Peruvian-born and Spanish-naturalized writer Mario Vargas Llosa is about to join the ranks of the prestigious Académie Française today, having been elected by his peers in November 2021.
Vargas Llosa is one of Latin America's most significant novelists and essayists, with over 50 works of fiction, non-fiction and dramas. He becomes the first member of the Académie, an institution responsible since 1634 for defending the French language and writing a dictionary, not to have written in French.
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010 "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat”, the writer rose to international fame in the 1960s with novels such as "La ciudad y los perros" ("The Time of the Hero" – 1963), "La casa verde" ("The Green House" – 1966) and "Conversación en la cathedral" ("Conversation in the Cathedral" – 1975).
He has explored various genres including comedies, murder-mysteries and political thrillers.
Both his novels "Pantaleón y las visitadoras" ("Captain Pantoja and the Special Service" – 1973) and "La tía Julia y el escribidor" ("Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" – 1977) were adapted as feature films, respectively directed by Francisco J. Lombardi (2000) and Jon Amiel (1990, featuring Peter Falk and Keanu Reeves).
A new "Immortal"
The Académie Française comprises 40 members, known as “Les Immortels” (“The Immortals”), due to Academicians normally holding office for life.
The 40 seats, each of which is assigned a separate number, means that candidates make their applications for a specific seat. New members are then elected by the Immortals of the Académie itself.
Vargas Llosa retorted to journalists from the weekly El País Semanal: "Being immortal would seem to me to be terribly boring. Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, infinity... No, it is better to die. As late as possible, but die."
"This is an important step for the man for whom (the French capital) was a childhood dream and Flaubert a literary model," said Spanish journalist Manuel Jabois. The Spanish newspapaer El Periódico de España seconded this view and described his induction as a "tribute to his literature".
As tradition dictates, he is expected to deliver a speech in praise of his predecessor, the philosopher Michel Serres (1930-2019) who occupied chair 18.
A unique and controversial pick
Vargas Llosa’s appointment has stirred some controversy.
Beyond the fact that the 86-year-old writer is the first Immortal to join the French institution to never have written directly in the language of Molière, he has also invited the former King of Spain, Juan Carlos, to Paris for the occasion.
The former sovereign has been living in exile in the United Arab Emirates since 2020.
Additionally, his stance in favour of far-right candidates in Latin America is not to everyone’s liking. Neither is the series of scandals, including a harassment complaint by a former mistress, Corinna Larsen, or revelations about his lavish lifestyle, which includes an elephant hunt in Botswana.
Rather uniquely, the author has triggered a departure from the established rules, namely bypassing the age limit for admittance, set at 75, and is now a member of three linguistic academies, having been elected to the Peruvian Academy of Language in 1977, and to the Spanish Royal Academy in 1994.
One of the reasons behind his induction may be that the Académie, who has difficulties in attracting prestigious candidates, as well as women, has not welcomed a Nobel laureate since French novelist and poet François Mauriac (member from 1933 to 1970).
The perpetual secretary of the Académie, Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, says she is thrilled to welcome the world-renowned writer to the ranks of the Académie.
"He is very interested. He is always asking for things to be sent to him, he is on the website, he is always commenting. He's passionate about it," she told AFP in February 2022.
Other non-French members have preceded Vargas Llosa in the Académie, including American writer Julien Green in 1971, who died in 1998, and Canadian-Haitian novelist Dany Laferrière, elected in 2013.
Five seats currently remain to be filled.