Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When The Storyteller Becomes The Story

The scene opens at a movie-theatre in Mexico City, 1976. The place is a hot-bed of anticipation with people waiting for the premier release of a movie about the plane crash survivors in the Andes who turned to cannibalism.

A handsome man with expressive eyebrows rushes up the aisle. The intensity in his eyes catches peoples’ attention and their gaze follows his heavy footsteps. Another man, this one with a smile as wide as the Amazon River, turns to greet his friend with a warm embrace but ends up with a fist in the eye. The crowd gasps. Women scream. Men yell. Blood oozes from the man’s eye, across his cheek and onto the carpet.

If I didn’t know better, this could be a cliffhanger ending for a South American telenovela (soap opera). But it isn’t. It’s a slightly fictionalized version of events that unfolded between two of South America’s literary heavy-weights – Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

The encounter between these former best friends has been playing on my mind a lot lately, probably due to Mario Vargas Llosa winning this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. It’s hard to imagine the winner of such a distinguished award duking it out in public with a colleague and (former) best friend. Admittedly, the Llosa/Márquez altercation happened over thirty years ago but we’re still talking about it. It proves that everyone, including acclaimed writers, have their own stories to tell.

So what is Mario Vargas Llosa’s story? Born in Arequipa, Peru, in 1936, Mario was an only child. His parents separated, and Mario was sent to a military academy in Lima which became the inspiration for The Time of the Hero (La Ciudad y Los Perros). The book criticized the Peruvian military and as a result, they burned thousands of copies. This launched Vargas Llosa as an influential public figure and offered him a chance to use his writing as a way of changing the way people think. He even ran for the Peruvian presidency (and lost) in 1990.

I first encountered the works of Vargas Llosa after reading García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Don’t worry, the irony isn’t lost on me. Even though these men haven’t spoken to each other for more than three decades, they are linked together whether they like it or not. Both have won Nobel Prizes for literature, Vargas Llosa wrote a doctoral thesis in 1971 about García Márquez, and they both lead the fore of influential and classical South American literature (especially in terms of magical realism). And neither will blab about what really happened that night in Mexico City.

Over the years, Vargas Llosa has criticized García Márquez for his friendship with Fidel Castro. Some say the fallout leading up to the most famous punch in Latin America was over politics. Others say it was over a woman – Vargas Llosa’s wife to be exact. Rumor has it García Márquez took it upon himself to console Vargas Llosa’s wife after he told her about an extramarital affair Mario had. Vargas Llosa has been quoted as saying the historians will be the ones to find out the truth.

In 2007 Vargas Llosa provided the forward for García Márquez’s 40th anniversary edition of A Hundred Years of Solitude. Writing a forward for the man he doesn't talk to is a mystery in itself. And when the 2010 Nobel announcement was made, Garcia Márquez tweeted (yes, even the world’s best authors tweet), “Cuentas igaules” (“Now we’re even”). It looks like there’s an almighty “to be continued” slapped on this episode of the Márquez/Llosa telenovela.

Which writers do you admire and how closely do their life stories mirror their fiction?


  1. Interesting post, Alli, on two of South America's most fascinating icons. I didn't know how much their lives and careers intersected until I read this. Not to mention, Garcia Marquez tweets? I wonder how that's affecting his writing productivity. ;)

  2. Yes, it's interesting that such an iconic writer such as Garcia Marquez tweets. I love it!

  3. I can't believe that Hollywood hasn't seized on this great quarrel and turned it into a movie. Or maybe they have, and I missed it. I'm going to have to follow Garcia Marquez on twitter. Literary gems? Well, aside from cuentas iguales. That seems a bit pedestrian. :)

  4. You're right, Heidi, it does sound like a great Hollywood movie. Perhaps they're waiting for the truth to come out before they make it. I'd go and see it, for sure! We could be waiting a while, though. Garcia Marquez's tweets are in Spanish - but I'd be happy to translate!

  5. I'm not sure that Hollywood cares about the truth. :) I think they just haven't registered the story yet. I can probably understand the Spanish (believe it or not, I started my translation career as a Spanish -> English interpreter - couldn't do that anymore). But if I'm stumped, I'll let you know!

  6. Re: which writers do I like and how closely do their life stories mirror their fiction. Khaleed Housseini, the author of The Kite Runner. I think The Kite Runner is very much his life story, with literary license used, of course. At least it's based on the many life events he experienced; the characters may be fictional. And yes, it's one of my most favorite books.

  7. I'm with you on The Kite Runner, Lina. Such a fascinating book and the details are incredible so I wouldn't be surprised if Khaleed Housseini had pulled some of those details from real life.

  8. The Kite Runner is one of my all-time favorites too, Lina. It's so evocative of the setting, I almost felt homesick for the old Afghanistan Hossein remembers. I recall reading his essay about when he finally returned there after The Kite Runner's wild success, that he was afraid of what he'd find: either the real setting wouldn't be anything like what he portrayed (in which case, his book would lack verisimilitude) or else the book depicted the reality accurately (and would be tragic for his countrymen). The truth it turned out was somewhere in the middle.

    And one more thing, but this reminds me of another author, Arundati Roy, whose Booker Prize-winning God of Small Things blew me away with its details about the small Syrian Christian community in the southern Indian state of Kerala. I'd never heard of it before that book, but I experienced it through her book. When asked where she got her ideas, Roy said the plot was complete fiction but all her ideas came from her own backyard. (And if memory serves, she wrote the book in only 30 days.)

  9. Wow, so interesting! I love magical realism, and have yet to pick up Marquez's books. Will do soon!And I will also be checking out Mario Vargas Llosa, thanks to this post. :) One of my all time favorites is Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, and I highly recommend it.

    Lina, I suspected that about Housseini. That book is simply amazing and up there among the greatest stories of our time.

  10. Lavanya, I'm so happy you have discovered Mario Vargas Llosa! I absolutely adore Like Water for Chocolate - it's one of my all time favorite books. And for a bit of trivia, Laura Esquivel is now involved in politics and won a candidacy for the PRD in Mexico last year.

  11. Is it just me, or anyone who has had their books burned instantly makes me want to read it?

    The Satanic Versus, All Quiet on the Western Front, Nineteen Eighty Four and in ironies of ironies, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

    It may just be me.......

  12. Dave, you and thousands of others. I'm sure there's a Facebook page for fans. ;-)