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In Defense Of Vargas Llosa's Oh So Public Love Affair

There are plenty of good reasons Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa shouldn't be flaunting his affair with a Madrid socialite. But if it's really love, none of that really matters.

Vargas Llosa in April 2015.
Vargas Llosa in April 2015.
Danilo Arbilla


BOGOTA — One can try to put it politely. That he's getting up there. That he's reached his golden years. That he's getting long in the tooth. But the truth of the matter is that Mario Vargas Llosa, Latin America's preeminent living novelist, has gotten old.

Days ago, the Nobel Prize winner, 79, was addressing a gathering in Madrid organized for the wives of Venezuelan political prisoners Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma. The Peruvian writer made three mistakes that typically come with ageing (I know, because it happens to me a lot and I am quite a bit younger than Vargas Llosa). He forgot Ledezma's surname, making do with just "Antonio," referred to López as Rodolfo, rather than Leopoldo, and could not remember the name of his late friend, the philosopher Jean-François Revel. A panel member had to help him out.

Not that any of this made his words less brilliant. Vargas Llosa was probably just tired. Lord knows he has reason to be given how hectic things have been of late. In addition to numerous academic activities and events relating to his position as celebrated writer, he has also had to deal with a crush of media attention regarding his love life.

Thanks to a public romance with socialite Isabel Preysler — former wife of singing legend Julio Iglesias, mother of pop star Enrique Iglesias, and recently widowed after the death of her last husband, the former Spanish finance minister Miguel Boyer — Vargas Llosa is now competing "head-to-head" with the Greek crisis and local soccer buzz for top billing in newspapers and celebrity gossip magazines like ¡Hola! (Hello!).

There was no way this wasn't going to be a big story. The prize-winning novelist who once ran for president in Peru has been newsworthy for decades now. And here he is effectively ending 50 years of marriage with his wife Patricia Llosa and taking up with the so-called "Queen of Hearts," a woman whose raison d'etre, it would seem, has everything to do with the limelight. Preysler is such a pro when it comes to this kind of attention that she's even said to be in control of all pictures of herself and her family — and any "touching up" to them — that appear in gossip magazines and especially ¡Hola!.

Having seen Vargas Llosa a few days ago, I have to admit that the magazine photos do him a service. But is that what motivated the writer to make this drastic change in his life? To feel young again? They say a man is as young as the woman he is dating. But in this case, the difference is just 15 years. If not that, was it for the fame and notoriety? Unlikely. It's hard to imagine Vargas Llosa seeking any more than he already has.

The other possibility, of course, is that he's in love. We know that in love, the heart and the brain make poor bedfellows. And yet even then one assumes that the Nobel laureate gave all this some thought, that he carefully weighed up his choices. Because there's a lot at stake: an entire family, a loyal companion, children and grandchildren, 50 years of marriage, the media exposure. If this were a mistake, it ranks right up there with his failed presidential bid in 1990.

The decision is all the more perplexing when we recall his 2012 book La civilización del espectáculo (The Civilization of Entertainment), wherein Vargas Llosa deplores the decline of culture to the level of entertainment, banality and kitsch, and voices contempt for irresponsible news reporting that feeds on "gossipology and scandals."

We can presume that Isabel Preysler duly considered her steps as well.

But maybe love is more powerful than all that. Maybe all those concerns just can't compete. And maybe that's alright. People have a right to fall in love, at any time, even when they're "getting on in years." Gabriel García Márquez writes about love between two older people in one of the greatest love stories of all time, Love in the Time of Cholera. A love in that case which was freed of obstacles. Without regard for forms or a thought for what people think. Indifferent to the threat of ridicule.

That, in my opinion, is what we are seeing in the case of Vargas Llosa. And it's a marvelous thing. Love can take you to the top, then throw you back down so hard you'll be left a wreck. It can dominate you more than any vice or drug.

Like death, love can make its sudden appearance along your path at any time. And if it happens to come in the so-called twilight years, before death arrives, then embrace it and celebrate it while you can, especially if you don't believe in the afterlife.

Mario Vargas Llosa, it seems, has done just that. And he's done well. This is his life. And what he does with the remainder of it is nobody's business but his own.

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