Llosa, Mario Vargas
Mario Vargas Llosa 1936-
(Full name Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa) Peruvian novelist, critic, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, journalist, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Vargas Llosa's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 6, 9, 10, 15, 31, 42, and 85.
A major figure in contemporary literature, Vargas Llosa is respected for his insightful examination of social themes and for the craftsmanship of his work. Known primarily for such novels as El hablador (1987; The Storyteller) and Lituma en los Andes (1993; Death in the Andes, Vargas Llosa often addresses the complexity of existence by combining realism with such experimental techniques as nonlinear plot development, rapidly shifting narrative perspectives, and disparate yet converging story lines. His literary works can generally be divided into three periods according to major changes in his political outlook. In the 1960s Vargas Llosa was a Marxist who enthusiastically supported the Cuban Revolution. In the 1970s, after witnessing the authoritarianism of Fidel Castro's government, he became disillusioned with the Latin American Left and entered a neo-liberal phase during which he sought to strengthen human rights by actively supporting democracy and free market economies. After his failed bid for the Peruvian presidency in 1990, Vargas Llosa entered a third phase marked by a seeming pessimism on his part about the effectiveness of political action in the face of human frailty.
Vargas Llosa was born on March 28, 1936, in Arequipa, Peru. Although he was born into a middle-class family, Vargas Llosa's parents came from an aristocratic background and held ties with the Peruvian ruling class. At the time of his birth, his parents separated, leaving him to be raised as an only child in his maternal grandfather's home. His early schooling took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia, between 1937 and 1941. Later his grandfather moved to Piura, a city on the northern coast of Peru, where Vargas Llosa attended a private religious school. In 1950 his parents reunited and moved with Vargas Llosa to Lima. He spent two years at the Leoncio Prado military academy, returning to Piura to finish his last year of high school at the Colegio Nacional San Miguel de Piura while living with one of his mother's brothers. His early school experiences served as the basis for the novel La ciudad y los perros (1963; The Time of the Hero) and the novella Los cachorros (1967). In 1952, while finishing high school in Piura, Vargas Llosa contributed articles to a local newspaper and began writing stories and plays. In 1953 Vargas Llosa enrolled in law and literature courses at San Marcos University in Lima. While active in university politics, he also held part-time jobs as a newscaster, librarian, and journalist and worked closely with the historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea. He married a distant relative in 1955 and worked part-time jobs while attempting to start a writing career. His short stories began to appear in journals and newspapers in 1957. That same year, he became a co-editor of the literary journals Cuadernos de composición and Literatura. In 1959 his story “El desafío” received first place in a literary competition sponsored by Revue française, and the prize enabled him to travel to France. Vargas Llosa secured a scholarship to the University of Madrid, where he wrote a doctoral thesis that was later expanded to a book-length study of Gabriel García Márquez's fiction, García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio (1971; García Márquez: Story of a Deicide. After finishing his graduate studies, Vargas Llosa worked as a journalist for Agence France-Presse and the French radio-television network, where he met such prominent Latin American writers as Miguel Angel Asturias, Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes. Vargas Llosa received international recognition upon the publication of The Time of the Hero, which established him as a prominent young author. In 1967, while in Caracas, Venezuela, accepting an award for La casa verde (1966; The Green House), he met García Márquez, with whom he collaborated on a series of interviews discussing fiction writing called La novela en América Latina (1968). In addition to his works of fiction and journalism, Vargas Llosa is also a playwright, best known for the highly acclaimed La señorita de Tacna: Pieza en dos actos (1981; The Young Lady from Tacna). As a journalist, Vargas Llosa has commented extensively on the politics and social conditions of Peru, championing cultural and intellectual freedom. He was offered the post of prime minister by Peruvian President Fernando Belaunde Terry in the early 1980s, but declined, preferring to concentrate on writing. In 1987 he protested a proposal by the Peruvian government to nationalize the country's banks. His actions quickly led to a mass movement in opposition to the plan, and the government was forced to abandon the proposal. Vargas Llosa's supporters went on to create Fredemo, a political party calling for democracy, a free market, and individual liberty. Together with two other political parties, Fredemo established a coalition group that nominated Vargas Llosa in an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in the 1990 Peruvian election. Throughout his career, Vargas Llosa has won numerous awards and accolades, including the Peruvian Congressional Medal of Honor in 1981, the Chevalier d'Order des Arts et des Lettres in 1993, the Cervantes Prize for Literature in 1994, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism for Making Waves (1996).
Vargas Llosa is often associated with the flourishing of Latin American literature that occurred in the 1960s—known as the “Boom” period—when the production of major works by a number of Latin American authors led to international recognition of the importance of their contributions to modern literature. In his first novel, The Time of the Hero, Vargas Llosa comes to terms with his painful years at the Leoncio Prado military academy. Led by Jaguar, the leader of a gang of cadets, a first-year cadet named Cava steals an exam to share with his peers. Another cadet, nicknamed El Esclavo (The Slave), witnesses the theft, but the secret code of honor shared by the group silences all who know about the robbery. El Esclavo finally breaks down and reports the theft, and the school's military authorities launch an internal investigation, which degenerates into a series of lies and cover-ups. The novel reveals Vargas Llosa's strong antimilitaristic stance, a consistent theme throughout his work. The publication of The Time of the Hero prompted a strong protest by the Peruvian army, which organized a book burning at Leoncio Prado. Vargas Llosa's second novel, The Green House, is split between two distinctive geographical regions of Peru, the northern coastal city of Piura and Santa María de Nieva in the Amazon jungle. The intricate plot and narrative structure divide the book into four chapters and an epilogue to develop a five-story line. Each chapter in turn is carefully crafted to include multiple stories that are fragments the reader must organize themselves. However, the main points of reference for the novel's many characters are the lives of the two main characters, Sergeant Lituma and a girl named Bonifacia. Vargas Llosa continued to explore complex, atypical narrative structures with his ambitious two-volume novel Conversación en la Catedral (1969; Conversation in the Cathedral), which depicts a society torn by corruption and political strife. The complicated plot—set against the backdrop of Vargas Llosa's experience as a university student during the dictatorship of General Odría—is related by means of a single, lengthy conversation between two acquaintances.
