The august institution that sets the standards for the French language has admitted Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as a new member, despite being 10 years older than its statutes allow and never having written book in French. While no one disputes the literary merits of the Nobel Prize winner, critics say his support for far-right politicians in Latin America risks “tarnishing France’s image” in the region.
Vargas Llosa ‘This election comes at a delicate time for the venerable but often mocked institution, which struggles to fill long-standing vacancies among its 40 sitting âImmortalsâ as its authority and relevance are increasingly called into question.
The guardian of the French language has produced only eight dictionaries in nearly 400 years of history (a ninth edition has been in preparation since 1986) and is regularly criticized for its entrenched conservatism. His stubborn opposition to any attempt to make French grammar less sexist left him singularly out of step with society. When he tried to feminize a word last year – deciding that “the Covid-19 “should become”theâ- he was quickly mocked and ignored.
Given the bad press and lack of suitable candidates, it’s no wonder that when the 2010 Nobel laureate knocked on the doors of the dome French Academy opened immediately. It doesn’t matter how old the candidate is – a full decade above the academy’s 75-year limit – or the fact that he has never written a book in the language of MoliÃ¨re; the prestigious institution could hardly resist the idea of ââhaving one of the world’s greatest writers among its sword-bearing members.
Vargas Llosa was duly elected on November 25, with 18 votes in favor, one abstention and two blank ballots – just weeks after the release of his latest novel, “Harsh Times”. Since then, however, the new academician’s political comments have reignited discussions of his increasingly right-wing views. In particular, critics have rounded up on his open support for the far-right Chilean presidential candidate JosÃ© Antonio Kast, an admirer of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet and the current favorite of Chile’s second round of December 19.
In an editorial published by French daily Liberation Last week, a group of Latin American experts based in France and Peru said the Academy’s decision posed “serious ethical problems.”
âPerhaps the Academy considered that the Peruvian writer embodies the ideal of the writer socially engaged in the spirit of the Enlightenment,â they write of the 85-year-old novelist who became known for the first time in the 1960s with its virulent attacks on Peru. military in power. However, they added, Vargas Llosa’s support for a “nostalgic defender of the military dictatorship of Pinochet (…) is only the latest avatar of an attitude which, in recent decades, has legitimized the leaders responsible for assassinations and human rights violations “.
The editorial highlighted its recent support for Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori, and for Ivan Duque, the Colombian president accused of blocking and undermining the historic peace process agreed by his predecessor with the former FARC guerrilla. He also cited his 1995 call for Argentines to “bury the past”, referring to crimes committed by the country’s former military rulers.
Although sympathetic to the revolutionary left in his youth, like many Latin American intellectuals, Vargas Llosa gradually drifted in the opposite direction. He ran for Peru’s presidency in 1990 on a center-right platform and has since turned more to the right, becoming a staunch supporter of neoliberal politics. Earlier this year he was also named in the “Pandora PapersLeaked as having briefly been the principal owner of an offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands, although he denied any wrongdoing.
According to the authors of the editorial Liberation, the opinions and behavior of the Nobel laureate are indicative of his “fervent anti-communism” and his “economic ultraliberalism”. They called his election to the Academy “a mistake that tarnishes the image of France in Latin America, where the extremist views of Mario Vargas Llosa are well known and rejected by many”.
Others rushed to the writer’s rescue, defending his enthronement among the guardians of the French language. Among them, the former Spanish-speaking French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who disdained the Liberation article in a Twitter post.
“So to be a member of the Academy you have to have been a supporter of Castro, Chavez or descendants of the Shining Path,” Valls joked, referring to Peru’s powerful Marxist guerrilla movement. He added: “These academics could spare a few words on the literary qualities of Mario Vargas Llosa instead of passing an unworthy judgment on the man.”
A gap in an otherwise impressive CV
According to Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, a specialist in Latin America at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IRIS), the work of Vargas Llosa should indeed be separated from his politics, particularly in the context of ‘an institution whose mission is purely linguistic.
âPersonally, I have no affinity with the politics of Vargas Llosa, but I consider him a writer of great merit,â Kourliandsky told FRANCE 24. âHe was elected to the French Academy because of his qualities as a writer, not for his political opinions, and his political engagements should be criticized in the realm of politics alone.
On the other hand, to oppose the choice of Peruvian on the grounds that he has never written in French is perfectly legitimate, declared Kourliandsky, stressing that the Academy is in charge of “safeguarding the quality of the French language and of drafting the Dictionary of the French languageâ- considered the official dictionary of France. “If he applied for the job, it suggests that he was not only motivated but also confident that he could do what is expected of him at the Academy,” he added.
Fluent in French and avowed Francophile, Vargas Llosa has made no secret of his deep connection to French literature and culture. He wrote his first short stories in the late 1950s while living in Paris, where he worked at the Spanish-speaking branch of Agence France Presse. Decades later, in a meeting with the literary review Letras Libres, he talks about his discovery of the French language and literature when he was a young student at the Alliance franÃ§aise in Lima.
âI didn’t just read the books in the Alliance’s little library, I devoured them,â he told the Spanish-language magazine. âI was introduced to a world rich in poets, novelists and essayists who (…) would inspire my eternal passion for French culture and the dream of one day being a true writer in Paris.
Vargas Llosa is not the first member of the Academy born abroad; others include American writer Julien Green, Argentinian Joseph Kessel and Algerian Assia Djebar – one of 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.
âThere were a lot of foreigners at the Academy (…). They all wrote in French “, recounts Dominique Fernandez, one of the” Immortals “. Radio France Info. âVargas Llosa never wrote in French. The main job of the Academy is to work on our language; this necessarily implies mastery of the language.
This article has been adapted from the original in French.