Book Review

Deciphering the Mystery of Mario

Letters to a Young Novelist

At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” muses Santiago Zavala, the protagonist of Mário Vargas Llosa’s 1975 novel Conversation in the Cathedral. There is, of course, no simple answer to the question and Santiago ultimately discovers that he is as jodido as his country and thus in no position to provide a sober analysis of the Peruvian condition. This hasn’t stopped Vargas Llosa, however, from offering up his own responses to this and many other aesthetic, cultural and political questions over the years.

Although best known for his novels, his journalism is a significant counterweight to his literary oeuvre. “As I set off on purely imaginary voyages,” he says in a preface to a new collection of essays, “it has kept pace with me, furnished me with material, and prevented me from losing sight of living, everyday reality.” Since 1977, his biweekly column for the Spanish daily El País has earned him both a faithful readership and widespread loathing among the Latin American intelligentsia.

The columns from 1992 to 2000, now available in English for the first time, are collected in a new volume of essays titled The Language of Passion. Using the metaphor of the touchstone–a black quartz that supposedly reveals the purity of precious metals–as the title and leitmotif for his column, he submits polemical topics like Subcomandante Marcos, Elián González, postmodernist theory and female circumcision to what he calls a “test of reason.” Vargas Llosa’s “touchstone,” however, all too often proves predisposed toward reconciling his own free-market views with observations of political corruption throughout Latin America and the world. For example, he characterizes Peruvian ex-president Alberto Fujimori (his foe in the 1990 presidential election, now in exile in Japan) as “corrupt” and “authoritarian,” yet calls his massive privatization schemes, “a step in the right direction.”

Nevertheless, Vargas Llosa, like Walt Whitman singing the joys of self-contradiction in “Song of Myself” (Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself/ I am large, I contain multitudes), doesn’t seem too bothered by contradiction and hyperbole. Indeed, he has reinvented himself so many times it’s hard to know which Vargas Llosa will show up next: now he is a self-described “classic liberal” running for president of Peru; now a misanthropic intellectual hiding in the British Museum; now a writer of erotic–some would say pornographic–fiction. The list goes on. Most recently, he achieved a new level of infamy as the only prominent Latin American intellectual to support Gulf War II–even as he railed against the resurrection of nationalism, which he calls (in the context of Israel), “that cataclysmic nineteenth-century conception of the nation-state that has caused as much bloodshed worldwide as the wars of religion.”

Not that one should demand ideological purity from a writer, obviously. But then again, Mário Vargas Llosa has never been your average fiction writer, chaperoning writers’ workshops and cranking out stories for obscure reviews. He belongs to that rarified class of public intellectual who manages to garner an audience for polemics, without dumbing down his ideas. Or that’s what he would have us believe.

In reality, Mário Vargas Llosa the journalist proves just as capable of producing rash, short-sighted and small-minded analyses as, say, a Bill O’Reilly. Unlike his Angry White Men compadres, however, Vargas Llosa also possesses a cosmopolitan sensibility and keen wit–his saving graces as a commentator. Remarking on the spectacle of an American anthropology professor from Connecticut in Bermuda shorts who ventured to Chiapas “to serve as a Zapatista commissary and to vet the political orthodoxy of journalists,” he concludes that Western intellectuals all too often look to Latin America to “alleviate the political boredom induced by humdrum democracies or slake their thirst for revolutionary romanticism.”

Occasionally, one even sees in his journalism the characteristics that make him a great novelist–a nuanced sensibility for human suffering and a sharp eye for the details that reveal the mysteries of a fictional or real-life character. In his profile of Frida Kahlo, for example, he reflects on the artist’s posthumous ascension to stardom in the art world and comes to a conclusion about the nature of art itself:

[S]omething in (Kahlo’s) work goes beyond painting and art and touches on the indecipherable mystery of life, that bottomless depth where, as Georges Bataille says, contradictions disappear, the beautiful and the ugly become interchangeable and interdependent, and so do pleasure and torture, weeping and rejoicing, the hidden root of experience that nothing can explain but that certain artists who paint, compose, or write as if immolating themselves are capable of making us feel.

It is too bad he does not bring this sensibility to the political realm. As the journalist Alma Guillermoprieto once noted, Vargas Llosa the politician (or, the political commentator, I would add) fails to notice what Vargas Llosa the novelist so poignantly observes.

Although Mário Vargas Llosa appears eternally doomed to the short list of also-rans for the Nobel Prize for Literature (he came close in 1999, when Gunter Grass beat him out), his writing–as well as his many public personae-continue to evolve.

