Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Lima. Capital city of Peru. Mario Vargas Llosa often draws from his personal experiences to write about corruption and injustice in modern Latin America. In this novel he uses his intimate knowledge of Lima as the basis for his story. As a young man, he spent two years at Lima’s Leoncio Prado Military Academy, where his father sent him after discovering that he wrote poetry, to him, an unmasculine pursuit. Vargas Llosa found the school’s restrictions, discipline, and bullying atmosphere unbearable. His first novel, The Time of the Hero (1962), portrayed the institution, and many of his works focus on father-son relationships.
In the 1950’s, Vargas Llosa worked as a journalist at Lima’s La Cronica and Radio Panamericana. Conversation in the Cathedral draws on the political atmosphere in Lima during this period. Lima is Peru’s cultural and business center. It runs at a slower pace than many South American cities; its rhythm is more traditional and its people reflect a steadier, calmer constitution. Lima’s atmosphere has been described as dreamlike, partly because of the mists that settle over the city between May and October. Under its blanket, residents meet at bars offering folk and Creole music, shop at open marketplaces, and dine at Lima’s celebrated restaurants.
Cathedral. The “Cathedral” of the novel appears to be a bar or cheap restaurant....
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This extensive novel is intricately structured. Originally it was published in two volumes comprising 675 pages. It is divided into four narrative units, each composed of unnumbered sequences presented from the point of view of one of the five narrators (Santiago, Bermudez, Amalia, Ambrosio, and Queta). The first part comprises ten sequences, the second has nine, the third has four, and the fourth has eight. In the second and fourth units each sequence is characterized by shifting point of view. For instance, in the first sequence in unit two (this is the most complex unit), point of view changes twelve times.
In addition to this intricate structure, the narrative features an omniscient narrator who functions as a camera eye describing objects and actions in a given setting. The telescoping of dialogues is also one of the dominant devices used to juxtapose time and space.
In this novel Vargas Llosa refines his use of narrative point of view, dialogue, and juxtaposition of time frames. Cinematic influences pervade the novel's endeavor to create an objective presentation of the total reality of Peruvian society during a given time period. Vargas Llosa's intention and purpose is to incite the reader to visualize the world unfolding before him and to challenge him to make his own value judgments.
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Vargas Llosa analyzes in Conversation in the Cathedral the corrupting influence of the Manuel Odria dictatorship on all sectors of Peruvian society from 1948 to 1956. He incisively portrays wealthy industrialists, impoverished civil servants, leftist students, newspapermen, workers, domestic employees and prostitutes, many of whom survive in this tyrannical environment by giving unquestioning support to the dictator. In order to gain such acquiescence, the dictator resorts to a cynical system of intimidation using the secret police and intelligence to blackmail his opposition and to ferret out any possible subversive elements. His minister of internal affairs supports a brothel where prominent politicians and industrialists participate in perverse sexual practices and reveal their clandestine activities to seductive conniving prostitutes.
The complicity of the wealthy class is also explored. Afraid to lose their position of economic and political power, the oligarchs and the new industrialists go along with the repressive measures of the dictatorship. The tacit acceptance of injustice and cruelty generates conflict between politically conservative upper-class parents and their more socially aware and responsible offspring. Unfortunately, the new generation is often too cowardly and vacillating about rejecting the values and advantages of their social class.
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The subject of repressive dictatorship treated in Conversation in the Cathedral has been dealt with also in such well-known novels as El Senor Presidente (1975; original in Spanish, 1946) by the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias and The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975; El otono del patriarca, 1975) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Both novels depict the devastating effect of a dictatorship on the country's citizenry.
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Vargas Llosa's analysis of contemporary Peruvian society begins with his first novel The Time of the Hero (1963), inspired by his traumatic and unforgettable two years at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy. This novel may be considered a bildungsroman because it is based on the author's educational experience and formative adolescent years.
The novel narrates the life of five first-year cadets at the military academy from their individual points of view. The plot centers on the resistance of the five to upper-class hazing, their stealing of a chemistry exam, the subsequent denunciation of the culprit by one of the five, and the shooting of the informer during military maneuvers. While the novel focuses on the military establishment and the false pretensions of honor, integrity and discipline it generates, it also depicts family conditions and situations that cast a light on hypocritical values promoted in other sectors of society.
The Peruvian author's fifth novel, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973), questions the motives of the military and religion by satirizing their activities. It is the story of a diligent army captain, Pantaleon Pantoja, whose reputation for efficiency and reliability leads his superiors to send him on a secret mission to Peru's northeastern tropical region to organize a squadron of prostitutes. A series of rapes have been committed by soldiers stationed in the distant jungle, and the...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Castro-Klaren, Sara. Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. Provides an introduction to the life and writings of Vargas Llosa and explicates his most important works. Bibliography.
Gerdes, Dick. Mario Vargas Llosa. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Good overview of Vargas Llosa’s fiction in a historical and social context. Bibliography.
McMurray, George R. “The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa.” Modern Language Quarterly 29, no. 3 (September, 1968): 329-340. Discusses structural and thematic concerns in Conversation in the Cathedral.
Rossman, Charles, and Alan Warren Friedman, eds. Mario Vargas Llosa. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978. Examines individual novels as well as major themes and concerns of Vargas Llosa’s work.
Williams, Raymond L. Mario Vargas Llosa. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. Introduction to Vargas Llosa’s works. Bibliography.
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