The many lives of Mario Vargas Llosa
In March 2017 Mario Vargas Llosa travelled from his home in Madrid, Spain, to Arequipa, Peru, where he was born. After celebrating his eighty-first birthday in the city of his birth, Vargas Llosa returned to Madrid, then left for Chicago to give four hour-long lectures, delivered in English, without notes, on the gestation of his major novels. He flew to Buenos Aires for a book fair, then travelled to Paris for an onstage interview in French before more than a thousand people at the Collège de France. The occasion of his visit to France was the publication of his complete works in La Pléiade, the compact leather-bound editions that certify a classic of world literature. Later in 2017, Vargas Llosa launched a book of essays based on lectures given at Princeton University; travelled to Chile to support the conservative candidate in its presidential election, even while he harangued Chilean conservatives for their “cave-dweller” attitudes to women and reproductive policy; made two dramatic speeches against Catalan nationalism at monster rallies in Barcelona; touched down in New York, Washington, Miami, and the Caribbean for literary or personal commitments; and campaigned for the centrist Ciudadanos (Citizens) party during the Catalan elections, while preparing for a January 2018 literary engagement in Uruguay. As he has done for sixty years, Vargas Llosa wrote almost every day, contributing his regular column to Madrid’s El País newspaper and completing a new book, an intellectual autobiography that was published in Spanish in February 2018.
The English journalist Isabel Hilton once observed that the problem with Mario Vargas Llosa is that, as with God, there is too much of him. Is this why the greatest Latin American novelist of the last half-century is barely known in Canada? His work is an unavoidable reference point in literary discussion in Latin America, the United States, and Europe; in Canada, even among writers, his name can draw blank looks. A novelist before all other things—he was recognized for his novels with the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature—Vargas Llosa is also an important literary critic, a one-time Peruvian presidential candidate, a former television host, a political commentator whose judgments stir up debate in twenty countries, a highly accomplished playwright, and even a successful stage actor. The release of two new titles in English, The Neighborhood, his most recent novel, and a selection from his columns, Sabers and Utopias: Visions of Latin America, offers a small but potent sample of what Canadians have missed.
I discovered the work of Mario Vargas Llosa on a grey Saturday afternoon in my late teens. Wandering into the Ottawa Public Library to get out of the cold, I noticed a book called The Time of the Hero. As I began to read, my most violent, alienated, youthful emotions were exposed and expressed in ways I myself could not articulate. The intricate narrative structure, unbridled conflicts of class and race, and lacerating interior monologues engaged my mind even as I winced at scenes of life in a Peruvian military academy that included savage initiation rites, a friendly-fire murder, group masturbation sessions, and the gang rape of a chicken. How could a book so foreign feel so intimate? Two years later, when I started university in the United States, I discovered that south of the border Vargas Llosa was famous: his articles appeared regularly in the New York Times, and his books were undergraduate course readings. Before long, I was wandering through Peru in search of the settings of Vargas Llosa novels. I had discovered the Boom.
“El Boom” is the phenomenon that turned a regionalist Spanish American literature, whose writers were little read outside their own countries, into a literature that was first continental, with Peruvians and Colombians evolving into “Latin American writers,” then international, as these writers became widely read in Europe, the United States, and beyond. The four writers at the core of the Boom—Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortázar—like the dozen or so who flew in their slipstream, such as José Donoso and Manuel Puig, all lived outside their countries for extended periods. From today’s perspective, the Boom novelists, who wrote about their own countries but lived elsewhere, appear as a bridge between a mid 20th-century past when novels were national in influence, and the globalized present, in which the international market destabilizes notions of national literature.
The Boom was beset with contradictions. An assertion of Spanish American identity created by left-wing writers who supported the Cuban Revolution, it took its name from the business vocabulary of Yanqui imperialism, and was based in Barcelona and Paris. An older generation of writers who produced their major novels late in life coincided with a younger generation who wrote major works early. As a result, between the late 1950s and the mid 1970s, Spanish America produced an array of substantial novels comparable in world literature only to novelistic production in Russia between 1860 and the 1880s, or in Victorian England between the 1850s and the 1870s. Combining the social sweep of the 19th-century novel with a specifically Latin American renewal of the Modernist legacies of William Faulkner, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf, Boom novels were long, historically engaged, and technically audacious. They smashed the stilted written Spanish enshrined by the Royal Spanish Academy by teasing the spoken language of Mexico City or suburban Buenos Aires or the Peruvian Andes or truck-stops along Chile’s highways into a written idiom. They were all written by men; prominent female novelists emerged only in the 1970s. Vargas Llosa was fond of describing the literature of the Boom as la novela total. His three monumental novels of the 1960s, The Time of the Hero (1962), The Green House (1965), and Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), incarnated the Boom’s emotional intensity, its scorn for socially sanctioned hypocrisy, and its technical inventiveness. Even if he had written nothing else, these books would have made him a strong contender for the Nobel Prize. The second novel, The Green House, in which five stories set over more than thirty years are interlocked through meticulous deployment of detail, has a mythological force; it alternates jungle and desert settings to pose fundamental questions about the malleability of human identity. Conversation in the Cathedral deploys a sinuous language, both colloquial and elliptical, to funnel the events of an eight-year military dictatorship through an all-night conversation in a seedy bar. Incessantly shifting narrative perspectives, and the seemingly inevitable collapsing of private obsessions into public acts, make this the novel that Latin American literature aficionados regard as Vargas Llosa’s masterpiece.