Abandoning the blunt realism he used to explore government corruption and militarism in his previous works, Vargas Llosa turned to parody and satire in Pantaleón y las visitadoras (1973; Captain Pantoja and the Special Service). Captain Pantaleón Pantoja is a model officer who genuinely believes in the values of service, obedience, and discipline in the army. Commissioned by his superiors to organize a secret prostitution service for the sex-starved soldiers stationed in the Peruvian jungle, Pantaleón carries out his mission with military zeal, running the operation with enviable efficiency. Humor also serves as a key element in La tía Julia y el escribidor (1977; Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter). Half of the chapters portray a young man concurrently coming to age in a romantic relationship and aspiring to be a great fiction writer; interspersed with these episodes are soap opera stories ostensibly composed by a radio scriptwriter. Vargas Llosa concentrated less on experimentation with form in La guerra del fin del mundo (1981; The War of the End of the World) and Historia de Mayta (1984; The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta), which evince his interest in the artist's manipulation of factual material. Focusing on a series of battles between a group of social outcasts and forces representing a newly established republic, The War of the End of the World is based on Os sertões (1903), an epic account of a Brazilian war by eyewitness Euclides da Cunha. In The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, the fictional narrator conducts a journalistic investigation of the title character, a Trotskyite who led a failed rebellion against the Peruvian government in the late 1950s. The novel emphasizes the role of the narrator, who attempts to embellish the facts with fictional details that would enhance the impact of his story.
In The Storyteller, Vargas Llosa returns to the Amazon jungle of Peru, adding another piece to the author's growing narrative mosaic of social, cultural, and literary concerns from previous novels. The Storyteller tells of an Amazon Indian tribe, the Machiguengas, and in particular the life of the community's storyteller, Saúl Zuratas. The novel opens with the narrator—who closely resembles Vargas Llosa—remembering his college days with Zuratas before he abandoned his anthropological studies to live permanently with the Machiguengas. In a society without writing or rigid political or religious hierarchies, Zuratas' role as a storyteller becomes crucial to remember the tribe's history. Vargas Llosa experimented with eroticism in Elogio de la madrastra (1988; In Praise of the Stepmother), in which a widower named Don Rigoberto and his new wife, Doña Lucrecia, attempt to arouse each other by telling ribald stories inspired by classic paintings. A sequel to the novel, Los cuadernos de Don Rigoberto (The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto), was published in 1997. The plot follows Rigoberto after he separates from Doña because of a sexual encounter between her and her stepson, Fonchito, a precocious boy who has yet to reach puberty. Rigoberto misses Doña terribly, and to appease his loneliness he imagines, and writes about, her erotic life—with him as well as with other lovers.
Vargas Llosa's first novel after running for president in 1990, Death in the Andes, is set in his homeland amid the modern political and social strife evidenced by the rebellion of the Shining Path guerilla movement. In part a murder mystery, the novel follows Corporal Lituma as he ventures from his home in Peru's coastal region to a mountain village to investigate the disappearance of three men. Vargas Llosa blends fiction and fact in La fiesta del chivo (2000; The Feast of the Goat), concerning the former dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, and his death remains a cause for celebration in the Dominican Republic. Despite his cruelty and perversions, Trujillo was supported by the U.S. government since he was seen as being strongly anti-communist. Vargas Llosa tells the story of Urania Cabral, a successful New York City lawyer who was victimized by her father and Trujillo shortly before the dictator's death. Moving forward and back in time, the novel gives a detailed portrait of Trujillo and his frustration with the one enemy he could not conquer—his own advancing age. In 2003 Vargas Llosa published Paraíso en la otra esquina (The Way to Paradise), a work of historical fiction which chronicles the lives of the nineteenth-century French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin and his grandmother Flora Tristán.
Though he is best known for his novels, Vargas Llosa is also an award-winning journalist, essayist, critic, playwright, and memoirist. In 1983 Vargas Llosa began publishing many of his journalistic writings under the title Contra viento y marea. A three-volume anthology, Contra viento y marea gives an overview of Vargas Llosa's political and literary ideals ranging from his early admiration for Sartre and Cuban socialism in the 1960s to his defense of neo-liberal free-market capitalism of the 1980s. This shift to a conservative position often placed him at the center of intellectual controversy both in Peru and abroad. Several additional collections of his essays and journalism have been released, including Making Waves and El lenguaje de la pasión (2001; The Language of Passion: Selected Commentary). Vargas Llosa has also published a variety of works on literary criticism, ranging from critical analysis of Gabriel García Márquez, García Márquez: Story of a Deicide, to analytical commentary on the works of Gustave Flaubert, La orgía perpetua: Flaubert y “Madame Bovary” (1975; The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and “Madame Bovary”). After his failed attempt for the presidency of Peru, he produced a volume of memoirs in 1993, El pez en el agua: Memorias (A Fish in the Water: A Memoir). Using the counterpoint technique common in his previous works of fiction, the book is a behind-the-scenes look into Vargas Llosa's political campaign in the context of Peruvian political history as well as a biographical account of his childhood through young adulthood and his slow rise to literary stardom. A passionate and often bitter narrative, A Fish in the Water provides the author's views on Peru's tumultuous history as a nation and his participation as a writer in its cultural development.
