Zavalita and the Bethlehem shepherds

Posted in 1 by Editor on October 11, 2010

I am not sure what Alfred Nobel really meant when in 1895 he made provisions in his will for one of the Nobel Prizes to go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. What is “an ideal direction”?

If Kjell Espmark, chairman of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee and author of a “study of the criteria behind the choices”, characterises “the history of the Literature Prize (…) as a series of attempts to interpret an imprecisely worded will”, then we can certainly be forgiven for not being any wiser.

What I do know, however, is that I was elated to learn last Thursday that the 2010 prize went to Mario Vargas Llosa. Readers may recall another piece in this column about seven months ago, featuring Vargas Llosa, (Any Given Monday, March 1, www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100301/opinion/any-given-monday).

Mario Vargas Llosa

In that article, I reflected on a passage from an early novel by this Peruvian author, Conversación En La Catedral (Conversation In The Cathedral, 1969). In that passage, the politically disenchanted journalist Santiago Zavala (Zavalita to his friends) asks “En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?” (‘When precisely did Peru get screwed?’).

Zavalita’s question is often repeated by Peruvians who despair of their country’s future as well as by Latin Americans sceptical about the future of their Pátria Grande, as my good friend Fr Ġwann Xerri OP, a former assistant for Latin America to the Master of the Dominican Order, following Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga, lovingly refers to the Latin American continent.

Unable to satisfactorily explain what entrapped his homeland in this labyrinth of extreme social injustice where great poverty, underdevelopment and economic dependence co-exist with immense wealth and, in some parts of the continent, with extraordinary economic growth, Zavalita and all those who share his romantic idealist approach to reality are unable to see a way out. Zavalita, to some extent a portrait of the artist (his creator) as a young man, cannot think out of the box of individualist resistance and revolt.

Vargas Llosa’s failure as a politician can also be explained in terms of the limits of his social and political vision. His defeat by Alberto Fujimori at the 1990 Peruvian presidential election, when he presented himself as the candidate of the centre-right Fredemo, was mainly due to his inability to establish contact with the popular masses. Fujimori, ultimately more to the right of him, wooed greater popular support through his populism.

Having traversed the political spectrum from leftist radicalism to neo-liberalism – at one point exposing himself to the accusation of ignorance of the Andean world and of seeing indigenous communities as obstacles in the way of Eurocentric modernisation – Vargas Llosa practically left Peru. He acquired Spanish citizenship and now lives mainly in London. What has not changed throughout this political voyage, at least as indicated by his literary work, is his vision of the ultimately solitary individual – the resisting, revolting and finally defeated individual – as the alpha and the omega of history.

Looked at from this point of view, the Swedish Academy motivation of their award of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 is appropriate: “For his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”

I do not buy Vargas Llosa’s politics but I love his work and can empathise with him. There is a core element in his view that one cannot but embrace. That any social order that sacrifices individual dignity in the name of whatever social ideal is intolerable. What I fail to see is how his practical political choices can take any concrete society closer to his core ideal. Individualism may well be the worst route to a society that holds individual dignity sacred.

Vargas Llosa’s ability to convey this paradoxical experience is what makes his a great literature. To use Nobel’s words, it places his novels among “the most outstanding work”. As regards it being “in an ideal direction”, I continue not to understand what this means. After all, as Kjell Espmark writes: “The (Nobel) Prize is in the end not given to an attitude towards life, to a set of cultural roots, or to the substance of a commitment; the Prize has been rewarded so as to honour the unique artistic power by which this human experience has been shaped into literature.”

Although his universal appeal reflects the universality of his “paradoxical experience”, his novels are best appreciated if one appreciates the historical circumstances of Latin America.

We are accustomed to think of Latin America as a backward continent that needs our charity and of its inhabitants as infidels that need to be converted and educated.

Let’s end with the words of Fr Xerri: “In 1974, I arrived in Latin America, in Brazil, as did the majority of the missionaries who come from the first world, with the illusion of converting all the people, of ‘evangelising’… but the poor, those who have no value, have taken us by the hand and taught us new ways: As did the shepherds of Bethlehem, they led us to encounter Emanuel, God with us.” (Testimonio, Santiago, 2007).

What does Fr Xerri mean? Ask him yourself. He is speaking at the University chapel, Msida, at 6 p.m. today. I am assured everybody is more than welcome.

The original of this article appeared in Dr. Vella’s regular coloumn in The Times of Malta on October 11, 2010, and may  be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101011/opinion/zavalita-and-bethlehem-shepherds


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