LISA MULLINS: ï¿½A real surprise.ï¿½ That's what Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa said today about the news that he is this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Vargas Llosa is the first Latin American writer to receive the prize in 20 years. His fiction has taken a lot of forms, from historical novels to mysteries. And his political journey has been just as varied. From far left to center right, including an unsuccessful run for president of Peru. Ilan Stavans teaches Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. He sums up his reaction to Vargas Llosa's Nobel Prize this way.
ILAN STAVANS: Finally. He deserved it a long time ago and now he got it. This is a prize for him, for his generation, but also for the entire continent, Latin American, and it is a prize that is about the enlightenment, the rational part of that continent, which he represents quite vividly as a legendary figure.
MULLINS: Yeah, you say not only does he represent it, but he also mirrors the trajectory of Latin America over the past several decades. Can you describe that for us, especially for people who don't know his work?
STAVANS: Through his writing, Vargas Llosa has always sought to represent the different social and political factions that exist in Latin America. Politically he has been on the left as a young man and has slowly travelled to the right. Not the extreme right, the kind of center-right, becoming a [INDISCERNIBLE] at the end of the ï¿½80s.
MULLINS: Which is a long way, we should say, from when he was an adherent of Fidel Castro, but then became disillusioned with the revolution.
STAVANS: He did become, as other members of his generation, disillusioned thinking that the dream of change involved too much in terms of the sacrifices for freedom and he decided that he would actually become an opponent to Fidel Castro and other left-wind regimes. He has always been a big supporter of individual freedom and democracy. And that has got him in trouble.
MULLINS: How did it get him in trouble?
STAVANS: At one point, in Mexico, when the ruling party [INDISCERNIBLE] was still controlling the country. He was invited by his close friend, Octavio Paz. Vargas Llosa said openly that Mexico had the most sophisticated dictatorship since ancient times and the statement caused such uproar that he had to leave Mexico from one day to the next.
MULLINS: What's interesting when you talk about his causing such controversy in Mexico because here in the United States you don't often have fiction writers getting involved in politics. In Latin America, you do. Why does it happen in Latin America?
STAVANS: In Latin America the tradition places the writer as the speaker of the silent masses, those that don't have access to power and that are often ignored and manipulated by the government and by the state. And the United States would like to see writers in Europe, to a certain extent as well, as those that will write short stories or novels or plays in order to entertain us. In Latin America, the tradition is that the writer would not only entertain us, but will make us think. Will push us to transform the world in which we live, a world that has never been fully developed, fully realized, and that the writer can help in one way or another in that transformation.
MULLINS: It's often said that when the Nobel committee decides who's going to get what kind of prize, including the Literature prize, it's making a statement. Do you think there was a kind of statement here?
STAVANS: I am absolutely surprised that the Nobel committee decided to give the prize to Vargas Llosa. He certainly deserves it. Deserves it far more than some of the recent recipients, but he doesn't represent the politics that this committee often wants to project. He is not a person of the left, he has given up some of the dreams that other recent recipients embrace and maybe this is a sign that the Nobel committee is growing up.
MULLINS: Ilan Stavans, nice to speak with you. Thank you.
STAVANS: It's a pleasure. Thank you, Lisa.
MULLINS: Ilan Stavans teaches at Amherst College and applauds the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru. This is PRI.