Critics have consistently ranked Vargas Llosa as one of the most significant authors to emerge during the Latin American “Boom” era, often comparing his works with the writings of García Márquez, Cortázar, and Fuentes, among others. His focus on exploring the social implications of South American politics has attracted wide praise from commentators and social activists alike. However, some reviewers have faulted Vargas Llosa's shifting political allegiances throughout the years, arguing that his writing that focuses on the radicalism of the 1960s stands as his finest work. Similar critics have asserted that, since the 1990s, Vargas Llosa has split his attention between literature and politics, resulting in inferior and prejudiced works. Conversely, many scholars have viewed Vargas Llosa's evolving opinions as a microcosm of the tumultuous South American political climate, consistent with the author's concern with the dynamics and shortcomings of Latin American politics and culture. Vargas Llosa's flair for experimenting with narrative forms has also been an issue of debate among critics. Some have lauded his early works—such as Conversation in the Cathedral—for their rejection of Latin American literary conventions and their unique authorial voice. Others have found Vargas Llosa's more technically ambitious works to be confusing and overly dense, claiming his pursuit of style and narrative complexity comes at the detriment of story and character development. For example, some reviewers have asserted that Vargas Llosa's foray into eroticism with The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto resulted in a work of literary pornography. Despite such claims, Vargas Llosa has remained as one of the most dominant contemporary Latin American writers, with many of his most recent works—including A Fish in the Water and The Feast of the Goat—receiving some of strongest reviews of his career.
*Los jefes (short stories) 1959
La ciudad y los perros [The Time of the Hero] (novel) 1963
La casa verde [The Green House] (novel) 1966
*Los cachorros (novella) 1967
La novela en América Latina [with Gabriel García Márquez] (interviews) 1968
Conversación en la Catedral. 2 vols. [Conversation in the Cathedral] (novel) 1969
García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio [García Márquez: Story of a Deicide] (criticism) 1971
Pantaleón y las visitadoras [Captain Pantoja and the Special Service] (novel) 1973
La orgía perpetua: Flaubert y “Madame Bovary” [The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and “Madame Bovary”] (criticism) 1975
La tía Julia y el escribidor [Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter] (novel) 1977
La guerra del fin del mundo [The War of the End of the World] (novel) 1981
†La señorita de Tacna: Pieza en dos actos [The Young Lady from Tacna] (play) 1981
Contra viento y marea: Volume I (1962-1982) (journalism) 1983
†Kathie y el Hipopótamo: Comedia en dos actos [Kathie and the Hippopotamus] (play) 1983
Historia de Mayta [The...
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SOURCE: Wasserman, Renata R. Mautner. “Mario Vargas Llosa, Euclides da Cunha, and the Strategy of Intertexuality.” PMLA 108, no. 3 (May 1993): 460-73.
[In the following essay, Wasserman explores the phenomenon of intertextuality in Vargas Llosa's writing, particularly in La guerra del fin del mundo, his retelling of Euclides da Cunha's Os sertões.]
Intertextuality can be said to arise when literary texts connect with other literary texts, with nonliterary texts, and with broadly conceived cultural contexts. It comprises a historical component in the relation between new cultural productions and earlier ones and includes a notion of activity, by any consumer on any text and by producers on the texts with which new ones are intertextual.1 Intertextuality can be conscious, as a text parodies, imitates, or improves on another, or unconscious, as a text—like a fish in water—develops in a context that its will or even its keenest analytic faculty cannot touch. But intertextuality can be seen not just as a condition for the existence of a text but as an instrument used for the purpose of validating a cultural configuration, of asserting cultural power.
In The Boom in Spanish American Literature, a memoir, the Chilean novelist José Donoso recalls the thrill with which, in the early 1960s, he discovered new Latin American writings as innovative and exciting in...
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SOURCE: Booker, M. Keith. “Fiction and ‘Real Life’: Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 35, no. 2 (winter 1994): 111-27.
[In the following essay, Booker compares Vargas Llosa and Vladimir Nabokov's approaches to the depiction of realism in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, respectively, asserting that both works “are centrally concerned with the relationship between fiction and reality.”]
Both The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight are centrally concerned with the relationship between fiction and reality, although Nabokov and Vargas Llosa themselves ostensibly hold very different attitudes about the nature of this relationship. Debra Castillo notes that the ambiguity of the title of Mario Vargas Llosa's Historia de Mayta “provides a central conceit for the work itself,” because the double meaning of the Spanish word “historia” suggests the confusion between history and fiction that is so important to the book as a whole (80). This effect is ostensibly lost in the title of the English translation, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, although the history/fiction confusion of the book suggests that “real” itself is a slippery term, indicating a possible...
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SOURCE: Berman, Paul. “The Novelist as Politician.” New Leader 77, no. 6 (6-20 June 1994): 5.
[In the following review, Berman asserts that A Fish in the Water, though well-written, demonstrates that Vargas Llosa is “better suited to being a novelist” than a politician.]
A novelist who runs for president is a hyphenated personality, and A Fish in the Water, Mario Vargas Llosa's account of his 1990 bid for the presidency of Peru, is a hyphenated book. The even-numbered chapters recount his doomed campaign, the odd-numbered chapters recount his childhood and education up to the age of 22, when he departed provincial Peru for Paris and the big world. The narrative style has a hyphenation of its own. The even-numbered chapters are written with the muscular purposefulness that is typical of political analysis and ideological certainty.
“There are no doubt many bad things about our era.” Vargas Llosa writes in Chapter Two, “but there is one very good one, without precedent in history. Countries today can choose to be prosperous.” The way to make that choice, he affirms, is by adopting the free market strategies of the Asian “Tigers,” though he carefully adds that free markets should not mean unfree governmental systems. He invokes Karl Popper and Friedrich von Hayck. He inveighs against mercantilism, statism, populism, authoritarianism, and other...
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SOURCE: Romeu, Raquel. “Influence of Climate on the Cultures of the Jungle as Perceived by Two Latin American Novelists.” In Climate and Literature: Reflections of Environment, edited by Janet Pérez and Wendell Aycock, pp. 107-13. Lubbock, Tex.: Texas Tech University Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Romeu examines how the influence of the equatorial climate, experienced by Vargas Llosa and author Alejo Carpentier during separate jungle expeditions, impacted their writing in The Storyteller and The Lost Steps, respectively.]
