Thursday, October 07, 2010

Vargas Llosa and da Cunha

I don't begrudge Mario Vargas Llosa his Nobel Prize for literature; considering the the general level of mediocrity (or facetiousness?) among Nobel Lit prizes, this is actually half-way respectable (though I must say Aunt Julia and the Script Writer, perhaps his most popular novel in the US, is more a literary entertainment than a piece of serious fiction).

But I do hope that the Vargas Llosa prize may help to throw a spotlight on another writer and another work, very much in the Nobel's shadow, to which Vargas Llosa owes a lot.  That is: Vargas Llosa's heftiest novel is, I suspect The War of the End of the World,  about a more-than-half-mad rebellion in Brazil at the end of the 19th Century.  It's one novel that genuinely deserves the tag "epic in scope;" it's also discontinuous with almost everything else Vargas Llosa ever wrote.

Fine so far.  But The War of the End of the World is, at core, a riff-on/reaction-against/homage-to still another earlier work in many ways more remarkable still.  That would be Rebellion in the Backlands, Os sertões, by a Brazilian journalist named Euclides da Cunha, first published in 1902 and still, I am happy to say, available in English (via the University of Chicago Press) (oh wait--here is also a new translation, out from Penguin just this year).

I'm not suggesting anything in the slightest improper here: Vargas Llosa has never made any secret of the fact that his work is anything else than it is--a response to his great predecessor.  Quite the contrary, I suspect that da Cunha owes his very survival, at least in the Anglo-Saxon market, to the fame he borrows from Vargas Llosa.   But if Vargas Llosa's work is remarkable, it is still a kind of response; taken on its own and in its own time, the sheer originality of da Cunha's work is truly startling.  I can only hope that some of Vargas Llosa's deserved celebrity refracts over onto his great predecessor.

Footnote:  Joel points out that accounts of Vargas Llosa (see, e.g., link) read like they are lifted straight out of the obit file.  Hah, I expect they were.  But my friend Clyde years ago won some kind of Nobel-equivalent for his work in labor law.  He liked to tell how he went to the shop where they rented formal dress (apparently levis and lumber  jackets were not regarded as suitable clothing for a labor award).  The shopkeeper asked--Clyde liked to quote him in Swedish--"is this for the Prize, or for a funeral?"

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