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January 26, 2022

Literature – a chance for romance and civism

While in Cluj to be awarded the doctor honoris causa degree of the Babes-Bolyai University, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa continued the public dialogue started eight years ago with his Romanian publisher, philosopher Gabriel Liceanu.

Carried out at the Faculty of Letters (and video broadcast to an amphitheater chockfull of philology students, and the rain-threatened building yard containing over 1,000 people, most of them autograph seekers), the dialogue focus on the role of literature in the contemporary society. A challenging and elitist Liiceanu question the writer’s claim – the serious one by and large – as an apostle of progress. While both speakers agreed on the initial distinction between easy-going fiction (including the seventh art, cinematography) and the queen of the field – literature – much better positioned to satisfy the spiritual needs of   human beings, the philosopher decried (with crocodile tears, some might add) the unfair divide between a literature reading minority – even calling forth some dire statistics to make his point – and an almost ignorant majority, whereas Vargas Llosa insisted on the civilizing gain (relative, yet decisive, as they are) brought by the major literature. The discussion even moved slightly towards hilarity in an exchange of arguments in favor or against the ignoramus chance to enjoy refined eroticism. Without reading, you are condemned to remain an animal dominated by impulses and instincts, far removed from the wonderful universe of erotic art – the two public intellectuals have earnestly advocated. The Peruvian writer made a panorama picture of historic dialectics: if, until recently, the world had been dominated by communist regimes, and Latin America, by military dictatorships, democracy – which he passionately defends, despite admitting its limits – is dominant in most of those countries. And writers are among the heroes of this political victory, so tightly watched and suspected by   totalitarianisms and authoritarianisms of all hues.  The reason for such deep-rooted suspicion – good literature creates citizens with a critical spirit and refined sensibility. Otherwise said, citizens don’t allow themselves being fooled by the corrupt or dictators, and reject violence and injustice. Vargas Llosa seriously believes in this pedagogy by culture (and literature primarily), far removed from the implicit nihilistic skepticism of disabused or mystifying elitists. However, capitalism is far from stirring an absolute enthusiasm in the once-leftist (in his youth) turned liberal. What is needed, is a corrective – the Peruvian writer holds, who dedicates his latest novel, “The Discreet Hero”, to the contradictions of the post-Fujimori liberal society – the greediness stirred  by economic competition in a world that experiences a value crisis. An atheist, as he himself acknowledged, Vargas Llosa believes in the salvaging role of religion, despite being a fervent advocate of religion not meddling in state affairs.
The Cluj leg of the writer’s global periplus (he is one of the greatest writer-travelers of the moment), started off with an original stage adaptation of some stories from One Thousand and One Stories  – so much consonant with the ethos of an apostle of fiction. The typical post-modern stage adaptation relied on ironic detachment collage and multimedia techniques. The writer himself became part of it at the finale, playing his own role of lover-storyteller. The relativistic perspective (the actors are storyteller, too – defined as such by the texts written, read very much like at play rehearsals – as well as various characters) is accompanied by video projections – a sort of animations combining the live broadcast and scenographic stylizations – and the versatility of successive carousel-like performances. Starting out with the premise of the easy switch from reality into fiction (and back) the writer is so fond of, young stage director Andreea Iacob played with what the writer described two days later as fictions that put conscience to sleep. Yet, she did it in a spoofy way, transfiguring kitsch (romance hits, telenovelic attitudes, video clip appearances) in the name of the dual esthetic pleasure of narration and show – a much appreciated combination today, as the more impure it gets, the more relished it is.

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