In the late ’60s, as the youngest member of the “boom” generation of Latin American writers, Vargas Llosa eschewed the so-called “magical realism” of his contemporaries, choosing instead to focus on the grim realities of the Peruvian caste system and the vicissitudes of military dictatorships. However, like his fellow travelers Gabriel García Márquez (whom he now calls “Castro’s courtesan”), Júlio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes, the Peruvian fit the mold of the engagé writer: he proclaimed his support for Fidel Castro and scribbled manifestoes against French imperialism in Algeria. In 1967, in an essay titled “Literature Is Fire,” he pronounced that writing, “means nonconformity and rebellion . . . It is a form of permanent insurrection.”

In the late ’60s in Latin America, these vague words belied a clear politics. Following the model of Jean-Paul Sartre, Vargas Llosa, by then an ex-pat in Paris, committed himself to the worldwide socialist revolution and heady, modernist fiction, which yielded him critical acclaim for works such as The Green House and The Time of the Hero.

Then, in the mid ’70s, Vargas Llosa’s fiction unexpectedly developed a sense of humor. He mocked his own high modernist style in Captain Pantoja and the Special Service and used his real-life marriage to his aunt as comic fodder for Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. This newfound wit eventually turned into rancor toward his comrades in the international left as he publicly denounced Castro’s human rights record and, in turn, was marginalized by his erstwhile comrades.

In the 1980s Vargas Llosa found himself back in Peru campaigning against the quasi-socialist policies of President Alan García, who helped drive the country into economic oblivion; inflation at one point in the late 1980s topped 7,000 percent and unemployment exceeded 50 percent.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, Vargas Llosa announced his candidacy for president and ran on what in the United States might be called a “libertarian” platform; University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman was his intellectual inspiration. He promised freedom, democracy and, last but not least, free markets. When working-class Peruvians learned that this meant an end to job security and more loans from the IMF, his campaign nosedived. Days after Vargas Llosa lost the 1990 runoff to Fujimori in a landslide, he boarded a plane for London and the tranquility of the reading room at his beloved British Museum (this is a love well-chronicled in The Language of Passion). He eventually became a Spanish citizen.

This is the context for the bitterness–Peruvian rencor–that occasionally seeps through the pages of his Letters to a Young Novelist. In a series of letters to an apocryphal “young friend,” we learn that Vargas Llosa believes in a theory of fiction resembling an “art for art’s sake” philosophy–art detached from the messy reality of politics, in other words. One cannot help but think of Vargas Llosa the politician, however, pounding flesh and kissing babies on the campaign trail, as he describes the joys of the solitary pursuit of writing, and wonder whether the author of Letters is himself but another fictional creation.

“The defining characteristic of the literary vocation,” Vargas Llosa writes in the first letter, “may be that those who possess it experience the exercise of their craft as its own best reward, much superior to anything they might gain from their labors.” The true writer, Vargas Llosa claims, can only know peace and self-satisfaction through the continual production of the fictional “lie.” What’s more, if we are to believe the Vargas Llosa of Letters, fiction not only reveals the flaws of real life, but is vastly superior to banal “reality”:

Those who, through reading, live a great story…return to real life with a heightened sensitivity to its limitations and imperfections, alerted by these magnificent fantasies to the fact that the real world, and life as it is lived, is infinitely more mediocre than life as invented by novelists.

Letters also reveals a critical awareness of the craft that is thankfully devoid of the pedantic, instruction-manual tone of many creative writing how-to’s. There are no commandments, no proclamations, no “show, don’t tell” lectures. He observes that the architecture of every novel consists of various points of view that must be carefully interwoven to construct a successful work. Although he occasionally succumbs to lit-crit jargon, his extended analyses of Madame Bovary and Don Quixote reveal the inner workings of these novels in a way simply not available to the casual reader.

Then, in his last letter, “By Way of P.S.,” Vargas Llosa appears to rebuff the entire project of Letters. “To isolate theme, style, order, points-of-view, et cetera, in other words, to perform a vivisection, is always, even in the best of cases, a form of murder,” he writes. In an extraordinary stroke of self-contradiction, he tells the reader “to forget everything” he has written and “just sit down and write.”

If criticism is murder, one wonders why Vargas Llosa would waste his time writing a book of it, unless, perhaps, his view of writing as a “permanent insurrection” can be extended to the writings of Vargas Llosa himself.

Russell Cobb is a freelance writer and a graduate student in comparative literature at UT Austin. He is working on “the Great Oklahoman Novella.”

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