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Monday, 11 October 2010

Review: The Language of Passion, Mario Vargas Llosa (2003)

With commendable consistency and unfailing predictability this collection of journalism contains columns Vargas Llosa wrote for the Madrid daily newspaper, El Pais, between 1992 and 2000. At the beginning of the book we're in 1992 and we proceed, year after year, until the final installment - the writer's column was called 'Touchstone' - in the year 2000.

It's a good thing that the editors chose to order the pieces in this concrete and reliable manner, for two reasons. The first is because, as the datelines show, the author travelled a lot. From Alexandria where he files a piece on the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, to London where he writes with sensitivity and humour about the reading room in the British Museum: geographically the book is a challenge because we are at once introduced to the cabinet of a peripatetic author, someone who is accustomed to travel and adventure, if most often of a sedate and cultivated - rather than a physically challenging - kind.

Which brings me to the other reason to rejoice in the lack of excess displayed by the book's humdrum but no doubt highly-skilled editors. There is a huge variety of subject-matter for the reader to traverse.

Surprisingly, Vargas Llosa's least successful moments seem to arrive when he is discussing art and literature. The title piece, for example, is a dry one about the Mexican writer Octavio Paz. There's also an inept piece on the 20th Century Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Vargas Llosa on Monet? Please. And his attempt to capture the magic of Modernism in a number of the pieces? Uninspiring.

An essentially polemical and political writer, Vargas Llosa won his Nobel Literature Prize on the back of that kind of writing (which most would agree would include his novels).
The Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat".
Vargas Llosa's strength is his passionate rejection of the elements of Latin American society that have held the continent back, and that cause thousands of Latinos to attempt to escape from its crumbling statelets every month, indeed every week. The writer sees the endless flood of humanity exiting the south in favour of the capitalist north and wonders: Why? It's a sign of the compassion he maintains for his fellow human being that he concludes that those footloose individuals are in fact making the right choice for themselves, and not turning traitor to a greater cause. What greater cause than individual happiness?

A person said to me a day or so ago that Vargas Llosa is a "libertarian looney". In some sense, she was on the button. Vargas Llosa'a contemptuous rejection of postmodernist methodology reflects flabby conservatism. It shows a lack of imagination that you find in magazines of the Right such as Australia's Quadrant. But you also get in his writing a matching humanistic tendency to want to lend courage to the oppressed, such as African women who are forced to undergo genital mutilation, in the face of what he would consider cowardly relativism from some sectors of the progressive West that base their own strong opinions on such ideas as multiculturalism or on post-colonialism.

Just as he supports the indigent of the south who forge a path on a well-trod northward trajectory, Vargas Llosa rejects the caudillos - the military strongmen who sieze power with promises of prosperity they can never fulfil and then attempt to cement it by undermining civil society and state institutions - and the Church. He sees centralised, undemocratic control as a technique most often used for venal and often criminal purposes. He regards state-owned enterprises as bloated instruments of corruption or, at the very least, inefficiency. These are the types of institutions he thinks Latin America needs to wean itself off, and he considers the Church at fault for trying to slow down that process at every opportunity.

It is natural that a novelist should take pity on the lone survivor, such as the young Gambian girl forced to throw herself out of a window when the building she was sleeping in was torched by racist Spanish thugs. Likewise, it is natural for the novelist to focus his well-honed senses on an event such as the Carnevale in Brazil, to try to comprehend its meaning in the context of social cohesion and the psychological well-being of the individual.

It's hard to blame Vargas Llosa for being a bad critic when he's such an entertaining writer, at least to go by the evidence presented in this volume. I remember being unimpressed with his novels, which I read at least 25 years ago at the same time I was impressed by the dauntingly-good novels of his nemesis, Garcia Marquez. And having read this collection of essays, it's easy to understand why one would become a "libertarian looney" when the alternative is not a mealy-mouthed hypocrite such as we contend with on the (so-called) Left in Australia, but a human rights-busting tyrant such as Hugo Chavez or Augusto Pinochet.

And it's kind of nice when the winner of such an august literature prize turns out to be such an accessible writer, and such a mediocre (albeit passionate) thinker. Let Baudrillard and Barthes rest easy with their greater laurels. Vargas Llosa is not of your ilk. He's a compassionate observer and a talented prose stylist who cares deeply about the individual, a species he watches with an eagle eye. And one often with a tear in its corner, ready to drop.

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