Mario Vargas Llosa: The obligation of a writer
Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel prize in Literature 2010, explains in an article first published in Index on Censorship in 1978 why Latin America's writers became the most reliable interpreters of political reality
07 Oct 10

Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel prize in Literature 2010, explains in an article published in Index on Censorship in 1978 why Latin America’s writers became the most reliable interpreters of political reality

The Peruvian novelist José María Arguedas killed himself on the second day of December 1969 in a classroom of La Molina Agricultural University in Lima. He was a very discreet man, and so as not to disturb his colleagues and the students with his suicide, he waited until everybody had left the place. Near his body was found a letter with very detailed instructions about his burial — where he should be mourned, who should pronounce the eulogies in the cemetery — and he asked too that an Indian musician friend of his play the huaynos and mulizas he was fond of. His will was respected, and Arguedas, who had been, when he was alive, a very modest and shy man, had a very spectacular burial.

But some days later other letters written by him appeared, little by little. They too were different aspects of his last will, and they were addressed to very different people; his publisher, friends, journalists, academics, politicians. The main subject of these letters was his death, of course, or better, the reasons for which he decided to kill himself. These reasons changed from letter to letter. In one of them he said that he had decided to commit suicide because he felt that he was finished as a writer, that he no longer had the impulse and the will to create. In another he gave moral, social and political reasons: he could no longer stand the misery and neglect of the Peruvian peasants, those people of the Indian communities among whom he had been raised; he lived oppressed and anguished by the crises of the cultural and educational life in the country; the low level and abject nature of the press and the caricature of liberty in Peru were too much for him, et cetera.

In these dramatic letters we follow, naturally, the personal crises that Arguedas had been going through, and they are the desperate call of a suffering man who, at the edge of the abyss, asks mankind for help and compassion. But they are not only that: a clinical testimony. At the same time, they are graphic evidence of the situation of the writer in Latin America, of the difficulties and pressures of all sorts that have surrounded and disoriented and many times destroyed the literary vocation in our countries.

In the USA, in Western Europe, to be a writer means, generally, first (and usually only) to assume a personal responsibility. That is, the responsibility to achieve in the most rigorous and authentic way a work which, for its artistic values and originality, enriches the language and culture of one’s country. In Peru, in Bolivia, in Nicaragua et cetera, on the contrary, to be a writer means, at the same time, to assume a social responsibility: at the same time that you develop a personal literary work, you should serve, through your writing but also through your actions, as an active participant in the solution of the economic, political and cultural problems of your society. There is no way to escape this obligation. If you tried to do so, if you were to isolate yourself and concentrate exclusively on your own work, you would be severely censured and considered, in the best of cases, irresponsible and selfish, or at worst, even by omission, an accomplice to all the evils — illiteracy, misery, exploitation, injustice, prejudice — of your country and against which you have refused to fight. In the letters which he wrote once he had prepared the gun with which he was to kill himself, Arguedas was trying, in the last moments of his life, to fulfil this moral imposition that impels all Latin American writers to social and political commitment.

Why is it like this? Why cannot writers in Latin America, like their American and European colleagues, be artists, and only artists? Why must they also be reformers, politicians, revolutionaries, moralists? The answer lies in the social condition of Latin America, the problems which face our countries. All countries have problems, of course, but in many parts of Latin America, both in the past and in the present, the problems which constitute the closest daily reality for people are not freely discussed and analysed in public, but are usually denied and silenced. There are no means through which those problems can be presented and denounced, because the social and political establishment exercises a strict censorship of the media and over all the communications systems. For example, if today you hear Chilean broadcasts or see Argentine television, you won’t hear a word about the political prisoners, about the exiles, about the torture, about the violations of human rights in those two countries that have outraged the conscience of the world. You will, however, be carefully informed, of course, about the iniquities of the communist countries. If you read the daily newspapers of my country, for instance — which have been confiscated by the government, which now controls them — you will not find a word about the arrests of labour leaders or about the murderous inflation that affects everyone. You will read only about what a happy and prosperous country Peru is and how much we Peruvians love our military rulers.

