The power of literature in a world of ignorance and hate

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The Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa describes reading as "a magical operation." He is an untiring advocate of the use of literature as “the greatest weapon against power.” Photo by ALYANA CABRAL

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — By his own admission, the Peruvian writer, lion of Latin American literature, and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has already written a book about the Philippines. He just wouldn’t say which book that is.

But out of the dozens of works he has published, it may very well be his 1986 novel, “Who Killed Palomino Molero?” The book is centered on the mysterious murder of the eponymous character, a young airman with a talent for singing boleros. It begins with the discovery of his brutalized body and proceeds in the form of a detective story ostensibly moving toward a definitive answer to the question of the title. In short order, though, it gives way to the realization that the truth, to say nothing of justice, is oftentimes unattainable, liable as it is to both illusion and elusion, especially when the forces of politics and corruption are at play.

Although set in Peru in the 1950s, “Who Killed Palomino Molero?” is said to have been heavily influenced by Vargas Llosa’s experience as head of the commission that investigated the massacre of eight journalists in the Peruvian village of Uchuraccay in 1983. But perhaps it’s not too far fetched to conjecture that the novel also has links, however tenuous, to his visit, as president of International PEN (Poets, Essays and Novelists), to the Philippines in 1978. At that time, under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, writers and journalists had been imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. It was then that “I discovered that the Philippines, Peru, and Latin America had many, many things in common, particularly in the political sphere,” he said at the press conference held at Instituto Cervantes on Nov. 3, just hours after he landed in Manila for his second visit to the country.

Vargas Llosa was confered an honorary professorship by the University of Santo Tomas, where he sat down to give an inspiring talk. Photo by ALYANA CABRAL

His return to the Philippines was highlighted by a couple of academic conferments: an honorary professorship from the University of Santo Tomas (UST) on Nov. 7 and an honorary doctorate from the De La Salle University (DLSU) the next day. On both occasions, during his lecture at the former event and his response at the latter, he made one thing very clear: There are few people, living or dead, who can measure up to him for sheer love of literature and staunch championing of the same as an instrument against the perils of complacency.

To be sure, during his speeches at the two events, Vargas Llosa for the most part repeated points he had already made in his essays, such as “Why Literature,” “The Truth of Lies,” and “Literature is Fire,” and in “In Praise of Reading and Fiction,” the public lecture he officially delivered as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. But these were points worth reiterating ad infinitum. In a voice so mellifluous and musical that it could give this year’s recipient of the prize, the American singer and songwriter Bob Dylan, a run for his money, Vargas Llosa effectively delivered great odes and paeans to literature.

“Nothing,” he said, “has defined me more than learning how to read.” He recalled how he acquired this skill which was to lead to his vocation as a storyteller at the De La Salle Academy in Cochabamba, Bolivia, at the age of 5. Seven decades and a half later, it remains “a magical operation,” he said, “that enriches my life each time I discover a book that is able to change my feelings, my understanding of life, of people.”

It’s not too far fetched to conjecture that “Who Killed Palomino Molero?” has links to Vargas Llosa's visit, as president of International PEN to the Philippines in 1978, during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos where writers and journalists had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Photo by ALDRIN CALIMLIM

To say that in the interim a lot happened in the life of Mario Vargas Llosa is a gross understatement. Throughout the years, of course, he published an impressive number of works, including novels, essay collections, and plays. In 1976, he famously engaged in a fist fight with the Colombian writer and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez for reasons that to this day remain obscure. Last year, he left his wife of 50 years for the Spanish-Filipina socialite Isabel Preysler.

But outside his literary career, perhaps no event contributed more to the furtherance of his legend than his failed bid for the presidency of Peru in 1990. “It was a very difficult time in Peru at that time,” he said back at the press conference. “We had terrorism … subversive upheaval, extremist Maoist movement, and we had a counterrevolution, which was also brutal. And the atmosphere of the country was extremely violent [with] insecurity, uncertainty about the future. And it was in this environment in which I was pushed to participate in professional politics for the first time in my life.”

In spite of that, Vargas Llosa maintains that he is not a politician. What he is, rather, is someone who is deeply involved in political discourse, whether directly in his opinion pieces or obliquely in his fictions. If nothing else, Vargas Llosa is a political writer. And he is an untiring advocate of the use of literature as “the greatest weapon against power.”

“Literature is a form of permanent insurrection,'' Vargas Llosa states in one of his essays. “Its mission is to arouse, to disturb, to alarm, to keep men in a constant state of dissatisfaction with themselves.” Photo by ALYANA CABRAL

To Vargas Llosa, good literature is the great equalizer. “Nothing can defend us better against ignorance, prejudice, racism, nothing better than good literature,” he said at UST. Then at DLSU: “I think good books are the best defense that we have against prejudices, against distorted views of people of different languages, different beliefs, different customs. We discover that in spite of all differences, the common denominator among men and women of different traditions is much more important, because we are all humans and we are all challenged by very similar kinds of problems and obstacles that we have to overcome in order to survive, in order to live.”

If free and democratic societies are to carry on as such, Vargas Llosa insists, it is imperative that their citizens be trained by reading good literature not only for the great pleasure the activity affords, but also for its great potential to stimulate the critical mind, which, he writes in “Why Literature,” is “the real engine of historical change and the best protector of liberty.” In “The Truth of Lies,” he argues that literature alone “has the techniques and powers to distill this delicate elixir of life: the truth hidden in the heart of human lies.”

“Literature is a form of permanent insurrection,'' he states in “Literature Is Fire.” “Its mission is to arouse, to disturb, to alarm, to keep men in a constant state of dissatisfaction with themselves.” According to him, it is when people, especially writers, succumb to the systematic suppression of truth and distortion of reality perpetrated by regimes that societies become closed. It is no surprise that Vargas Llosa’s favorite rhetorical question goes thus: Why do you think dictatorships invariably attempt to control literature?

“Nothing has defined me more than learning how to read,” says Vargas Llosa, who regards reading as something “that enriches my life each time I discover a book that is able to change my feelings, my understanding of life, of people.” Photo by ALDRIN CALIMLIM

Remarkably, if unfortunately, Vargas Llosa’s return visit to the Philippines coincided with the announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision to allow a hero’s burial for Ferdinand Marcos, the selfsame dictator under whose regime thousands of extrajudicial killings, along with other injustices and crimes against humanity, were committed. Perhaps one day Vargas Llosa would look back to this visit and be prompted to write a murder mystery that would be a thinly veiled indictment of the country’s historical amnesia and thoroughly misguided nostalgia. It would pose the question: Who killed modern democracy?