Fiction and hyper-reality
At 15 he was a crime reporter. Still in his teens, he eloped with his aunt and later turned the story of their marriage into a comic novel. He has been attacked by fellow Latin American writers for his right-wing views and his political ambitions reached their peak when he stood for president in his native Peru. Maya Jaggi reports
||When Mario Vargas Llosa, the precocious star of the
1960s "boom" in Latin American fiction, ran for
president in 1990 in his native Peru, many of his most
avid readers prayed he would lose. As his friend, the
Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, observed:
"Peru's uncertain gain would be literature's loss.
Literature is eternity, politics mere history."
That may have been scant consolation to the vanquished Vargas Llosa when the dark-horse victor, Alberto Fujimori, seized dictatorial powers in 1992 and fell only in 2000 in one of the most bizarre corruption scandals in Latin American history. But for the nearly man, who maintains that he lost the election largely for telling the truth, his candidacy was a "terrible mistake" which he does not regret. "It was a very instructive experience, though not pleasant," he smiles stiffly. "I learned a lot about Peru, about politics and about myself: I learned I'm not a politician but a writer."
For the expatriate Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, Vargas Llosa is "one of the best novelists in the Spanish language of our time". In 1963 at only 26, having published a ground-breaking debut novel The Time Of The Hero, Vargas Llosa was in the forefront of the boom, garnering international acclaim for Latin American literature, alongside the Mexican Carlos Fuentes and the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. But far from being an exponent of their "magic realism" he is a "hyper-realist", says Jason Wilson, professor of Latin American literature at University College London.
|Yet Vargas Llosa's political trajectory has brought
him enemies. His move from supporting to denouncing Fidel
Castro's Cuba in the early 1970s spurred a falling out
with the boom authors; he ridiculed his erstwhile friend
García Márquez as "Castro's courtesan". By
the 1980s he had declared a curious affinity with British
conservative thinking. He later stood for the Peruvian
presidency on a platform of Andean Thatcherism.
"His political position stains his literature," says the Argentinian writer Luisa Valenzuela. For many admirers he remains a perplexing composite. "He's a wonderful novelist but a hopeless, dangerous politician," says Richard Gott, author of a recent book on Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez. "He agrees with everything the United States does in Latin America." For the critic Alberto Manguel there is a "troubling paradox" in the "two Vargas Llosas" between the vision of the novelist and playwright and his views in the press. Vargas Llosa began a parallel career as a journalist at 15 and now writes columns for the Madrid newspaper El País. Likening him to a "sightless photographer... blind to the human reality that his lens had so powerfully captured", Manguel says "it seems as if the politician has never read the writer".
Vargas Llosa's bruising political defeat drove the memoir A Fish In The Water (1993), whose captivating chapters on the budding artist alternate with what the Observer reviewer Boyd Tonkin called an "epic whinge" about his failed presidential bid. His 13th novel, The Feast Of The Goat, published here next month in an English translation by Edith Grossman, may be a subtler reflection of his political baptism. Hailed by Manguel as a masterpiece, it is set during and after the brutal 1930-61 dictatorship of President Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, the Spanish-speaking country abutting Haiti on the island of Hispaniola. It anticipates Trujillo's assassination in 1961 through the dictator's eyes, those of his would-be assassins and the expatriate daughter of one of his aides.
The portrayal of his heroic assassins as flawed proved explosive in the Dominican Republic when the author visited for the Spanish publication in 2000. "The families [of the conspirators] weren't happy because, with a martyr or hero, what you expect is hagiography, not realism," says Vargas Llosa, who does believe the assassins were "heroes, courageous idealists". Earlier this year, however, he returned to Santo Domingo, the capital, to pick up a literary award. "It made me happy because the controversy was still going on: young people were saying to their parents 'Why didn't you say a word during the dictatorship?'"
|Now 65, Vargas Llosa betrays little sign of
bitterness, but rather laughs copiously at mention of his
presidential rout. He speaks warmly and enthusiastically
in accented English about the "radical
liberalism" he still champions. A dual national (he
accepted Spanish citizenship in 1993) fluent in Spanish,
French and English, he lives in Paris, Madrid, the
Peruvian capital Lima, and London, where he and his wife
Patricia have a spacious, modern apartment in
Knightsbridge, opposite Harrods.
