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By Kelly Jane Torrance

Mario Vargas Llosa, courtesy Wikimedia CommonsThe literary world’s immediate reaction to the news that Mario Vargas Llosa was the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature was surprise. It wasn’t just that the Peruvian novelist’s name wasn’t among those bandied about in the weeks before the award was announced in October. (Stars such as American novelists Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates and Syrian poet Adonis, as well as little-known figures such as South Korean poet Ko Un and Algerian novelist Assia Djebar, made up the likely shortlist.) It was that Vargas Llosa is—quelle horreur!—a classical liberal.

Not to worry. The Nobel committee hasn’t ended its practice of handing out literature’s most prestigious prize only to current or former communists. The 74-year-old Vargas Llosa made the journey so many intellectuals did over the course of the 20th century, from Left to Right. (It rarely seemed to go the other way.) He immersed himself in Marxism as a student, belonged to a communist cell, and supported Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, seeing in it embers of hope for all Latin America. What changed his mind was observing how outspoken artists get treated in a dictatorship. Castro’s regime jailed the poet Heberto Padilla for a month in 1970, in what became known as the Padilla Affair. Socialism and political freedom, Vargas Llosa finally realized, couldn’t co-exist.

The Swedish elite were, perhaps predictably, incensed by the Academy’s choice. That Vargas Llosa once held and then rejected the ideals they hold dear added insult to injury. (How Swedes, best known these days for giving us naughty thriller writer Stieg Larsson, became the world’s literary arbiters is a testament to the very power of money the Swedes so disdain.) As Johan Norberg reported in Spiked, Sweden’s largest newspaper, Aftonbladet, published not one but three attacks on Vargas Llosa the day after his Nobel was announced.

Writers closer to home didn’t know what to think. Marie Arana, writing in the Washington Post, whose standalone book section she used to edit, said, somewhat defensively, that he was “undeniably talented,” as if there were those who denied it. She celebrated her fellow Peruvian but seemed confused by his beliefs, writing, “For years, the gossip was that Stockholm would never recognize him because his politics were conservative, though many of his positions—on gay rights, for example—have been to the left of center.”

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The politically aware know that one can be in favor of freedom in both the economic and the social realms. Vargas Llosa proudly proclaims himself a liberal, in the meaning of the term that has been lost in much of the English-speaking world. Some in the Swedish press tried to tar him as an authoritarian in a conservative mold, but the novelist has emphatically condemned dictatorships of all ideologies. He and Hugo Chavez challenged each other to televised debates in Venezuela last year, but the dictator finally backed down. Pinochet doesn’t get a pass because he brought economic success to his country, Vargas Llosa insisted in a 2005 speech in which he declared the Chilean “a murderer and a thief.” “No free economy functions without an independent, efficient justice system and no reforms are successful if they are implemented without control and the criticism that only democracy permits.”

This article appears in the December 2010 issue.  The Nobel Prize in Literature has always been almost as political as the Peace Prize. Orhan Pamuk wasn’t the bookies’ choice when he won his Nobel in 2006, but his selection shouldn’t have come as a surprise. (And didn’t to this writer, who is still kicking herself over the great deal of money she could have won.) The year before, criminal charges had been filed against Pamuk in his native Turkey after he referred to the Armenian genocide. Vargas Llosa and his former friend and now fellow Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez—they famously fell out after Vargas Llosa punched him, referring obliquely to some slight against his wife—were two of the eight writers who signed a statement in support of Pamuk. The Turkish novelist made his comments purposely to provoke; Turkey passed a new law just to charge him. He won the Nobel not just for novels of culture clash such as My Name Is Red and The White Castle, but for his courageous stance for free expression in Turkey, which put his own freedom at risk.

And why shouldn’t the Nobel be partly political? Critics complained, as they’ve done in years past and years since, that Pamuk’s selection was a political, not a literary, statement. But the will of Alfred Nobel, that inventor of dynamite whose name has become synonymous with the highest literary pedigree, declares that one part of the money set aside for the awards should be given “to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency.” Has Philip Roth, with his little tales of misogyny, created works of idealism?

