In August, 1987, Mario Vargas Llosa suddenly found himself popular enough to consider running for president of Peru. He had published an essay, “Towards a Totalitarian Peru,” in the El objecting to the government’s recently declared intention to nationalize businesses, and an unexpected outpouring of public support for his position led him to consider entering politics. He believed that free-market economic reform could save Peru from its declining fortunes, so he energetically set about creating a plan for governing from his principle. He campaigned for three years, forming his Freedom Movement Party, giving speeches at rallies, and traveling to visit foreign dignitaries, until he lost the election to Alberto Fujimori on June 10, 1990. The rise and fall of his candidacy and his ambivalent reactions to his immersion in politics form the backbone of this memoir, but he complicates matters by interspersing his story with an account of his youth in Peru. Vargas Llosa humanizes and particularizes what might have been a dry and somewhat bitter campaign record with memories of his childhood and apprentice years as a writer.
A Fish in the Water: A Memoir has twenty chapters, with odd chapters chronicling Vargas Llosa’s early autobiography and even chapters describing the presidential campaign. He used basically the same structure in his novel La tía Julia y el escribidor (1977; Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, 1982), half of which is devoted to an autobiographical story and half to soap-opera plots. In both books, the alternating plots speak to one another and tease the reader into unraveling their unstated correspondences. Showing a true storyteller’s craft, Vargas Llosa often ends chapters on cliff-edge dramatic moments. The first chapter ends with the young Mario first learning to fear his father, while the second chapter concludes with the older Vargas Llosa standing in triumph before his first successful rally. The tones of the two juxtaposed narratives sometimes contrast with each other. A happy period from his youth plays against a bleak period from his campaign, and vice versa. The book’s structure keeps the reader off balance, shifting between the particulars of memory and the generalizations of political commentary.
This dual structure of the memoir reflects a thematic split in Vargas Llosa’s life between his strong interests in politics and literature. As the title of his memoir suggests, Vargas Llosa has a deep ambivalence about immersing himself in a protracted campaign, though he admits that he could become wholly impassioned about and committed to politics. He devotes most of one chapter to describing his undergraduate participation in a clandestine Marxist organization at the University of San Marcos until he realized the “inanity” of the group’s discussions. He titles another chapter with his nickname, “The Fierce Little Sartrean,” in acknowledgment of his youthful devotion to Jean-Paul Sartre and Sartre’s credo in favor of political commitment. He worked as a speechwriter and political journalist for years. His first short story drew inspiration from a school protest, setting the pattern for the large political strain in his novels such as Conversación en la catedral (1969; Conversation in the Cathedral, 1975), La guerra del fin del mundo (1981; The War of the End of the World, 1984), and Historia de Mayta (1984; The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, 1986). When the opportunity for running for president arose, Vargas Llosa was naturally inclined to try. His wife Patricia warned him against trying to “live out” a great novel instead of writing one, and the memoir validates her warning by depicting the many problems a writer encounters in a political arena.
Difficulties arose when Vargas Llosa turned from writing his platform to trying to lead. Old world Peruvian politics and its corruptions, forms, and rituals kept interfering with Vargas Llosa’s attempts to carry his ideas to the people. He learned early that all that most politicians desire and think about is power—how to get it and keep it for as long as possible—and not about innovative reform. He mistakenly enlisted the help of two established parties, the Popular Action and the Christian Popular Party, even though political advisers had told him that a large part of his initial appeal stemmed from his lack of affiliations with politics as usual. Vargas Llosa found himself unable to get along with the party bosses who dominated the smaller districts of Peru. He characterizes them as a “type” with “tight-fitting suits” and “ridiculous little hairline mustaches” and found it very difficult to cultivate them as political allies. He realized with some bitterness that the Peruvian people do not vote according to ideas but according to obscure whims in part created by the images and personalities of candidates conveyed by the press. By the time the Fujimori campaign turned to slandering Vargas Llosa’s tax records and questioning his agnosticism, he despaired over the way such “dirty war” tactics caricatured and parodied the electoral processes of other countries.
In terms of political ability, Alberto Fujimori provided an interesting contrast to Vargas Llosa. To all of Vargas Llosa’s plans for governing, Fujimori brought almost nothing except his lack of any obvious ties to established politics (although Vargas Llosa suspected that Fujimori had the hidden support of Alan García and the Apristas, the party then in power). Fujimori was so much the dark-horse candidate—a former rector seen riding around on a tractor proclaiming Honesty, Technology, and Work—that the poor of Peru almost perversely began to vote for him en masse. Fujimori’s evangelical background and Japanese heritage brought issues of race and religion to the forefront of the campaign, and Vargas Llosa’s pale skin became a liability, associating him with the “white” upper class. After Fujimori’s...
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