Dispatch from Stockholm


Arts & Culture

When Mario Vargas Llosa got the call, his first thought was that it was an emergency of some kind. It was around five in the morning in New York, the same hour as in Lima, where most of his family lives—which is why he was alarmed. He’d risen a few moments earlier and, at that hour when the city sleeps, was sitting down to read. It was part of his routine while he was teaching at Princeton for a semester. His wife, Patricia, handed him the phone, and a voice said it was the Swedish Academy. Vargas Llosa first thought it might be a joke, like the one the heartless friends of the Italian writer Alberto Moravia had pulled on him: They awarded him the Nobel in jest, with a call just like this one. And Moravia celebrated, as if he’d actually won. Vargas Llosa hesitated. The voice assured him he had actually won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, and then the call ended. Those were strange moments—a controlled euphoria, a surprising well of emotion, skepticism. The phone rang again, and the same voice announced that the news would be made official in fourteen minutes, that he should be prepared.

Vargas Llosa wasn’t sure if he should call his children or wait for the official announcement, just to be certain. He recalls now, seated in a blue chair, in the press chambers of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, that those few minutes felt like an avalanche. He couldn’t think: “From that phone call until today, I haven’t had the time to think about anything. My life has become very agitated ever since, and I hope that after the tenth, everything will get back to normal.” This seems unlikely. Lucía Muñoz-Najar, one of his two assistants, says that Vargas Llosa is sleeping very little, only three or four hours a day, and that work for all of them has multiplied, almost overwhelming them; hundreds of e-mails have come from friends and readers, and there’s no time to respond; there’s an endless list of media outlets that want to speak with him, even if it’s only for five minutes. This was the case even before the Nobel, but now it is much more serious. For most people, winning the Nobel is like being canonized. You’re no longer a writer, but a living icon of twenty-first-century culture.

And so when Vargas Llosa is asked what he plans to do now that he’s won, he responds, “I won’t let myself be buried by this prize. I’m very happy to have won it, but under no circumstances will I allow myself to be transformed into a statue. I will continue to be a living writer, full of goals and projects until the very end.” He wants there to be no doubt: He is not retiring.

He talks of narco wars in Mexico, and suggests that perhaps the only way out is the legalization of drugs. He defends the award given to the Chinese dissident Lui Xiabo, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient, which has been widely criticized by China and others. When asked which writer he would award the Nobel Prize, Vargas Llosa says he would revive Borges and give it to him; and if he had to give it to a novelist, the winner would be Gustave Flaubert. “Flaubert believed that even if one didn’t have talent for writing, discipline, patience, and perseverance were the only paths to be a good novelist. Flaubert lived obsessed by perfection and dedicated his life to rewriting, even more than writing. For me, that is an enormous inspiration.” And if Mario Vargas Llosa has made it to Stockholm, to this chamber—finally—it has been due to the lessons he learned from Flaubert when he was very young: that talent is built by patiently placing one brick atop another. The evening of the award ceremony is ever closer, and it’s likely that Vargas Llosa’s most fervent desire is to return to his quiet and disciplined life, in front of the keyboard. As soon as possible.

Translated from Spanish by Daniel Alarcón.

See also: “Mario Vargas Llosa: A Portrait in Miniature.”