Vargas Llosa himself wouldn’t want his art to be considered entirely separate from his politics or vice versa. He said as much when he appeared in Washington five and a half years ago, looking as elegantly handsome as ever, to accept the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute. He was pleased to receive the award not just for his novels, and not just for his political activism, but for both. AEI, he noted, “views me as a unified being, the man who writes and thinks.”

This man who writes and thinks has published some of the best political novels of South America—or any other continent. He’s a versatile writer, one who can write sexy comedies like the autobiographical Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter—made into a film starring, implausibly, a young Keanu Reeves as the writer who courts his aunt—mystery-thrillers such as Who Killed Palomero Molero?, and deep historical novels like The War of the End of the World, about a real 19th-century messianic cult in the wilderness that holds off the army for months. He’s one of the few modern male authors who can write convincingly about women—and writes as if he cares about them. His biggest accomplishments are his works that combine his two selves, the artist and the politician. The Nobel jury recognized this when they cited him “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”

“Defeat” seems a bit much. The heroine of his masterpiece, The Feast of the Goat, is victimized, terrorized, raped—as so many other Dominicans were—by the military dictator Rafael Trujillo. But though she’s broken, she’s never buried. She returns to the Dominican Republic as a middle-aged woman, decades after she left because of some unspeakable horror in 1961. The book tells the events of that year in parallel, as the avaricious Trujillo runs his bloody dictatorship unaware that conspirators are plotting his death.

Anyone who wants to know how a dictatorship survives—and sometimes thrives—would do well to read The Feast of the Goat. The novel is Dickensian in its range and in how difficult it sometimes is to keep the plotters apart. It’s about every ugly aspect of human nature, and some of its redeeming qualities, too. There’s a staggering amount of detail about how arbitrary rule works. Vargas Llosa, here and in Conversation in the Cathedral, has imagined everything. We are presented with the result: horror on the page that echoes horror in the cities of Latin America. There’s no avoiding the truth—as so many of Vargas Llosa’s fellow intellectuals wished to do when confronted with the evils of the socialist dictatorships they supported. Ayn Rand never wrote a book that so powerfully demolished the pretensions of the state against the individual.

As evidenced by the subjects of his novels, Vargas Llosa wasn’t only interested in his own country. But this man of the world, who spends much of the year in London and Spain, did make a spectacularly unsuccessful run for the presidency of Peru in 1990, losing to the then-unknown Alberto Fujimori. He was no mere dabbler in politics. In his autobiography, A Fish in the Water, he compares Peru unfavorably with Singapore, quoting specific figures on growth rates of its gross domestic product and exports, and talks of his informative tour through Asia. He still writes a biweekly newspaper column for Spain’s El País, a newspaper also distributed in Latin America.

His electoral loss was a blow to the Peruvian economy, but a boon to world literature. Vargas Llosa, though, unlike so many of his fellow politicians and fellow novelists, understands that his work in each field feeds the other. As Plato did centuries before, Vargas Llosa’s dictators understand the dangerous power of art. Trujillo is constantly mentioning the names of writers for or against the regime. He ordered one who criticized him killed, while he has a poet write some of the speeches that inspire his personality cult.

Vargas Llosa’s key insight is that you can’t have freedom without a culture to sustain it. In his AEI speech, a stirring tribute to both, he said that liberals “have sometimes generated more damage to the cause of freedom than did the Marxists,” for they shared the idea that economics is “the basis of civilization.” The free market is the best instrument we have for creating prosperity, but men and women need more than bread and wine to live. “Ideas and culture are what differentiate civilization from barbarism, not the economy,” he declared. “The economy by itself, without the support of ideas and culture, may produce optimal results on paper, but it does not give purpose to the lives of people; it does not offer individuals reasons to resist adversity and stand united with compassion or allow them to live in an environment permeated in humanity.” Culture, this agnostic insisted, “gives warmth and life to democracy.”

Such sentiments seem distinctly un-libertarian, even if Vargas Llosa might be for the free market and against the drug war. Like many of the best artists, perhaps he’s ultimately unclassifiable in the impoverished terms of contemporary political debate. Nevertheless, in an era in which Right and Left alike try to push the state deeper into the lives of its citizens—surreptitiously or otherwise—Mario Vargas Llosa could be the perfect Nobel laureate.

Kelly Jane Torrance writes from Washington, D.C.