Vargas Llosa, Mario 1936–
Vargas Llosa is a distinguished Peruvian novelist now living in Spain.
The similarity of institutions which regulate the instincts of sex and of aggression has not escaped Mario Vargas Llosa, in all of whose novels the army and the brothel are twinned as planet and satellite. But whereas, hitherto, his writing has been noted for a high seriousness and a Sartrian disgust, [Pantaleón y las visitadoras] turns out to be broad farce, rather in the spirit of Valle-Inclán's Los cuernos de Don Friolera….
The army as an institution that exists for the perpetuation of power and prestige has often provided material for satire, although in this novel, Sr Vargas Llosa's criticism seems to be aimed at a more general target—at any institution, in fact, which channels instinct into a socially acceptable ritual. Church, army and brothel all contain potentially dangerous forces although none with complete success. At intervals in the novel, there are outbreaks of disorder not only within the army but also amongst the civilian population, many of whom belong to a fanatical religious sect which practises human sacrifice by crucifixion. The humour of the narrative derives less from this serious underlying motive, however, than from the various linguistic codes into which people channel the darker forces. The novel abounds in them—there is the language of the military report, of rules and regulations and questionnaires, a language which normalizes and defuses the potentially outrageous; there is the contrast between the rhetorical public language of the army officers and the criminal slang they use in private; there is the language of the media—of third-rate journalism and radio interviews; there is the restricted, puritanical language of the respectable family, and the specialized slang of the prostitute. It is the co-presence of these codes that refract into euphemism or rhetoric all manner of otherwise unmentionable urges which provides a critical dimension in a novel that is also an entertainment.
"Organized Pleasures," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 12, 1973, p. 1208.
All [Vargas Llosa's] works have one thing in common: they are profoundly discontented visions of Peru, attempts to expose the indecencies of his country by a man who has thus summarized his ideas of what a novelist's task should be:
Novelists who speak well of their country should be distrusted: patriotism, which is a fruitful virtue in soldiers and in bureaucrats, is usually a poor one in literature. Literature in general and the novel in particular are expressions of discontent. Their social usefulness lies principally in the fact that they remind people that the world is always wrong, that life should always change.
His works attempt to unravel the exact form this sort of original sin has taken in Peru, its exact texture. The entire strategy of his art is directed at the fulfilment of this aim, so that Vargas Llosa's fiction not only attempts to tell the truth about Peru, but attempts also to find its way to the proper formal structure and the proper language to tell it. (p. 121)
The Peru Vargas Llosa describes is not only unseemly but also chaotic. One of the most eloquent and conspicuous features of Vargas Llosa's work has been his endeavour to evolve the right structure to express this chaos, and he therefore places his reader in a structural labyrinth in his novels that functions as the equivalent of the political, social, and emotional labyrinths his characters inhabit. (p. 125)
What then is the purpose of [the] structural gymnastics in Vargas Llosa's work, [the] shufflings of sequence and juxtapositions of disparate but ultimately connected material that have culminated, in Conversación en la Catedral, in passages that are quite cacophonous? Is he merely imposing gratuitous difficulties on the reader? Or is he simply attempting, just as gratuitously, further to refine the structural conventions of post-Faulknerian fiction?
Certainly Vargas Llosa's structures make for difficult reading, and there are many who claim—lazily I think—to have found the reading of Conversación en la Catedral an impossible task. Yet the structures (which indeed owe a great deal—but not everything—to Faulkner) are fundamental to the novels, and they serve many purposes.
In the first place, the complex shapes of Vargas Llosa's novels re-enact the complexity of the situations described in them. To write a novel in which a story is told in conventional linear sequence is to imply that you have an ordered vision of the world, that you believe in the possibility of an ordered sequence of cause and effect. Vargas Llosa has attempted to evolve forms which are more suited to evoke, or to re-enact, the perplexities of real life as he sees it. To take an example from La Casa Verde: Peru is a geographically disconnected country: a vast chain of mountains, the Andes, separates Piura from Santa María de Nieva. So, in La Casa Verde, violent breaks in the narration re-enact this geographical condition. The remoteness of one part of the narration from another re-enacts the remoteness of one part of Peru from another, and the complexity of the novel's structure thus serves to reflect the complexity of Peruvian geography.
Another aim of the novel's juxtapositions of disparate material is to force the reader to share the dilemmas of the characters, the dilemma of difficult reading becoming an equivalent of the dilemma of difficult living…. [It] is possible mentally to reshuffle the novels in order to extract from them the trajectory of a given character's life and see it in conventional linear sequence. But this one can do only when one has finished the novels, when one can adopt the privilege of hindsight. Now it is one of Vargas Llosa's most eloquent points that hindsight is not often relevantly available to us. It is not to the characters, so why should it be to the reader? Instead of allowing the reader to be, like the author, complacently omniscient, he therefore puts him in the same boat as the characters, and makes him share with the characters the perplexities of the present moment. The privilege of hindsight, that of seeing those perplexities fall into an ordered pattern, into a neat sequence of cause and effect, is thus removed. It is of course removed only until the end of the novels, when everything falls into place. But by then the characters are in a position to draw on hindsight themselves. Ultimately, the difference between the clear perspective we acquire when finishing these novels and the puzzled one we had when reading them symbolizes the gap that separates the baffled view one has in general of any situation when one is living it from the more lucid one that one may acquire subsequently. (pp. 128-29)
[Conversation] is an activity well suited to dramatize the unpredictable and labyrinthine nature of present time. In conversation, one is spectacularly confined to what one is saying now. One cannot anticipate what one is going to say next because one does not know what the other man is going to say, and one therefore does not know what one is going to have to react to. Conversation, moreover, very rarely does not involve deliberate concealment. One is by definition in the dark as to what the other is really thinking, and as to what he really knows and could reveal. Vargas Llosa's technique in Conversación en la Catedral of cutting off conversations at crucial moments, of offering snippets of revelation in them and then moving elsewhere, helps I think to re-enact the very nature of conversation and of communication in general, particularly in a society devoted to the concealment of truth and to the flaunting of deceptive images. And whatever is concealed by one character from another in the novels' conversations is concealed from the reader too.
In short, the reader in Vargas Llosa's novels, and in particular in Conversación en la Catedral, has no advantages over the characters, and as a result he is forced to appreciate their perplexities simply because he has had to share them. The effect is that he is well enabled in the end really to feel what it is like to live in Peru, to feel the very texture of a society as it is actually being lived.
The habit of concealment mentioned, which results in there being a gap separating the image one flaunts in conversation, say, from one's real self, is a central concern of Vargas Llosa's novels. It has obvious Sartrean overtones, and Vargas Llosa acknowledges them. (pp. 129-30)
In Vargas Llosa's novels two stories are often … told in parallel that turn out to be about the same person, the identity of the person having been disguised or witheld in one of them. (p. 130)
Unlike Sartre, Vargas Llosa is not concerned to investigate the philosophical nuances of the gap that separates our real selves from the images we project for others. He takes the fact that there is such a gap for granted. His concern is, rather, a sociological one: what kind of images do people find it necessary to project in a given society or, more specifically, in Peru? What is it that Peruvians conceal, what on the other hand do they flaunt, and why?
