By Diana del Olmo
Nobel laureate for literature Mario Vargas Llosa was at the Americas Society last Monday to promote his newest book, The Dream of the Celt, published this summer in English.
“What do you read when you write?” asked Edith Grossman, who translated his latest and many of his previous books. This simple question produced an extended conversation in which Vargas Llosa described his passion for rereading his most influential authors.
The author came off as an affable speaker, an intellectual who has been deeply involved in politics, moving comfortably from William Faulkner to the latest elections in Mexico. Faulkner’s structure and his organization of time were recurrent themes in the conversation. Vargas Llosa discussed the author with a contagious passion: “I think Faulkner is the major influence in practically all Latin American novelists in my generation,” he said.
Vargas Llosa did not hesitate to bring up his love-hate relationship with Jean Paul Sartre, whose personality and early work captivated Vargas Llosa in his youth.
“I read him voraciously, and I believed him,” he said. “I believed him, and this is is something I regret so much.”
Vargas Llosa said his fascination lasted until the end of the sixties when he distanced himself from Sartre’s ideas, ultimately to the point of hating him. He thinks Sartre will be remembered more as an icon and a figure of his time than as a literary author.
Regarding Mexican politics, Vargas Llosa, who in the past severely criticized the PRI regime as a “perfect dictatorship,” seemed positive about the recent institutional developments in Mexico and the state of the country’s democratic system. He didn’t forecast a return to the past in spite that the PRI presidential candidate won the 2012 election after the party spent 12 years in opposition. He was also pleased with the result of the elections in the U.S., but not so much with U.S.-Latin American relations, where he still sees room for improvement.
The Dream of the Celt contains an element that is prevalent throughout Vargas Llosa’s work: the fictional treatment of historical elements and characters. The main character, however, is not a Latin American but rather, as the title indicates, an Irishman. Roger Casement, a British traitor and Irish nationalist hero, gained international renown for his consular reports criticizing the treatment of native workers in the Congo and the Amazon. The origins of the novel go back to a biography of an author deeply admired by Vargas Llosa: Joseph Conrad. While reading Conrad’s biography, Vargas Llosa discovered that Roger Casement had played an essential role in opening Conrad’s eyes to the abuses perpetrated in the Congo. This encounter led to the writing of Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness.
In writing The Dream of the Celt, Vargas Llosa undertook years of intensive research, visiting both Ireland and the Congo. However, this was an experience that won’t be repeated anytime soon: he said he is already working on a new novel which has brought him back to his native Peru. Unlike novelist Philip Roth, who recently announced his retirement from fiction writing, Vargas Llosa doesn’t see himself leaving the profession, which after so many years he still finds intriguing.
“I will die writing,” he said.