In the 1970s, as the Boom dissolved, Vargas Llosa drifted into an ironic mode, publishing the comic novels Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973) and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977). His humour is that of a man who has lost his aesthetic and political moorings and can believe in nothing. His later conversion to neoliberalism produced The War of the End of the World (1981), a blood-drenched epic about a rebellion in 19th-century Brazil whose ideology is revealed to be as reactionary as it is revolutionary. Conservative critics praise this as Vargas Llosa’s best novel, though others find its battles and slaughters overly schematic. In the 1980s and 1990s, distracted by politics, Vargas Llosa wrote a flurry of minor novels. The best of them, The Storyteller (1987), wrings provocative contradictions from the tale of a Jew from Lima who joins a threatened Amazonian Indigenous community and becomes their traditional oral storyteller, preserving their collective memory even as he adulterates it.
In the late 1990s, when readers assumed his best work was behind him, Vargas Llosa cut back on his political commitments and produced a new triumvirate of major novels: The Feast of the Goat (2000), a gory fictionalization of the 1961 assassination of Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, The Way to Paradise (2003), which intertwines the life of the painter Paul Gauguin with that of his Peruvian-French grandmother, the feminist politician Flora Tristán, and The Bad Girl (2006), a highly readable romantic comedy set in Cold War-era Paris. The relationship between these critically and commercially successful novels—The Feast of the Goat sold more than a million copies in Spanish—and those of the 1960s is analogous to that between García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) and his One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967): in the post-Boom works the technical innovations are curbed, or sign-posted in ways that make them digestible by a broader reading public, enduring themes such as the isolation of power and the lure of romantic love are highlighted, social criticism is directed from a more mainstream position, and new themes, such as female experience, are incorporated. The reception of Vargas Llosa’s work in the Spanish-speaking world, though, and even in the United States and France, is inseparable from his status as the last active member of the Boom.
Vargas Llosa lived in Barcelona, the Boom’s epicentre, between 1970 and 1974. Among his neighbours was Gabriel García Márquez. The two men shared a total commitment to fiction, and a fascination with political power and romantic love, yet their personalities were startlingly different: Vargas Llosa both a creative artist and an analytical intellectual, a dashing man who loved crowds and was at ease in public and García Márquez a naturally gifted storyteller in the Caribbean oral tradition, ferociously determined, yet shy, spontaneous, and sincere. Vargas Llosa found in his Colombian neighbour an equal and a collaborator. He named his second son Gabriel Rodrigo Gonzalo after García Márquez and his two sons. In between novels, he wrote a 667-page study of García Márquez’s fiction that enabled him to complete a PhD he had abandoned years earlier. Today it is the only book in his vast life’s work that he will not allow to be reprinted or translated.
Two shifts in government policy made the Boom possible: a massive expansion of the Latin American university system in the 1950s, which created, for the first time, a middle class readership throughout the Americas; and the softening of the Franco dictatorship in Spain. In an effort to reduce its international isolation, the Spanish regime provided incentives to develop Barcelona as a publishing centre and cultural conduit to France. Boom writers flocked to Catalonia to be published by Carlos Barral, who turned The Time of the Hero into a bestseller when its unknown Peruvian author was twenty-six, and to be represented by Carmen Balcells, the Spanish-speaking world’s first modern literary agent, who obliged publishers to pay authors on time and report sales accurately. And sales boomed. By the late 1960s, a new novel by a well-known Boom writer could sell hundreds of thousands of copies in Spanish, and, thanks to Balcells, many more in translation. For some, the Boom ended with General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état in Chile, which crushed faith in a painless Latin American transition to socialism. In literary terms, the movement continued into the mid 1970s, with the publication of archetypally Boom novels such as García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), Carlos Fuentes’s Terra Nostra (1975), and Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976). Yet in the eyes of most observers, and many of the writers themselves, the Boom ended with the notorious case of Heberto Padilla.
