- Associated Press - Thursday, October 7, 2010

STOCKHOLM | Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize for literature on Thursday as the academy honored one of the Spanish-speaking world’s most acclaimed authors and an activist who once ran for Peru’s presidency and famously denounced leftist writers and dictators.

Mr. Vargas Llosa, 74, has written more than 30 novels, plays and essays, including “Conversation in the Cathedral” and “The Green House.” In 1995, he won the Cervantes Prize, the most distinguished literary honor in Spanish.

He is the first South American winner of the prestigious $1.5 million Nobel literature prize since Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez won in 1982 and the first Spanish-language writer to win since Mexico’s Octavio Paz in 1990.

“I am very grateful to the Swedish Academy. It is totally unexpected, a real surprise,” Mr. Vargas Llosa told reporters in New York. “I think it is, for any writer, a great encouragement, a recognition of a world.”

The Swedish Academy said it honored Mr. Vargas Llosa for mapping the “structures of power and [for] his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” Its permanent secretary, Peter Englund, called him “a divinely gifted storyteller” whose writing touched the reader.

Peruvian President Alan Garcia praised Mr. Vargas Llosa for his “eminent intelligence” and “libertarian and democratic spirit.”

“[This award is] an enormous act of justice that in truth we have been waiting for since our youth,” Mr. Garcia said.

In the past six years, the academy had rewarded five Europeans and one Turk with the literature Nobel, sparking criticism that it was too Eurocentric and/or anti-American. Last year’s award went to Herta Mueller, a little-known German writer.

The Swedish Academy also has been accused of favoring left-leaning writers, although the 16-member panel says its decisions are made on literary merit alone.

“I thought that the academy was not recognizing me but all Latin American literature,” said Mr. Vargas Llosa, who had been mentioned as a Nobel candidate for many years.

He has won some of the Western world’s most prestigious literary medals, and his works have been translated into 31 languages, including Chinese, Croatian, Hebrew and Arabic.

His writing is almost universally admired in Latin America, but his shift from leftist ideology toward an embrace of free-market capitalism has put him at odds with much of the hemisphere’s intellectual elite.

Mr. Vargas Llosa has feuded with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and often tosses barbs at Cuba’s Fidel Castro. He irritated his centrist friend Mr. Paz by playfully describing Mexico’s political system — which was dominated at the time by a single party — as “the perfect dictatorship.”

In a famous 1976 incident in Mexico City, Mr. Vargas Llosa punched out former friend Garcia Marquez, whom he later would ridicule as “Castro’s courtesan.” It was never clear whether the fight was over politics or a personal dispute, and the two reportedly have not spoken in decades.

There was no official reaction to the award from Mr. Garcia Marquez, who rarely speaks to the media.

Mr. Vargas Llosa has lectured and taught at a number of universities in the U.S., South America and Europe, and was spending this semester at Princeton University.

Fellow Nobel laureate and Princeton faculty member Toni Morrison praised his selection as a “brilliant choice.”

Jonathan Galassi, head of Mr. Vargas Llosa’s U.S. publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, called him “one of the world’s greatest writers — an eloquent, unequaled champion of human freedom.”

Mr. Vargas Llosa emerged as a leader among the so-called “Boom” or “New Wave” of Latin American writers, bursting onto the literary scene in 1963 with his groundbreaking debut novel, “The Time of the Hero” (La Ciudad y los Perros), which builds on his experiences at the Peruvian military academy Leoncio Prado.

The book won the Spanish Critics Award and the ire of Peru’s military. Military authorities later burned 1,000 copies of the novel. Some generals called the book false and Mr. Vargas Llosa a communist.

In the 1970s, he denounced Mr. Castro’s Cuba and slowly turned his political trajectory toward free-market conservatism. Mr. Vargas Llosa drew his inspiration mostly from his Peruvian homeland, but preferred to live abroad in near self-imposed exile for years at a time.

In 1990, he ran for the presidency in Peru on a pro-business ticket during the height of the bloody Maoist Shining Path insurgency but lost badly in a runoff to a virtually unknown academic, Alberto Fujimori.

On Thursday, Mr. Vargas Llosa said he never wanted to be a politician but felt it was an “obligation for a writer to participate in public debate.”

“I became a candidate because of various circumstances in my country,” he said. “We had terrorism, we had civil war, we had high inflation.”

Disheartened by the broad public approval for Mr. Fujimori’s iron-fisted rule, Mr. Vargas Llosa again left his homeland and took Spanish citizenship, living in Madrid and London. He maintained a penthouse apartment in the Peruvian capital of Lima overlooking its Pacific coast, but tended to keep a low profile during visits home long after Mr. Fujimori fled to Japan in 2000, toppled by vast corruption in his government.

In 1994, Mr. Vargas Llosa became the first Latin American writer to be elected to the Spanish Academy, where he took his seat in 1996.

“Spain has been very generous with me,” Mr. Vargas Llosa said in a radio interview in Peru. “I wrote and published my first stories there.”

The peace prize will be announced Friday and the economics prize Monday.