Mario Vargas Llosa enters the French Academy, a choice of exceptions and controversies

Mario Vargas Llosa, 2010 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, was elected to the French Academy at the end of November, at the age of 85, despite being older than the regulations allow. However, this choice is far from unanimous. A group of academics denounced an error, since the Peruvian-Spanish writer gave his support to the candidate of the extreme right in the Chilean presidential elections.

On Thursday, November 25, the Peruvian-Spanish writer Mario Vargas Llosa was elected a member of the French Academy in the first round of voting. His candidacy was accepted with 18 votes, compared to one for director Frédéric Vignale, a blank vote and two null.

Initially this election elicited few reactions, although the 85-year-old Nobel Prize nomination was accepted by “the immortals” despite the statutes since 2010 stipulating that you must be under 75 years of age to stand for election.

Support for Chile’s far-right candidate

But since then, his remarks about the Chilean presidential election have been disturbing. On December 3, during a videoconference interview with José Antonio Kast, the far-right candidate who prevailed in the first round of the Chilean presidential elections and who finally lost on December 19, Vargas Llosa supported his candidacy.

“What is happening in Chile is absolutely fundamental for all of Latin America,” stressed Mario Vargas Llosa with his interlocutor, according to the website ‘ActuaLitté‘. “The eyes of Latin America are on Chile. There is no other possible alternative to win the elections.” The new academic affirmed that a victory for José Antonio Kast would allow “Chile’s leadership to recover and show what the center-right is, freedom, support for entrepreneurs, openness to foreign investment.”

In a gallery published on December 8 in the newspaper ‘Liberation‘French and foreign university professors and researchers pointed out this commitment and denounced an “error” by the French Academy. “Perhaps the Academy considered that the Peruvian writer embodied the ideal of the committed writer born of the Enlightenment. But this choice raises serious ethical problems,” the text says.

“We wrote this platform precisely to express our amazement at this choice, thinking that perhaps our fellow citizens did not know some of the elements linked to South America, a continent in which we are specialists from our different disciplines,” three of the signatories, the linguist César Itier, the geographer Évelyne Mesclier and the anthropologist Valérie Robin Azevedo.

The authors of this rostrum recalled the writer’s previous commitments, especially with Colombian President Iván Duque, with the populist candidate for the Peruvian presidential elections Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori, or even his call in 1995 to “bury the past.” in Argentina, referring to crimes committed during the military dictatorship.

“Fervent anti-communism” and “economic ultraliberalism”

Attracted in his youth by the Cuban revolution, Mario Vargas Llosa withdrew from it in the 1970s. He later became one of the most fervent critics of certain Latin American authoritarian regimes, such as the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez. The writer also made a political career, running for the presidency of Peru in 1990 with a markedly right-wing stance, raising controversial liberal views that offended a large part of the electorate.

A controversy recently arose over suspicions of tax evasion. According to the revelations of various media in the matter of the ‘Pandora Papers’, Mario Vargas Llosa was a shareholder between 2015 and 2017 of a company in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven. The writer denies any intention to evade taxes. For the authors on the rostrum, the writer’s dogma is thus based on “fervent anti-communism” and “economic ultra-liberalism.” “By giving him the sword, the Academics have made a mistake, even a fault, which tarnishes the image of France in Latin America, where the extremist positions of Mario Vargas Lllosa are well known and strongly rejected,” they conclude.

On social media, however, some criticized these attacks on the Nobel Prize, such as former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. “So to be an academic you have to have been a supporter of Castro, Chávez or the heirs of the Shining Path (Communist Party of Peru),” he wrote in a tweet. “These researchers could first comment on the literary qualities of Mario Vargas Llosa instead of judging him in an unworthy way.”

For Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, researcher at the IRIS institute, specialist in Latin America and Spain and director of the Latin American Observatory of the Jean Jaurès Foundation, the two areas should not be mixed: “Personally, I have no affinity with the political positions of Vargas Llosa, but I consider him a very valuable writer. He was elected a member of the French Academy not because of his political positions, but because of his qualities as a writer. His political commitments must be criticized in the field of politics. “

An academic who does not write in French

Although criticized for his positions, the author was not attacked for the language of his writing. Since even if Mario Vargas Llosa speaks French fluently, his literary output is only in Spanish.

A specificity for an “immortal” that can raise questions, according to Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky: “This type of criticism is acceptable because it refers to the very purpose of their choice. The French Academy is in charge of ensuring the quality of the language and to edit the Dictionary of the French Academy ”.

“If he presented his candidacy it was because he felt not only motivated, but also capable of responding to what is expected of him at the French Academy. What is expected of him is not proclamations every time there is an election somewhere, but a literary contribution “, adds the researcher.

In 2016, he became the first Pléiade writer whose nationality was not French and who entered the prestigious collection while alive. At that time, he explained his special attachment to France. Born in Arequipa, in southern Peru, on March 28, 1936, this middle-class son immersed himself in French literature from an early age.

“I enrolled in the French Alliance at the same time that I was entering San Marcos (the University of Lima) and at the end of 1953, thanks to the lessons of my magnificent teacher, Madame del Solar, I could already read in the language of Molière “, he declared to the Latin American literary magazine ‘Letras Libres’. “I did not read, I devoured the books in the small library of the Alianza that opened the doors of a world rich in poets, novelists and essayists who would mark me for life and awaken in me passion – which has never faded – for the French culture and the dream of arriving one day, in order to be a real writer, to live in Paris “.

At the end of the 1950s, he settled in the City of Light, where he worked as a journalist in the Spanish newsroom of the AFP: “In Paris I wrote my first novels, I discovered Latin America, I began to feel Latin American, I saw my first books published and, thanks to Flaubert, I learned the working method that suited me and the type of writer that I would have liked to be. France taught me that universalism, a hallmark of French culture since the Middle Ages ”.

His talent as a writer made him one of the figures in Latin American literature when he became known to the world in the 1960s, along with the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, the Argentine Julio Cortázar and the Mexicans Carlos Fuentes and Juan Rulfo. His work translated into French, mainly by the Gallimard publishing house, is abundant, from “The city and the dogs” in 1966 to “Hard times” in 2021.

An institution that loses prestige

The choice of a foreign writer at the French Academy is not a precedent either. As France Culture recalls, 19 other academics not born in France have joined the institution. The first, the Swiss Victor Cherbuliez, was elected in 1882. He would be followed by others, such as the American Julien Green, the Argentine of Russian origin Joseph Kessel, the Algerian Assia Djebar and the Canadian-Haitian Dany Laferrière, who joined in 2013.

However, the French Academy has not welcomed a Nobel Prize since François Mauriac, elected in 1933, who won the Swedish prize in 1952 and died in 1970. Of the 40 positions in the institution conceived as guardian of the French language, five remain vacant and the other 35 are occupied by 29 men and six women.

Due to the lack of worthy candidates, the Academy is having great difficulty filling these vacant positions. Their influence has waned: the prestige of the “green suit” is nowhere near what it was in the previous century, and many linguists consider their views irrelevant.

The chair occupied by the Peruvian-Spanish is number 18, previously occupied by the philosopher Michel Serres, and previously by, among others, the philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, Marshal Foch and the former head of government Edgar Faure.

This article was adapted from its original in French

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Mario Vargas Llosa enters the French Academy, a choice of exceptions and controversies