BOGOTA, COLOMBIA AND LIMA, PERU | When asked his idea of paradise, Mario Vargas Llosa answered simply: “Writing!” For writing has been a lifelong focus for this internationally renowned Peruvian novelist, playwright, essayist, journalist and literary critic.
“One cannot teach how to write, but one can teach a young writer what not to do when writing a novel,” declares Vargas Llosa, Peru’s Nobel literature laureate. This and many other lessons are the basis of a highly productive mentorship with his protégé, novelist Antonio García Ángel, from Colombia, who emails his writing to his mentor every week and then engages in a literary critique by telephone.
One of the world’s most outstanding contemporary authors, Vargas Llosa has helped revitalize the Latin American novel by painting a vivid portrait of life in his continent. In his memoir, A Fish in the Water (1993), Vargas Llosa, 84, describes his peripatetic life as a child, as he moved from his native Arequipa, to Bolivia and back to Piura and Lima in Peru.
He began writing verse as small boy and devoured books by such childhood heroes as Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne. He has confessed that, while at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy from 1950 to 1951, he spent most of his time reading and writing.
“From an early age, I had the ability to live in a world of fantasy, to recreate make-believe stories,” he says.
Meanwhile, Colombian author Antonio García Ángel is considered one of Colombia’s best young writers. García Ángel’s talent for writing was first recognized at Bogotá’s Pontificia Universidad Javeriana where he received degrees in literature and communications. Since then, he has taught at the university (1998-2001), worked as a writer and host for Caracol Television, produced two documentaries, written television scripts and articles and served as an editor at SoHo magazine.
During this period, he also found time to write his first novel — a thriller set in Bogotá. Captivating from the first page, the highly acclaimed and best-selling book — Su casa es mi casa (Your House is My House) — published in 2001, combines humour and intrigue in a gripping story. The European edition of the book was published in Spain in 2007.
García Ángel wrote his second novel, Recursos Humanos (Human Resources), under the guidance of Mario Vargas Llosa, his mentor. His third book, the critically praised “masterpiece” Animales domésticos (Domestic Animals), released in 2010, is comprised of a novella and a series of short stories. Recently, he embarked on a fresh narrative set against the backdrop of the drug trade. Through the use of colloquial and evocative language, García Ángel brings his characters vividly to life and captures the essence of Bogotá’s urban landscape.
What interested you most about mentoring and influenced you to participate in this process?
I was very curious about the idea of working with a protégé. I’ve never done that before. I was curious to see if the working relationship could give me insights into my own work. No two writers are alike: the work is the projection of one’s personality. This project offered a special opportunity to work closely with a writer on a creative project.
Do you think the passing down of artistic knowledge to younger generations is the duty of a successful artist?
I think that the duty of an artist is to be creative, rigorous, authentic — not to lie. Write whatever novel you like, it’s never the objective truth. The writer’s truth is his own. Who you are, what you believe: you must be loyal to your vision of the world. Do this, and you’ve fulfilled your duty. But it’s valuable to share what one has learned with younger writers so that literature will continue to be an important force in society.
In literature we have a problem today. Light literature has taken over, literature that wants only to be pure entertainment. Of course literature must be entertainment or it is nothing. But literature that wants only to be entertainment is doomed. It can’t compete with the audio-visual media. Literature has to have its own point of view – a critical point of view on the times and society. It’s important to fight to keep this concept alive at a time when literature is threatened by frivolity.
Is there a difference between a teacher and a mentor? If so, what do you think the main difference is?
I think this will be much more private than teaching at a university or an academy. I don’t think you can teach how to write a novel or a poem. What you can do is share your personal experiences as a writer in order to help a young writer to discover his own voice, his own literary goals and maybe help him with some reviews, with some books, authors, or ideas that helped you a lot when you started as a writer.
Did you have a mentor and what influence did he/she have on your career and work?
That’s an interesting question. Maybe some friends at university, students who like me in those years wanted very much to become writers one day. I think it was in conversations with them, exchanging books with them, that I learned about my vocation and I did my first literary training. Probably I learned from these friends, young fellow writers more than in the literary classes at university.
But of course the major mentors were certain writers. I think in the early 1950s it was French and American literature. The “Lost Generation”: Hemingway, Dos Passos, in my case Faulkner. I think Faulkner was the first writer I read with a pen and a piece of paper, trying to devise the way in which he organized time, space, points of view.
What made you choose Antonio García Ángel as your protégé? What made him suitable for this program and to work with you?
He has published just one novel and some short stories. I very much liked his first novel. It’s set in Bogotá, it’s written well and, I think we can say, in a humorous way. But behind all this extravagance and humor there is a very serious problem which is described with insight and literary cleverness. I found also in his short stories a personal world, and also something which I think is very, very important in a young writer: ambition – the propensity to bear difficult things.
Is there a similarity between your approach to literature and that of your protégé? Is this important to your work together?
I think there is a similarity. Antonio is ambitious. He doesn’t just want to be successful – which in itself is a legitimate desire. He also wants to be important – and this is essential for a young writer. It vastly increases the chances that he will be good.
Antonio is very young, and he hasn’t read all the writers from whom I’ve learned a lot of the novelist’s craft, so I can give him suggestions in that direction. But another thing that’s important in this kind of work is empathy between the people involved. And that exists in this case: he’s friendly, open, easy to work with. — cultureofoneworld.org