Commentary Magazine


More on Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa

I wrote about the new Nobel Literature laureate here yesterday, and add more today in the New York Post. And with thanks for the archival help provided by the library at the Washington Times, here’s a chunk of a profile I wrote of Mario Vargas Llosa in 1990:

The losing candidate in Peru’s last presidential election – the one who advocated free markets and an end to socialism – found himself on Rockville Pike in Borders Book Shop on a Wednesday evening in October. But he wasn’t out there among the Burger Kings and the K marts and the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurts to discuss his political career in Latin America. No, Mario Vargas Llosa had come to read aloud from the brand-new English translation of his shocking and highly experimental novel about the sexual liaison between a 40-year-old woman and her pre-adolescent stepson.

One of the world’s most distinguished writers and thinkers, peddling an erotic novel called “In Praise of the Stepmother” in a Rockville bookstore? The same day he appeared on the “Today” show in New York with Bryant Gumbel? It’s all too strange for words: Mario Vargas< Llosa, sandwiched between Willard Scott’s weather and the results of Deborah Norville’s latest sonogram.
“Well, you know, those interviews are so short that you can’t really express yourself,” he says with a touch of impatience when asked about the “Today” show in his suite at the Sheraton-Carlton. But, as if fearful to give offense, he adds, “I suppose it’s important for a book to be mentioned on a much-watched program, no?”

Here’s another irony: Mr. Vargas Llosa probably only got booked on the “Today” show because his publishers have linked “In Praise of the Stepmother” and its disturbing subject matter to Sexy Topic No. 1 in the arts this year: Censorship. “I’ve been asked about this since I arrived,” the startlingly good-looking and surprisingly slight 53- year-old writer says in his lilting, hesitant English. “It has been a surprise for me because, on the one hand, the United States seems so free. . . . On the other hand, I can’t understand that in a country so open and so free, these old and obsolete issues of censorship can still become a national issue. But I suppose it is inevitable.”

It was certainly inevitable that “In Praise of the Stepmother” would discomfit people, because it is a genuinely discomfiting book. This is no funny and playful erotic romp, like the novel that made him famous in the United States, “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.” No, the sex in “Stepmother” is powerful, primal and frightening. It is, well, dirty. “I wouldn’t say ‘dirty,’ ” Mr. Vargas Llosa corrects. “I disagree. I don’t think sex is dirty. It may be dirty, but I don’t think it’s dirty in the story I tell. Threatening, yes.” The novel has four characters – an angel-faced boy named Fonchito, his passionate and beautiful stepmother, his blissfully happy father and the inevitable chambermaid. The stepmother is slowly and unwillingly seduced by her seemingly innocent stepson…

Writing the book may have had catastrophic consequences for its author. It was published in the midst of his two-year campaign for the presidency of Peru, which ended in June when Alberto Fujimori defeated Mr. Vargas Llosa in a surprise upset. “It was used against me by my adversary in the campaign,” he recalls. “I don’t know if that had any effect, but, oh, yes, it was read on the national television, as if to say, “Look at the kind of man that is this candidate!’ ” He laughs….

Mr. Vargas Llosa is thrilled that Mexican poet Octavio Paz recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature because, he says, “they are giving the prize to someone who has been fighting for democracy.”

“Things have changed so much in the world that even the Swedish Academy is accepting that there can be a very good Latin American writer who is not a communist, not a socialist.”

He pleases himself with this crack and explodes in machine-gun laughter…

I had forgotten that Vargas Llosa had discussed Octavio Paz and his Nobel; interesting, given that Vargas Llosa is the first Latin American since Paz to win the prize.