by Keith Widyolar
NEW YORK Sep 25, 2012 ~ Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the world’s leading writers and winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, was interviewed by Javier Royo, director of Instituto Cervantes, New York’s most important school of Spanish language.
The event was part of the celebration of the release of the 50th Anniversary edition of Mr. Llosa’s first book, the landmark novel, “La ciudad y los perros / The Time of the Hero.” The novel is a story based on Mr. Llosa’s experience as a young military cadet in Lima, Peru.
photo by Keith Widyolar
NOTE: The conversation was entirely in Spanish. This is the reporter’s interpretation of the original Spanish. I apologize in advance for what get’s lost in translation.
Nadine Heredia, the first lady of Peru, opened the evening by saying that the book is a reflection of the problems faced by a fragile democracy that is shedding a colonial legacy which is very complex. It is good for society to understand the meaning contained in this book.
“The more we understand the shape of one another’s cultures, the less we can be manipulated by extremism.” Llosa
The night was the beginning of Yom Kippur so Mr. Royo of Instituto Cervantes opened by asking Mr. Llosa to speak about the place of religion in society. Mr. Llosa replied that he didn’t know anything about religion but offered a general denunciation of all religious-based radicalism, saying that religion fails when it resorts to violence. As a solution Mr. Llosa suggested that the more we understand the shape of one another’s cultures, the less we can be manipulated by extremism.
Mr. Royo asked Mr. Llosa to speak about the importance of “La ciudad y los perros / The Time of the Hero” to him personally. Even after a storied 50-year career working in all forms of writing from novels, to journalism, to children’s books, Mr. Llosa explained that the novel remains important to him because the experience he lived and wrote about was how he got to know his homeland, Peru.
The military academy was a collection of young Peruvians, each with their own vision of the world, bringing their own anecdotes and resentments to the conversation. Mr. Llosa was exposed to young men from all social classes and every region of the country. Some came from good families and were pursuing military or political careers, while others came from the countryside in the hope of escaping the grip of poverty. With these young men, Mr. LLosa saw all the colors of Peruvian society from the most beautiful and noble to the most brutal and violent.
“What I call my “adventure” was the forge that made me.” Llosa
[The same is true in New York City. If you want to understand the Latin community here, you have to go to both Park Ave and Roosevelt Ave with many stops in between.]
Mr. Llosa spoke about the process of getting the book published at a time when it would not have been published in Peru and before being published in Spain had to make its way through the censors of Franco. After a year’s effort only eight words or phrases were changed, but most of the changes were silly and disappeared by the second edition. He told how a sentence saying “the colonel was fat,” was not permitted because it disrespected the military institution, but changing that to something like “the colonel had the belly of a whale” was allowed. Mr. Llosa was grateful for the effort of French Spanish scholar Claude Couffon in helping him get the book published.
Mr. Llosa continued speaking about the process of writing, how at first you try to figure out what you are going to write. You struggle to clarify your idea. The experience is confusing and at the same time fascinating and exciting. Finally the idea takes form and you start to write.
New York Latin Culture director, Ximena Ojeda added, “Learning about a culture is exactly the same process that Mr. Llosa describes for his writing. At first you are excited and a bit confused. As you begin to go deeper, the relationship begins to flow.”
About Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian author of the “Latin American Boom” literary movement in literature of the 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Llosa is part of a generation of great Latin American writers, including Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia, Julio Cortázar of Argentina and Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, who gained prominence for their outstanding writing and the coded political criticism contained in their works.
“We were trained as writers with the idea that literature is something that can change reality, that it is not just a very sophisticated entertainment, but a way to act.” Mario Vargas Llosa
Mr. Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. He has for a long time written a widely-read column on culture for the Spanish newspaper “El Pais.” The work of Mr. Llosa and other Latin American Boom writers is standard curriculum for school children throughout Latin America, but may be a new and worthy discovery for English speakers.
About La ciudad y los perros / The Time of the Hero
Literally, “The City and the Dogs,” La ciudad y los perros is Mario Vargas Llosa’s first novel published in 1963. The story is set in a military academy in Lima, Peru and based on the author’s own experience as a military cadet in 1950-1951.
We don’t know anything about cadet life in 1950s Peru, but in Colombia as recently as the 1980s, military school was a place for troublesome boys and the harsh discipline of it and loss of the child was something that families avoided if they could. The boys did not have a choice in the matter. Rich families paid off the military to avoid selection, and as poor boys came of age, they tried various ruses like wearing glasses or feigning weakness to avoid being picked. Boys who were chosen immediately disappeared into a system that was often impenetrable for the families. Military school was a hard fate for most, but a few high-spirited boys discovered an inner strength from their experience.
The title refers to third-year cadets who were called “dogs.” It never could have been published in Peru at the time, but the author got to Spain on scholarship and found a Spanish publisher in Paris who helped submit the novel for the Biblioteca Breve Prize which it won. The publisher found a way through the Franco censors and when published, “La ciudad y los perros / The Time of the Hero” gained immediate recognition around the world and was denounced by the Peruvian military establishment of the time. “La ciudad y los perros / The Time of the Hero” was an important book as it marked the beginning of modern literature in Peru.
Instituto Cervantes New York
211 E 49th St (between Second & Third Ave)