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Image: Mario Vargas Llosa
Pierre-philippe Marcou  /  AFP - Getty Images
The Swedish Academy said it honored Mario Vargas Llosa, 74, "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat."
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updated 10/7/2010 11:47:11 AM ET 2010-10-07T15:47:11

Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday as the academy honored one of the Spanish-speaking world's most acclaimed authors and an outspoken political activist who once ran for president in his tumultuous homeland.

Vargas Llosa, 74, has written more than 30 novels, plays and essays, including "Conversation in the Cathedral" and "The Green House." In 1995, he won the Cervantes Prize, the most distinguished literary honor in Spanish.

Vargas Llosa is the first South American winner of the prestigious 10 million kronor, or $1.5 million, Nobel Prize in literature since Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez won in 1982.

"I am very surprised, I did not expect this," Vargas Llosa told Spanish National Radio, adding he thought it was a joke when he received the call.

"It had been years since my name was even mentioned," he added. "It has certainly been a total surprise, a very pleasant surprise, but a surprise nonetheless."

The Swedish Academy said it honored him for mapping the "structures of power and (for) his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat." Its permanent secretary, Peter Englund, called him "a divinely gifted storyteller" whose writing touched the reader.

"His books are often very complex in composition, having different perspectives, different voices and different time places," Englund said. "He is also doing it in a new way, he has helped evolve the art of the narration."

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In the previous six years, the academy had rewarded five Europeans and one Turk with the literature Nobel, sparking criticism that it was too Euro-centric. Last year's award went to German writer Herta Mueller.

The Swedish Academy has also previously been accused of favoring left-leaning writers, although the 16-member panel says its decisions are made on literary merit alone.

Vargas Llosa had long been mentioned as a possible Nobel candidate — he has won some of the Western world's most prestigious literary medals and his works have been translated into 31 languages, including Chinese, Croatian, Hebrew and Arabic.

His writing is almost universally admired in Latin America but his gradual shift from the left toward an embrace of free-market capitalism has put him at odds with much of the hemisphere's intellectual elite.

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Vargas Llosa has feuded with Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez and often tosses barbs at Cuba's Fidel Castro. He irritated his centrist friend Octavio Paz, the late Mexican Nobel literature laureate, by playfully describing Mexico's political system — which was dominated at the time by a single party — as "the perfect dictatorship."

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In a famous 1976 incident in Mexico City, Vargas Llosa punched out former friend Garcia Marquez, whom he would later ridicule as "Castro's courtesan." It was never clear whether the fight was over politics or a personal dispute and the two have reportedly not spoken in decades.

After the Nobel announcement, a comment on a Twitter account attributed to Garcia Marquez said "now we're even" in Spanish. However, Garcia Marquez's foundation in Cartagena, Colombia, said the Twitter account did not belong to the author.

There was no reaction to the award from Garcia Marquez, who rarely speaks to the media.

Vargas Llosa has lectured and taught at a number of universities in the U.S., South America and Europe, and was spending this semester at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.

Fellow Nobel laureate and Princeton faculty member Toni Morrison praised his selection as a "brilliant choice."

Jonathan Galassi, head of Vargas Llosa's U.S. publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, called him "one of the world's greatest writers — an eloquent, unequaled champion of human freedom."

Vargas Llosa emerged as a leader among the so-called "Boom" or "New Wave" of Latin American writers, bursting onto the literary scene in 1963 with his groundbreaking debut novel "The Time of the Hero" (La Ciudad y los Perros), which builds on his experiences at the Peruvian military academy Leoncio Prado.

The book won the Spanish Critics Award and the ire of Peru's military. One thousand copies of the novel were later burned by military authorities, with some generals calling the book false and Vargas Llosa a communist.

The military academy "was like discovering hell," Vargas Llosa said later.

At 15, he was a night-owl crime reporter. Still in his teens, he joined a communist cell and eloped with 33-year-old Julia Urquidi — the Bolivian sister-in-law of his uncle. He later drew inspiration from their nine-year marriage to write the comic hit novel "Aunt Julia and the Script Writer" (La Tia Julia y el Escribidor).

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After they divorced, Vargas Llosa in 1965 married his first cousin, Patricia Llosa, 10 years his junior, and together they had three children.

In the 1970s, he denounced Castro's Cuba and slowly turned his political trajectory toward free-market conservatism. Vargas Llosa drew his inspiration mostly from his Peruvian homeland, but preferred to live abroad in near self-imposed exile for years at a time.

In 1990, he ran for the presidency in Peru on a pro-business ticket during the height of the bloody Maoist Shining Path insurgency but lost the election to a virtually unknown academic, Alberto Fujimori.