Of their three children, all educated in England, Alvaro is a journalist and writer ("the real politician of the family"), Gonzalo works for UNHCR in Geneva, and Morgana is a photojournalist for El País in Madrid. "We try to see each other at least twice a year," their father says. Last autumn he took up a chair in Ibero-American literature and culture at Georgetown University in Washington DC. The teaching commitment is flexible, but the post will be for at least five years.
||Mario Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 in Arequipa, a colonial city at the foot of the Misti volcano in southern Peru. His parents had separated before he was born, his father, Ernesto Vargas, walking out after only five months of marriage to Dora Llosa. Mario grew up in his mother's middle-class family, which boasted of Spanish forebears but had modest means. Shamed by Dora's "fatherless" child they moved to Bolivia, where Mario's maternal grandfather, Pedro Llosa, became Peruvian consul in Cochabamba. After eight years in this "paradise", with an enormous house and servants, they returned to Peru where Pedro became prefect of the northern coastal town of Piura. A relative of Peru's elected president, Jose Luis Bustamente, Pedro Llosa resigned in 1948 after a military coup.|
|Mario was 10 before he learned his father, a radio
operator, was still alive. His parents reconciled and he
and his mother moved to the capital, Lima, to live with
Ernesto, who Mario hated and feared for his rage and
beatings. "Reading was my escape," the son
says. But Ernesto despised Mario's literary leanings as
being a route to starvation, or, worse still, proof of
homosexuality. The shy, sheltered boy, teased as
"Bugs Bunny" for his buck teeth, was packed off
at 14 to the Leoncio Prado military academy in Lima, to
make a man of him.
It was, he says, like discovering hell. "Leoncio Prado was a window on the real country, Peruvian society in miniature. Because of grants you had all social classes and races - white, black, Indians, mestizos [mixed Spanish-Indian parentage], mulattos [mixed black-white parentage], from the upper class to the very poor. It was an explosive climate where everybody was prejudiced, with tremendous tension and violence. I suffered because I was spoiled, but it was an extraordinary lesson."
He adds: "My father was terrified by my literary inclinations - he thought me a total failure, a bohemian. But with Leoncio Prado he gave me my first subject." In The Time Of The Hero the academy, with its military discipline and bullying, is a violent microcosm of "particoloured Peruvian society" under General Manuel Odría's 1948-56 military rule. Copies of the book were ceremonially burned in the academy's grounds and the author barred. This year, however, Vargas Llosa was invited back with a British TV crew for a South Bank Show to be broadcast on April 28. "I was received with such kindness by the colonel - the head of the school - who gave me as a present the Peruvian flag," laughs Vargas Llosa.
"Machismo is, unfortunately, still very much alive in Latin America," he says. "I had to disguise my literary vocation in a way that the machista environment would accept it." He penned "beautiful, romantic letters" for fellow cadets to send their girlfriends and "erotic short stories". Saturday afternoons often involved visits to the brothel, a "central institution in Latin American life," he says. "It has declined with greater openness in sexual habits. But at that time, with sexual control so strict, the brothel had mystical reverberations linked to taboos and transgression." A Piura brothel gave its name to his second novel, The Green House (1966), also inspired by a trip into Peru's Amazonian jungle.
|At 15, Vargas Llosa worked as a night-owl reporter for the Lima newspaper La Crónica, discovering an underside of crime and prostitution in the capital, which went on to feed his third novel, Conversation In The Cathedral (1969). In his memoir he writes that he lost his Catholic faith after a priest's attempts to molest him when he was 12. Rebelling against his parents' choice of the Catholic university for "blancos" (whites), he studied literature and law at San Marcos in Lima, the secular university "for mestizos, atheists and communists". He was a member of an underground communist cell, but only briefly. "I was prepared to accept the most incredible idiocies but not socialist realism."|
Lima, 1956. Julia Urquidi and Mario in a camping day, the dog "Batuque" -a character in Conversation in The Cathedral- can also be seen. IMAGE: What Varguitas did not say (Lo que Varguitas no dijo), by Julia Urquidi. (Courtesy Dr. Max Silva Tuesta.)
|In 1955 he eloped with his aunt Julia Urquidi when he
was 19 and she 32, an alliance that brought
reconciliation with his father, who thought marriage at
least a "virile act". His comic masterpiece Aunt
Julia And The Scriptwriter (1977) alternated the
tales of a Bolivian writer of radio soap operas with his
eight-year marriage, "a kind of soap opera too, full
of turbulence and melodrama". William Boyd, who
adapted the novel for a 1990 Hollywood film Tune In
Tomorrow, set in New Orleans, found it "hugely
inventive and funny, and astonishingly rude in its
attacks, say on Argentinians, who are seen as pompous.
It's almost Swiftian, with a quality of fantasy that sees
the world as lurid and absurd." Urquidi, whom Vargas
Llosa divorced in 1964, responded with a lawsuit and her
own 1983 memoir, What Varguitas Did Not Say.
