Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Distinguished Visitor in Princeton University’s Program
in Latin American Studies, is spending the semester teaching, writing and giving talks
on the Princeton campus. (Photo by Princeton University, Office of Communications,
Brian Wilson 2010)
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When Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, Washington State University earned a footnote.
Vargas Llosa, 74, has written more than 30 novels, plays and essays including “Conversations in the Cathedral,” published in 1970. The Swedish Academy said it honored the author “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.”
Some of the more thorough biographies that accompanied the news of Vargas Llosa’s award noted that he had spent some time at WSU. On Friday, former WSU news service director Dick Fry was up on the fourth floor of French Administration, trying to track down the paper trail. Fry, who joined WSU in 1952 and retired in 1985, was sure there had to be something in the files.
“He was here in 1969, I think it was,” Fry said. When no file could be located, he turned to Fusser’s Guide from 1968-1969 and, sure enough, there it was, noting that Vargas Llosa’s office was 407 Johnson Tower and his home was 2009 Clifford Dr.
Llosa already was a celebrated author in 1969 but, according to Fusser’s, he was invited to WSU by the foreign languages department. Could that be right?
“Oh yes, he was here,” said Eloy Gonzalez, department chair in foreign languages. Gonzalez said he arrived at WSU in 1977, so he’d never met Vargas Llosa. “But I heard the stories,” he said, and laughed.
One story involved Vargas Llosa trying to fry an egg. The pan apparently caught on fire and, while moving the pan from the stove to the sink, he dropped it.
“He wasn’t used to American kitchen utensils,” Gonzalez said. At the time, Vargas Llosa and his wife were renting the home of a Pullman couple who were away on sabbatical. “He went ahead and burned the heck out of their kitchen,” Gonzalez said, “but all they did was laugh about it.”
It turns out Robert Johnson, a faculty member in English, and his wife, Barbara Johnson, a Spanish instructor, had rented their home to Vargas Llosa and his second wife, Patricia, while the Johnsons were in East Haven, Conn.
“He only burned a little hole in the floor,” Barbara Johnson said, when reached by telephone on Friday. He offered to replace the flooring, she said, but she demurred, figuring she’d rather choose her own flooring.
She remembers that two of Vargas Llosa’s children were with him while he was in Pullman, but doesn’t know much else.
“We probably know less about him than most people,” she said, “because we weren’t here.”
She said hadn’t read any of his books before he rented her house, but afterwards she and her husband read several. Checking through her bookshelves last week, she was able to find “The Green House,” and “The Time of the Hero.”
Retired foreign languages professor John Brewer does remember Vargas Llosa’s time in Pullman.
Brewer, a German language expert, was close friends with the late Wolfgang Luchting, who also taught German at WSU and was an expert in Latin American literature. Luchting was the one who invited Vargas Llosa to Pullman. Luchting had become friends with Vargas Llosa while living in Lima, Brewer said, and Luchting translated Vargas Llosa’s work from Spanish into German.
Brewer said he picked up Vargas Llosa’s first novel, “The Time of the Hero” (“La cuidad y los perros”), when he learned Vargas Llosa was coming to Pullman.
“I remember thinking, this is pretty raunchy stuff. I don’t think I’m going to like this guy,” Brewer said. But, he was surprised. “He was delightful. I really enjoyed his time here.”
While in Pullman Vargas Llosa taught a seminar in which he discussed his second novel, “The Green House” (La Casa Verde).
“I thought that was a very important book,” Brewer said. In the seminar Vargas Llosa talked about how he started out writing one story, put that down and started a different story, but then realized that both stories were part of the same story.
“I think it was really brilliantly conceived,” Brewer said.
Another seminar participant was professor emeritus Marianna Matteson, at the time a new faculty member in foreign languages.
“It was a big class, a good 30 of us,” she said, and laughed. One thing she remembers is that Vargas Llosa idolized Gustave Flaubert. And she remembers long discussions about “The Time of the Hero.”
“I was not at all surprised that he should be so honored,” she said. “Anyone who gets it deserves it, though some who do deserve it don’t.”
Matteson said she’d heard the story about the dropped frying pan as well.
“The story was that they weren’t used to cooking for themselves,” she said.
Call that story a footnote to a footnote.
Clifford Street on Military Hill, where Mario Vargas Llosa
lived while teaching in Pullman.