Differences in [climate] patterns from place to place, and changes in them from time to time, have inevitably exerted a powerful influence on human affairs. They define regions in which man must exert special efforts to avoid freezing or roasting to death. … Climate, along with soil (which is itself heavily influenced by climate), determines what plants can flourish and thus what animals—including man—can survive by eating the plants, or one another.
Robert Claiborne in Climate, Man, and History also differentiates among four basic types of climates: polar, cold and dry; stormy, warm or cold depending on the season, but quite humid at all times; desert, very hot and dry; and equatorial, very hot and wet. In this last group is the Amazon basin where we find the...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. Review of Death in the Andes, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 February 1996): 3.
[In the following review, Eder describes Death in the Andes as “less successful and more awkward” than Real Life of Alejandro Mayta but notes that Death in the Andes is “in some ways more haunting.”]
In the Andean regions of South America, travel is by altitudes; new worlds, climates and cultures are discovered not by going north, south, east or west but by going up or down. Those who live at the temperate altitudes (sea level to 4,000 or 5,000 feet) experience physical and psychological malaise when visiting the much higher cities of La Paz and Cuzco, a malady locally called soroche.
In a much broader sense, soroche is the theme and illness in a new novel by the urbane, prodigiously gifted Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. He is a lowlander whose life has been spent in Lima, Piura and Arequipa as well as in Europe and Mexico. Death in the Andes is his Heart of Darkness, reached not by traveling up a river in Africa but by climbing 12,000 feet into the central Andes.
The barren upland is home to the impoverished Indian descendants of the peoples whom the Incas ruled and, latterly, to the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a deviant Maoist cult that has posed a violent guerrilla threat...
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SOURCE: Sommer, Doris. “About-Face: The Talker Turns.” Boundary 2 23, no. 1 (spring 1996): 91-133.
[In the following essay, Sommer expounds on the implications of the opening of Vargas Llosa's Storyteller, in which the narrator expresses frustration at his inability to escape his native Peru.]
The first sentence of Mario Vargas Llosa's El hablador (The Storyteller)1 gives a start, a shock, a double take, as the narrator misses a step to gasp with surprise. Facing him is precisely the thing he had escaped. “I came to Firenze to forget Peru and the Peruvians for a while, and behold, the damned country forced itself upon me this morning in the most unexpected way” (S [The Storyteller], 3; 7). The first move of the story is no departure but an about-face, a shocking recognition that Peru will not be left behind. Long before the narrator identifies himself as a writer named Mario Vargas Llosa, even before the text spells out any identity or attributes, any subjectivity, background, or future for the speaker, he responds to Peru in this syncopated moment of choosing to leave and being taken aback. His double take is an involuntary reflex that will trigger reflection. Hailed by an authority that can stop him short and call him home, the call begins to constitute Vargas Llosa as a character.
This is the way...
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SOURCE: Bell-Villada, Gene H. Review of Death in the Andes, by Mario Vargas Llosa. America 176, no. 7 (1 March 1997): 36-7.
[In the following review of Death in the Andes, Bell-Villada argues that Vargas Llosa “wrote better books when he was a man of the left,” noting that his “greatest works” were written when the author was a sympathizer with 1960s radicalism.]
Few would admit it, but Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa wrote better books when he was a man of the left. His greatest works—The Time of the Hero, The Green House and the truly magisterial Conversation in the Cathedral—all date from the 1960's, when he openly sympathized with that decade's radical causes. In the 1980's, however, the erstwhile independent leftist redefined himself as a crusading conservative. Since then, in his abundant opinion pieces for the Spanish-language press. Vargas Llosa regularly invokes free-market ideologues Robert Nozick and Milton Friedman, and, usually with little factual basis, dwells insistently on the nefarious effects of labor unions, government pensions, taxes and any other such limits on magical capitalism. Some of his cruder arguments sound like a sermon out of Ayn Rand.
It may seem too neat a connection, but Vargas Llosa's weakest and slightest novelistic efforts date precisely from this conservative phase. For one, his new obsession with...
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SOURCE: Vargas Llosa, Mario, and Luis Rebaza-Soraluz. “Demons and Lies: Motivation and Form in Mario Vargas Llosa.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 15-24.
[In the following interview, Vargas Llosa discusses the influence of history and other authors on his work as well as explaining his personal view of fiction as the “secret reality.”]
[Rebaza-Soraluz]: In García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio (García Márquez: Story of a Deicide), a book whose circulation—if I am not mistaken—you helped minimize, you developed your theories of “inner demons” and the “total novel.” What course have these ideas taken since then? Could you summarize your understanding of these ideas and explain how you see them now in relation to your narrative poetics?
[Vargas Llosa]: I continue to believe that the basic ideas expressed in that book, and in other books or essays I have written about the novel, are valid. They are fairly general ideas that do not explain particular cases but that do explain a certain characteristic akin to the genealogy of novels. The point of departure of the novelistic calling, the vocation of creating with words and with the imagination worlds that are distinct from the real world, is born of a certain conflict, some incompatibility with lived experience, that induces a person, in a generally obscure,...
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SOURCE: Kristal, Efraín. “Captain Pantoja and the Special Service: A Transitional Novel.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 52-7.
[In the following essay, Kristal examines Captain Pantoja and the Special Service as an illustration of Vargas Llosa's period of “artistic transition” in the early 1970s, during which the author began to move away from rigidly rule-abiding characters to fanatics who challenge any impediment to their fervent beliefs.]
Mario Vargas Llosa's reflections on socialism have always informed the themes of his major novels. In the 1960s, when he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban revolution, his novels reflected his conviction that Peruvian society was too corrupt for reform. In the 1980s, after repudiating socialism, his novels explored the dangers of ideology. Unlike the 1960s or 1980s, the 1970s—the period dealt with in this essay—were for Vargas Llosa a time of political ambivalence: he was no longer at ease with socialism, but he did not yet want to give it up.
