Peruvian-born Mario Vargas Llosa said he thought it was a joke when he received an early morning call to say he had won

Mario Vargas Llosa greeted his Nobel prize for literature with astonishment and delight today having long considered himself “too liberal” for the Swedish academy.

The 74-year-old Peruvian-born author thought it was a joke when he received a pre-dawn phone call in New York, where he is teaching a semester at Princeton University, with news that he had beaten hotly tipped writers from the US, Africa and Europe.

“For years I haven’t thought about the Nobel prize at all. They didn’t mention me in recent years so I didn’t expect it. It’s been a surprise, very nice, but a surprise. At first I thought it was a joke,” he told RPP Noticias.

The awarding committee said in a statement it chose Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat”.

The one-time Peruvian presidential candidate has been a leading Latin American voice since his 1963 breakthrough novel The Time of the Hero. More than 30 novels, plays and essays have been translated into more than 30 languages. Masterpieces include Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977) and The Feast of the Goat (2000).

He is South America’s first laureate since Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez won in 1982. Once close friends, the pair have sustained a famous feud since a punch-up in a Mexican cinema in 1976.

The academy’s permanent secretary, Peter Englund, called the Peruvian a divinely gifted storyteller and worthy winner of the 10m kronor (£942,000) prize. “His books are often very complex in composition, having different perspectives, different voices and different time places. He is also doing it in a new way, he has helped evolve the art of the narration.”

For years many predicted Vargas Llosa would add the Nobel to his Cervantes prize but the man himself said his liberalism – which he defined as defending democracy and the free market – meant it was “completely impossible” he could win. “I have taken all the precautions necessary for them never to give it to me,” he joked to interviewers last year.

Bookies and literary critics seemed to agree. This year they tipped Cormac McCarthy, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Tomas Tranströmer, with Vargas Llosa a 25-1 outsider. “We’re breathing an enormous sigh of relief. We saw more money bet on the contest this year than in its entire history. We’ll send a crate of champagne to the winner because he’s helped us dodge a massive payout,” said David Williams, a Ladbrokes spokesman.

Born in 1936 to a middle-class couple of Spanish heritage, Vargas Llosa worked as a crime reporter for the Lima newspaper La Crónica at the age of 15 and four years later eloped with his aunt, Julia Urquidi, in 1955. He worked in Paris, London and Barcelona as an academic and journalist before returning to Peru in 1975.

Once a supporter of Fidel Castro, he upset leftist fans by denouncing the Cuban leader as a despot. His novels’ dissection of power, tyranny and identity, often told through multiple voices, bumped into reality when the author lost the 1990 presidential election to Alberto Fujimori, who is now in jail for corruption and human rights abuses.

Stung by the defeat, Vargas Llosa moved to Spain and acquired Spanish citizenship. He said part of the Nobel was thanks to support he had received in his adopted homeland. That did not deter rapture in Peru. “This is a great day, because the world has recognized the visionary intelligence of Mario Vargas Llosa and his libertarian and democratic ideals,” said President Alan García.

Vargas Llosa’s next novel, The Dream of the Celt, is inspired by Roger Casement, the Anglo-Irish consul who exposed human rights abuses in Belgian-run Congo at the turn of the 20th century. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds