If, as an old maxim instructs, you can ascertain much about a man by who his enemies are, then Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa earned bonus points one year ago. As the coronavirus exploded across the globe in March 2020, he drew fire from the Chinese communist regime when he asserted that the pandemic might not have happened if China “was a free country and democratic rather than a dictatorship.”
Writing for newspapers in Peru and Spain, Vargas Llosa noted what the world now knows as indisputable fact, namely, that “at least one prestigious doctor, and maybe several, detected this virus in plenty of time and instead of taking the corresponding measures, the government tried to hide the information and to silence that voice, or those sensible voices, and tried to stifle the information, as do all dictatorships.”
The “prestigious doctor” to whom Vargas Llosa alluded was 34-year-old Dr. Li Wenliang, an early victim of both the virus and the communist kleptocracy that tried to hide it. I wrote about him in FEE.
The lying tyrants in Beijing took time out from their genocide against Uighurs to rebuke Vargas Llosa for his “arbitrary defamation” and “irresponsible and prejudiced opinions.” He deserves to wear those accusations as a badge of honor.
Peru missed an opportunity for greatness when its voters narrowly failed to elect Mario Vargas Llosa their President in 1990. This is a man who was smart enough to reject Marxism when he saw the tyranny and deprivation it produced in places like Cuba. In his 30s during the 1970s, he came to embrace classical liberal ideas of freedom and free markets. He is recognized the world over as one of Latin America’s greatest novelists of recent times. On March 28, he turns 85.
Eleven years ago, Vargas Llosa received the Nobel Prize for Literature “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” Speaking truth to power is not only a frequent motif in his novels and essays, it is a personal commitment in his own life as well.
In his Nobel lecture in Stockholm on December 7, 2010, he argued that the foundation for good literature is freedom of expression. Titled, “In Praise of Reading and Fiction,” Vargas Llosa said that the most important thing that ever happened to him was learning to read at the age of five. Reading, he explained, “changed dreams into life and life into dreams and placed the universe of literature within reach of the boy I once was.”
One reviewer of the lecture declared it to be “a resounding tribute to fiction’s power to inspire readers to greater ambition, to dissent, and to political action.”
In honor of Mario Vargas Llosa’s 85th birthday, I share here the following excerpts from his Nobel lecture. I hope they empower readers to appreciate this great writer’s insights more fully and to join millions the world over in wishing him many more years of putting his mind and pen to work for the good of humanity.
But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires, and our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist.
We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal. Without fictions we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion. Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers. They do this because they know the risk of allowing the imagination to wander free in books, know how seditious fictions become when the reader compares the freedom that makes them possible and is exercised in them with the obscurantism and fear lying in wait in the real world.
Whether they want it or not, know it or not, when they invent stories the writers of tales propagate dissatisfaction, demonstrating that the world is badly made and the life of fantasy richer than the life of our daily routine. This fact, if it takes root in their sensibility and consciousness, makes citizens more difficult to manipulate, less willing to accept the lies of the interrogators and jailers who would like to make them believe that behind bars they lead more secure and better lives.
Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs, and prejudices that separate us. When the great white whale buries Captain Ahab in the sea, the hearts of readers take fright in exactly the same way in Tokyo, Lima, or Timbuktu.
Since every period has its horrors, ours is the age of fanatics, of suicide terrorists, an ancient species convinced that by killing they earn heaven, that the blood of innocents washes away collective affronts, corrects injustices, and imposes truth on false beliefs. Every day, all over the world, countless victims are sacrificed by those who feel they possess absolute truths.
We should not allow ourselves to be intimidated by those who want to snatch away the freedom we have been acquiring over the long course of civilization. Let us defend the liberal democracy that, with all its limitations, continues to signify political pluralism, coexistence, tolerance, human rights, respect for criticism, legality, free elections, alternation in power, everything that has been taking us out of a savage life and bringing us closer – though we will never attain it – to the beautiful, perfect life literature devises, the one we can deserve only by inventing, writing, and reading it. By confronting homicidal fanatics we defend our right to dream and to make our dreams reality.
In my youth, like many writers of my generation, I was a Marxist and believed socialism would be the remedy for the exploitation and social injustices that were becoming more severe in my country, in Latin America, and in the rest of the Third World. My disillusion with statism and collectivism and my transition to the democrat and liberal that I am – that I try to be – was long and difficult and carried out slowly as a consequence of episodes like the conversion of the Cuban Revolution, about which I initially had been enthusiastic, to the authoritarian, vertical model of the Soviet Union; the testimony of dissidents who managed to slip past the barbed wire fences of the Gulag; the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the nations of the Warsaw Pact; and because of thinkers like Raymond Aron, Jean Francois Rével, Isaiah Berlin, and Karl Popper, to whom I owe my reevaluation of democratic culture and open societies.
Happy 85th birthday, Mario Vargas Llosa!