Even after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which he condemned, and the incarceration of dissidents in Cuba, against which he protested, Vargas Llosa was not willing to break with the socialist states. As late as 1974 he was writing articles rationalizing Fidel Castro's policies:
Cruel and pressing economic...
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SOURCE: Dipple, Elizabeth. “Outside, Looking In: Aunt Julia and Vargas Llosa.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 58-69.
[In the following essay, Dipple discusses Vargas Llosa's ambivalence in accepting the classification of much of his fiction as autobiographical.]
In Mario Vargas Llosa's late 1980s novel The Storyteller, his typical and frequent narrator, who is a thinly fictionalized Vargas Llosa, beckons the reader to join him in Florence during an undated stay there, while Vargas Llosa, pursuing his European agenda, reads Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli in the tourist-ridden summer heat. The story that he draws us into, after seeing an exhibition of photographs depicting an Amazonian tribe by a recently deceased Italian photographer, is that of a college friend of his, a Peruvian Jew named Saul Zuratas, marked by otherness not only by his Jewish background but also by a huge disfiguring strawberry birthmark that covers the entire right side of his face. Zuratas's subsequent nickname, Mascarita, indicates his life within and behind a mask, his very being altered by the marred countenance he presents to the world.
Vargas Llosa has also posed for the camera with a mask coquettishly held beside his face—an indication no doubt of his disguised persona in the novels. That persona, he argues, is automatically a mask or fiction, although it might call...
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SOURCE: Rebaza-Soraluz, Luis. “Out of Failure Comes Success: Autobiography and Testimony in A Fish in the Water.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 70-5.
[In the following essay, Rebaza-Soraluz criticizes A Fish in the Water for failing to discuss Vargas Llosa's personal experiences during the Boom period in Latin American literature, concluding that the memoir actually “functions as a novel.”]
Between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, Latin America produced an extraordinary number of novels. They were soon recognized, edited, published, and translated by and for European and North American intellectual and cultural markets. The event was called the Boom of the Latin American novel. In 1963 the Boom defined its character and gained definitive access to those markets when Mario Vargas Llosa's The Time of the Hero received a prestigious award granted by the publishing house Seix Barral of Barcelona. Some say the Boom ended in 1976, with the well-known violent encounter between Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garda Marquez in a Mexico City movie theater.
In spite of being part of these two key moments in the Boom's history, Vargas Llosa has published a memoir that barely touches on any events from those fundamental years in his writing career. Published thirty-one years after Vargas Llosa's international debut, A Fish in the Water extensively...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “An Erotic Trip That Traverses Too-Familiar Territory.” Los Angeles Times (20 May 1998): E6.
[In the following review, Eder asserts that The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto offers “stylish turns of phrase but little other excitement,” claiming that the novel is merely “Rigoberto, or perhaps Vargas Llosa, taking his thoughts for a walk.”]
Mario Vargas Llosa seemed to depart from his fictions of Latin American darkness when he wrote In Praise of the Stepmother a few years ago. It is the elegant and highly erotic tale of Don Rigoberto: timid and proper in public and lush keeper of a pleasure garden in the harem-like privacy of his Lima home.
Certainly Don Rigoberto's comic sexual rituals with his second wife, Lucrecia, and her artful seduction by Fonchito, Rigoberto's 12-year-old son—as the bough is bent, so bends the twig—are delicate irony and insidiously pleasurable. Yet the “seemed” is appropriate.
Stepmother was not an entire departure. It is a parody of a theme developed in Vargas Llosa's weightier novels: the Latin American male as conqueror and solipsist, and the indistinguishable line between solipsism and conquest.
In public, Don Rigoberto is a compliant insurance executive. Yet why should insurance, that epitome of calculated caution, exclude art? Look at Kafka and Wallace Stevens, he...
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SOURCE: Angier, Carole. “The Purest Pornography There Is.” Spectator 281, no. 8868 (25 July 1998): 32.
[In the following review, Angier asserts that, despite Vargas Llosa's skillful prose, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto is merely a work of literary “pornography.”]
When is pornography not pornography? When it is well written, Mario Vargas Llosa said in a recent interview. That is tempting the gods, or at least the reviewers. Is The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto well written? Is that enough to stop it from being pornography? And does it matter if it is? The answers are yes, no and yes.
Vargas Llosa's arrogance is justified (but arrogance generally is; if not it's something else, delusion or pretension). He writes well, and has done so ever since Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter 20 years ago. In fact, he has never written better than that. Only one thing has ever happened to him: falling in love with his much older aunt when he was a boy, and marrying her against the wishes of his family. Of course, much else has happened to him since—the marriage ending, for example, and running for President of Peru. But for many writers there is one main thing that moves them to write. And that is the other half of Aunt Julia: the young narrator's longing to write, like the mad, tragicomic Scriptwriter.
Peru is Vargas Llosa's other great subject, as in...
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SOURCE: Foster, David William. Review of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 3 (fall 1998): 233.
[In the following review, Foster offers a positive assessment of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, calling the novel “a masterful exploration of the abyss of erotic endeavors.”]
Erotic fiction in Latin America remains confined to the margins of cultural production. While the reader may find strategically placed erotic encounters in “mainline” fiction, the idea of focusing a work on the erotic is still not widely appreciated. [The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto] is a notable exception: a masterful exploration of the abyss of erotic endeavors. Such explorations constitute an abyss in that, by challenging the conventional morality that narrowly circumscribes them—and the genius of conventional morality is that a modicum of sexual life is constantly transgressing it—one must live with the constant panic of the loss of a legitimate relationship to constituted society. The fact that Don Rigoberto is more of an intellectual eroticist than a Sadeian activist provides the novel with a metafictional dimension which can be viewed as either taming erotic desire by inscribing it with complex narrative structures or as leading to a contemplation of how erotica must necessarily be an intellectual undertaking, since the brain is the one...
