Mario Vargas Llosa, a giant of Latin American literature whose political ambitions saw him run for president of his native Peru, finally won the 2010 Nobel Literature Prize at the age of 74.
Vargas Llosa, long tipped to win the award, is best known for works such as Conversation in the Cathedral and The Feast of the Goat but is also a prolific journalist, still writing for Spain’s El Pais daily.
Vargas Llosa has won a string of major literary awards, including the most prestigious of all for a Spanish-language author, the Cervantes Prize, and had often been expected to win the Nobel prize but said he had no inkling that he would win this time round.
“I was wondering if it was true or a joke or pretend,” he said in an interview posted on the Nobel Institute website after receiving the call shortly before 7am in New York (2000 AEDT Thursday).
“It’s been a great surprise. I don’t know what to say. I’m overwhelmed, really,” he said.
“I never knew it was true that my name was among the potential candidates.”
Vargas Llosa’s win was met with thundering applause at the Swedish Academy, which attributes the prize.
Academy secretary Peter Englund described the Peruvian as one of Latin America’s greatest authors, comparing him to masters such as Victor Hugo.
He “is an author who is engaged in society… He feels that an author should not first and foremost entertain, (but) should show the way, tell the truth, question, be a moral conscience to society,” Englund told reporters.
Announcing the award, the academy hailed “his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”.
Born in Arequipa, Peru, in 1936, Vargas Llosa spent his first years in the Bolivian city of Cochabama before moving back to Peru in 1946.
Early on he became a journalist, moving in 1959 to France, where he worked as a language teacher and as a journalist for AFP as well as for French television before establishing his reputation as an author.
His first major success came with the novel, The Green House, which appeared in English in 1966. He has since continued to produce a string of bestsellers, many of which deal with political themes and the troubled history of Latin America.
He ran for the Peruvian presidency in 1990 on a centre-right ticket, but was badly beaten by Alberto Fujimori, who was later disgraced after a string of political scandals.
Disappointed by his defeat and upset at the dictatorial turn of Fujimori’s 1990-2000 regime, Vargas Llosa took on Spanish nationality in 1993 – a move that angered many Peruvians.
Unlike other literary figures who seek to avoid the limelight, Vargas Llosa embraces contemporary affairs with gusto. He writes regularly for newspapers and magazines, and travels frequently for research and to deliver lectures.
“A writer must never turn into a statue,” he told AFP in an interview last year.
“I have never liked the idea of a writer stuck in his library, cut off from the world, like Proust was.
“I need to keep a foothold in reality, know what’s going on. That’s why I do journalism.”
Fellow Latin American authors said the award was well deserved, even those critical of his politics.
“We have thought for some time that Mario Vargas Llosa was worthy of the Nobel prize… he deserves it perfectly,” said fellow author Carlos Mueller, speaking at the ongoing Frankfurt Book Fair.
Another author, Leonardo Martinez Ugarte, said: “I have a love-hate relation with Llosa because I do not agree with his politics but as an author, I have to take my hat off to him.”
Vargas Llosa’s Swedish publisher, Eva Gedin, also at the Frankfurt book fair, told TT news agency she was “floating on clouds”.
“We are clinking glasses, hugging and kissing each other,” she said.
Carmen Caffarel, the director of Spain’s Instituto Cervantes, a government agency that promotes the teaching of Spanish language and culture, described the award as the “fairest” in recent years.
“We have been expecting this for a long time and the joy is immense,” she said in a statement.
“He is the perfect example of a complete author, a tireless worker who has offered us masterpieces in the form of novels, essays, plays and journalism.”
Victor Garcia de la Concha, the president of the Royal Spanish Academy, the official guardians of the Spanish language, added: “Vargas Llosa is a reference of excellence in Spanish and a complete intellectual.”