Travels with Vargas Llosa

Last December, I found myself on a flight to Lima carrying a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Between a young Peruvian woman with Asian features and myself sat a tall man in a leather jacket with olive skin and striking cheekbones.  He was the last passenger to board, and I noticed–in the aisle, as he stored his briefcase–that he wore one of those futuristic, blue-blinking cell phone earpieces.  When we were safely in the air, he told me that, although originally from just outside Lima (“there was nothing for a young person in Peru then”), he now lived in Phoenix and worked in the medical profession—something to do with hormones.  Seeing what I was reading—Vargas Llosa’s first novel, La ciudad y los perros (1962; translated into English, somewhat enigmatically, as The Time of the Hero)—I noticed his eyebrows change shape.  I was told it was a great honor for Peru that Vargas Llosa had won the Nobel Prize, but that he should “stick to literature.”   Having run against Alberto Fujimori for president, Vargas Llosa’s political limitations had been exposed.  The doctor—who told me that he loved the outdoor activities in Arizona, while never mentioning the state’s draconian laws against Latinos—went on to claim that Fujimori was reason why life was getting better in Peru.   “Isn’t Fujimori behind bars for stealing the state’s treasure?” I asked.  “He’s behind bars because he saved the country from terrorism,” the man assured me—and the woman to his right, sitting in the window seat, appeared to grunt in concert.

Any discussion of Vargas Llosa as a literary figure is always complicated by his political involvement.  Moving steadily rightward over the course of his career, from his early admiration for the Cuban Revolution toward a broad embrace of neo-liberalism, both in his native Peru and around the world, Vargas Llosa’s fiction is often decoded through the prism of his politics.   Since winning the Nobel Prize, most of the criticism has come not from far-right supporters of Fujimori, like the doctor I met on the flight, but from vestiges of the global left.   Writing for, Vincente Navarro, a professor of Public and Social Policy at Johns Hopkins University, noted that, though Vargas Llosa has been a vocal critic of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, he has remained “remarkably silent” about human rights violations in Columbia under Alvaro Uribe, whose army has assassinated more trade unionists than “any other place in the world.”[1] Ulrika Milles, a prominent Swedish literary critic, said during a television broadcast that she was “a bit angry about” the choice of Vargas Llosa for the Nobel Prize; “I lost him when he became a neo-liberal,” she complained.[2] In Sweden’s biggest newspaper, Aftonbladet, “three writers ripped [Vargas Llosa] to pieces on the first day after the announcement of the Nobel Prize.  One wrote that the prize was a victory for the Swedish right”; another “said it was a victory for the Latin American authoritarian right.”

Strangely, the response on the ground in Peru—at least among the people I met—was far more muted, even somewhat indifferent.  A cab driver in Trujillo fingered my copy of La ciudad y los perros with a certain degree of affection, but seemed much more interested in discussing—and reciting—the work of César Vallejo, the great Peruvian poet.   A pair of women in their early twenties from Lima that I met in Cuzco preferred the novelist Alfredo Bryce, an ironic chronicler of Peru’s upper classes.  One of their friends shrugged when I mentioned Vargas Llosa.  She gravitated toward more bohemian writers like Argentina’s Julio Cortázar (her favorite of all time was Oscar Wilde).  Perhaps the most interesting exchange occurred on the bus back to Lima from Trujillo.  The gentleman to my right, a talkative father in his mid- to late-fifties, was reading a copy of Vargas Llosa’s Conversación en la catedral (Conversation in the Cathedral, 1975), a novel that takes place under the dictatorship of Manuel Odría.  As we watched fields of asparagus and corn fly by, he told me how the Odría government had been buoyed by the outbreak of the Korean War:  the American military, desiring Peruvian minerals, flooded the economy with capital.  But I was told that the novel, written in Vargas Llosa’s typically fractured, Faulkneresque style, focuses on the rigor mortis of politics and the muzzling of free speech during the time of the dictatorship, not on benefits of cash flows.  The lack of plot in the story—it all stems from a single conversation in a dingy Lima bar called The Cathedral–reflected the larger stasis of the country.