The images Vargas Llosa's characters flaunt do indeed have very specific characteristics, and their explanation may well be found in the society they inhabit. In La ciudad y los perros, for instance, the characters' public images are motivated by a very Latin American condition, that of machismo or the assertion of masculinity. The main reason why the characters turn out to be so different when introspectively on their own from what they are when seen by others is that when in company they must, in order to sustain the respect of their friends, be uncompromisingly macho, callously tough and ostentatiously 'manly'. They must above all suppress or conceal the very sensitive instincts they all seem to share. La ciudad y los perros is never better than when it is showing how for young Peruvians social intercourse presupposes the jettisoning of one's best instincts. (p. 131)
Vargas Llosa's structures have another function: to reinforce the feeling which all the novels deploy that there is no diachronic progress in Peru, that events on the contrary at best develop cyclically—when they are not stagnating altogether. There is no way out of what turns out to be a cyclical labyrinth: nothing really changes. (pp. 132-33)
Many of the formal techniques Vargas Llosa uses are of course merely echoes of similar techniques employed by any amount of novelists all over the world during the past few decades. What is remarkable in Vargas Llosa is that the complex formal presentation of his material never seems gratuitous, so conscientiously has he evolved it to express his vision of Peru. The sheer professionalism with which it is manipulated is moreover unusual. He is able to give the appearance of chaos and yet maintain rigorous control. There is no elusive detail or incidental phrase that does not prove ultimately to be relevant: as in a well-constructed symphony, every passing note has its purpose. (pp. 133-34)
All Vargas Llosa's novels are of course in that tradition of contemporary Latin American fiction that has sought to overthrow the stereotyped vision that characterized Latin American novels in the 1920s and 1930s. Rather than populate his books with characters that are unremittingly good or bad, he has, like most contemporary Latin American novelists, attempted to show that the conflict between good and evil can exist within a person and not necessarily just between persons, and that all people and all actions are intrinsically complex. (p. 141)
Vargas Llosa has impressively furnished us with a rich, dense fictional world in his novels. That it is a fictional world, a dream expressed, moreover through complex technical artifice, has been stressed. Yet it is a fictional world which is maybe more 'true', or which signifies things that are more true than the society that inspired it. For Vargas Llosa's novels above all seek to expose lies, if anything to exaggerate the truth, in order to jolt the reader into perceiving the truthlessness of the world he lives in. His novels seek to tear down all the decorous masks that society wears in order to conceal the truth about itself.
Nowhere are such masks worn with more false decorum than in its language, and it has been one of Vargas Llosa's achievements that he has avoided the sort of language that was so common in Latin American fiction before—a language notable more for what it concealed than for what it revealed. He has created instead a language that executes with brutal efficiency his task of scandalous revelation. He does not greatly experiment with language, and he does not question the nature of language itself as … Cabrera Infante does. He rather writes a prose that is simply merciless, brutally ironical, and which relentlessly probes and unmasks. Never do we find Vargas Llosa engaged in writing for its own sake, never do we see him for instance indulging in a 'beautiful' landscape. For him words must above all be efficient, and never be allowed to distract from their purpose of revelation. His prose has been designed above all to desacralize language, to pare down its hypocrisies—if necessary with the therapeutic injection of four-letter words. It is not that his prose is not full of artifices and personal trademarks—there is not a line by Vargas Llosa that is not implanted with a very personal note. All these artifices have rather been designed and mobilized for a purpose, for the proper expression of Vargas Llosa's vision of Peru and of man: a vision that is brutal and bitter, the product of a savagely jettisoned innocence, yet which is pervaded by a yearning for tenderness, for kindness, for what is perhaps not quite irrevocably lost. (pp. 142-43)
D. P. Gallagher, "Mario Vargas Llosa," in his Modern Latin American Literature (© Oxford University Press 1973; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 122-43.
[Conversation in the Cathedral] is about politics, corruption, decadence, disillusion, but it is free of both ideology and moralism. Primary weight is given to the drama and emotional texture of a number of complexly delineated private lives and relationships; indeed, a great deal of the novel's considerable strength derives from the fullness and particularity with which its large and diverse cast of characters is portrayed. Placed against the background of social tableaux re-created with an almost Dickensian eye for detail and variety, Vargas Llosa's protagonists are gradually shown to have been involved, in one way or another, in a single act of violence; this shared experience, providing a focal point for the complicated story lines, gives suspense, energy, and continuity to a work that might otherwise, despite all its excellent qualities, have been in danger of bogging down in its own ambitious length and scope. It is heartening to know that novels as substantial as this one are still being written. (p. 26)
Jane Larkin Crain, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 11, 1975.
