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Book Reviews Review: Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture is as uplifting as the title suggests

Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa dances with his granddaughter in Stockholm City Hall, Sweden, in 2010.

HENRIK MONTGOMERY/Associated Press

Title
Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society
Author
Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages
227
Price
$26.99

What would you do after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature?

You might seek to make your writing more widely available, like last year's winner, France's Patrick Modiano, who secured the translation of three novellas into English. Or you might curate a selection of your recent work, like the previous winner, Canada's own Alice Munro, whose Family Furnishings contains some of her most experimental stories. Or you could dust off some negative reviews you wrote in the mid-90s and add long, acerbic prefatory statements, like 2010's Laureate, Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa.

Better known as a novelist, Vargas Llosa has had a newspaper column for nearly 50 years – typically cultural musings written, he says, as "a weekly break in the labour of years that my writing of novels entails, and also a way of immersing myself in daily events." While immersed, Vargas Llosa finds little to his liking, and Notes on the Death of Culture is as uplifting as the title suggests. Targets include an initiative to teach masturbation in Spanish elementary schools, wearing the hijab in public and the infamous Charles Saatchi exhibition Spectacle (in a review entitled Elephant Dung). The only recent event that Vargas Llosa seems to support is a ruling by the Austrian Supreme Court, which ordered public schools to remove images of the crucified Christ.

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But the distance from many of these indicators of cultural decline makes Vargas Llosa's disgust feel more like a series of petty grudges, like an old man still angry about a high school soccer game. In the years since his outraged account of a lecture by Jean Baudrillard, Baudrillard revisited and significantly revised his work on simulacra and the Gulf War, and then died. The essay's argument is so stale that evidence used to demonstrate Baudrillard's frivolousness – opening a lecture by close-reading Jurassic Park – has become current again.

These topics are all grouped together as symptoms of the "civilization of the spectacle," Vargas Llosa's term for our increasing preoccupation with big budget films and gossip magazines rather than difficult art, "the predominance of image and sound over the word." Yet there are no contemporary words that Vargas Llosa believes to be deserving of our attention. Gone is the championed of other, innovative Latin American writers. Llosa's short list of cultural paragons is a rough syllabus for an introductory course on the most famous writing in Western history, and the only Spanish-language writers that make the cut are Cervantes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz – the creator of the modern novel and two previous Nobel laureates.

And Vargas Llosa won't let historical facts interfere with his gloomy portrait; commenting on the "waning in importance of intellectuals who for centuries, up until very recently, had played a significant role in the life of nations," Vargas Llosa offers "Plato's Greece" as a culture that valued prominent public thinkers, ignoring Socrates's end.

These essays confound, even repel, in their resistance to the two of the pillars of the form: sustained arguments and personal reflection. We learn little about Vargas Llosa's life and less still about how he feels about his own work. In the rambling introductory sections – double or treble the length of the articles they preface – he offers lateral points of outrage instead of reconsidering the initial topics. He rarely anticipates critiques of his opinions, and when he does, he waves them off like taxis. He raises modern philosophers only to use their personal lives as grounds for dismissal.

All of which begs: Why is he returning to these articles? And, more importantly, why would we read them?

We might read this collection for clues to how one of the twentieth century's finest novelists reads and experiences culture. Ignored by his autobiography, A Fish in the Water, the May 68 uprising in Paris emerges as Vargas Llosa's Lusitania, the inciting event that pushed him away from the bohemian avant-garde and into the arms of John Stuart Mill and classic liberalism.

Remembering an unnamed documentary about a French public school, Vargas Llosa writes: "Well, at least in the field of education, since 1968, the castrating control over young people's libertarian instincts has been completely undermined. But, to judge from this documentary, that could have been filmed in many other places in France, and in Europe, the collapse and loss of prestige of the very idea of the teacher and of teaching – and, in the last analysis, of any form of authority – does not seem to have led to the creative liberation of young people, but, rather, to have turned these liberated schools into, at best, chaotic institutions and, at worst, into mini-dictatorships ruled over by thugs and precocious criminals."

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Each reader has his or her own ideas of public education in the present moment and could agree or disagree with Vargas Llosa's assessment. But his sensational outline of present conditions, his specious connection of ideas and events, and his pretense of continent-ranging authority do not seem characteristic of an entry into a present debate. This paragraph neither challenges the beliefs of an opponent nor kindles the sympathy of a comrade.

Perhaps Vargas Llosa's indifference to evidence, and the timing of the collection, suggest a different sort of reader – a hypothetical one, a reader that does not know today at all.

If you were to edit and expand this collection of essays after winning the Nobel prize, it might be because your historical significance is all but assured, and because you want a record of how you felt about the time in which you lived. In which case, we might read these essays to find out how Vargas Llosa wants the rest of us to be remembered, and we might wonder how much of Vargas Llosa's work is worth remembering.

David B. Hobbs is a Canadian writer and academic. He lives in New York.

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