The power of words to fight dictatorial might
Posted on Sunday, 12.12.10
The power of words to fight dictatorial might
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Here are excerpts of Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa's
lecture, "In Praise of Reading and Fiction," to the Swedish Academy on
Tuesday, lauding fiction's power to inspire people against dictatorships:
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 someday 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
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
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 Xi
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.
(c) The Nobel Foundation 2010