If García Márquez is Latin America's Faulkner, Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa is aesthetically, if not stylistically, its Dreiser. His first novel, The City of the Dogs, was a brutal slab of naturalism about life and violent death at a Peruvian military school for problem youth—a place not unlike the institution Vargas Llosa attended in the early 1950s. Officials at the school ensured the author a wide readership and international attention by publicly burning 1,000 copies of his book.
Vargas Llosa's second novel, The Green House, was respectfully roasted by some critics for its chaotic form, thematic dead ends and lock-step fatalism. There remained, however, the author's undeniable ability to generate powerful atmospheres within his remorseless, self-imposed boundaries.
The same judgments apply to Conversation in the Cathedral, a long, layered tale about indolence, greed, violence, corruption, sexual perversion and general animal cunning in modern Peru. The novel is a vortex of determinism driven by one central question: "At what precise moment," asks the leading character, "had Peru—itself up?"
The answer is not forthcoming, but the question pervades everything and everyone as surely as Lima's chilly mists. The book is a chronicle of botched hopes and personal failures. The government sinks in corruption and ineptitude. Idealistic university students stumble over their ignorance and lack of discipline. A servant girl's brief moment of romance leads to jungle rot and death in childbirth. Cynical political hacks are failed Communists and newspapermen are often failed poets who have difficulty with the fundamentals of news writing. "You have to start with the dead people, young man," advises one helpful editor. The novel's title does not refer to the church, which the author oddly does not deal with, but to a Lima bar and brothel called the Cathedral.
Vargas Llosa, who now lives in Spain, has two principal responses to this mess. There is the bitter disillusionment of his leading character, Santiago Zavala, a rich politician's son who rejects the easy life to take a grubby, low-paying job on a Lima newspaper. Secondly, there is the mindless acceptance of a dog-eat-dog world as characterized by Ambrosio, a knock-about torpedo who had been the elder Zavala's chauffeur, bodyguard and occasional bit of rough trade.
This bleak, narrow vision becomes a strain in a book whose epigraph is Balzac's expansive statement that "the novel is the private history of nations." It also keeps Vargas Llosa's obviously large, fierce talent caged like the condors at the Lima zoo. (pp. E3, 84)
R. Z. Sheppard, "Caged Condor," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), February 17, 1975, pp. E3, 84.
Mario Vargas Llosa has been awarded fat prizes and lavish critical honor. But his third novel, Conversation in the Cathedral … is such a tiresome, repetitious, mindlessly logorrheic bore that only in the cruelest nightmare could I imagine myself reading his greatly praised earlier works.
As though the question were profoundly searching, and not just a species of rhetorical inanity, Vargas Llosa asks: "At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?" Aside from the obvious point that a country's deterioration can hardly be attributed to one "precise moment," the question smacks of a bleary self-pity that would not welcome an answer….
To give his novel an air of "experiment," Vargas Llosa alternates sentences from one conversation … with snippets from another about different matters. The only way to read through all this without sinking into hysterical confusion is to play hopscotch down the page, then go back for the sequence you skipped. If you get lost, don't worry—every sophomoric idea, every taxi, whore, housemaid, secret policeman, sister and brother and cousin and aunt will reappear at least a thousand times, in the same way and to the same soddenly embittered tune, before you stagger to page 601. And you still won't know when or why Peru went to hell. (p. 17)
Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), March 17, 1975.
Vargas Llosa, in spite of his heartfelt subject [in Conversation in the Cathedral—the deterioration of Peru—], is a tricky, mannered novelist, offering us narrative information in the most intricate arrangement of flashback and crosscutting and multiple planes of time….
Vargas Llosa is concerned with a generic Peruvian condition, evoked very early in his novel as a "smell of defeat," "an invincible higher stench." Yet the form of his narrative suggests a victory, a passage from darkness to light. The Spanish edition of the book comes in two volumes, and at the end of the first volume …, confusion has simply been piled upon the initial confusion…. The very first chapter of the second volume clears this up,… and then the book retreats into apparent confusion again—but by this time we have enough clues to tie everything together, and we read the rest with a clicking sensation of things falling neatly into place. It is as if we were to start out in Faulkner and finish in Agatha Christie, all stray threads tucked up with ribbons.