In 1958 a trip to Paris - the prize in a short story competition - led to a 16-year self-imposed exile from Peru in Madrid (where he wrote his doctoral thesis on García Márquez), London and Barcelona as well as in Paris. The Time Of The Hero made him famous overnight. Working for a French radio-TV network in Paris he met other writers of the boom, including Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Alejo Carpentier and Miguel Angel Asturias. He shared the enthusiasm for the 1959 Cuban revolution, then broke with Castro over the 1971 "show trial" of the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla. It caused friction with García Márquez, though their friendship ended finally when Vargas Llosa threw a punch at the future Nobel laureate in a Mexico City cinema in 1975. The Peruvian refuses to talk about it, but García Márquez has said the dispute concerned a woman. Though the two have not spoken since, they still have friends in common, including Fuentes.
|In 1965 Vargas Llosa married his cousin Patricia, 10
years his junior. He remembers her as a "little
seven-year-old devil hidden behind a cute turned-up
nose" in his uncle's house in Piura. They fell in
love in Paris when she was studying at the Sorbonne. In
London's Earl's Court they became neighbours with Cabrera
Infante, who recalled his moustachioed friend as
good-looking "in the way some South American writers
were handsome in the last century; his hair was combed
sleek". Vargas Llosa would write in his tiny flat
from 8am to 6pm while his wife and babies fought off
"rats as big as ferrets" in the kitchen.
He taught at King's College in the late-1960s and shared a study with Jason Wilson who found him "friendly, but quite shy, and he didn't like to get drunk - he didn't fulfil any bohemian paradigms. He had enviably tough discipline." As Vargas Llosa wrote: "I have never... lived the bohemian life." For Manuel Puig, the late Argentinian author of Kiss Of The Spider Woman, who liked to assign Hollywood-starlet nicknames to his boom colleagues, Vargas Llosa was Esther Williams, the champion swimmer.
Vargas Llosa's early fiction excoriated the Peruvian bourgeoisie but with a sophistication inspired by Flaubert - about whom he wrote a critical work, The Perpetual Orgy (1975) - and Faulkner. His goal was what he called the "total novel", addressing every aspect of Peruvian society and the effect of politics on the characters' psyches, with multiple viewpoints and an invisible narrator. With Captain Pantoja And The Special Service (1973) he introduced humour into his novels. On his trip to the Amazon, he had stumbled on a prostitute service ordered for a garrison in the jungle: "I tried to write it in a serious way but it was impossible. It was a great discovery."
In 1974 Vargas Llosa and his family set up a permanent home again in Peru, in a beachside suburb of Lima. A film of Captain Pantoja, which he co-directed, was banned or censored across Latin America and he frequently clashed with the region's worsening dictatorships. In 1977, as president of the writers' club International PEN, he wrote an open letter of protest to the Argentinian dictator Jorge Videla. By now world famous he hosted a Lima talk show in the early 1980s and in 1982, pursuing another passion, he covered World Cup football in Spain. He backed the 1980-85 conservative government of Fernando Belaúnde Terry in Peru but turned down an invitation in 1984 to become prime minister.
|Across Latin America military regimes were fighting
guerrilla movements such as the Maoist Sendero Luminoso
(Shining Path) in Peru, led by Abimael Guzmán (who was
captured in 1992). Vargas Llosa's novel The War Of
The End Of The World (1981) recreated the
apocalyptic clash between a revolutionary commune in
19th-century Brazil and the troops sent to crush it. He
distrusts revolutionary utopias, tracing the roots of
violence to religious and political fanaticism -
"deep down, everything's religious, even if it has a
mask". His essays, collected in Making Waves (1996),
chart his disenchantment with the legacy of Che Guevara
as "messianic dogma". He attacked Günter Grass
for "double standards" in backing revolutions
in Latin America he would condemn in his own country.
Some thought his politics was beginning to mar his fiction. Jason Wilson sees The Real Life Of Alejandro Mayta (1984) as "loaded against the character of the failed revolutionary and homosexual", an ageing Trotskyist. Salman Rushdie deemed the novel Vargas Llosa's "first overtly rightwing tract" which reduced Peru to a "comic-strip". In a 1986 lecture in Edinburgh, Latin America: Fiction and Reality, Vargas Llosa said: "We, westernised Latin Americans have persevered in the worst habits of our forebears... We share the mentality of the conquistadors."
