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The Sentimental Education of Latin American Writers

October 8th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

So Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. To be honest, I’d half assumed he’d already won it years ago, so  major a figure has he been for so long. 

I’m sorry not to have been in Peru for this as sure that while he remains a controversial figure there – more for his exile in Europe than for his political views – they would be celebrating. 

I remember being in a small town in Ecuador in 1982 when Gabriel García Márquez won his Nobel (he has apparently just twittered Llosa to say that they are ‘now even’).  Although it was only eleven in the morning, the bar filled up with excited revellers ordering brandies; he might have been Colombian, but the town was treating Márquez as if he were a local boy.  

He was writing of their world, with its perpetual llovizna, that wonderful word for a soft drizzle of rain playing over the dampness of the platanales, the banana-plantations, while the oceano nítido, the bright ocean, stood off in the distance. The predominant mood in his books was one of nostalgia, ‘tratando de recomponer con tantas astillas dispersas el espejo roto de la memoria, trying to reconstitute so many scattered shards of the broken mirror of the memory,’ a nostalgia weighed down with decay. 

Llosa plays a different game.  His books are often at the sharp end – the brutality of life in Death in the Andes, or under the dictator Trujillo (in one of his finest late books, The Feast of the Goat) – laced with surreal or erotic moments.  With Márquez and other South American contemporaries, he shares a fascination with the brothel as a sentimental education.  In his memoirs, A Fish in the Water,  he writes that ‘my generation lived the swansong of the brothel’, a place where one could live ‘a life apart’, and  laments ‘the banalisation of sex’ that accompanied its disappearance as changing social mores allowed for sex outside marriage.  He wrote about the one he frequented near Castilla in a novel that like much of his early work was autobiographical, The Green House

Márquez too has written a great deal about brothels – Love in the Time of Cholera is full of them, for instance – but it was his last novella that really upset critics, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, in which a man in his nineties sleeps with an underage girl, an uncomfortable and problematic book that showed that whatever else he was doing, Márquez was not ageing gracefully.  One wonders if the situations had been reversed, and it was Llosa who won it 30 years ago and Márquez in contention now, how comfortable the Swedish judges would have been with that. 

See my appreciation of Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera

Postscript:  in a later interview, Vargas Llosa described how he had been rung with news of the Nobel at 5 in the morning when he usually rises (one reason perhaps for his prodigious output);  he had been reading Carpentier’s El Reino de Este Mundo, which he commended as ‘mystical, fantastical but also profoundly realistic’;  they seem to me to be  the qualities which distinguish his own work.

  1. Jon Smythe
    October 8th, 2010 at 18:01 | #1

    (he has apparently just twittered Llosa to say that they are ‘now even’).

    I cannot express how sad that single line made me feel.

  2. admin
    October 25th, 2010 at 12:02 | #2

    Early reports that Márquez had done this have now been questioned.

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