By Raymond L. Williams
Recently on the streets of Panama, a t-shirt with the phrase “Keep Austin Weird” caught my attention. Pullman, unlike Austin, has never struck me as a particularly weird college town. The experience of being at Washington State University, nevertheless, is something that I always remember as being a little quirky, but in the same positive way that the young man wearing the shirt seemed to appreciate the “weirdness” of Austin. For example, I’m proud to have studied at WSU at the same time as cartoonist Gary Larson. And let’s face it: Gary Larson must be a little weird, or if he is not, at least those hilarious Far Side comics most definitely are. I like Mike Leach, too, even though he might not be the most typical football coach.
During a recent visit to the WSU Honors College, I was reminded of how anomalous the campus was when I was there in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For me, one of the most precious of these anomalies was the almost secret presence in the fall of 1968, when I was a freshman, of the 2010 Nobel Laureate of Literature Mario Vargas Llosa.
There was hardly a more unlikely place for the young and radical Peruvian writer to have spent time teaching and writing. Right before arriving in Pullman, he had been a member of a jet-setting group of writers that included 1982 Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, and the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. Their forefather was the Argentine master Jorge Luis Borges, already known among American literati from the appearance of his stories in The New Yorker in the 1960s, and the publication, in English translation, of his landmark book Ficciones in 1962. Other than Borges, Latin American literature was not really on the radar screen of most Americans. That began to change in 1970, when García Márquez published the bestselling One Hundred Years of Solitude in English translation, and in 1971, when poet Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
These were writers who highly valued being cosmopolitan. They had all escaped the limits of their previous lives in Latin America by finding refuge in the city that they considered the cultural capital of the West—Paris. When they were not in Paris, they lived and worked in large and vibrant European cities such as Barcelona and London. Today, Vargas Llosa lives most of the time in Madrid. In this context, then, his presence in Pullman was an anomaly in his otherwise lifelong commitment to urban life.
Why was this upstart Peruvian writer in Pullman? It had everything to do with something of an anomaly on the WSU faculty: Wolfgang A. Luchting, a professor of German nationality who had completed a degree in American studies in Germany, learned Spanish in Peru, and taught an unlikely combination of German and Peruvian literature in the Department of Foreign Languages. Luchting was also Vargas Llosa’s translator into German. Vargas Llosa was considering the possibility of an academic career, so he accepted the invitation to WSU. When the author was in Pullman, he worked on two very lengthy books: the novel that eventually was published under the title Conversation in the Cathedral and a book-length critical study of the work of Gabriel García Márquez.
Most students and faculty who were reading Vargas Llosa’s novel The Green House, attending his four public lectures, or hosting him in Pullman for his semester-long stay in 1968 are no longer living near WSU. To a large degree, the fact that a future Nobel Laureate taught a literature class in Spanish on campus has been forgotten. Nevertheless, even though the Nobel Prize is awarded on the basis of each writer’s total work, one could reasonably argue that the centerpiece for his Nobel recognition was actually written in Pullman. That argument, which I personally would defend, is that his most complex and ambitious novel, Conversación en La Catedral, was the key piece of his Nobel Prize.
As a freshman, I was not among the rarefied American literati who had read Vargas Llosa’s two extant books in English translation—The Time of the Hero and The Green House. I just happened to be in a Spanish advanced grammar class and attended the writer’s four public lectures upon the recommendation of my Spanish professor Billy Weaver. The truth is, I was an anomaly myself; a first-generation college student of a working-class Scandinavian family from Tacoma, I became fascinated with the work of Vargas Llosa, then Chilean culture, and then Latin American literature. Since completing my doctorate in Latin American literature, I have published several books on this literature as part of an academic career that has as much to do with Vargas Llosa, Luchting, and the WSU Honors Program as has my graduate training.
It was really the special anomalies of the place that made all the difference for me. Only recently have I realized just how important those formative years were for me at WSU. Today, I am proud to be associated with the Vargas Llosas, as well as the unorthodox Gary Larsons and Mike Leaches of this unique institution.