Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When the Storyteller Becomes the Story

Alli is off this week, so we are rerunning one of her posts from October about award winning authors.

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. Fascinating! I haven't read Llosa but I may give him a try after this. It's difficult to imagine these two men brawling, but I suppose if passions run high enough . . . and maybe it translates to emotion in their books. I'll have to see.

  2. Thank you, Ellis! You have a very good point about the passions run high. I can see that in their writing. It will be interesting to know if you feel the same once you've read Llosa. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I am a Llosa and Marquez fan of many, many years. 100 years of solitude has remained my all time favourite. Didn't read Llosa for a while, but in 2009 picked up the Bad Girl (beautiful translation by Edith Grossman) - READ IT!!! The Time of the Hero was one of my favourite Llosa reads. It is incredible that these 2 were ever best friends - they are opposites!! And especially when it comes to politics!! But both are such wordsmiths (their translators must be mightily talented as well) and their passion for language must have been the 'bridge'.

    I would say their fall out was over politics : I can't imagine what benefit for Marquez to tell Llosa's wife ....... mmmmm, maybe there was a benefit?

  4. Thanks for stopping by Anne-Maree! Hmmm... benefits indeed. One wonders. They are both very talented writers and you're right, the translators have also done a great job. I haven't read Bad Girl, so thank you for the recommendation.