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SOURCE: Cohn, Deborah. “‘Regreso a la barbarie’: Intertextual Paradigms for Peru's Descent into Chaos in Lituma en los Andes.” Latin American Literary Review 28, no. 55 (January-June 2000): 27-45.
[In the following essay, Cohn observes that “intertextuality pervades” Lituma en los Andes, asserting that an effective reading of the novel considers its political and social backdrop “as well as Vargas Llosa's interpretation of its significance from an evolutionary standpoint.”]
In Jorge Luis Borges' “La muerte y la brújula,” a story of murder, sleuthing, and revenge in Buenos Aires, a single character controls the course of the investigation from behind the scenes, planting evidence—and plotting new crimes—that ultimately deliver the detective, his arch-enemy Erik Lonnrot, directly into his hands. Red Scharlach the Dandy, also known as Ginzberg, Ginsburg and Gryphius, is deliberately depicted as Godlike in his omniscience and apparent omnipotence. While Mario Vargas Llosa's 1993 murder mystery, Lituma en los Andes, takes place far removed—both spatially and culturally—from the city streets of Buenos Aires, one of its characters nevertheless invites comparison to Red Scharlach.
In what may be construed as a nod to Borges' story, a Danish anthropologist known as Stirmson, Stirmsson, and Stirmesson, but also as Escarlatina, plays a small but...
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SOURCE: Vargas Llosa, Mario, Jorge Villanueva Chang, and Jimena Pinilla Cisneros. “An Interview with Mario Vargas Llosa.” World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 65-9.
[In the following interview—originally conducted in June 2000 and published in the June 24, 2000, edition of El Comercio—Vargas Llosa discusses the implications of the computerization of literature, the most successful novels of the past century, and the Boom period in Latin American literature.]
Since the early 1960s, Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa (b. 1936) has been regarded as one of Latin America's leading writers, a novelist whose books can be read as a modern-day saga of Peruvian and Latin American society. Among his more notable works are La casa verde (1965; Eng. The Green House), Conversación en la Catedral (1969; Eng. Conversation in the Cathedral), La tía Julia y el escribidor (1979; Eng. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), Historia de Mayta (1984; Eng. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta), and La guerra del fin del mundo (1992; Eng. The War of the End of the World). His most recent novel, La fiesta del chivo (2001; Eng. The Feast of the Goat), re-creates the final days of the dictatorship of General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and has been hailed as one his finest literary achievements to...
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SOURCE: Menton, Seymour. Review of La fiesta del chivo, by Mario Vargas Llosa. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 676.
[In the following review, Menton offers praise for Vargas Llosa's La fiesta del chivo, ranking it among the author's four best novels.]
The publication of still another high-quality novel in the postrevolutionary era (1989-) may encourage some cultural-studies devotees to reconsider their hostility toward “elite literature.” Along with Carlos Fuentes, Abel Posse, Sergio Ramírez, Julio Escoto, and many others who have published outstanding works in the past decade, Mario Vargas Llosa has, with his latest effort, written a fascinating, well-documented novel based on Latin American history. Unlike Carpentier's Recurso del método, García Márquez's Otofio del patriarca, and several other novels that create a multinational synthesis of the archetypal dictator, La fiesta del chivo deals specifically and realistically with perhaps the most tyrannical of all Latin American dictators, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo of the Dominican Republic (r. 1930-61).
The novel's three alternating series of chapters are anchored in 1961, the year of Trujillo's assassination. However, in keeping with the modernist and Boom tradition, the entire regime of the dictator, including its international relations, is captured with both a wide-angle and...
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SOURCE: Bell-Villada, Gene H. “Thirty-One Years of Solitude.” Commonweal 128, no. 19 (9 November 2001): 20-1.
[In the following review, Bell-Villada asserts that The Feast of the Goat, Vargas Llosa's chronicle of the tyrannical reign of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo as leader of the Dominican Republic, “will most surely become the book about the long Trujillo nightmare and the ongoing, sordid aftermath.”]
“The Goat” was one of the popular, clandestine nicknames of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, the grotesque generalissimo who skillfully combined humiliation and terror, bribery and blood in tyrannizing the Dominican Republic from 1930 until 1961, when he was finally assassinated by a cadre of young army officers (with some U.S. help).
The Feast of the Goat will most surely become the book about the long Trujillo nightmare and the ongoing, sordid aftermath. It joins the ranks of other now-classic novels—such as Gabriel García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, or Tomás Eloy Martínez's diptych dealing with the Perón pair—that famously capture the oddities, myths, and ordinary horrors of life under a Latin military despot.
On a different note, the book miraculously restores Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to literary-master status. Over the last couple of decades Vargas Llosa seemed in decline as he misdirected his...
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SOURCE: Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. “Sensationalism and Sensibility.” New Leader 84, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 30-1.
[In the following essay, Schwartz takes issue with the recurring “scenes of mayhem, murder, rape, and mutilation” in Vargas Llosa's novels, particularly The Feast of the Goat.]
For several decades Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has been outspoken on behalf of free speech and against tyranny, which he knew as a young man in his homeland. In 1990 he ran for the presidency of Peru on a liberal platform, unsuccessfully. He has served as president of PEN International, the writers' organization. He loves to write about rebels and revolutions. So far so good. Even more, however, he loves to write about the brutality that incites rebellion. His novels abound with scenes of mayhem, murder, rape, and mutilation. They verge on the gratuitously lurid, often placing the reader in the unsought role of voyeur. This is not so good.
Many of Vargas Llosa's works intertwine or alternate passages of fact and fiction. His new novel, The Feast of the Goat, opens with the fiction, set in 1996. After 35 years, Urania Cabral, a prominent lawyer in New York, returns to her native Dominican Republic, which she left at the age of 14. We find out why at the very end, as well as why she hates her aged, infirm father, a disgraced former senator. The novel's factual subject is...
