Peru's Vargas Llosa, an unyielding intellectual

LIMA (Reuters) - Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa has enchanted readers with his intellectual rigor and beautiful prose for five decades but annoyed much of Latin America’s left with his contrarian views.

Vargas Llosa, who won the Nobel Prize for literature on Thursday, is also a prominent columnist who has dabbled in politics.

Years after abandoning leftist ideas that were embraced by many of his Latin America peers, he ran unsuccessfully for president of Peru in 1990 as a conservative trying to save his country from economic chaos and Marxist insurgencies.

Frustrated by his defeat, the writer moved to Spain but has remained influential in Latin America, where he has harshly criticized a new wave of strident leftist leaders led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In more than 30 novels, plays and essays, Vargas Llosa has told stories from various viewpoints and experimented with form -- moving back and forth in time and switching narrators.

His work has crossed genres and established him as a foundational figure in a generation of writers that led a resurgence in Latin American literature in the 1960s.

Two novels, among others, examined unnerving relationships between leaders and their subjects. “The Feast of the Goat” (2000) details the brutal regime of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, while “The War of the End of the World” (1981) tells the true story of a fanatical preacher whose flock dies in a deadly war with Brazil’s army in the 1890s.


Vargas Llosa has also frequently drawn from personal experience and his family, at times inserting characters based on his own life into his tales.

His acclaimed debut novel, “The Time of the Hero” (1962), was loosely based on his teenage life as a cadet at a military academy in Lima, while his 1993 memoir, “A Fish in the Water,” focused on his presidential run in 1990.

Other works expressed deep concern for his country. “The Storyteller” (1987) deals with the clash of indigenous and European cultures in Peru, while “Death in the Andes” (1993) recounts the haunting years of the Shining Path guerrilla movement that nearly took over his country.

“An author’s work is fed by his own experience and, over the years, becomes richer,” Vargas Llosa told Reuters in an interview in Madrid in 2001.

As his range of experiences has grown, so has his writing. Vargas Llosa has continuously experimented with perspective and his subjects.

One of his latest novels, “The Bad Girl” (2006), was his first try at a love story and was widely praised as one of his best.

Born to middle-class parents in Arequipa, Peru, on March 28, 1936, Vargas Llosa lived in Bolivia and Lima before moving to Spain to study literature. He made a home in Madrid but retained influence in Peru, where he wrote for newspapers about current events. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages.


In the 1970s, Vargas Llosa, a one-time supporter of the Cuban revolution, denounced Fidel Castro, maddening many of his leftist literary colleagues like Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who himself won the Nobel for literature in 1982.

Vargas Llosa has become a staunch supporter of free markets mixed with libertarian ideals, expressing a deep faith in democracy and hatred for authoritarian regimes.

Some never forgave him for drifting to the right, and people have often speculated that he would have won the Nobel Prize earlier had he not changed ideological stripes.

Peruvian President Alan Garcia, a conservative ally, said the award was long overdue.

“This was an enormous act of justice ... We have waited for this since our youth,” said Garcia, whom the novelist criticized last month for not punishing human rights crimes committed years ago by Peru’s military.

In 1971 Vargas Llosa published a study of Garcia Marquez, Colombia’s master of magical realism. But the two had a famous argument, throwing punches outside a theater in Mexico City in 1976.

A friend of Garcia Marquez said Vargas Llosa was upset that the Colombian had consoled his wife during an estrangement but Vargas Llosa refused to discuss it, inviting endless speculation.

Vargas Llosa was delayed last year for four hours while passing through immigration in Venezuela, en route to speak at a think tank that promotes free markets.

He angrily said socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who takes inspiration from Castro, was trampling on free speech. (

Despite being outspoken on political issues, Vargas Llosa said he was a reluctant politician when he ran for president of Peru.

He lost to Alberto Fujimori, a then-unknown agronomist and university professor who defeated the insurgents but was jailed for human rights crimes after he left office.

“In reality, I never had a political career,” Vargas Llosa has said. “I took part in politics under very special circumstances ... and I always said that whether I won or lost the elections, I was going back to my literary, intellectual job, not politics.”

Writing by Terry Wade; Editing by Xavier Briand