Disheartened by the broad public approval for Fujimori's iron-fisted rule, Vargas Llosa again left his homeland and took Spanish citizenship, living in Madrid and London. He maintained a penthouse apartment in the Peruvian capital of Lima overlooking its Pacific coast, but tended to keep a low profile during visits home long after Fujimori fled to Japan in 2000, toppled by vast corruption in his government.

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In 1994, Vargas Llosa became the first Latin American writer to be elected to the Spanish Academy, where he took his seat in 1996.

"Spain has been very generous with me," Vargas Llosa said in a radio interview in Peru. "I wrote and published my first stories there."

The 2010 Nobel Prize announcements began Monday with the medicine award going to British professor Robert Edwards for fertility research that led to the first test tube baby.

Russian-born scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the physics prize for groundbreaking experiments with graphene, the strongest and thinnest material known to mankind.

The chemistry award went to American Richard Heck and Japanese researchers Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki for designing techniques to bind together carbon atoms.

The peace prize will be announced on Friday and the economics prize next Monday.

The awards were established by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel — the inventor of dynamite — and are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of his death in 1896.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The lit list: Nobel Prize winners

  • The Nobel Prize in literature is regarded by many as the highest honor a writer can receive. The award, presented by the Swedish Academy, is given to a writer based on his or her entire body of work, and the prize money amounts to about $1.5 million. Check out some of the authors  and poets who have won since 1988, and get to know the books that are considered some of the most important in the literary world.

  • Tomas Transtromer (2011)

    Jessica Gow  /  AP

    Country: Sweden

    Influential works:

    - "Windows and Stones"
    - "Baltics"
    - "The Great Enigma"

    Long a favorite to win the award, poet Transtromer is considered one of the most important Scandinavian writers since World War II. His surrealistic works about the mysteries of the human mind have been translated into more than 50 languages and influenced poets around the globe. The Swedish Academy said it recognized him "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality."

  • Mario Vargas Llosa (2010)

    Image: Mario Vargas Llosa
    Pierre-philippe Marcou  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Country: Peru

    Influential works:

    - "The Time of the Hero"
    - "The Green House"
    - "Conversation in the Cathedral"

    Novelist, essayist and politician, Vargas Llosa is arguably Latin America’s most influential writer. He has written humor, mysteries, historical novels and political thrillers as well as literary criticism. The Swedish Academy cited him "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat."

  • Herta Mueller (2009)

    Bernd Weissbrod  /  EPA

    Country: Romania

    Influential works:

    - "Nadirs"
    - "Oppressive Tango"
    - "The Passport"

    Herta Mueller is the 12th woman to win the prize. Most of her work is in German, but some have been translated into English French and Spanish. "I think that there is an incredible force in what she writes, she has a very, very unique style," said Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.

  • Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio (2008)

    Country: France

    Influential works:

    - "The Deposition"
    - "Desert"
    - "Beloved Earth"

    Le Clezio has written on several themes incuding insanity, childhood and traveling. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for being an "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization."

  • Doris Lessing (2007)

    Shaun Curry  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: United Kingdom

    Influential works:

    - "The Grass is Singing"
    - "The Golden Notebook"
    - "The Good Terrorist"

    At 87, Lessing was the oldest person to be bestowed the literature prize, as well as the 11th woman to win. The Swedish Academy praised her as the "epicist of the female experience."

  • Orhan Pamuk (2006)

    Fred Dufour  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Turkey

    Influential works:

    - "My Name is Red"
    - "Snow"
    - "Istanbul: Memories of a City"

    Pamuk was the first Turkish person to receive the prize. The Academy cited Pamuk as one "who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

  • Harold Pinter (2005)

    Carl De Souza  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: United Kingdom

    Influential works:

    - "The Dumb Waiter"
    - "The Caretaker"
    - "The New World Order"

    A playwright, screenwriter, actor, director, poet and activist, Pinter was cited by the Academy as one who "forces entry into oppression's closed rooms."

  • Elfriede Jelinek (2004)

    Afp  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Austria

    Influential works:

    - "We are Decoys, Baby!"
    - "Wonderful, Wonderful Times"
    - "The Piano Teacher"

    A feminist playwright and novelist whose work was often highly controversial, Jelinek was awarded the prize for her ability to "reveal the absurdity of society's cliches and their subjugating power" with "linguistic zeal."

  • John M. Coetzee (2003)

    Tiziana Fabi  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: South Africa

    Influential works:

    - "Waiting for the Barbarians"
    - "Life and Times of Michael K"
    - "Disgrace"

    Coetzee was the first author to win the Book Prize twice. Upon winning the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy cited Coetzee as one "who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider."

  • Imre Kertesz (2002)

    Jochen Luebke  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Hungary

    Influential works:

    - "Fatelessness"
    - "Kaddish for a Child Not Born"
    - "Liquidation"

    Kertesz was a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, and his experiences were the basis for much of his work. He received the Nobel Prize "for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history."