What happens with the press, TV and radio happens too, most of the time, with the universities. The government persistently interferes with them; teachers and students considered subversive or hostile to the official system are expelled and the whole curriculum reorganised according to political considerations. As an indication of what extremes of absurdity this ‘cultural policy’ can reach, you must remember, for instance, that in Argentina, in Chile and in Uruguay the departments of Sociology have been closed indefinitely, because the social sciences are considered subversive. Well, if academic institutions submit to this manipulation and censorship, it is improbable that contemporary political, social and economic problems of the country can be described and discussed freely. Academic knowledge in many Latin American countries is, like the press and the media, a victim of the deliberate turning away from what is actually happening in society. This vacuum has been filled by literature.

What was, for political reasons, repressed or distorted in the press and in the schools and universities, all the evils that were buried by the military and economic elite which ruled the countries, the evils which were never mentioned in the speeches of the politicians nor taught in the lecture halls nor criticised in the congresses nor discussed in the magazines found a vehicle of expression in literature.

So, something curious and paradoxical occurred. The realm of imagination became in Latin America the kingdom of objective reality; fiction became a substitute for social science; our best teachers about reality were the dreamers, the literary artists. And this is true not only of our great essayists —- such as Sarmiento, Martí, Gonzáles Prada, Rodó, Vasconcelos, José Carlos Mariátegui — whose books are indispensable for a thorough comprehension of the historical and social reality of their respective countries, but it is also valid for the writers who only practised the creative literary genres: fiction, poetry and drama.

We have a very illustrative case in what is called indigenismo, the literary current which, from the middle of the nineteenth century until the first decades of our century focused on the Indian peasant of the Andes and his problems as its main subject. The indigenist writers were the first people in Latin America to describe the terrible conditions in which the Indians were still living three centuries after the Spanish conquest, the impunity with which they were abused and exploited by the landed proprietors — the latifundistas, the gamonales — men who sometimes owned land areas as big as a European country, where they were absolute kings, who treated their Indians worse and sold them cheaper than their cattle. The first indigenist writer was a woman, an energetic and enthusiastic reader of the French novelist Emile Zola and the positivist philosophers: Clorinda Matto de Turner (1854-1909). Her novel Avel sin nido opened a road of social commitment to the problems and aspects of Indian life that Latin American writers would follow, examining in detail and from all angles, denouncing injustices and praising and rediscovering the values and traditions of an Indian culture which until then, at once incredibly and ominously, had been systematically ignored by the official culture. There is no way to research and analyse the rural history of the continent and to understand the tragic destiny of the inhabitants of the Andes since the region ceased to be a colony without going through their books. These constitute the best — and sometimes the only — testimony to this aspect of our reality.

The participation of the Latin American writer in the social and political evaluation of reality has been decisive. Frequently, and often very effectively, he has taken the place of the scientist, the journalist and the social agitator in carrying out this mission. He has thus helped to establish a conception of literature which has penetrated all sectors. Literature, according to this view, appears as a meaningful and positive activity, which depicts the scars of reality and prescribes remedies, frustrating official lies so that truth shines through. It is also directed towards the future: it demands and predicts social change (revolution), that new society, freed from the evil spirits which literature denounces and exorcises with words. According to this conception, imagination and literature are entirely at the service of civic ideal, and literature is as subordinate to objective reality as history books (or even more so, for the reasons already discussed). This vision of literature as a mimetic enterprise, morally uplifting, historically fruitful, sociologically exact, politically revolutionary, has become so widespread in our countries that it partly explains the irrational behaviour of many of the dictatorships of the continent. Hardly installed in power, they persecute, imprison, torture and even kill writers who often have no political involvement, as was the case in Uruguay, Chile and Argentina not long ago. The mere fact of being a writer makes them suspicious, a threat in the short or long term to the status quo. All this adds considerably to the complexity of something which in itself is difficult to explain, the misunderstanding at the back of all this.

This is an extract from an article first published in Index on Censorship in Nov/Dec 1978