Text and photos by ELIZABETH LOLARGA
At age 80, Mario Vargas Llosa, 2010 Nobel laureate for literature, described his relationship with the brothers of La Salle as “quite ancient.” His memories of these brothers, who taught him how to read and write, are “rich, vivid and moving.” There is one particular brother, a Spaniard named Justiano, to whom he owes a debt of gratitude for “the most important event in my life” –learning how to read.
At the recent conferment of the honorary degree of doctor of literature at De La Salle University in Manila, he spoke extemporaneously and called this skill “a magical operation” that transformed the letters of a book into “images and a living experience.” He felt his world enriched and transformed. Each time he discovered a book, reading remained magical after all these years.
He respects the invented life created by writers. His role as story teller was born in those early years “as a result of the extraordinary pleasure I had in reading.” But Peru then had a limited literary life so his “vocation wasn’t integrated with life. I felt eccentric and marginalized.” He was consecrating days, months, years to his writing with great difficulty in finding a publisher, “but I persevered.”
At one point, he supported his studies and writing by taking on seven jobs, among which was as a radio man and a journalist for the Agence France Presse.
He said writing has fulfilled his life “in an extraordinary way” and at the same time added that “it is difficult to demonstrate how books change the lives of readers for the better. Sensibilities, desires are stimulated. This shows the importance of books in daily life.”
He continued, “Good books are the best defense against prejudices, distorted views of people in different languages.”
Despite these differences, the common denominator that is of utmost importance, he said, “is we are all humans challenged by the same obstacles” in order to continue to live.
By reading good stories, he said, “we make more accessible to us certain values” like the “freedom needed for societies to become modern and prosperous. Good books develop in us a kind of dissatisfaction with the world as it is. We hope that life will change, that we create societies that are more fair and nearer the worlds we create with our imagination.”
Vargas Llosa is convinced that reading good literature “is not only a great pleasure but also fundamental for the training of citizens in free and democratic societies.”
He warned that “all regimes that try to control human life have suspicions about literature. They try to control this activity and eliminate spontaneity. Dictatorships are literature’s natural enemy.”
He praised reading and writing of good books for helping “develop natural criticism of the world as it is.”
And he returned to Brother Justiano for having started all this with the young Vargas Llosa as he learned how to read and write.
He bemoaned how for some sectors of society, litearature is considered as “just entertainment.” Society pressures the youth to go into what he called “practical skills”
Yes, he said, literature is “the best entertainment but at the same time, it is a kind of knowledge of the world. Literature is able to make us feel we are having living experiences.” Through literature, he continued, “we enter into an intimacy with a culture, know the most secret personality of persons.”
Reading, he concluded, is not just for pleasure but also for the shaping of “better citizens to face the challenges in our existence.”
He thanked DLSU for the honorary degree conferred on him, quipping, “I will try my best not to deceive you.”