Mario Vargas Llosa: A Portrait in Miniature


Arts & Culture

Photograph by Shannon Stapleton.

It had rained earlier, and the streets of Manhattan were slick. The traffic lights shone off the pavement, and in the front seat Mario Vargas Llosa discussed the delicate Ivoirian political situation with a taxi driver from Abidjan. I sat in the back seat with Mario’s wife, Patricia, struggling to carry on a polite back-and-forth with her, while simultaneously listening to the discussion going on up front. Patricia and I discussed Mario’s upcoming travel schedule. I mentioned I’d once heard him speak in Madrid, and she nodded, a little bored by me. In truth, I was a little bored by me, too. Perhaps she could intuit that I would’ve preferred to join Mario. It must have been obvious enough. Thick plastic partitions separate the front from the back of New York City taxicabs, and the effect was like watching Mario on an old fuzzy television set, the volume low. I could hear his muffled voice, but only make out a few words: questions about this warring faction or that one, the fragility of the negotiated peace, the coming elections. I wanted to interject—I’ve also been to Ivory Coast!—and this was technically true: I once spent a night in the Abidjan bus station, protected by a knife-wielding tough named Michel, who insisted on locking us inside for own safety—but there was no room for me or my story in this conversation, and so I said nothing. My French is crudely utilitarian, fine for reading a newspaper, say, but not for enjoying a novel by Flaubert, and I’m too embarrassed by my accent to fall into casual conversation with a West African taxi driver; I could only get the sense of the dialogue between Mario and the man from Abidjan, the spirit of it—enough to feel that in the course of a short uptown ride, they’d become almost intimate. We passed 72nd Street, and they shared a joke. Who told it: Mario or the driver? Behind thick plastic, both laughed heartily. Block after rain-soaked block, I sat in silence, straining to hear.

This week, Vargas Llosa will accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm. Join us as Sergio Vilela trails Vargas Llosa through the Swedish city, writing in with dispatches translated by Alarcón.