Photo illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Musketeers), Getty Images
The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa made a shocking confession on Friday: “I cried when I read The Count of Monte Cristo.” His buddies Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco, onstage with him for a PEN World Voices talk, were aghast. Eco had just called it “horribly written,” though he had great praise for Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Apparently, these chummy, occasionally bickering writers had decided to call themselves “The Three Musketeers” over drinks after appearing together in 1995 in London’s Royal Hall. And here they were, thirteen years later, grayer and paunchier (well, not stick-thin Llosa), for what Rushdie called “The Three Musketeers 2: This Time It’s Serious.” But not too serious. They were having great fun trying to figure out which of them was Aramis, until moderator Leonard Lopate put his foot down. “I don’t think we brought you all together to talk about bad writing.”
The Musketeers had already read from their own works, but the talk proved more entertaining (Eco and Llosa had read in their original languages, with a Star Wars–style translation scrolling by at warp speed). They spoke of the diminished political clout of American writers, with Rushdie admitting he was nostalgic for Mailer’s antics. It was only appropriate given both Rushdie’s run from the fatwa and Llosa’s run for Peru’s presidency. Rushdie and Eco agreed that losing was good for Llosa’s career. “Instead of a Musketeer, he would have been Richelieu,” said Eco. (Rim shot!) The fact that Eco’s books had never been burned left him “a bit out of the conversation,” noted Rushdie. Maybe that’s why Eco took a stab at political commentary, implicitly comparing Berlusconi to Mussolini.
“For writers to be considered important as public figures, you need dictatorships,” said Llosa. “If institutions are functioning, literature is entertainment.” So instead of writers becoming politicians, we get … Arnold Schwarzenegger. But hold on, said Lopate, isn’t Rushdie a star these days? There he is in Scarlett Johansson’s video! “I’m glad you’re talking about my most important work,” Rushdie said. “Look, if somebody said to you, ‘Would you stand against that wall and kiss Scarlett Johansson on the back of the neck,’ what would you say?” “I’m taken,” said Lopate. “I just said ‘yes,’” Rushdie replied. —Boris Kachka
Earlier: Bernard-Henri Lévy, Mia Farrow, and Some New Age Music Open the PEN World Voices Fest