City College Among First to Honor Nobel Laureate

September 16, 2011 | Salute to Scholars, The University

Raquel Chang-Rodríguez, Distinguished Professor of Spanish-American literature and civilization at The City College of New York and the Graduate Center, was planning Mario Vargas Llosa’s third visit to CCNY when she heard the news last fall. Her friend and fellow Peruvian writer had won the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature.

A few weeks later, in one of his first public engagements after being named a Nobel Laureate, Vargas Llosa stood in City College’s packed Great Hall to receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from President Lisa Staiano-Coico.

“We were planning the ceremony way before the Nobel committee awarded him their coveted distinction,” said Dr. Chang-Rodríguez. “I was tremendously pleased when in late August President Staiano-Coico welcomed the idea of awarding him the honorary doctorate.”

As timely as the Nobel Prize was, Dr. Chang-Rodríguez, a longtime acquaintance and an expert on Mr. Vargas Llosa’s writing, felt it was long overdue.

“In my mind, he should have received it at least a decade ago,” she said. “After reading La ciudad y los perros back in 1963, I was convinced that Mario had the talent and the drive to set the pace in contemporary Spanish fiction. Indeed, he now is one of the most revered writers.”

Dr. Chang-Rodríguez said she was charmed not so much by the theme of the work “but rather by its technique that allowed the reader to listen to many voices, to actively put together the puzzle of reality.” Dr. Chang-Rodríguez would later meet Vargas Llosa in 1968 and forge City College’s enduring links with the future Nobel Laureate.

She first brought him to campus in 1977 to discuss his 1973 novel, Pantaleón y las visitadoras, in which he parodies the Peruvian military. In 1992, he accepted another CCNY invitation to lecture on contemporary

Spanish-American fiction, tinted with allusions to medieval literature and the novels of chivalry.

“At that time he had just finished his book on Tirant lo Blanc, a much admired novel of chivalry written by Joanot Martorell and published in Valencia, Spain in 1490,” Dr. Chang-Rodríguez said.

The author, editor and co-editor of 15 books herself, Dr. Chang-Rodríguez pointed out the themes that make Vargas Llosa’s books so relevant today.

“The search for freedom, be it personal or religious, the struggle for survival in oppressive societies, and the fight against tyranny and intolerance. These as well as the characters in his novels are universal — they move readers of all times and latitudes.”