07 October 2010

At Last! A Nobel Prize Winner I Can Recommend

When I was 18, I read a novel about an 18 year old who fell in love with his aunt while working at a radio station with a wonderfully eccentric creative force, a writer of radio soap operas. For years after, it was on my list of favorite novels. (Until, I think, my daughter dismissed it as overly hormonal, or some such.) I thought it was brilliantly creative and this week, the Nobel Prize committee awarded its author, Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Prize for Literature. I feel somewhat vindicated.
To me, the novel had any number of good reasons to hold my attention. The 18 year was in love with a 32 year old (as it turns out, this was based on Vargas' own life experience). As it turns out, hormonally speaking, an 18 year old male and 32 year old female are probably pretty well matched. That relationship alone - amplifying all that is awkward in any love story with its added prohibition of defying social norms - was enough to justify a story. The love story seems hopeless which, of course, is the definition of a love story: the triumph of love over probability and good sense. Love is for risk takers.
But the real juice in the story came from the alternating chapters that were excerpts from the daily radio soap operas written by the tiny little genius who'd come to Peru from a foreign country. Not only are these chapters wonderfully absurd, imaginative, and engaging, they record how the breakdown of self coincides with the breakdown of narrative.
We tell stories to make sense of our own lives. We explain ourselves to people. We explain government or work or pop culture through stories. Scientists are calling into question the hypothesis that we have any real choice about how we live our lives, as the evidence mounts that choices are made before we are conscious of our inclinations. We may not control what we do but we can generate wonderfully good reasons for it. To lose control of the narrative of our own lives is to lose control over our own lives. Even a victim has, at least, his own story about injustice. Vargas delivers a lecture on the power of narrative in such an entertaining way that we don't even realize that it is a lecture (and I pause to use such a term because "lecture" seems such a crass description of what he does).
And then the story ends sadly when the narrative of love fails to cohere. But sadly, too, is perhaps the wrong word. (It might just be this repeated choice of the wrong word that signals one difference between novelist and blogger.) The end of love is poignant because this we hate to see the story end between our narrator and "Aunt Julia," but is nonetheless hopeful simply because we trust that once this love story is over, our narrator will be able to write another. Narrative is key and this young man has learned how to be a narrator. For such a  character, there is hope. He could one day be president or love again or even win a Nobel Prize.

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