Great attention is currently being paid to the literary skills and political influence of Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. The Economist‘s Prospero blog is so effusive as to make him seem a Peruvian (if free-market-oriented) Nelson Mandela: “Once a polarising national figure, he is now universally respected as the country’s moral conscience. As well as a great novelist, Mr Vargas Llosa has become Latin America’s most influential liberal thinker.”
Yet while the warm glow of a Nobel tends to turn the complexity of a recipient’s life into a simple narrative that leads inevitably to the prize, and to the global recognition and respect that goes with it, the “polarisation” mentioned in passing by The Economist was real. In a 2006 paper, Jean Franco, an eminent historian of modern Latin America, described the controversy surrounding the commission that Llosa headed in 1983, charged with investigating the murder of eight journalists in a mountain village during the civil war.
Although Uchuraccay was one incident in this civil war between Sendero Luminoso on one side and the military and the police on the other, it assumed extraordinary importance because the victims were journalists posthumously commemorated as the martyrs of Uchuraccay, because it was investigated by the commission, headed by Vargas Llosa, a famous novelist, public intellectual and eventually presidential candidate, and because of the subsequent polemic over his report. The Vargas Llosa Commission, that included anthropologists, a legal expert, a linguist (the only Quechua speaker) and a psychoanalyst, arrived by helicopter, and spent less than three hours on the inquiry which, as the Truth [and Reconciliation] Commission and critics pointed out, was seriously flawed. Nevertheless, Vargas Llosa issued a skillfully worded report and afterwards gave several interviews and wrote articles and refutations of critics of the report that were later published in a collection of his essays under the attention-getting title, “Sangre y mugre de Uchuraccay” (Blood and Filth of Uchuraccay) …
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission went to considerable pains to underscore the dangerous consequences of misrepresentation and misinterpretation. For instance, the Vargas Llosa commission described the comuneros as “iquichanos” who were supposedly a pre-Hispanic group known for their warlike nature; in fact their reputation for violence was a nineteenth-century invention of the elites and not a historical reality.
The Peruvian Times has a good overview of the killings, the commission, and the controversy here.