MADRID — A few days ago, Mario Vargas Llosa recalled that after winning the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature he had predicted that by the age of 80 he'd just be reading and resting. Now at 78, he says there are no retirement plans in sight.
You may agree with him or not — you may consider him a conservative or a liberal — but few are indifferent to Vargas Llosa. Over the decades, he has changed his political affinities in keeping with a constant principle, of submitting his wishes to his conscience and convictions. That led him away from his early Marxist sympathies to his present and possibly final ideology, the defense of personal and political liberties.
The Peruvian-born writer, perhaps the Spanish-speaking world's most renowned, speaks like a liberal: respecting what you say and comparing your views with his own, yet readily agreeing to disagree if you insist. We spoke at his home in Madrid, finding a free slot between the opening of his play "The Madman of the Balconies," and the hours spent writing articles and a new novel.
In September, Vargas Llosa referred to the turbulent state of the world in an essay entitled "The Wars of the End of the World," a reference to one of his own novels. It was a skeptical observation on Francis Fukuyama's notion of the End of History following the fall of communism. Decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Vargas Llosa wrote, "history is alive as ever." Here are highlights of our conversation:
CLARIN: Francis Fukuyama interpreted the fall of the Soviet bloc to signify the triumph of democracy and imminent end of history, in terms of a time without the "clouds" of ideological confrontation. Yet the clouds remain ... who could foresee that events would continue as before or deteriorate in that part of the world?
MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: Indeed, they have a browbeaten society under the sway of Putin, governing in an absolutely authoritarian manner, surrounded by a gang of cronies.
The state of the world is scary. What are you most worried about?
I think the most worrying things in the world are religious and especially Islamic fundamentalism, and nationalism. These are two types of collectivist ideology that have been the source of the worst calamities ... and coming back to life just when we thought tolerance and peaceful coexistence were spreading across the world.
Duly marinated in the cauldron of populism, always essential.
Populism is the central ingredient of nationalism, but nationalism comes first in the list of problems, though it takes different forms. It has been defeated in Scotland but is alive and kicking in Spain, where it is a bigger problem. I think a great majority of Spaniards do not want nationalism, but there is really no clear idea about how to confront and defeat it.
In Catalonia, looking for independence from Spain. Photo: Ivan McClellan
What has led to this deterioration in the ambitions of Europe and the world?
Basically corruption. It has provoked an extraordinary dissatisfaction in democratic countries for its staggering prevalence. The financial and monetary crisis is much more from corruption than bad policies.
What about the hope of certain past events, like the Arab Spring?
The Arab Spring ... needed much firmer support. It was a tragedy in Syria, because the great mobilization against a dictatorship was headed by democrats who wanted to liberalize and modernize the country. The lack of Western support was tragic, and worse in fact: They allowed that movement to become a conduit for the expansion of the most intransigent and criminal fundamentalists. The failure of the West is evident there.
The broadcasting of beheadings is really among those backward steps you mention for humanity.
This democratic collapse is not just through economic corruption but also in the degradation of traditional values. It is terrible how the media cynically exploit this horror instead of acting as a barrier, turning the horror of our time into a spectacle. There is a collapse of legality and values, entirely related to the decline of ideas. If ideas represent nothing and values have disappeared, and one is living in a state of pure pragmatism, we are negating the great libertarian and democratic tradition, the tradition of the critical spirit and of struggle against evil. Who knows what good and bad are these days. There is total confusion here, and pure pragmatism is producing the monsters we see around us.
Amid the rubble of Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Scott Bobb
Your article picked out Latin America as a ray of hope. What about Argentina, of which you have been critical?
The hope right now is for an end to the period of the Kirchner couple, who have taken this great country towards ... economic chaos now at the level of a default. This gives one hope, because nobody can be satisfied with your country's lack of credibility, especially when it was exemplary and had for many years an education system that was unmatched in the world.
Does your article doubt Fukuyama's conclusion that the triumph of democracy is irreversible?
There is no final victory, freedom has many, partial victories. There has certainly been progress, but progress does not come by itself. Advances are not accidental. Behind each forward step lies human action, which needs to be maintained, well guided and freed of pessimism and paralysis.
Do you think the lack of political education in society has contributed to harming democracy and freedom?
People have come to despise politics. It is understandable yet extremely dangerous: If you turn your back on politics, it will be left in the hands of the worst people. One must convince the most brilliant, intelligent, decent, generous and idealist people to engage in politics. Politics only becomes decent if decent people take part in it. If you leave it to the uncivilized because you think it abhorrent, then politics itself is destined to become abhorrent.