The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, whose deeply political work vividly examines the perils of power and corruption in Latin America, won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.
Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy praised Mr. Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.”
Mr. Vargas Llosa, 74, is one of the most celebrated writers of the Spanish-speaking world, frequently mentioned with his contemporary Gabríel Garcia Márquez, who won the literature Nobel in 1982, the last South American to do so. He has written more than 30 novels, plays and essays, including “The Feast of the Goat” and “The War of the End of the World.”
In selecting Mr. Vargas Llosa, the Swedish Academy has once again made a choice that is infused with politics. Recent winners included Herta Muller, the Romanian-born German novelist, in 2009, Orhan Pamuk of Turkey in 2007 and Harold Pinter of Britain in 2005.
In 1990, Mr. Vargas Llosa ran for the presidency of Peru and has been an outspoken activist in his native country. The news that he had won the prize reached him at 5 a.m., when he was hard at work in his apartment in New York, preparing to set out on a walk in Central Park, he told a radio station in Peru. Initially, he thought it was a prank.
“It was a grand surprise,” he said. “It’s a good way to start a New York day.”
He is currently spending the semester in the United States, teaching Latin American studies at Princeton University.
The prize is the first for a writer in the Spanish language in two decades, after Mexico’s Octavio Paz won the Nobel in 1990, and focuses new attention on the Latin American writers who gained renown in the 1960’s, like Julio Cortazar of Argentina and Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, who formed the region’s literary “boom generation.”
In an interview with The Times in 2002, Mr. Vargas Llosa said that it was the novelist’s obligation to question real life. “I don’t think there is a great fiction that is not an essential contradiction of the world as it is,” he said. “The Inquisition forbade the novel for 300 years in Latin America. I think they understood very well the seditious consequence that fiction can have on the human spirit.’”
Beyond his own political activities, Mr. Vargas Llosa has explored in his novels how politics feels to ordinary people.
“They’re not only fantastic novels that read beautifully,” Ruben Gallo, a professor of Spanish-American literature at Princeton University, said on Thursday. “He’s one of the authors who in the 20th century has written the most eloquently and the most poignantly about the intersection between culture and politics in Latin America.”
Born in 1936 in Arequipa, Peru, Mr. Vargas Llosa first realized that he wanted to be a writer when he was a child, enthralled with adventure novels by Jules Verne.
He spent much of his early childhood in Cochabamba, Bolivia, then moved with his parents to a middle-class suburb of Lima. He studied law and literature at the University of San Marcos in Lima in the mid-1950’s — a tumultuous and violent time in Peru — and later drew from the experience to write “Conversation in the Cathedral,” a novel published in 1969.
After college, he spent time writing for newspapers and, like many Latin American writers, began his literary career abroad, living in Paris, Madrid and London as a young man.
His work found a wide international audience in the 1960’s with the publication of “The Time of the Hero,” a novel based on a Peruvian military academy that aroused some controversy in his home country.By the early 1980’s, he was perhaps the best-selling Latin American writer in the world, having published “Green House,” “Conversation in the Cathedral” and “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,” among others.
A brief and unsuccessful effort as an elected official came later. While Peru was beseiged by high inflation and the attacks by the Maoists of the Shining Path in 1990, Mr. Vargas Llosa made a quixotic run for the presidency of Peru, opposing Alberto Fujimori, then a little-known agronomist.
Mr. Vargas Llosa was ahead in polls for much of his campaign, but some factors may have worked against him: his aristocratic bearing in impoverished Peru and his acknowledgment at one point in the race that he was agnostic in the largely Roman Catholic country.
He also expressed some ambivalence about abandoning his career as a writer to serve in public office.
“I’d like to campaign on the issues and then return to my office to write,” he said in an interview in 1988. “But I’ve accepted this as a moral responsibility. While I have the impression that I’m helping, I’ll keep going.”
Mr. Fujimori triumphed in the race, and the failed bid left Mr. Vargas Llosa with a sour taste for politics in his country. Mr. Fujimori ended up adopting many of Mr. Vargas Llosa’s market-oriented policy ideas. He later fled to Japan in 2000 when his government collapsed, and is now serving time in a Peruvian prison after being convicted of human rights abuses.
After Mr. Vargas Llosa’s foray into politics, his influence in the Spanish-speaking world became more widespread through a fortnightly column he writes for El Pais, the Spanish daily newspaper in Madrid, called “Piedra de Toque,” or Touchstone. In the column, which is distributed in newspapers throughout Latin America, he explores themes including literature, travel and the politics of the Middle East and Latin America.Since 1901, 102 Nobel Prizes in literature have been awarded. The last American to win the prize was Toni Morrison, in 1993.
The awards ceremony is planned for Dec. 10 in Stockholm. As the winner, Mr. Vargas Llosa will receive 10 million kronor, or about $1.5 million.