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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The time of the writer

Over the past week or two, the names of the winners of the Nobel prizes have been dribbling out, and it’s nice for once not to have to keep groaning.

I have had a jaundiced opinion about the Nobels ever since I went to journalism school at Ohio State University. I had a professor there, who had spent many years as a working reporter in Chicago. He brought up the Nobel Prizes when he did a lecture on scheduled news, or so-called news events that are on the calendar every year, and he used the Nobels as a prime example. He expressed bewilderment at the fact that they are invariably reported widely. Basically, they are decided upon by a very small group of people who are not answerable to anybody but themselves. Yet they are always treated as a major news event. It is a story that keeps getting reported out of habit. “They must really have something on someone at one of the big papers,” mused my prof cynically.

One of his favorite journalism aphorisms was: if you’re mother says she loves you, check it out. So a suitably skeptic journalist might want to ask, what’s so darn important or newsworthy about these Nobel prizes anyway?

It would also help if the choices the committees made actually made some sense. Now, I can’t claim to be any kind of expert in, or even to be particularly knowledgeable about, areas like medicine, chemistry or physics. But those are areas where the prizes aren’t particularly controversial anyway. The nice thing about the hard sciences is that major accomplishments are pretty easy to see and appreciate. Where it gets murkier is in areas like peace and literature and, perhaps surprisingly, economics. Obviously, the quality of literature is subjective, and even reasonable people can disagree on whether this person or that one has really made a significant contribution to the cause of peace. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, as the old saying goes. But economics is sort of a science, isn’t it? Maybe, but it’s more social science than physical science and so it tends to get political. While the selection committee may have cited Paul Krugman’s international trade theory for giving him the economics prize two years ago, it was hard not to see it as an endorsement of his New York Times columns and blog posts that, to this day, keep insisting that the U.S. government has not piled up enough debt.

But I have to say that this year’s peace prize for Liu Xiaobo, for his struggles on behalf of human rights in China, is truly inspiring and, given his personal courage and years of sacrifice, it only emphasizes how embarrassing (or at the very least premature) last year’s award to Barack Obama was.

As for the awards for literature, I tend not to quibble. Many of the recipients are writers I am not familiar with, but I take that as a reflection of my own ignorance rather than the committee merely being obscure. But if I have one over-arching nitpick with the literature selections over time, it is that Latin America, one of the richest areas in the world for great literature, has been criminally under-represented. Until this year, only six Latin American writers had been recognized in the prize’s 110-year history. These have included two Chileans (the poets Gabriela Mistral, 1945, and Pablo Neruda, 1971), one Guatemalan (novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, 1967), one Colombian (novelist Gabriel García Márquez, 1982), one Mexican (poet Octavio Paz, 1990) and one son of the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia (poet/playwright Derek Walcott, 1992).

This year the committee finally gave long overdue recognition and awarded the literature prize to the Peruvian novelist and essayist Mario Vargas Llosa. As someone who has enjoyed this author’s work over the years and who has spent a bit of time in Peru, I was thrilled when I heard he finally got the prize. Not only is he a great writer, but he is also a sometime politician who makes more sense than many who get into positions of power. Like many intellectuals, he was attracted to Marxism in his youth, but as he matured, he became bitterly opposed to authoritarianism in all its forms—his infatuation with Fidel Castro ending when the Cuban dictator imprisoned the poet Heberto Padilla. He ran for the Peruvian presidency in 1990, as part of a center-right coalition, and led the first round of voting. Unfortunately, in the run-off he lost to Alberto Fujimori. Just imagine how different and better Peru’s recent history would have been if Vargas Llosa had won.

Though most people in the world may not know it, a surprising number of Vargas Llosa’s works have found their way onto the movie screen. His novel Los Cachorros (The Cubs) was adapted in 1973 by Mexican director Jorge Fons. His novel Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja and the Special Services) was adapted twice—in 1975 by Vargas Llosa himself and José María Gutiérrez Santos and in 2000 by Francisco J. Lombardi. His novel La Ciudad y los perros (The Time of the Hero) has also been adapted twice—under its own title in 1985 by Lombardi and again the following year, under the title Yaguar, in the Soviet Union by Chilean director Sebastián Alarcón. His novel La fiesta del chivo (The Festival of the Goat), about the Trujillo dictatorship, was filmed in the Dominican Republic by the author’s cousin Luis Llosa.

To date only one of Vargas Llosa’s novels has gotten the Hollywood treatment. That book was his very entertaining and bittersweet quasi-autobiographical La Tía Julia y el escribidor (Aunt Julia and the Screenwriter). It told of an 18-year-old student’s travails when he gets a job at a radio station, which broadcasts numerous daily soap operas, at the same time that he enters into an affair with a 32-year-old divorcee. Adapted by screenwriter William Boyd and director Jon Amiel (The Man Who Knew Too Little, Entrapment), it became the 1990 movie Tune in Tomorrow, with the action transplanted from Lima to New Orleans. Keanu Reeves (a year after Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) played young Mario, redubbed Martin, and Aunt Julia was played by Barbara Hershey. Peter Falk played the unorthodox soap opera scriptwriter who begins incorporating their carry-on in his scripts.

There is one Varas Llosa novel in particular that I would dearly love to see adapted to the big screen. It is called La Guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World) and is based on actual events that occurred in 19th century Brazil. Epic in scope and constantly switching from one point of view to another, it tells of the rise of charismatic religious leader who attracts a growing number of followers in the backlands of the country’s northeast and of the government’s response. It is a gripping, breathtaking story and has all the elements of a good old-fashioned large-cast motion picture filmed on location. Unfortunately, Sir David Lean is no longer with us, but surely some other filmmaker would up to the task. Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo) and Roland Joffé (The Mission), what are either of you doing these days that’s more important?

And while they’re working on that, I need to talk to Peter Jackson about looking into an adaptation of García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). Of course, these movies will have to wait until after the inevitable film about the rescue of the Chilean miners.

-S.L., 14 October 2010

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