Nearly all Boom writers travelled to Cuba to participate in cultural events at Casa de las Américas, the drab grey building in Havana’s Vedado district that became the core meeting place of Latin American literature. By converting the Americas from a strategic backwater into the cockpit of the Cold War, with East and West confronting each other in every country, the Cuban Revolution intensified global interest in the region, boosting the international profiles of Boom writers. Yet, even as Vargas Llosa and García Márquez socialized in Barcelona, their positions diverged. In 1971, when the Cuban government jailed the poet Heberto Padilla and forced him to confess to thought-crimes, Vargas Llosa wrote an outraged telegram to Fidel Castro. Writers in France, Spain, and Latin America were given the opportunity to sign Vargas Llosa’s telegram. Among the Boom’s inner circle, only Carlos Fuentes did so; García Márquez and Julio Cortázar refused.
In “Fifty Years of the Latin American Boom,” the long concluding essay in Sabers and Utopias, Vargas Llosa describes his time in Barcelona as “the five most beautiful years of my life” and blames the Padilla case for ending the movement that had “kept us so united and feeling like we were participating in a common task.” García Márquez gets short shrift in this essay, yet there is a hint that Vargas Llosa secretly agrees with the Barcelona journalist Xavi Ayén, author of a recent biography of the Boom, that the movement survived its 1971 ideological crisis and disintegrated in the mid 1970s due to interpersonal tensions. In an apparent allusion to García Márquez, Vargas Llosa writes, “Friendship is beautiful, it is beautiful to have the experience of sharing aspirations, of sharing dreams, and above all, to undertake together this common fight for fiction.” In this reading, the most beautiful friendship of his life, like the Boom itself, ended on February 12, 1976, in a cinema in Mexico City’s Churubusco district, when Vargas Llosa, running into his friend for the first time since leaving Barcelona to move back to Peru, strolled up to García Márquez in front of Mexico City’s assembled artistic elite and punched him in the face.
Since both writers refused to speak about this incident, rumours abound concerning the reason for the punch. Ayén, whose research is the most convincing available, believes that García Márquez had tattled to Vargas Llosa’s wife, Patricia Llosa, about infidelities her husband had committed during their years in Barcelona. Whatever the reason, the collision of Vargas Llosa’s fist with García Márquez’s face was the last contact between Spanish America’s greatest novelists.
The pattern of passionate commitments terminated by irrevocable ruptures defines Vargas Llosa’s life. At nineteen he outraged his middle class family by marrying his thirty-two-year-old aunt, Julia Urquidi. In his twenties, he scandalized them again by leaving Julia for his teenage cousin Patricia. In spite of his infidelities, his marriage to Patricia anchored his life. During his Nobel Prize speech in 2010, Vargas Llosa burst into tears as he described her contribution to his career. In 2015, though, four days after they celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary with a lavish party in New York, he left Patricia for the multi-millionaire Filipina socialite Isabel Preysler (who is singer Enrique Iglesias’s mother), with whom he now lives in Madrid.
A similar pattern has shaped Vargas Llosa’s passionate, turbulent political allegiances: the moment a cause disappoints him, he renounces it. He supported Castro’s Cuba to the hilt until the Padilla case turned him against Fidel. In the 1970s, and again in the early 2000s, he spent time in Israel and defended the country as a democracy. Yet when he witnessed settler gangs attacking Palestinian children on their way to school, he reported on it; his reports grew into a book critical of Israel. In 2016, he published a series of articles in El País on Israel’s “domineering colonialism.” And then there is neoliberalism. In the 1980s, while living in London, Vargas Llosa immersed himself in the works of ultra-liberal thinkers such as Jean-François Revel, Karl Popper, and Isaiah Berlin. Fascinated by Margaret Thatcher, he emerged as a born-again prophet of the free market. In 1990, assisted by Thatcher’s advisors, he ran for president of Peru, only to be defeated by Alberto Fujimori, who offered similar economic remedies with an authoritarian populist edge. Yet in 1991, when the Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz invited his Peruvian friend to participate in a conference, broadcast live on the pro-government Mexican television channel, lauding the end of the Cold War and the triumph of free markets, Vargas Llosa incensed his hosts. Refuting their praise of Mexico as a model of liberty, he described the country, live on air, in detail, as “the perfect dictatorship.” He was hustled out of the country, but ordinary Mexicans repeat the phrase to this day.
