The French Academy breaks the rules and sparks debate with the choice of Vargas Llosa

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The august institution that sets the standards for the French language has admitted Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as a new member, although he is 10 years older than his statutes allow and has never written a book in French. While no one disputes the Nobel laureate’s literary merits, critics say his support for far-right politicians in Latin America risks “tarnishing the image of France” in the region.

Vargas Llosa’s election comes at a delicate time for the venerable but often ridiculed institution, which is struggling to fill long-standing vacancies among its 40 serving ‘Immortals’ even as its authority and relevance grow. questioned.

The guardian of the French language has produced just eight dictionaries in its nearly 400-year history (a ninth edition has been in the works since 1986) and is regularly criticized for its entrenched conservatism. Her stubborn opposition to any attempt to make French grammar less sexist has left her singularly out of step with society. When he attempted to feminize a word last year – judging that “the Covid-19 “should become”the” – 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 came knocking, the doors to the dome of the French Academy quickly flew open. It doesn’t matter how old the candidate is – a good decade above the 75-year-old limit set by the academy – or the fact that he has never written a book in the language of Molière; the prestigious institution could hardly resist having one of the world’s greatest writers among its sword-wielding members.

Vargas Llosa was duly elected on November 25, with 18 votes in favour, 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 about his increasingly right-wing views. In particular, critics have rounded on his open support for Chile’s far-right presidential candidate Jose Antonio Kast, an admirer of former dictator Augusto Pinochet and the current frontrunner in the runoff of Chile’s December 19 elections.

“Fervent anti-communism”

In an op-ed published by the French daily Liberation last week, a group of Latin American experts based in France and Peru said the Academy’s decision raised “serious ethical issues”.

“Perhaps the Academy considered that the Peruvian writer embodies the ideal of the committed writer in the spirit of the Enlightenment,” they write about the 85-year-old novelist who rose to fame in the 1960s with its virulent attacks on Peru. ruling military. However, they added, Vargas Llosa’s support for a “nostalgic defender of Pinochet’s military dictatorship (…) is only the latest avatar of an attitude that in recent decades has legitimized responsible leaders murders and human rights violations”.

The editorial highlighted his recent support for Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori, and Ivan Duque, the Colombian president accused of blocking and undermining the historic peace process agreed by his predecessor with the former FARC guerrillas. 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 constantly drifted in the opposite direction. He ran for president of Peru in 1990 on a centre-right platform and has since veered more to the right, becoming a strong supporter of neoliberal politics. Earlier this year he was also named in the ‘Pandora Papers’ leak as having briefly been the principal title holder of an offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands, although he denied any wrongdoing.

According to the authors of the Tribune de Liberation, the opinions and behavior of the Nobel laureate are indicative of his “fervent anti-communism” and his “economic ultra-liberalism”. They described his election to the Academy as a “mistake that tarnishes the image of France in Latin America, where the extremist opinions of Mario Vargas Llosa are well known and rejected by many”.

Others rushed to the aid of the writer, defending his enthronement among the guardians of the French language. Among them is former Spanish-speaking French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who scorned the Liberation article in a post on Twitter.

“So to be a member of the Academy you have to have been a supporter of Castro, Chavez or the descendants of the Shining Path,” Valls joked, referring to Peru’s powerful Marxist guerrilla movement. He added: “These academics could spare a few words about 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, specialist in Latin America at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IRIS) in Paris, the work of Vargas Llosa should indeed be separated from his politics, particularly within the framework of a institution whose mission is purely linguistic.

“Personally, I have no affinity with Vargas Llosa’s politics, but I consider him a writer of great merit,” Kourliandsky told FRANCE 24. “He was elected to the French Academy because of his qualities as a writer, not for his political opinions.His political commitments should be criticized on the sole ground of politics.

On the other hand, opposing the Peruvian’s choice on the grounds that he has never written in French is perfectly legitimate, Kourliandsky said, noting that the Academy is responsible for “safeguarding the quality of the French language and writing the Dictionary of the French language” – considered the official dictionary of France. “If he applied for the position, 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 does not hide his deep connection with French literature and culture. He wrote his first short stories in the late 1950s while living in Paris, where he worked for the Spanish-speaking branch of Agence France Presse. Decades later, in an interview with the literary magazine Letras Libres, he talks about his discovery of the French language and literature as a young student at the Alliance française de Lima.

“I didn’t just read the books in the little Alliance library, I devoured them,” he told the Spanish-language magazine. “I 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 Academy’s first foreign-born member; 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, compared to 738 men. But as critics within the academy have pointed out, his predecessors were known to speak and write in French.

“There were a lot of foreigners at the Academy (…). They all wrote in French,” Dominique Fernandez, one of the “Immortals,” told France Info radio. “Vargas Llosa has never written in French. The main task 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.

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