Emory Report
April 10, 2006
Volume 58, Number 26


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April 10 , 2006
Vargas Llosa draws crowd from around the world

BY michael terrazas

“Y ahora voy a leer estas páginas en Español,” said Mario Vargas Llosa, and fully half of the crowd of several hundred gathered on a brisk April night in Glenn Auditorium—located in Atlanta, Ga., USA—burst into applause. With that, the tall, elegant, silver-haired man dressed smartly in a gray suit, who for three days had spoken in heavily accented English, launched into his final public address at Emory, this time in the smooth, flowing cadence of his native tongue.

Vargas Llosa was wrapping up his turn as the 2006 Richard A. Ellmann Lecturer in Modern Literature with an evening of readings from his own work, and the decidedly international crowd hung on every word. Many of them had heard him all three days, April 2–4, speaking on three literary masters of the Hispanic tradition: Miguel de Cervantes, Jorge Luís Borges and José Ortega y Gassett.

Peru’s foremost author and one of the best-known artists in the Latin American world, Vargas Llosa is the author of more than a dozen novels, but they only begin to tell the story of his life. He also has made a name for himself as a journalist, playwright, critic, political thinker and even a political candidate: In 1990, he ran for Peru’s presidency.

“He is not only a Latin American man of letters; he is a man of letters of the world,” said Ron Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English and director of the Ellmann Lectures, adding that Vargas Llosa’s work has been translated into more than 20 languages. “Mario Vargas Llosa’s real place of writing in the world is what he calls the ‘culture of liberty, what [Irish poet] Seamus Heaney calls ‘The Republic of Conscience.’ [Vargas Llosa] is an honored and active veteran of that imaginary republic.”

Vargas Llosa’s lectures touched on political and social aspects of his three subjects, and indeed, he seemed to say in his address on Cervantes that such aspects are central to all literature.

“Fiction is entertainment only in the second or third sense,” he said, “but then fiction is nothing if it is not fun and magical.”

Vargas Llosa praised the author of Don Quixote as a giant of literature even as he described Cervantes’ difficulties in life and his bitterness that he could not make a name for himself as a poet, having to settle merely for creating what would become one of history’s greatest works of “plebian prose.”

“Cervantes is no hero in the epic sense of the word,” Vargas Llosa said, “but only in the modest sense of normal people who face setbacks and do not give up.”

Of Ortega y Gasset, Vargas Llosa said the Madrid-born writer-philosopher was vilified following the Spanish Civil War for not explicitly denouncing the Franco regime, and that vilification—along with a Western bias against Latino intelligentsia—has kept him from being mentioned in the same breath as such 20th century thinkers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell.

Focusing on Ortega y Gasset’s best-known work, 1929’s The Revolt of the Masses, Vargas Llosa said the novel was more than 50 years’ prescient in its call for a unified Europe, though its author was noticeably off on one prediction: that the United States was incapable of carrying on the European tradition of “developing science” due to its focus on technology and “deification of consumer products manufacturing.”

“It was a flawed prediction in a book replete with fulfilled prophecies,” Vargas Llosa said.

During the April 4 evening reading that culminated his Emory appearance, Vargas Llosa read three selections, first from his 2000 novel The Feast of the Goat, about the days of Dominican dictator Rafael Molino Trujillo. Next, he read from a short story, “The Fish in the Water,” which he called the “raw material” for his 1977 comedic novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Finally, he read in Spanish from an unpublished work whose title is loosely translated to “Antics of the Naughty Girl.”

After the standing ovation that followed his reading, Vice Provost for International Affairs Holli Semetko took the stage to present Vargas Llosa with an official pronouncement from Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, proclaiming the Peruvian an “Honorary Citizen of the State of Georgia.”

“I was very pleased with how it went, and it was wonderful to have the Hispanic audience—that’s the first time we’ve had something like that at Emory,” Schuchard said of the three days. “Mario Vargas Llosa had a wonderful time. He’d never seen anything like it, and who knows, maybe we’ll get him to come back and teach here sometime.”