Yet he has been criticised for advocating the "sacrifice" of indigenous cultures. "There are two very different cultures in Latin America, with different levels of development," he says. "The equitable ideal would be to modernise the archaic so that most of their values and institutions survive. But that's not been reached by any society in the world. It's usually solved with a sacrifice - the elimination of the primitive or archaic."
||His novel Death In The Andes (1993) can be
read as a cry of frustration with irrationality and
superstition. It came out of his first political
commission, which was to investigate the killing of eight
journalists in a remote Andean village in 1983."It
was set in a period when terrorism and counter-terrorism
threatened to destroy the fabric of Peru, or bring a
return to the tribe, to the past, to superstition,
unreason, a religious approach to life, as in Afghanistan
or Iran," he says. "What we call civilisation
is real but it's also very fragile; underground the old
demons are still alive. Through culture and democracy
they can be tamed but never destroyed."
For Ilan Stavans, professor of Spanish at Amherst College, Massachusetts, Vargas Llosa's "career shows how a Europeanised man of letters looks at religiosity and mythology - with suspicion and also with admiration. While Abimael Guzman wanted to return Peru to its pre-conquistador past - a Maoist return to Inca empire - Vargas Llosa was trying to present Peruvian society as open, cosmopolitan and attached to European values. The left wants to embrace the indigenous peoples rather than look to Europe. He's impatient with that." Manguel deems Death In The Andes a "racist novel", the Andean Indians "as lifeless as... Rider Haggard's savage Africans". They are "portrayed as somehow deserving of their fate because they're not capable of civilisation - by which he means, of course, western civilisation".
|"I don't think civilisation is a European
patrimony," Vargas Llosa says. "Only democratic
culture can make enemies coexist and it's deeply rooted
in many European places. But Bosnia and Kosovo are also
in Europe and there's terrorism in Spain, in Ireland.
Civilisation belongs to any society or individual that
adopts it." He adds: "I think progress exists:
it's an improvement when there are equal rights for women
and men, when you can vote for your rulers. Collectivist
societies never have these institutions."
For Vargas Llosa, the eroticism of his novels In Praise Of The Stepmother (1988) and The Notebooks Of Don Rigoberto (1997) is also an "expression of civilisation, where sex is surrounded by rituals and ceremonies; you don't have it in primitive societies". He was amused by a New York Times review of Don Rigoberto which saw the novel as pornography. "This American professor of literature identified more than 25 sexual perversions in the novel. I was fascinated. He read it without humour, as puritans read books." For the author, the difference between erotica and pornography is "purely artistic: if it's well written and persuasive it's erotic; if it's mediocre it becomes vulgar and pornographic". But in Valenzuela's view Don Rigoberto is "not pornographic but boring. It's critical of a male perspective but it's not erotic or sincere." During Vargas Llosa's political campaign his opponents smeared him as a "pornographic slanderer" and had those novels read out on TV.
Vargas Llosa has always said the social obligations of the Latin American writer are more onerous than those of their counterparts in Europe. He was moved to protest in 1987 against President Alan García's plan to nationalise the Peruvian financial system. Vargas Llosa's rally drew 120,000 people and became the start of a three-year presidential campaign for the Democratic Front coalition. He had death threats and abusive phone calls. His wife tried to dissuade him from running. In his memoir he concedes that she may have been right to say he was drawn by "the adventure, the illusion of living an experience of excitement and risk, of writing the great novel in real life." Yet he maintains that he entered politics "pushed by civic and moral reasons: I thought something should be done to preserve a fragile democratic system which was collapsing because of terrorism, corruption, hyperinflation."
Though he led the polls his initial majority was not enough to secure a mandate. In the second round, in June 1990, Fujimori was backed by the incumbent government. "I learned that the important things in politics are not just ideas and values but also sordid manoeuvring and intrigues," he says. "A dirty war is always going on - it's just more disguised in advanced democracies. It was depressing, not because I lost but because of the way a whole society could be so easily manipulated... I didn't lie. I said we needed radical reforms and social sacrifices and in the beginning it worked. But then came the dirty war, presenting my reforms as something that would destroy jobs. It was very effective, especially with the poorest of society. In Latin America we prefer promises to reality."
|In Gott's view "his novels had some sensitivity
towards the great majority in Peru, who are mostly Indian
or mestizo. But as a politician he identified himself
with the oligarchic elite." Vargas Llosa's
"kitchen cabinet" (his son Alvaro was his press
spokesman, his cousin campaign manager) was known as the
"Royal Family". After his defeat, he was
insulted in the streets with the words, "Get out,
gringo". "I was not a good politician," he
says. "It was damaging to be associated with some
political parties. Fujimori presented himself as the
underdog, though he was very rich."
