preached the perils of utopia and extolled the virtues of resistance to tyranny in mind-bending novels that ranged from allegorical to investigative. By the early 1980s, he was perhaps the best-selling Latin American writer in the world. His aristocratic birth didn’t deter him from championing leftist causes in his writings, but it prevented the Peruvians from voting for him when he ran for President in 1990.

To me, however, Mr. Mario Vargas Llosa will always be known as the man who punched Gabriel García Márquez. They were once close friends, but had a violent falling out for some unknown reasons — something to do with Garcia Marquez’s close friendship with Vargas Llosa’s wife — in 1976. That year, in Mexico City, at the premiere for Supervivientes de los Andes (a movie about the Uruguayan rugby team that ate human flesh to survive after their plane crash) as García Márquez approached Mr. Vargas Llosa to embrace him, the Peruvian writer instead punched him in the face. García Márquez’s black eye was captured a few days later in the iconic photograph above by Rodrigo Moya. (Moya kept the photos to himself for thirty-one years, and published them only in 2007).

Accusations of betrayal, jealousy and adultery aside, this dramatic episode was also an ideological parting of the ways. Two writers have spoken to each other since the fight. García Márquez always supported Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution; Vargas Llosa broke decisively with Fidel, after the trial of the dissident poet Heberto Padilla in 1971. He slowly abandoned his leftist political leanings too by opening praising Margaret Thatcher and by running as a classical liberalist in his ill-fated presidential campaign. Some never quite forgive him for this betrayal, and for the decade, he has been a persona non grata — a figure so divisive for the Nobel Committee. Thus, yesterday’s award has not only been a culmination of a life devoted to literature but also a vindication of Vargas Llosa’s literary virtues.

See New York Times story on the fight and how the photo was eventually published.

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