Mario Vargas Llosa Injecting Imagination and Novelty into Democratic Life [Month of a Thousand Forests]
First up today in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Mario Vargas Llosa, who you might know from such books as Conversation in the Cathedral or Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, neither of which he chose to include as his “best piece of writing.” Instead he turned to a couple of his more recent books: The Way to Paradise and The Feast of the Goat.
Rather than excerpt his works, I’m just going to post his whole interview below—it’s really interesting.
Just a reminder, you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
I selected these fragments according to two criteria. First, that each one of them had dramatic significance within the story, and that each alludes to crucial elements of the plot. And second, that these fragments might be read and understood on their own, by someone unfamiliar with the context within which they appear in my books. Two criteria that are difficult to reconcile but that I think I’ve managed to sustain with some success.
The list of unforgettable dead to whom I return time and again, in my memory or by rereading, is long and would fill several pages. Picking a small number of names from among them I have to cite the great novelists of the nineteenth century like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, Dickens, Flaubert, Balzac; from the classics like Cervantes, Quevado, and Góngora, to Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanch, to the Homeric poems I discovered in my old age, to many writers who revealed to me miracles of technique and prose in the telling of a story: Proust, Kafka, Joyce, and Faulkner. The writer I have probably reread most is Faulkner. I discovered him in my first year of university, in 1953, in Lima, and since then I have never ceased to be amazed by the complexity and subtlety that his stories attain thanks to the way he organizes the points of view, the movement of the narrator, the creation of his own literary time, and also, of course, thanks to that enveloping style of extraordinary sensoriality that makes the changes in atmosphere and landscape in which the stories illuminate, or blur, or vanish, creating expectation, uncertainty, and always keeping readers in a kind of trance. Faulkner is perhaps the writer who taught me most about the type of novelist I wanted to be and the type of novels I wanted to write.
From your position with respect to Cuba and Hugo Chávez, and later as a candidate for president of Peru, you have always defended individual freedoms. What’s your perspective on the political and social panorama since 1993, when you wrote El pez en la agua? Has there been an erosion of freedoms or have they been lost?
I think all the opinions I expressed in El pez en la agua I still maintain. I might clarify some details and add others regarding phenomena like Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia that did not exist when I wrote down those memories. When I began writing, the idea was widespread that a writer had, in addition to an artistic and intellectual responsibility, a civic responsibility and should participate in the political debate regarding the problems of the time. I learned this reading Sartre, about whom my opinion has greatly changed, but I have always shared his idea that writers should engage in expressing their opinions about politics and social problems. I don’t believe writers should exempt themselves from such participation, just like I don’t believe any other citizen should either. If we want things to improve in our society, we must be involved in political life and writers can contribute to this activity without renouncing their own vocation. In the dominion of the word, for example, political language tends to be clichéd, full of the commonplace, a disseminator of slogans and mottos more than ideas. A writer can give back to politics language that is clean, fresh, that expresses concepts, ideas and not just sensations and clichés. On the other hand, a writer can add imagination and inventiveness to a world that, owing to the advance of specialization, is becoming increasingly routine and predictable, deprived of idealism and creativity. If we want democracy to survive and not to drown in dictators or in total mediocrity, it’s indispensable for us to inject imagination and novelty into democratic life. In this way writers can provide a service to the political life of nations.