Académie Française Honors Vargas Llosa

Peruvian writer with a complex worldview receives France’s highest literary award

The last week of November was not a bad time at all for Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. The announcement that France’s most venerated literary and cultural institution, Académie Française, has elected the 85-year-old author as a member came on November 25, within just two days of the U.S. publication of his latest novel, Harsh Times, which drew lavish praise in the New Yorker and other cultural organs.

Harsh Times is partly about the U.S. role in the overthrow of Guatemala’s left-leaning government in 1954, and much of the reporting on the new novel’s publication has celebrated it as a return to form for Vargas Llosa, treating him as an anticolonialist and antiauthoritarian writer whose work shows thematic continuity over more than six decades.

Vargas Llosa

You can count on the New Yorker to put the most politically correct spin on any announcement from a top cultural institution. Jonathan Blitzer writes in his New Yorker piece, “The author has always been interested in the lures and predations of power.” Blitzer’s analysis offers few surprises. Here you have it: a writer known for having denounced Peru’s ruling military junta in the 1960s has returned to form and carried his illustrious career into the 2020s with a polemic, in the guise of a novel, against the role of the CIA and the U.S. government and their stooges in squelching indigenous movements and figures who dared to care more about the people of Latin America than the wishes of global corporations and anticommunist ideologues.

But for more sophisticated observers, what the Académie Française has really laid bare is a willingness, even in an age where mobs demand the cancellation of anything that offends them, to affirm the value of complexity and nuance in world literature and to honor a writer who refuses to conform to the cookie-cutter templates of either the right or the left. It’s not just that Vargas Llosa does not write in French and is ten years older than the technical maximum age for an inductee into the academy. Vargas Llosa is a complex writer for complex times, and his work will vex all who insist on viewing the world through an ideological lens.

Down The Shining Path

In his 1993 novel, Death in the Andes, Vargas Llosa brings the reader into one of the most traumatic and violent periods of recent history. Here is no dry discourse. The reader is right there on the ground, taking in the sights, smells, and noises of a guerilla war. The protagonist is Corporal Lituma, who has responsibility for overseeing the security of Naccos, a mining town in the Andes, in the midst of the long and bloody Shining Path insurgency that killed an estimated 70,000 people from 1980 to 2000.

Committed to a variant of Maoism that endorsed raiding and murdering supposed enemies of the people in the most lurid and gruesome ways imaginable, Shining Path—much like the Marxist insurgents who terrorized white Rhodesia in the 1970s—specialized in launching attacks on soft targets like schools, schoolbuses, tourist hostels, hospitals, restaurants, bars, churches, shanties, depots, construction sites, and, as Vargas Llosa depicts, sleepy mining towns full of laborers with no more sinister goal than to earn a bit of bread to feed their poor peasant families.

Vargas Llosa

Death in the Andes is a reminder of the absurdity of the woke left’s notion of intersectionality, which serves up a vision of the world as fundamentally split between diverse racial minorities, women, and people of varying sexual preferences on the one hand, and powerful, imperialistic white male oppressors on the other. The Shining Path in this novel are not just psychotic killers. They reserve their venom for certain classes of people in particular.

Contrary to what the left would like you to believe about a movement of indigenous people committed to overthrowing Western-backed oppression, Shining Path cadres loathe gays and lesbians and seek to orchestrate their annihilation. The guerrillas feel a more general aversion to those deemed sexually deviant or self-indulgent, but their hatred of homosexuality comes out in scene after scene in this novel. Vargas Llosa faithfully depicts Shining Path’s commitment to “social cleansing” and the movement’s mission of carrying out massacres such as a notoriously bloody incident at Aucayacu in 1986.

Again and again, the writer depicts the psychotic hate of a marginalized, oppressed group toward another marginalized, oppressed group. Vargas Llosa is writing historical fiction that does not sit well at all with the reductionism of the woke left. But it is important to acknowledge here that Vargas Llosa himself does not have a simple, Manichean worldview. He seeks to recognize and affirm the complexity of the human condition.

Though he clearly means for readers to recoil at the savagery and brutality of Shining Path, Vargas Llosa also leaves no doubt that members of the mining community overseen by Colonel Lituma and his fellow officers, and of the military and political establishment in Peru, are really not above the charge of moral turpitude. Some of them cannot quell their appetites even or especially when propriety says they must do so. Nowhere does this come across more forcefully than in a scene near the end of Death in the Andes where the people of Naccos are relaxing at a bar and one of the men exposes himself and sexually assaults a woman who does not want to dance with him. Clearly we are not to side with Shining Path, but the existing order is not without problems.

Sunday, Sunday

Vargas Llosa echoes themes in what may be his best short story, “Sunday, Sunday,” which presents its protagonist, Miguel, with the most literal version of the old question of whether you would save an enemy who was drowning. In this tale, Miguel and another man named Rubén are both hopelessly in love with the same woman. Their friends joke about the rivalry and goad them into trying to resolve it one night through a drunken swimming contest.

When Rubén, who has been smug and insulting to Miguel for so long, has a seizure and faces the likelihood of drowning, Miguel finds himself thrust into a dilemma not made any easier by things that weigh on his conscience. We learn that Miguel is hardly devout and the thing he likes best about going to church is the chance it offers to ogle girls in the congregation. Verily, the world is a complex place not neatly divided into good guys and bad guys.

Following on the heels of the Nobel Committee’s awarding of its highest honor to politically incorrect novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah of Tanzania, who does not view the colonization of Africa as a simple clash between white colonists and native egalitarians, the Académie Française has done a service to the recognition of complexity in its election of Vargas Llosa. He is a proud Peruvian who has protested military rule and U.S. intervention in the past yet who does not flinch from depicting the horror of an indigenous, anti-military insurgency. Now as in past ages, revolutions undertaken in the name of progressive ideals lead quickly to the guillotine and rivers of blood.

Mario Vargas Llosa stands as a living testament to literature’s transcendence of the limits of punditry and ideology and its recognition of the vexed nature of humanity. In his great novel about one of the darkest passages of recent history, Vargas Llosa has served up a vision of hell on earth in which none are angelic and there are only gradations of vileness and guilt. Death in the Andes ends with the following line, right after Colonel Lituma comes out of the barracks where he has done his thankless duty: “He felt a blast of icy air, and despite his confusion, he could see the splendid half-moon and the stars shining in a cloudless sky, still shedding their clear light on the craggy peaks of the Andes.”

This passage recalls nothing so much as the end of Inferno, where Dante and Virgil at last emerge from hell and walk out again under the stars.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

One thought on “Académie Française Honors Vargas Llosa

  • December 6, 2021 at 2:50 pm

    Brilliant. Loved this bit in particular: “But for more sophisticated observers, what the Académie Française has really laid bare is a willingness, even in an age where mobs demand the cancellation of anything that offends them, to affirm the value of complexity and nuance in world literature and to honor a writer who refuses to conform to the cookie-cutter templates of either the right or the left.”


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