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Mario Vargas Llosa: On writing and hippos

/ 04:06 AM October 28, 2020

In November 2016, in one of the most memorable dinners in my life, I found myself seated across Mario Vargas Llosa. Thanks to Lin Bildner, our host, I had a lively conversation with the Nobel Prize laureate who was the best president Peru never had. The food at Flame Restaurant in Primea was as exceptional as the company. For starters: Scottish salmon tartare or sesame tuile, smoked pork, duck breast and arugula, lamb “bisteeya” in small bites washed down with Moët et Chandon champagne, followed by chilled seafood salad, seared foie gras, lobster fried rice, and braised US short ribs. I declined the Riesling and Pinot Noir wine pairings and opted to continue the rest of the meal with champagne, which made me chatty.

When we were first introduced, he said “Ambeth Ocampo? I’ve heard so much about you.” I replied: “I hope you heard good things.” We got along the rest of the evening because all eyes at the table were on the radiant co-honoree, Isabel Preysler, who has been, for over three decades now, the most photographed woman in Spain. A Filipina who is greeted on the streets of Madrid with shouts of “La Guapa” [The Beauty].

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I was curious about Vargas Llosa’s writing habits. I told him that my writing is inspired mainly by the twice-a-week deadline for this column. His method was more disciplined:

“I write every day. My mind is always active, and I need this continuity otherwise I would not finish a book. I have a gift only for writing, the rest no [laughs]. I have published almost 50 [books], novels 18, the rest are plays, essays, collection of articles. Writing is my life. I enjoy it, even if sometimes it’s difficult. I think in Spanish yes, but I can read in five languages. But writing, always in Spanish.

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“I don’t like to write a novel after a novel. I published a novel eight months ago, so I am now writing an essay on liberalism and culture.

“I do a lot of rewriting. Actually, what I like is rewriting. The first draft is always very difficult, very uncertain. Then I read and rewrite for many hours, en mano, in long hand. Even the [newspaper and magazine] articles are written out by hand. Pencil. Not a pen. Rewriting is a pleasure and I can work many hours. Rewriting is always from a typescript.

“I’m always working. I never stop, even when I travel. I write in the mornings. The best hours for me are the morning hours, the afternoons I spend for research. I write long-hand. I like the movement of a pen on paper; the rhythm of the hand is the rhythm of the mind. The hardest is getting the first draft but later revising is a joy.”

We talked about books and our libraries. I told him I wanted to dispose of all my rare books because it was a big responsibility to care for them — to make sure, as their custodian, that they would survive to illuminate another generation. I told him most of my reference books were now in PDF form and portable on an external drive. He disagreed when I said I should start reading on Kindle or an iPad:

“I don’t like [reading on] the screen. I like the smell of the paper. Writing is for books, but a screen is different. For great books it is banal for the screen. I don’t think the novels of Faulkner or Tolstoy can be for ebooks. Ebook sales are now decreasing. My publishers thought ebooks would take over but now its decreasing. People [aren’t buying]. It’s 24 percent of the market. In France, 4 percent of the people have gone back to paper [books]. A screen is fantastic for information, but novels?”

The big surprise of the evening was that, after the toast, he was presented with an artisanal leather hippopotamus toy. Isabel Preysler blurted out “No mas! (Not another!)” It was then revealed that Vargas Llosa had a collection of over 500 hippo figures. When I asked where he put all of them, Preysler rolled her eyes and said, “books and hippopotamus do not mix.” That then made Jullie Yap Daza ask: “What is the plural of hippopotamus?”

I asked Varga Llosa why he collected hippopotamus figures. He stroked his new pet, smiled, and answered: “Hippopotamus are vegetarian.” And, he added with a smile, “They make love every day.”

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Our conversation shifted after F. Sionil Jose accidentally spilled his glass of wine on the table a second time. One could very well say that with excellent food and stellar company, a good time was had by all.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Looking Back, Mario Vargas Llosa, Reading, writing habits
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