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Writing can change the world

NOBEL Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa says literature is the "engine of change" and he hopes his own works leave readers with a feeling of "dissatisfaction" with the world.

"Literature is not only for entertainment, it pushes society to move forward, changing the world for the better," the 2010 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature recently told an audience of book lovers at Shanghai International Studies University.

The Peruvian writer, politician, essayist, journalist and dramatist was in the city to promote "cultural and literary communication" between young Chinese and young Spanish speakers around the world.

About 20 of his literary works have been translated into Chinese.

In the early 1980s, interest in the new wave of Latin American writers swept literary circles in China. One of the first translators was Zhao Zhenjiang, a Peking University professor of Spanish language and literature.

He rendered the voluminous and haunting historical novel "The War of the End of the World" (1984) into Chinese. The work is set in 1897 in a backward Brazilian state on the eve of the millennium.

Zhao has said that Vargas Llosa has influenced Chinese writers such as Yu Hua, Mo Yan and Ge Fei.

Vargas Llosa, who now lives in Spain, has been an outspoken critic of authoritarian governments and repression, starting with Peru's military dictatorship of Manuel Odria, which ended in 1956.

He ran for president in 1990, losing to Alberto Fujimori and is known today as a right-wing maverick.

One of Latin America's most significant writers, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010 for his body of work that the committee called "a cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat."

The vigorous 75-year-old writer told his audience that dissatisfaction drives human progress and the effort to build better societies. He said he can write for another 20 years.

"After reading some great novels ... we feel dissatisfied with our real world," he said. "Compared with the fictional world, our real world is small and defective. The world should change for the better.

"Writing is not what you do stuck with your desk for a couple of hours a day, but a career which can make you rearrange your whole life," he said. "Writing is the center of your life."

Sun Ganlu, a Shanghai writer and critic, says he has been largely influenced by Vargas Llosa's works since he was young.

"His first novel I read was 'Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,' and I was so impressed that I really hoped that I could be the 'little Vargas' in the story, not because he would be a Nobel Prize winner, but because of Aunt Julia," Sun says.

Vargas Llosa rose to fame in the 1960s with novels such as "The City and the Dogs," "The Green House" and his best-known "Conversation in the Cathedral" (1975). He has written historical novels, comedies, murder mysteries and political thrillers, and he ranges across literary genres.

Born in 1936, Vargas Llosa started reading at the age of five, and started writing at an early age. He was immersed in adventure stories and when he was dissatisfied with a story's ending, he would write his own.

"The happiness of reading was amazing, and you'll have great discoveries in books as if you experience time and space travel," he said. "You can understand the meaning of the words, transforming them into a fresh vision. Through the visions, you can walk into other people's lives."

He wrote essays and drama and dreamed of literature. Like other writers in Latin America in that age, he believed going to Paris was the only way to pursue his dream.

"At that time, all of Latin America was disconnected," he recalled. "We thought we were Peruvian rather than Latin American. We were not united; living in Peru, we knew nothing about drama, arts or literature of Chile or Colombia. Almost all we read and watched came from Europe. That's why I believed I must leave Peru for Europe, especially for Paris ... If you want to be a real writer, you must live in Paris, I thought. At that time many young people, especially talented ones, held such naive thoughts."

His first famous novel, "The City and the Dogs" (1962), was based on his two years' experience in military school in Peru. He wrote at a time in Latin America when the novel was undergoing a revolution in structure and narration.

"I was born in a family of the capitalist class, and my impression of my country was biased," he said. "Not until I reached the school did I find that there were so many different children from different classes. The school was like an epitome of the country. This was my first time to learn about Peru, about its violence and disconnection."

The novel, written when he was in his early 20s, was vital, violent and sophisticated and drew wide praise. There was brawling, gambling, prostitution and murder. It also created controversy for its criticism of the Peruvian military establishment. Some generals called him "deranged" and the book was banned.

Vargas Llosa said he realized that all his novels were based on memory, derived from the vision carved in his memory. "Maybe I'm different from other writers," he said. "Some other writers may write according to their imagination, but I cannot do this. All my works are based on memory of experience, some of which was mysterious and could inspire my thoughts ... Some memories were very painful."

Memories also led to his third and monumental work "Conversation in the Cathedral" (1969), written when he was 33. It was based on his experience in college in the National University of San Marcos. He called it "a dark time," when many students and teachers were arrested.

"We planned to give them blankets in jail but the warden refused to let us in until we got approval from director of the security bureau. We went to negotiate with the director, who was originally a wine vendor. He treated us like insects.

"The talk only lasted for five minutes but that led to the idea of the novel," he said.

It's a bitter work about a conversation between the son of a government minister and his chauffeur when they meet by accident and talk in a bar known as the Cathedral.

Vargas Llosa calls it his most satisfactory work. "If I could pick only one of my works to be left to the world, I'd like to pick this one," he said. "It cost me more energy than any other work."


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