The longer I spent in Peru, the more I began to believe that neither Vargas Llosa’s brand of neo-liberalism, nor his single-minded support of free expression, could speak, in any concrete way, to the country’s pressing problems.  Although clearly emerging from the darkness of the 1980s and ‘90s, when the twin horrors of the Sendero Luminoso (“The Shining Path”) and the Fujimori dictatorship dominated headlines, Peru continues to confront grave social crises—problems that would only be exacerbated by the free market “shock treatment” advocated by the former presidential candidate.   In Lima, for example, a megacity of 8.2 million, which, unlike Mexico City, lacks any kind of subway system, the transportation problem is beyond description.   Instead of an “invisible hand” offered by the free market, the situation screams for massive state intervention.  Outside elite neighborhoods like Miraflores and San Isidro, much of Lima festers in poverty.  “One study of [Lima’s] callejones”—slums consisting of houses made out of “dangerously unstable” adobe or quincha (“wood frames filled with mud and straw”)—“showed that 85 people shared a water tap and 93 used the same latrine.”[3] The situation in the Andes and in the vast Peruvian rain forest remains, by all accounts, even more severe.   So while Vargas Llosa seems concerned—perhaps rightly–with the maintenance of free speech in Latin America, the majority of his compatriots seem more concerned with free access to basic services.

Can we ever separate the politics from the novelist?   Perhaps not.   As James Dunkerley notes in his review of Historia de Mayta (1985; The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta), Vargas Llosa’s novels—especially the later ones–may be “devoid of the fiercely polemical tone adopted by the author in his public statements,” but they often assume that Peru’s “catastrophe” is “centrally attributable to the agency of [the] left.”[4] On the other hand, as I traveled around Peru, from Lima to the dry towns of the north and then up to Cuzco, the (early) novel I was reading—La cuidad y los perros—appeared to unlock many of the country’s inner tensions and prejudices.  Although set in Lima, the military recruits at the narrative’s epicenter come from every corner of the country.  Thus, as Franco Moretti might say, La ciudad y los perros “functions as the symbolic form of the nation-state”:  it “not only does not conceal the nation’s internal divisions, but manages to turn them into a story.”[5] By introducing a country divided between peasants, blacks, Europeans, Asians, and poets into a centralized institution like a military academy, the story offers a telling blueprint of the nation’s uneasy union.  Indeed, the fractured formal design of the novel seems to echo the fractured formal designs of its people.  Tracing how a single event—the theft of a chemistry exam by a gang of recruits—nearly brings the academy to its knees, the novel becomes a testament to the fragility of a country pierced by divisions.   I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Read with a degree of circumspection, then, my sense is that Vargas Llosa’s major studies of the Peruvian condition—La cuidad y los perros, La casa verde (1966; The Green House), Conversación en la catedral, Pantaleón y las visitadoras (1978; Captain Pantoja and the Special Service), and Historia de Mayta—remain essential introductions to the land, as enlightening as any history book.  Following in the steps of Balzac (another writer with right wing convictions), who is quoted in the opening epigraph of Conversación en la catedral, the novel becomes, in Vargas Llosa’s hands, “the private history of nations.”   Despite my reservations about Vargas Llosa’s public posturing, I discovered, in my travels with The Time of the Hero, a private world of extraordinary insight.  Perhaps the doctor I met on the flight to Lima wasn’t so wrong after all:  by sticking to the literature, one could avoid the catastrophe of Vargas Llosa’s politics.

[1] Vincente Navarro, “The Hypocrisies of Mario Vargas Llosa,” November 10, 2010. (accessed January 28, 2011).

[2] Johan Norberg, “Don’t give him the Nobel—he’s right wing!”  Spiked, October 12, 2010, (accessed January 28, 2011).

[3] Custers Geert, “Inner-city Rent Housing in Lima:  A Portrayal and an Explanation,” Cities 18:1, 252.  Cross-referenced from Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (New York and London:  Verso, 2006), 34.

[4] James Dunkerley, “Mario Vargas Llosa:  Parables and Deceits,” New Left Review I / 162, March-April, 1987.

[5] Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel (London and New York:  Verso, 1998), 20(the emphasis is Moretti’s).