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SOURCE: Krauze, Enrique. “Exorcisms.” New Republic 226, no. 5 (11 February 2002): 28-34.
[In the following essay, Krauze remarks on the political climate of Peru circa 1990 and Vargas Llosa's influence in Peruvian politics.]
“There are no limits to deterioration: it can always be worse.” This observation by Alejandro Mayta, the disenchanted guerrilla fighter of Mario Vargas Llosa's novel The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, who returns to his birthplace after many years, freed of ghosts but devoid of hope, came to mind in March, 1990. I was in Lima to participate in a conference on “The Culture of Freedom,” a meeting of writers and intellectuals that marked the beginning of the final phase of Vargas Llosa's presidential campaign. I had last been in the city a little more than a decade earlier, when Lima still seemed grand and dignified; but this time I was struck by the army of child beggars on every street corner, and I learned the horrifying statistics of the populist legacy in Peru: reserves almost non-existent, the country virtually bankrupt, a decline of fifteen percent in the GDP, inflation in four figures. Blackouts, sabotage, kidnappings, and murders had become daily news. Above all, there was the terrifying, ubiquitous presence of the Shining Path, a guerrilla group so relentlessly nihilist that it made Dostoevsky's possessed seem like soap opera characters.
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SOURCE: Shakespeare, Sebastian. Review of The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa. New Statesman 131, no. 4550 (25 March 2002): 57.
[In the following review, Shakespeare offers a mixed assessment of The Feast of the Goat, noting that “even if this is not a great novel, Vargas Llosa is still a great storyteller.”]
Mario Vargas Llosa's new novel [The Feast of the Goat] concerns the last days of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo before he was assassinated in 1961. Mixing fiction and fact, the book offers a masterly portrayal of this most emblematic of tyrants, who ruled his country for 31 years. It is a miracle that this emperor wore any clothes at all, because he spent most of his time fornicating in bed. A serial philanderer, he sent his ministers on missions abroad in order to seduce their wives. Known as the Goat, the Benefactor, the Father of the New Nation. Trujillo thought he ruled by divine authority and became godfather to hundreds of babies a week. If his followers fell out of favour, they were fed to the sharks—or his closest associates would read about their resignations and disgrace in the press.
Against this menacing backdrop unfold three overlapping stories told from the perspective of Trujillo, the seven assassins and Urania Cabral, the daughter of one of Trujillo's inner circle. The novel opens in 1996, as Urania returns to her homeland...
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SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “Anatomy of a Tyrant.” Spectator 288, no. 9060 (30 March 2002): 38-9.
[In the following review, Hensher praises The Feast of the Goat as a “ugly, mesmerising, masterly novel” and comments that Vargas Llosa should be nominated for a Nobel Prize.]
This ugly, mesmerising, masterly novel [The Feast of the Goat] is as steeped in facts as Macbeth was in blood. Nothing could be further from the popular idea of the South American novel, and nothing could be a more remarkable demonstration of its strengths, obsessions and direction. It is the story of a terrible crisis in a small country's history, and, telling that terrible story, has no time to beguile foreign readers with exotica; this is not one of those South American narratives about sitting in the sun, minding the flower stall, stuffed with characters who grow wings and mate with tigers (you know the sort of thing). It is about oil, money, international relations and corruption; it has an appalling, irresistible reality.
The central episode of the novel is the assassination of Trujillo, the leader of the Dominican Republic, in 1961. Trujillo had led the country since 1930, and was a cast-iron Latin American dictator of the worst dye. Like many such men, his rule was propped up by the support of the United States. President Roosevelt once stated, ‘Trujillo is an SOB, but at least he's our...
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SOURCE: Howard, Gregory. Review of The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Review of Contemporary Fiction 22, no. 1 (spring 2002): 120-21.
[In the following review, Howard describes The Feast of the Goat as “a visceral lesson in the complex synergy of political intrigue, sex, machismo, and history.”]
According to Mario Vargas Llosa, good fiction makes people uneasy. By that standard, his Feast of the Goat is a masterpiece, both to the degree it is sure to make readers squirm and for the multitude of reasons it gives them to do so. Set in the Dominican Republic, this triple-plotted novel is at once a fictionalized character study of Rafael “The Goat” Trujillo, the dictator who once ruled that island; of the cell of men who ended his reign by assassination; and of one individual, Urania Cabral, the daughter of a senator who proves his loyalty to the regime by handing over the fourteen-year-old to be deflowered by the seventy-year-old dictator. The novel has already sold 400,000 copies in Spanish, and it's easy to see why: it is a visceral lesson in the complex synergy of political intrigue, sex, machismo, and history, doing a lot to explain the cycle of revolutions and economic dreams unfulfilled that seems to characterize much of Latin America, not just the Dominican Republic. That is—and this is the reason the book deserves an equally wide English readership—without...
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SOURCE: Torch, Rafael. Review of The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Antioch Review 60, no. 2 (spring 2002): 342-43.
[In the following review, Torch identifies The Feast of the Goat as “a reminder of the struggle that still exists in and out of the Latin American Hemisphere.”]
Full of the tremendous power of the Latin American epic, Vargas Llosa once again delivers a sweeping statement about the turbulent history of Latin America [in The Feast of the Goat]. Here he explores the final days, in 1961, of the dictator Rafael Trujillo's 31-year regime in the Dominican Republic, and the people he had deceived most, his citizens, who regarded him with the eyes of worshippers. “It was God and then Trujillo.”
The ruler, seventy in the beginning of the book, is a man terrified of old age, more prone to prove his twisted sense of manhood than ever before. Trujillo's complex web of politics, built on a Machiavellian deceit that includes torture, murder, intrigue, and charm, forces a feeling of urgency throughout the book that doesn't stop until the dictator is dead.
With Urania, the character who opens the book, returning to her home after thirty-five years, we get a look at how the past, and Trujillo's ghost, still haunts the Caribbean island. She comes back to face her father, who was a senator in the regime but fell out of the close circle...