The 1991 essay Vargas Llosa wrote based on his remarks on Mexican television, “The Perfect Dictatorship,” appears in Sabers and Utopias alongside responses to forgotten incidents in 1980s Peruvian or Chilean politics, recent essays about Venezuela, Facebook, WikiLeaks, gay rights, and even the 1971 telegram to Fidel Castro. The result is a book that is provocative yet lacking in cohesion. The essays, mainly on political subjects (his literary essays appear in English in Making Waves (1996) and Touchstones (2007)), are plucked, non-chronologically, from all stages of Vargas Llosa’s career. At the very least, though, this collection refutes stereotypes. Many on the Latin American left still despise Vargas Llosa as an apologist for neoliberalism. Sabers and Utopias demonstrates that in the post-Cold War world, where left-wing former opponents of free trade struggle to salvage liberal internationalism from the destructive designs of chauvinistic autocrats, his liberalism allies him with the left as often as it does with the right. Vargas Llosa’s guiding principle, absorbed from Revel, that freedom is indivisible, decrees that believers in market freedoms are intellectually incoherent unless they also support a woman’s freedom to choose an abortion, an individual’s freedom to smoke marijuana or marry a person of their own sex, and the freedom of all people to live in the country of their choice. In “Marijuana Comes Out of the Closet,” Vargas Llosa contends that the imperative to legalize drugs extends beyond the claims of personal freedom to the need to preserve the democratic structures that drug money corrupts. The importance he accords functioning state institutions distinguishes his liberalism from libertarianism.
In a lecture given in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2007, “Dreams and Reality in Latin America,” which is one of the longer pieces in Sabers and Utopias, Vargas Llosa argues that Latin America’s successes come from those who draw on the region’s mixed-race cosmopolitanism to promote a “perpetual renewal of forms and ideas,” while its failures can be attributed to the “schizophrenic and racist” vision of ethnic purists, among whom Vargas Llosa numbers not only European-descended positivists, but also Indigenous activists. It’s a reminder that, in contrast to Canada, in Latin America, where having some Indigenous ancestry is the norm rather than the exception, debates often cast the discourse of “diversity” as the antagonist, not the ally, of “essentialist” Indigenous-rights movements. None of these pieces shine as they do in the original Spanish, however, because Anna Kushner’s translation is obtuse and unidiomatic. Translating with excessive literalness, she produces phrases such as “hard criticism” for “severe criticism,” mixes up verb tenses, and commits howlers such as rendering a “treatise” as a “treaty,” and a reference to “an obscure engineer” as “a dark engineer.”
In recent years, though Vargas Llosa has spent little time in Peru, his fiction has reverted to national subjects. The Discreet Hero (2013) is a regionalist novel set in northern Peru. The Neighborhood, published in Spanish in 2016, returns to the shabby Five Corners district of Lima, not far from where his great novel of Peruvian politics, Conversation in the Cathedral, opens with the question: “In what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” The earlier novel responds with 600 pages of deviously intercalated dialogues and interior monologues. The Neighborhood, set in the 1990s during the authoritarian rule of Fujimori, borrows the form of the Latin American telenovela. Divided into short episodes with cliffhanger endings, it crosscuts between rich and poor and revels in melodrama. In the opening scene, two wealthy women, separated from their husbands for the night by the dictatorship’s curfew, begin a lesbian affair. Quique, the young mining magnate who is married to one of the women, comes across as a decent fellow, though he is being blackmailed by a tabloid journalist for his participation in an orgy. When the journalist is murdered, Quique is the prime suspect. Vargas Llosa treats the upper class in their fog-shrouded towers overlooking the Pacific with indulgence, noting that they are more open-minded than they used to be. At the same time, he mocks their recreational sex, shopping weekends in Miami, and lofty separation from their fellow citizens. His writing becomes grittier and more deeply felt when he turns to the journalists, actors, and hucksters scraping a living in poor neighbourhoods: “ruins fought over by turkey buzzards, bats, drug addicts, and fugitives from justice,” in Edith Grossman’s rapt translation. Most of these characters are frustrated artists or journalists. Strangely, for a man who has enjoyed such success, Vargas Llosa has an unerring feeling for failure. The novel’s heroine, Shorty, is a dark-skinned woman born in poverty whose eye for a story enables her to rise to a position as a newspaper editor. Cherishing her “freedom to criticize,” Shorty risks everything by using her editorial privileges to attack the Fujimori regime.
This compact, tongue-in-cheek thriller is a minor addition to Vargas Llosa’s novels. It is an energetic, tightly coiled book for a writer to have published at the age of eighty. The characters aren’t always psychologically convincing, or worth much emotional investment, but they are highly credible in their social beings, a reminder that mixed-race Latin American writers can inhabit characters of a wide range of racial and class backgrounds with a confidence that would prompt howls of cultural appropriation if a Canadian writer tried to do the same. The caricature that Latin American fiction can be understood through the hackneyed prism of “magic realism”—a description that fits only two or three of the forty major novels of the Boom—blinds us to the fact that a writer like Vargas Llosa offers a repertoire of innovative literary forms with which to engage our whole society, rather than simply the particular ethnic slice in which the writer was born. Canada’s colonial hangover, deepened by our fixation with the U.S., hinders us from conceiving of ourselves as inhabitants of the Americas and accepting the full range of the hemisphere’s cultures as our bi-continental heritage. If Spanish American writers were more widely read here, we would enlarge our understanding of our own geographical neighbourhood, and, in doing so, our ability to speak about the realities that are ours alone.