Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa was in Budapest last week to support the Central European University in its struggle against attempts initiated by the Hungarian government to close it down. Appearing as the keynote speaker in the CEU conference, “Academic Freedom – The Global Challenge,” he spoke extensively on the importance of citizenship, the critical spirit, and the value of a university and academic freedom in general. You can hear his address on YouTube here. However, the Youtube video missed some of his most interesting remarks on literature itself, which came in the Q&A session afterwards.

A student in the audience asked: “In the culture of freedom, what do you think is the role of literature?” Vargas Llosa answered:

I’m going to answer with a question. Why do you think that all the dictatorships in history, all the authoritarian regimes which wanted to control life from beginning to end, are so suspicious of literature – so suspicious that they have created, all dictatorships without exception, systems of censorship, of control of books? In democracies, we are very surprised, because we don’t believe that books are dangerous, but the dictators know better than us.

Books are dangerous. Novels only seem in a democracy anodyne. But in a dictatorship, books are always threatening power. Why? Because books become the way in which people become informed, when newspapers, radios, TV stations, which are totally controlled by the government, don’t inform you of what is going on. You remember when Hungary was a satellite of the Soviet Union, when Hungarians read books, to try to discover what was going on in this country, what was going on? They immediately went to literature to have the kind of information and reassurances that reality didn’t give them.

Literature is very dangerous to a dictatorship. Why? Because when you read a good book, Don Quixote, War and Peace, and like novels, and you return to the real world, what do you discover? You discover that the worlds that we invent are much better than the real world, that the real world by comparison is starved of the societies invented by Cervantes, Tolstoy, Faulkner. It’s so far away from this perfection that you discover in yourself a malaise with the real world, and you become unsatisfied. And unsatisfaction is very dangerous for regimes that want to demonstrate that reality is absolutely perfect. That is the reason that dictatorships are so suspicious of literature. Literature is very important to awakening this rigorous, critical spirit which is essential to a free and democratic society.

Asked at the end of the conference, “What if we lose?” Vargas Llosa immediately replied, “Oh, we won’t lose.” The audience left cheering.