The Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has been in town this week for numerous events. Earlier this afternoon, I went to the Chapultepec Castle for a ceremony in which President Felipe Calderon gave Vargas Llosa Mexico’s highest award, the Order of the Aztec Eagle.
It’s a beautiful day and sunlight poured into the patio salon at the castle where the ceremony took place. The award to Vargas Llosa turned out to be quite touching.
After all, as Vargas Llosa himself noted, he has harsh criticized Mexico in the past. In a wonderful turn of phrase in a public debate in 1990, Vargas Llosa termed Mexico's political system "the perfect dictatorship." At the time, Mexico had been under the rule of the PRI, the monolithic political party, for the better part of a century. The PRI controlled almost every aspect of Mexican life until losing power in 2000.
After talking about his affection for several Mexican writers, and some Peruvian writers who lived in Mexico, Vargas Llosa concluded by thanking Calderon for his kind words about his own literary and cultural past.
“At a few moments in my life,” Vargas Llosa said, “I’ve criticized Mexico and I’ve criticized it very severely. How much it speaks of culture, of civilization and of the democratic spirit of Mexico that in spite of all that criticism you open your arms to me and you give me this honor instead of censuring me.”
Later amid a scrum of journalists pressing him with questions, Vargas Llosa expanded a bit: “I believe we have to make enormous efforts if we want to have dynamic democracies. We have to learn to co-exist with each other, with the person who doesn’t think like us, with he who disagrees. We have to dialogue because it is the only way to overcome the violence that has left so much damage.”
My first exposure to Vargas Llosa was in the late 1980s in Peru when he launched a campaign to overturn then-President Alan Garcia’s nationalization of the private banks. As a news agency reporter in Lima, I remember thinking how strident and short-tempered he was. A few months later, Vargas Llosa launched failed bid for Peru’s presidency under the banner of liberal democracy.
Now, with politics behind him and many new literary works under his belt, Vargas Llosa has truly become a literary statesman for the region, expressing views in far softer tones but more gravitas than ever.