Vargas Llosa was considered a prodigy among the Latin American authors who emerged during the so-called literary boom of the early 1960’s. His love affair with literature and writing began very early. He recalls the pleasure that he found in reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), the tales of Sinbad the Sailor from One Thousand and One Nights, and other stories. During his adolescence, he immersed himself in the French novel. He learned through his readings the characteristics of modern fiction and began to assess the effects of narrative techniques. In addition, his readings introduced him to the works of Henry Miller, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Jorge Luis Borges, and William Faulkner.
An overview of Vargas Llosa’s works provides an insight into his narrative techniques and themes. In his first novel, The Time of the Hero, which is the story of a young cadet, Vargas Llosa’s cinematographic techniques, multiple character point of view, disturbed chronology, and incorporation of taboo language effectively portray the marginalized sectors of society. The military academy Leoncio Prado, where the novel takes place, becomes a fictional microcosm of Peruvian society and its ills.
By the time this book was published in 1962, Vargas Llosa had become concerned with the role of the writer in society. This preoccupation became evident in a speech, “Social Commitment and the Latin American Writer,” that he delivered at the conference held in his honor at the University of Oklahoma in 1977. In this speech, he stated the difference between Latin American writers and writers from Western Europe and the United States. In order to fulfill their mission, the former must rigorously uphold their artistic values and their originality to enrich the language and the culture of their countries. On the other hand, Latin American writers must also assume a social responsibility.
His social preoccupations, along with his craftsmanship, were also evident in his second novel, The Green House. It is a complex novel developed through five different plotlines that take place simultaneously in two Peruvian locales. Although The Green House seems to be a structural puzzle that the reader must solve, the themes of frustration and victimization are evident. Individuals are abused for economic gain or for religious reasons.
The victimization of an entire generation through political oppression is the main theme of his next novel, Conversation in the Cathedral. This work provides a panoramic view of Peruvian society during the dictatorship of General Manuel Odria from 1948 until 1956. The reader becomes aware that the brutality of this regime spread through all of Peru. Technically speaking, this novel presents on a larger scale some of the stylistic and structural characteristics of Vargas Llosa’s previous novels. The plot development appears fragmented and the characters’ relationships become at times extremely complex. Yet the theme that emerges constitutes an indictment against political regimes that bring about social depravity.
Vargas Llosa demonstrates new thematic and stylistic trends with the publication of Captain Pantoja and the Special Service and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. These works exhibit a simpler plot development than prior works. In Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, Vargas Llosa satirizes the Peruvian army and ridicules the members of a religious cult. Pantoja, a man endowed with maniacal organizational skills, is charged with the secret task of creating a squad of prostitutes to visit the military posts located in the jungle. He carries out his job with such dedication that he becomes entangled in a web of absurd adventures that produce hilarious results. Although this novel is a light, comic narrative, it contains a serious theme—the social evils of any sort of fanaticism.
The War of the End of the World is a historical novel that narrates an upheaval in the backlands of Brazil in the late nineteenth century. As in other works by Vargas Llosa, the reader finds two main settings in this novel: Bahia, a coastal city, and Canudos, a religious community. An argument arises among the conservative (yet also revolutionary) peasant masses, Bahia’s urban politicians, and the new Brazilian republican central government. This dispute rapidly acquires the proportions of a civil war of catastrophic consequences. Using cinematographic techniques such as close-ups (Vargas Llosa’s first involvement with the Canudos material was when the Brazilian filmmaker Rui Guerra asked him to write a script for a film based on it), Vargas Llosa makes the reader aware of the horrors of war. Moreover, the writer emphasizes the lethal consequences of all ideological fanaticism. The work was inspired by the Brazilian writer Euclides daCunha’s great nonfiction account of the Canudos revolt, Os Sertoes (1902; Rebellion in the Backlands, 1944).
In some of Vargas Llosa’s later works there appears yet another preoccupation—an insistent inquiring into the nature of writing. The author investigates the process of writing, the creation of fiction, and the difference between a real writer and a scribbler. Some works included in this category are Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (1986; Who Killed Palomino Molero?, 1987), Historia de Mayta (1984; The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, 1986), and even The Storyteller. In The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, there is the presence of a writer-narrator who announces that he is going to reconstruct the unknown or ignored story of the Peruvian leftist revolutionary Alejandro Mayta. He states that it will be a fictional story, but one that will carry the truth of fiction. Moreover, as the writer begins to produce Mayta’s story, he reflects on the question of bringing about changes in Peruvian society through revolutionary means. It turns out that Mayta is an insignificant individual who never was able to launch his revolution. At the end of the novel, the apparent underlying theme is intimately related to the production of fiction and the nature of fiction itself.
A new theme appears in Vargas Llosa’s novel In Praise of the Stepmother, for in it the reader is confronted with the presence of evil in innocence and the difficulties of utopias. It narrates the story of a man who thinks that he has a perfect grip on life until his wicked child seduces his stepmother. This book has some...
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