French Academy breaks rules and stirs debate with choice of Vargas Llosa

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  • Mario Vargas Llosa
    Mario Vargas Llosa
    Peruvian novelist and writer

The august institution that sets the standards of the French language has admitted Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as a new member, although he is 10 years older than its statutes allow and has never written a book in French. While no-one disputes the Nobel laureate’s literary merits, critics say his support for far-right politicians in Latin America risks “tarnishing France’s image” in the region.

Vargas Llosa’s election comes at a delicate time for the venerable but frequently derided institution, which is struggling to fill longstanding vacancies among its 40 sitting “Immortals” even as its authority and pertinence are increasingly questioned.

The custodian of the French language has produced just eight dictionaries in its almost 400-year history (a ninth edition has been in the works since 1986) and is routinely criticised for its entrenched conservatism. Its stubborn opposition to any attempt at making French grammar less sexist has left it singularly out of step with society. When it did attempt to feminise a word last year – ruling that “le Covid-19” should become “la” – it was promptly mocked and ignored.

Given the bad press and dearth of suitable candidates, it is small wonder that when the 2010 Nobel laureate came knocking, the gates to the domed Académie française promptly swung open. Never mind the applicant’s age – a full decade above the academy’s limit of 75 – or the fact that he has never written a book in the language of Molière; the prestigious institution could scarcely resist having one of the world’s foremost writers among its sword-carrying members.

Vargas Llosa was duly elected on November 25, with 18 votes in favour, one abstention and two blank ballots – just weeks after the release of his latest novel, “Harsh Times”. Since then, however, political comments made by the incoming académicien have revived talk of his increasingly right-wing views. In particular, critics have rounded on his open support for Chile’s far-right presidential candidate José Antonio Kast, an admirer of former dictator Augusto Pinochet and the current frontrunner in Chile’s December 19 runoff election.

‘Fervent anticommunism’

In an op-ed published by French daily Libération last week, a group of Latin America experts based in France and in Peru said the Académie’s decision raised “serious ethical problems”.

“Perhaps the Académie considered that the Peruvian writer embodies the ideal of the socially-committed writer in the spirit of the Enlightenment,” they wrote of the 85-year-old novelist who first rose to prominence in the 1960s with his sharp attacks on Peru's ruling military. However, they added, Vargas Llosa’s support for a “nostalgic defender of Pinochet’s military dictatorship (...) is but the latest avatar of an attitude that in recent decades has ligitimised rulers responsible for assassinations and human rights violations.”

The op-ed pointed to his recent support for Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Peru’s former dictator Alberto Fujimori, and for Ivan Duque, the Colombian president accused of stalling and undermining the landmark peace process agreed by his predecessor with the former FARC guerilla. It also cited his 1995 call on Argentinians to “bury the past”, referring to the crimes committed by the country’s former military rulers.

Though sympathetic to the revolutionary left in his youth, like many Latin American intellectuals, Vargas Llosa has steadily drifted in the opposite direction. He ran for Peru’s presidency in 1990 on a centre-right platform and has since veered further to the right, becoming a fervent supporter of neoliberal politics. Earlier this year he was also named in the “Pandora Papers” leak as having briefly been the main titleholder in an offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands, though he has denied any wrongdoing.

According to the authors of the Libération op-ed, the Nobel laureate’s opinions and conduct are indicative of his “fervent anticommunism” and “economic ultra-liberalism”. They described his election to the Académie as a “mistake that tarnishes France’s image in Latin America, where Mario Vargas Llosa’s extremist views are well known and rejected by many.”

Others have rushed to the writer’s rescue, defending his induction among the guardians of the French language. They include the Spanish-speaking former French prime minister Manuel Valls, who poured scorn on the Libération article in a Twitter post.

“So in order to be a member of the Académie, one needs to have been a supporter of Castro, Chavez or the descendants of the Shining Path,” Valls quipped, referring to Peru’s once powerful Marxist guerilla movement. He added: “These academics could spare a few words about Mario Vargas Llosa’s literary qualities instead of passing unworthy judgement on the man.”

A gap in an otherwise impressive CV

According to Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, a Latin America specialist at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IRIS), Vargas Llosa’s oeuvre should indeed be separated from his politics, particularly in the context of an institution whose remit is purely linguistic.

“I personally have no affinity with Vargas Llosa’s politics, but I consider him a writer of great merit,” Kourliandsky told FRANCE 24. “He was elected to the Académie française because of his qualities as a writer, not for his political views. His political commitments should be criticised in the field of politics alone.”

On the other hand, objecting to the Peruvian’s choice on the grounds that he has never written in French is perfectly legitimate, Kourliandsky said, noting that the Académie is tasked with “safeguarding the quality of the French language and writing the Dictionnaire de la langue française” – regarded as France’s official dictionary. “If he applied for the post, it suggests that he was not only motivated but also confident that he could do what is expected of him at the Académie,” he added.

Fluent in French and an avowed Francophile, Vargas Llosa has made no secret of his deep bond with French literature and culture. He wrote his first short stories in the late 1950s while living in Paris, where he worked at the Spanish-language branch of the Agence France Presse. Decades later, in an interview with the literary review Letras Libres, he recalled his discovery of French language and literature as a young student at the Alliance française in Lima.

“I didn’t just read the books at the Alliance’s little library, I devoured them,” he told the Spanish-language magazine. “I was introduced to a world rich in poets, novelists and essayists who would (...) inspire my undying passion for French culture and the dream of one day being a real writer in Paris.”

Vargas Llosa is not the first foreign-born member of the Académie; others include the American writer Julien Green, Argentinian-born Joseph Kessel, and Algeria’s Assia Djebar – one of only ten women elected to the august institution since its inception, against 738 men. But as critics within the academy have pointed out, his predecessors were known to speak and write in French.

“There have been a lot of foreigners at the Académie (...). They all wrote in French,” Dominique Fernandez, one of the “Immortals”, told France Info radio. “Vargas Llosa has never written in French. The principal job of the Académie is to work on our language; that necessarily implies mastering the language.”

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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