The fictional world of Mario Vargas Llosa is one of complex novels, of murals of characters, of actions whose significance the reader must determine, of vast edifices that aspire to become total realities. Vargas Llosa’s vision of reality is consistently binary, as can be seen from the titles of some of his works. The tension created by the opposition between the two realities is felt both by the characters within the novels and by the reader, and it is the prime factor in the dramatic nature of Vargas Llosa’s style. In his early short stories and in his first novel, he focused thenarrative on existential gestures, those acts or words that irrevocably set into action the course of a character’s fate. As his novels grew more complex, Vargas Llosa concentrated on long dialogues that gave the intricate structures their cohesion. When he turned to humor and satire, he reverted to the emphasis on gestures, tag words, and brief but revealing verbal interchanges between characters. The War of the End of the World resembles those massive descriptions of entire epochs that characterized fiction in the nineteenth century (which is precisely the period that gives life to the novel’s plot). Vargas Llosa, then, has never contented himself with one style; rather, he has continued to adjust his narrative procedure to the subject at hand.
The influences to which Vargas Llosa has submitted himself for apprenticeship are, with the exception of the Peruvian José María Arguedas, either European or North American. This aspect of his development, in combination with an original use of cinematic techniques, gives his fiction its distinctive flavor. Beneath the glittering surface of technique there are constants within Vargas Llosa’s novels. The murals of characters always present doubles, characters whose fates are connected and whose ends always provide moral points of reference for the society configured in the novels. Insofar as the real or psychic death of one of the doubles is significant for society as a whole, these characters function as scapegoats, those generally unfortunate beings who must atone for the sins of their society. The marginality of these figures sometimes obscures the tragic nature of their fates and of Vargas Llosa’s concept of fiction itself. In his exploration of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), Vargas Llosa provides the most succinct explication of his aesthetics: “The greatest satisfaction that a novel can provide is to provoke my admiration for an act of nonconformity.” As one considers hiscanon, it becomes clear that, no matter how complex the fictional structure becomes, the vital spark for the novel’s action is the act of nonconformity.
The Time of the Hero
In his first novel, The Time of the Hero, Vargas Llosa was already the narrative perfectionist that his readers have come to expect. He had outgrown the personal trauma produced by his experiences in the Leoncio Prado, gaining the maturity to make of that terrifying institution a microcosm for the corruption of society as a whole. The military hierarchy and those secret hierarchies that the cadets (the “dogs”) form give him the structure that houses the plot, which, set in motion by a dice game, works itself out with the irrevocability of a classical tragedy. In this most Sartrean of his novels, Vargas Llosa uses multiple narrators. Each of the significant characters has his moment on the stage, a moment that Vargas Llosa explores dramatically as the character converses with himself and as he comes into conflict with other characters.
The crisis of adolescence is the natural subject for a bildungsroman, and it is a theme to which Vargas Llosa returned in The Green House, Conversation in the Cathedral, and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. The Time of the Hero concentrates on the moment in adolescence when one’s roles suddenly become limited, when the mask freezes to the face, when the violence of the games becomes mortal—the moment Jean-Paul Sartre termed the time of election, when one becomes the self one has chosen to be. Vargas Llosa explores the moment when desire becomes reality, not only for the adolescents but also for their officers and for the power structure of Peru. By stressing the limited options available to the cadets and by revealing the hideous strength of the social hierarchies into which they must blend, he creates a narrative web of tragic intensity. Character is fate, and the adolescents’ furious attempts to enter adult reality only bring about disaster.
The cadets at the Leoncio Prado are from varying social strata, thereby providing Vargas Llosa with the perfect mechanism for including the structure of the entire country within his range of vision. The cadets form a small cell (the “Circle”) to ensure their survival. The cell selects an emissary to carry out the members’ desires, and, through a series of mistakes, the cell is implicated in the complete subversion of the rules of the school and even in the death of a cadet. The guilt associated with the responsibility for the cadet’s death spreads through the school like a cancerous growth. The moral implications of the cadet’s murder can be realized most clearly in the reactions of three characters: Gamboa, the perfect officer; Alberto, the author of pornographic novels and the typical bourgeois; and the Jaguar, the invincible strongman who created the Circle. Each of them comes to terms with the harsh reality of the Leoncio Prado and with the even harsher reality of death itself. The defeat suffered as a result of the confrontation with the Leoncio Prado indelibly marks each of them: Gamboa’s career is ruined because he disputes his superior officers’ decisions, Alberto returns to the artificial paradise of the bourgeois suburb instead of becoming the writer he should have been, and the Jaguar escapes through his love for Terry, but his life is constantly threatened by the corruption surrounding it. The fragmented conversations, the disjointed interior monologues, the sudden connections between disparate events, the constant tension between adolescent and adult realities—all of these aspects create a dramatic field on which the battles for honor are lost.
The Green House
The Green House is a more complex novel than The Time of the Hero, but it is built on the same binary concept found in the earlier work. The Peruvian jungle and the desert city of Piura are the contrasting environments that reiterate the hellish milieu of the Leoncio Prado. The social hierarchies are as solidly in place in the jungle as they are in Lima, and the “heroic” characters who succeed in forming their private paradise eventually re-create the same infernal structures. Five plots are interwoven in The Green House: the tale of the Indian child Bonifacia; the life of the Indian chief, Jum; the career of Anselmo and his romance with the blind deaf-mute Antonia; the fortunes of the multinational bandit Fushía; and the tragedy of Sergeant Lituma. The Green House initiated the period of Vargas Llosa’s exploration of Faulknerian themes and techniques; it has the alternating plots, the sudden character metamorphoses, the insistence on fate in the manipulation of the plot, and the exploration of the perverse precincts of the human soul that are Faulkner’s hallmarks. The Green House was also the first novel in which Vargas Llosa revealed his fondness for the chivalric romance, as the careers of Fushía and Anselmo illustrate. Flaubert’s influence is also evident here, particularly in the character of Bonifacia, who might be termed the Madame Bovary of the Peruvian jungle.
The theme of exploitation connects the five plots and is the basis for the interaction of all the characters; Vargas Llosa builds a multilayered society based on exploitation on physical, material, and moral levels. Only two of the novel’s many characters escape appropriation by others for ends that they cannot control. Anselmo, who calculatedly installs a bordello (the Green House of the title) in the desert near Piura, is capable of the most courtly romance, and he spends his life after the destruction of the Green House wondering if Antonia did, indeed, reciprocate his love. After his infamous career as robber baron and absolute ruler of an island of pleasure, Fushía is reduced to utter dependence on his friend Aquilino, who ferries him by boat to the leper colony where he will end his ignoble life. The conversation between Aquilino and Fushía during the course of their river journey is pure metaphysics, and it provides the poetic thread that prevents the fragmentation that the novel’s multiple plots would otherwise create.
Anselmo’s Green House is destroyed by fire, only to rise again like the phoenix. Each of the plots ends in the utter defeat of the characters, but the characters themselves never give up. Although all are severely embattled by the structures in which they are trapped, the characters nevertheless persist in being themselves, in exploiting the possibilities of their roles to the limits of their potential ramifications. Although Vargas Llosa rarely allows his creatures to become heroic, in their stubborn election of selves in conflict with all other selves and with society itself, his characters do forge an active role in a narrative realm that would demand their complete domination. Considered as a whole, the novel’s entire cast is making the same trip as Fushía, down the slow river of death. Some of them—including Fushía himself, Anselmo, and Aquilino—are fortunate enough to enjoy the supreme gift in Vargas Llosa’s fiction: the pleasures of friendship.
Conversation in the Cathedral
Conversation in the Cathedral presents Vargas Llosa’s bleakest enactment of the strategies of nonconformity. Lima at all levels is the stage for an endless struggle that Vargas Llosa symbolizes in the conflict between fathers and sons. The nefarious career of the political strongman Cayo Bermádez infects and eventually destroys the life of every character in the novel. The most vital of the many interwoven plots is the one that concerns a young newspaperman, Santiago Zavala, and his discovery that his ostensibly bourgeois father is the infamous Bola de Oro. Vargas Llosa constructs this enormous novel’s edifice upon the running dialogue between Santiago and his father’s former chauffeur, a dialogue that takes place in a seedy dive called the Cathedral.
The atmosphere of the prose resembles that of Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931); there is even a character named Popeye. The vast nature of the reality configured in the narrative once again reminds the reader of Flaubert and his eye for re-creating the minutiae of mundane existence; at the same time, the novel is a kind of allegory of an oppressive political situation all too common in Latin America. Coming to realize just how pervasive Bermádez’s influence is throughout Lima, Santiago must acknowledge that his father’s capitalistic gambling provides significant sustenance for Bermádez’s power, that his father’s moral decay is the real field on which the family’s honor is lost. His anagnorisis does not lead to the triumph typical of Greek drama but instead to the deliberate election of mediocrity; Santiago will forever hide himself in the gray streets and mean bars of Lima’s underside.
Whereas Vargas Llosa captures the definitive gestures of adolescence in The Time of the Hero and those of maturity in The Green House, he captures in Conversation in the Cathedral the desperate grimace of a society in need of a complete revolution. Like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), the novel suggests that humanity’s design, no matter how grand or intricate, only attracts destruction from the gods. Santiago comes to know his father, and thereby to know himself, only to understand that his life was destroyed even before it began.
Captain Pantoja and the Special Service
In Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, military hierarchies supply the structure upon which Vargas Llosa weaves the tragicomic career of Pantaleón Pantoja, the archetypal military man whose perfectionism is his downfall. Although the thematic preoccupation is much like that of The Time of the Hero, the tone is radically different. Vargas Llosa treats injustice, corruption, and defeat, but he presents them with humor and satire rather than as the components of tragedy. Captain Pantoja is given the curious task of devising a system to provide “ladies of the night” to the Peruvian military forces stationed at hardship posts in the jungle. He attacks his task with gusto and rigor, and he succeeds beyond the greatest expectations of his...
(The entire section is 5270 words.)