Mario Vargas Llosa was not in the final list compiled by would-be Nobel Prize seers. A British betting firm had Cormac McCarthy (US) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o as the favorites. The Swedish selection committee, playing their cards close to the vest as usual, surprised many by choosing Vargas Llosa this year, though he has been on the short list previously. His choice returns the prize to a Latin American writer for the first time since Octavio Paz in 1990.

John Freeman of Granta and NPR thinks the choice is “phenomenal.”

“It is a moral obligation of a writer in Latin America to be involved in civic activities,” Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once said.

Words he has taken seriously.

As is true from time to time some readers will be required to distunguish between a writer’s political leanings and his literary ability. Vargas Llosa, once in the pantheon of left favoring authors, has swung to the right as the years rolled on, divorcing himself from early admiration for Castro and lately having strong words for the new left leaders in South America. Has his story telling changed along with it? Have the targets of the novels? Similar decisions have to be made by those who care about both politics and literature for Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Jose Luis Borges, John Dos Passos, many others.

The Time of of The Hero, as it is known in English, was his first published novel. In Spanish, it is The City and the Dogs (La Ciudad y los Perros), a tough to follow multiple-perspectives account of a muder in a military academy and the conditions that encourage it, and protect it. Modern techniques or not, the Peruvian military understood it well enough. Some 1,000 copies were burned at the actual Academy, where Vargas Llosa has been a cadet. [Why the ironic title was chosen for the English version — there are no heroes in the story– is unclear to me.]

I’d also like to remind all but a tiny minority of English readers they are not reading Vargas Llosa directly, but through his translator. In the case of Time of the Heroes this is Lysander Kemp. One hopes, without much force in it, that translators will be honored at the Nobel Ceremony, even if only with a nod from the podium.

Benedicte Page at The Guardian, UK offers her list of 5 of his most important novels, skewing slightly to the newer, and leaving out The Green House (La Casa Verde) 1965, translated by Gregory Rabassa 1968, which many think is his best. No matter. Pick one — I might suggest The Feast of the Goat, 2000, translated by Edith Grossman, about the aging Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic.