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Winter 2003

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Words and politics

Acclaimed Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa was a commanding presence as the 2002 Steloff Lecturer at Skidmore. Tall, elegant, and silver-haired, he somberly accepted an honorary doctorate of letters. Then he delivered a reading that swept the large audience straight into the mind of a monster: Rafael Trujillo, the brutal and corrupt dictator of the Dominican Republic for three decades.
     In a strong Spanish accent, Vargas Llosa read from his new novel, The Feast of the Goat, with an expressiveness that sometimes took his voice into surprisingly high registers and an abundance of earthy expletives that had students tittering. His reading gave an intimate glimpse into the first hour of the last day of Trujillo’s life.
Novelist Mario Vargas Llosa signs a book after his Steloff reading.
     The man whom Dominicans formally addressed as Excellency (and secretly called the goat) rises daily at precisely 4 a.m. In Vargas Llosa’s vivid imagining, the old dictator’s bones ache, and the sickness taking over his body has caused him to once again soil the bed linens. Bathed and shaved, he does thirty minutes of exercises, his thoughts rambling from vengeance for his enemies to the girl he will bed that night to “the complicated task of securing his socks with garters so there would be no wrinkles.” Briefly, the generalissimo regrets having ordered a pair of half-mad street performers to be thrown alive to the sharks for parodying him in public. Then the Dominican strong man powders his face—“generously until he had hidden under a delicate whitish cloud the dark tinge of the Haitian blacks who were his maternal ancestors.”
     Is all that true? “Oh, no, no,” Vargas Llosa later admitted cheerfully as he signed autographs. “I have respected the facts of his life but taken all the liberties novelists can take.” Perhaps a few more liberties, because, he added, “you can’t write convincingly about someone you despise. You have to find some things that allow you to feel sympathy for him.”
     One of the most celebrated of the generation of spectacular Latin American novelists emerging in the 1950s, Vargas Llosa has twice been nominated for the Nobel Prize. The author of sixteen novels (including The Time of the Hero, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and The War of the End of the World), he is also a journalist, playwright, essayist, and critic—and an activist political figure who once ran for the presidency of Peru. As Skidmore English professor Robert Boyers observed drily in his citation to Vargas Llosa: “If there have been issues on which you chose not to speak out, it has escaped our notice.”
     In a panel discussion the next day, a relaxed and voluble Vargas Llosa said that writing is “the most extraordinary experience in the world. Nothing else can compare with the exhilaration, the enthusiasm, and the sense of completion, to be able to do this with words: to produce change in the real world.” —BAM

 


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