  • V.S. Naipaul (2001)

    Indranil Mukherjee  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: United Kingdom (born in Trinidad)

    Influential works:

    - "In a Free State"
    - "The Middle Passage"
    - "A Million Mutinies Now"
    - "The Enigma of Arrival"

    Naipaul's work, often centered on Third World narratives, is known for its rejection of victimhood. The Academy noted that Naipaul created works "that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories."

  • Gao Xingjian (2000)

    Vittorio Zunino Celotto  /  Getty Images file

    Country: France (born in China)

    Influential works:

    - "Soul Mountain"
    - "Fugitives"
    - "One Man's Bible"

    Xingjian, a playright and novelist, pioneered absurdist drama in China. The Academy cited Xingjian's "bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which have opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama."

  • Guenter Grass (1999)

    Sean Gallup  /  Getty Images file

    Country: Germany

    Influential works:

    - "The Tin Drum"
    - "Cat and Mouse"
    - "Dog Years"
    - "Crabwalk"

    A poet, novelist and playwright, Grass's work was a literary representation of the German experience during the Nazi era. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his "frolicsome black fables that portray the forgotten face of history."

  • Jose Saramago (1998)

    Ivan Garcia  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Portugal

    Influential works:

    - "Baltasar and Blimunda"
    - "Blindness"
    - "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ"

    Much of Saramago's writing was controversial, presenting the perspective of insurgents from historic events. The Academy cited his "parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony."

  • Dario Fo (1997)

    Filippo Monteforte  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Italy

    Influential works:

    - "Archangels Don't Play Pinball"
    - "Fedayin"
    - "Mistero Buffo"

    Fo's satire has criticized the Catholic policy on abortion and political corruption. The Academy praised him as one "who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden."

  • Wislawa Szymborska (1996)

    Filip Miller  /  AP file

    Country: Poland

    Influential works:

    - "Non-required Reading"
    - "A Large Number"
    - "Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997"

    Szymborska's poetry has been translated to Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese and Chinese, in addition to several European languages. The Academy awarded her "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light."

  • Seamus Heaney (1995)

    Chris Jackson  /  Getty Images file

    Country: Ireland

    Influential works:

    - "Death of a Naturalist"
    - "North"
    - "The Cure at Troy"

    Much of Heaney's poetry focused on his analysis of the violence in Northern Ireland. He was awarded the Nobel Prize "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."

  • Kenzaburo Oe (1994)

    Afp  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Japan

    Influential works:

    - "Okinawa Notes"
    - "Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids"
    - "Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness"

    Oe created works that often focused on political issues such as nuclear weapons. The Academy cited him as a writer "who with poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today."

  • Toni Morrison (1993)

    Francois Guillot  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: United States

    Influential works:

    - "Sula"
    - "The Bluest Eye"
    - "Beloved"

    Morrison wrote novels that brought multi-faceted, richly-developed black characters to the forefront of literature. The Academy cited that she, by "visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."

  • Derek Walcott (1992)

    Pedro Rey  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: St. Lucia

    Influential works:

    - "Sea Grapes"
    - "Omeros"
    - "Ti-Jean and his Brothers"
    - "Pantomime"

    Walcott published more than 20 plays, his stories based on West Indian identity and the effects of colonial rule. He was praised for his "great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment."

  • Nadine Gordimer (1991)

    Tiziana Fabi  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: South Africa

    Influential works:

    - "The Conservationist"
    - "Burger's Daughter"
    - "July's People"

    Gordimer's work dealt with racial issues, and bemoaned the immorality of South African apartheid. The Academy praised her "magnificent epic writing" as being "of very great benefit to humanity."

  • Octavio Paz (1990)

    Afp  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Mexico

    Influential works:

    - "The Labyrinth of Solitude"
    - "Eagle or Sun?"
    - "Collected Poems, 1957 - 1987"

    Paz wrote poetry influenced by many styles and themes, including surrealism, Marxism, love, spirituality, and particularly, his experiences in India. The Academy noted that his work was "characterized by sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity."

  • Camilo Jose Cela (1989)

    Stf  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Spain

    Influential works:

    - "The Family of Pascual Duarte"
    - "The Hive"
    - "Christ versus Arizona"

    Cela's notable work "Christ versus Arizona" is the story of a duel, written in a single sentence that is more than 100 pages long. He won the Nobel Prize for his "rich and intensive prose, which with restrained compassion forms a challenging vision of man's vulnerability."

  • Naguib Mahfouz (1988)

    -  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Egypt

    Influential works:

    • "Cairo Trilogy"
    • "Children of Gebelawi"
    • "Midaq Alley"

    Mahfouz supported Egypt's peace treaty with Israel in 1978 and ended up on an Islamic fundamentalist "death list". The Academy noted that Mahfouz, "through works rich in nuance ... has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind."

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