El Gusanillo de los Libros (The Little Worm of the Books)
by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Connie Alvarez)
A number of years ago, this essay appeared in the editorial pages of Spain’s daily newspaper, El Pais. The original ends with an apology because renowned author Mario Vargas Llosa could not remember Michael Silverblatt’s name. A “letter to the editor” from a reader who did an Internet search appeared later, solving the mystery by identifying Michael and his program, Bookworm, on KCRW. Here’s an abridged edition of Vargas Llosa’s essay.
Since I started publishing books I’ve had dozens, perhaps hundreds, of interviews and I forgot all of them as soon as they were over. Except one, that with the passage of time has grown to mythic proportions in my memory. It took place about 20 years ago, during the course of a crazed 10-day trip through the United States, upon the publication of one of my novels in English. … [The interviewer’s] name was the “bookworm”…
No sooner did he start to speak when I was glued to what he said and, almost immediately, I was conquered. I had the impression that he was talking about a stranger’s book, not because he was betraying my story, but because his synthesis enhanced, purified and reduced it to its essentials.
He didn’t make the slightest critique, he didn’t offer a personal opinion, he limited himself to “telling” the novel with an absolute neutrality, disappearing behind the characters and the story, retelling it with consummate skill using small, but efficient effects – pauses, emphasis, changes in tone – that extraordinarily enriched what he was saying.
Not only had he read the book exhaustively, he had selected the fragments that he made me read with such certainty that these passages both illustrated the tale precisely, and made the listener eager to hear what came next.
…His questions didn’t go to the inevitable commonplaces nor did they depart for a moment from the book that had united us there. It was as if they forced me to return to that time when I first had the idea for that fiction. …When we finished, I congratulated him, I thanked him, I told him that he made me learn a lot about myself, and that he was a fabulous storyteller.
He seemed a bit intimidated by my enthusiasm. He was a modest man, who apparently, was not in the least bit conscious of his brilliance. He thought that with his program he did nothing more than satisfy his passion as a reader and earn – surely with some difficulty – his beans, trying to inspire in his listeners an appetite for literature. …I thought that with such politics, my esteemed bookworm would die of hunger or would soon lose his program.
It didn’t happen that way. Years later, in New York, I ran into him, again in front of a microphone, this time in an elegant air-conditioned studio in Manhattan. In the time that had passed, “the little worm of the books” had made a spectacular leap. Now he was heard in the entire United States, where a number of radio stations had adopted him.
But rather than experiment with innovations, neither the format, nor the rigor, nor the originality with which its conductor drove the program had changed. The bookworm continued to “tell” the novels and ask the questions with the same shaman’s skill that I remembered, subjecting authors to a passionate interrogation, a true creative catharsis.