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SOURCE: Review of The Language of Passion: Selected Commentary, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 5 (1 March 2003): 371.
[In the following review, the critic commends Vargas Llosa's skill with the journalistic form in The Language of Passion.]
“Novelist” just begins to cover the ground, for like many other Latin American writers of his generation—he was born in Lima in 1937 and began to write professionally in Spain in the late '50s—Vargas Llosa cut his teeth writing for daily papers and magazines. He continues to contribute to such periodicals; most of the pieces gathered in this exemplary volume, [The Language of Passion: Selected Commentary,] covering the '90s, first saw print in his occasional column in the Madrid daily El País. Less afraid of big ideas and big words than most American papers, the post-Franco Spanish press proves an ideal testing ground for Vargas Llosa's contrarian musings on such matters as Third World development, free markets, and modern literature. A longtime anticommunist liberal, for instance. Vargas Llosa disputes the notion that the developing world is poor because of some inherent defect in its peoples' wealth-making capabilities: the people are poor, to be sure, he writes, but only because the rich loot them “to enjoy an Arabian Nights—style opulence,” and to the tune of billions of dollars. Throughout, he comes down...
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SOURCE: Review of The Language of Passion: Selected Commentary, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 9 (3 March 2003): 61.
[In the following review, the critic praises The Language of Passion and argues that “these essays should widen Vargas Llosa's appeal considerably, allowing new readers to share his passion.”]
In the United States, Vargas Llosa is best known for his novels (In Praise of the Stepmother, etc.), but in Spanish-speaking countries, he's also noted as a thoughtful, intense newspaper columnist. His essays on the machinations of countries like Argentina and his native Peru have shed light on their politics and provided some material for a previous collection, Making Waves. In this second culling from his newspaper life, [The Language of Passion: Selected Commentary,] Vargas Llosa provides plenty of political meat for a newshound, but also displays his wide range of interest. From the first essay, about a romance writer who left her life savings to found a book award for—what else—romance writers, Vargas Llosa sparkles. He sometimes digresses into minor diatribes about culture and government, but he mostly strikes a balance between fierce passion for a subject and the journalistic objectivity that allows for proper analysis of it Vargas Llosa writes, “I try to comment on some current event that rouses, angers, or disturbs me,...
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SOURCE: Smee, Sebastian. “Gauguin and His Gritty Granny.” Spectator 293, no. 9145 (15 November 2003): 54.
[In the following review, Smee lauds Vargas Llosa's narrative techniques in The Way to Paradise, calling the work “elegant and involving.”]
Sex has always been a stumbling block for Utopian-minded social reformers. They are attracted to the ideal prospect of ‘free love’ but tripped up by a tendency, seemingly inherent, for men to exploit women if their sexual drive is not held in check by so-called ‘bourgeois’ customs.
Mario Vargas Llosa's elegant and involving new novel [The Way to Paradise] is structured thematically around just such a dialectic. Its subject is the contrasting Utopian aspirations of two vivid historical figures who happened to have been related: Paul Gauguin and his grandmother Flora Tristán.
Gauguin most of us know something about (although many may not be aware that 2003 marks the 100th anniversary of his miserable death in the Marquesas Islands). Tristán, the mother of Gauguin's mother, was an author and charismatic campaigner for the rights of workers and women. Both also have a connection to the author's native Peru: Tristán went there to claim an inheritance from a rich uncle in Arequipa (Llosa's home town) while Gauguin was born there.
The novel is divided into chapters devoted alternately...
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SOURCE: Heawood, Jonathan. “Past Master.” New Statesman 132, no. 4665 (24 November 2003): 55.
[In the following review, Heawood criticizes Vargas Llosa's unsure and anxious characterizations in The Way to Paradise.]
The older he gets, the more difficult Mario Vargas Llosa becomes. It's not that his work is more obscure or challenging, but he makes things increasingly hard on himself. He writes about historical figures but seems unsure of his ability to fictionalise them. At every step of The Way to Paradise, he reaches out anxiously towards his characters, Paul Gauguin and Gauguin's grandmother, the social reformer Flora Tristan, and addresses them directly. He veers erratically between the third and the second person: “He laughed, then grew distressed. Why were you remembering your mother now? He hadn't thought of her since 1888, when he painted her portrait.”
All that seems certain is that he and his grandmother spent their lives seeking the way to paradise. Flora believed that she could build utopia on earth. Her vision of a Workers' Union, in which they would own all the means of production and share profits equitably, led her on an endless tour of French factories, preaching to workers who were mostly too exhausted to be converted. Fifty years later, her grandson nurtured dreams of a more private paradise, “where art wouldn't be just another business venture but a...
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Abrams, Elliott. Review of A Fish in the Water: A Memoir, by Mario Vargas Llosa. American Spectator 27, no. 9 (September 1994): 68-70.
Abrams predicts that Vargas Llosa's autobiographical A Fish in the Water “will not disappoint fans of his novels,” concluding that the author “emerges here as the brilliant writer he has always been.”
Axelrod, Mark. Review of Letters to a Young Novelist, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 1 (spring 2003): 165.
Axelrod offers a positive assessment of Vargas Llosa's insightful literary criticism in Letters to a Young Novelist but notes that some of Vargas Llosa's commentary is “a bit superficial.”
Cheuse, Alan. “The Distant Corners of Happiness.” San Francisco Chronicle (7 December 2003): M3.
Cheuse commends The Way to Paradise as Vargas Llosa's “first truly international novel.”
Dirda, Michael. “An Activist and an Artist, Linked by Blood and Ambition.” Washington Post Book World 33, no. 46 (30 November 2003): 15.
Dirda compliments Vargas Llosa's skill at evoking the impact of Gauguin's paintings in The Way to Paradise but faults the novel's narrative as “virtually inert.”
Gould, Tony. “Fidel to...
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