The loser was also criticised in Peru for leaving the country within hours of his defeat and taking up Spanish nationality. "Peruvians have made it a sport to hate Vargas Llosa," says Stavans. Others point out that this choice was made long before and that Madrid is the crucial publishing centre for Spanish-language writers now that Mexico City and Buenos Aires have collapsed. Vargas Llosa is a self-confessed "cosmopolitan and expatriate who has always detested nationalism" (he even says "Thatcher and the Conservatives have become nationalistic - I wouldn't vote for them now"). Yet while Gott sees him as a "rootless cosmopolitan in the European tradition - more at home in London or Paris or Barcelona", Vargas Llosa calls Peru a "constant torment", his relationship to it "more adulterous than conjugal, full of suspicion, passion and rages".
||After Fujimori's "self-coup" in 1992 his
presidential rival urged international sanctions against
the regime. Some saw Vargas Llosa as a traitor and he was
accused of tax evasion. "During Fujimori's first two
years I was very discreet," he says. "But I've
been against dictatorships all my life. My situation
became very difficult: I was persona non grata in Peru,
discredited and insulted in the official press - Fujimori
controlled everything. It was difficult because I
couldn't respond." He returned under the
dictatorship only for a few days in 1995, for his
Forced to resign over corruption allegations in 2000, Fujimori, a Japanese Peruvian, fled to Japan while his security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos (whose filmed dirty deals became known as the "Vladivideos"), is held in the same Lima prison as Shining Path's Guzman. Though there has been a return to democracy, Vargas Llosa's son Alvaro has fallen out with the new president, Alejandro Toledo. "They had a quarrel. He accused entrepreneur friends of the president of trying to make improper deals with the state. Now there are defamation suits against Alvaro." But Vargas Llosa, who recently spent three months in Peru, does not agree with his stance. "There are many things to criticise, but I haven't perceived any dirty dealings."
|The Feast Of The Goat forms a belated
addition to - some say the pinnacle of - the genre of
Latin American "dictator novels" that include I
The Supreme (1974), by the Paraguayan Augusto Roa
Bastos, and García Márquez's Autumn Of The
Patriarch (1975). The new book was also conceived in
the mid-1970s, when Vargas Llosa was on an eight-month
visit to the Dominican Republic to film Captain Pantoja
("it was crazy; during the night I read about how to
make films and during the day I shot one"). Yet it
is tempting to read into it the author's hands-on
experience of Peruvian politics. "Fujimori was quite
different to Trujillo - a more mediocre tyrant," he
says. "His big ambition and appetite was money. What
Trujillo wanted was power." Yet he sees parallels:
"As with Trujillo, Fujimori was very popular. Though
dirty things were going on - torture, killings and
corruption - his image was of a strongman who would
defend people against the terrorists."
The main subject of The Feast Of The Goat is perhaps not the dictator as much as the complicity of his subjects, and the abiding temptation to choose the strongman, the caudillo. "I didn't want to present Trujillo as a grotesque monster or brutal clown, as is usual in Latin American literature," Vargas Llosa says. "I wanted a realist treatment of a human being who became a monster because of the power he accumulated and the lack of resistance and criticism. Without the complicity of large sections of society and their infatuation with the strongman, Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Castro wouldn't have been where they were; converted into a god, you become a devil."
Vargas Llosa is now at work on a novel about the artist Paul Gauguin, which returns to his theme of destructive utopias. Gauguin wanted paradise on earth, he says. "He was convinced it existed in primitive communities that Europe had destroyed: he searched in Brittany, Martinique, Panama, Tahiti... I distrust the idea that you can build a paradise here in history. That idea of a perfect society lies behind monsters like the Taliban. When you want paradise you produce first extraordinary idealism. But at some time, you produce hell."
Life at a glance:
Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa
Married: Julia Urquidi 1955-64; Patricia Llosa '65- (two sons, Alvaro and Gonzalo; one daughter, Morgana).
The nineties. The Feast of The Goat in Lima. IMAGE: EL COMERCIO (Lima), mayo del 2000.
|Career: 1951- journalist and writer; '90 presidential
candidate Peru; 2001- professor of Ibero-American
literature and culture, Georgetown University, Washington
Some books: The Time Of The Hero 1963; The Green House '66; Conver sation In The Cathedral '69; Captain Pantoja And The Special Service '73; The Perpetual Orgy '75; Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter '77; The War Of The End Of The World '81; The Storyteller '87; A Fish In The Water '93; Death In The Andes '93; The Notebooks Of Don Rigoberto '97; The Feast Of The Goat 2000.
January Magazine Interview: Mario Vargas Llosa
I read the author's Death in the Andes on a plane ride from Ohio to Miami. All I need do is summon the memories of that trip and I am once again transported into the sinister, unsettling tale of mysterious murder: a sort of primitive Blue Velvet set in the Peruvian mountains.