Campus - 23.09.2011 - 00:00 

"A truth that didn't exist before"

Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa spoke at the University of St Gallen about the relationship between history and literature and how each provides a different level of connection with our past.
Source: HSG Newsroom


22 September 2011. Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Prize in Literature Spoke at a packed Audimax at the University of St Gallen. Mr. Vargas Llosa's lecture, entitled "History and Liturature: Proximity and differences", presented his opinions on the relationship between historical literature and historical texts and what each brings to our understanding of the past.

History vs Literature

Vargas Llosa began his talk by asking what the essential difference is between a history book and a piece of literature covering the same subject? The difference he says is that one tells a truth while the other creates a truth. "History is a search for something true that has happened in the past," he said. "Literature on the other hand is something that creates a kind of truth that didn't exist before" but is now, because of the book, part of the collective human culture.

Capturing the secret life of history

Vargas Llosa postulated that a more profound connection to historical events can be found in some literary accounts. He cited Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" as bringing the Napoleonic war to life so vividly that it has become inseparable from the actual historic accounts in peoples' minds. He described this as "capturing the secret life of history," where an author creates the emotional connection to an event that can enhance an intellectual connection.

Too much truth

Vargas Llosa discussed his own experience writing the novel "The Feast of the Goat" which chronicles the final days of Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. After extensively researching life under Trujillo, he found the greatest challenge wasn't to tell the story of Trujillo's reign accurately, but rather to make the accurate accounts believable. He found that even though the stories were true and directly from witnesses, the events were so horrific that they became unbelievable when put into the novel.

"As readers we defend ourselves by not believing things that offend us deeply, in our most sacred values and convictions," he said, "so our defense is, that we say 'I don't believe that can be true.'"

A political and cultural icon

Vargas Llosa rose to prominence in the 1960s with his breakthrough novel "The Time of the Hero." Over the last half century, he has written prolifically across an array of literary genres including essays and journalism. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat."

Mr. Vargas Llosa gave his lecture at the invitation of the university’s Centro Latinoamericano-Suizo and the Department of Hispanic Culture and Literature.