This means that David Gallagher's generous defense of the form of the novel (in Modern Latin American Literature [see excerpts, above] …) really won't wash. It is true, as Gallagher says, that the complexity of the form enacts the complexity of life as Vargas Llosa sees it, but then Vargas Llosa presumably doesn't see the complexity of life as resolving itself into tidy explanations if you wait long enough, and that is what this novel (as well as his earlier novels, The Time of the Hero, 1962, and The Green House, 1965) finally suggests. On the other hand, he does create genuine suspense by holding out on us as he does, and while suspense may not be one of the higher literary virtues, it certainly keeps us reading; and may be a necessary tactical prop when the writer is also making reading difficult for us by converting his narrative into a kind of labyrinth. (p. 27)
The complexity here is a false complexity, it seems to me: nothing complex is happening, simple events are merely being related as if they belonged to a jig-saw puzzle.
Even so, the novel does get over these gratuitous games, or rather puts these games to work, because there is such a large and painful pathos in the immense, wishful distance between Peru at any imaginable moment in its history and the clarified, thoroughly explicable Peru which this novel delivers to us in the end. Complexity just vanishes into limpid clarity by the time you turn the last page. Vargas Llosa has told us about the unmanageable masquerade of his country's history in a novel that is too perfectly managed, and the result is a text that, curiously enough, is most impressive when it is most self-deceived. (pp. 27-8)
Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), March 20, 1975.
Few Latin American writers have attempted to create so ambitious and complicated a body of work as Mario Vargas Llosa. In one decade … [he] has published three long novels, two short ones and a collection of short stories. Linked by common themes and structures, these six volumes can be seen as one work—one of the largest narrative efforts in contemporary Latin American letters. With an ambition worthy of such masters of the 19th-century novel as Balzac, Dickens and Galdós, but with a technical skill that brings him closer to the heirs of Flaubert and Henry James, Mario Vargas Llosa has begun a complete inventory of the political, social, economic and cultural reality of Peru. This inventory is necessarily controversial.
Very deliberately, Vargas Llosa has chosen to be his country's conscience. Following Jean-Paul Sartre's recommendations to the intellectuals of 1945, Vargas Llosa has written books that reflect a world in decay, contaminated by the exploitation of the Indian and the worker, a world victimized by foreign imperialism and by the native bourgeoisie's complicity in this exploitation. As he stated when he received the Rémulo Gallegos Award for Literature in Venezuela in 1967, Vargas Llosa believes that literature is fire, that the writer's function is to contribute to the destruction of a dying world in order to lay the foundations of another world where social justice will not be merely a utopian ideal….
"Conversation in the Cathedral" is a meticulous panorama of the Peru of the late 1940's and early 1950's, when General Odría's dictatorship was like a cancer that ate into the very marrow of Peruvian society….
[To] consider this novel solely in terms of its subject would be a sad error. Despite his enthusiasm for old-fashioned realism, Mario Vargas Llosa is a contemporary and disciple of the French novelists of the Nouveau Roman, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Claude Simon. He is also a friend and colleague of the Julio Cortázar of "Hopscotch," the Jose Lezama Lima of "Paradiso," the G. Cabrera Infante of "Three Trapped Tigers," the Carlos Fuentes of "A Change of Skin" and the José Donoso of "The Obscene Bird of Night." These books, among other shorter ones, have placed Latin American literature at the head of narrative experimentation in the last decade. "Conversation in the Cathedral" is not a consecutive, linear discourse but a "diachronic collage of dialogues," as the critic Emir Rodríguez Monegal has written. Each moment of dialogue between the young man and his father's chauffeur fans out to incorporate, by thematic analogy, fragments of other dialogues between these and other characters that explain, elaborate, comment on or contradict it. The purely linear, horizontal, synchronic progress of the basic dialogue in the book is enriched by the counterpoint of the vertical, diachronic multiplicity of the other conversations, which pick up other moments in time and space. Thus a conversation that supposedly lasts a couple of hours actually covers several decades in a suffocating narrative space.
This technique is so complex that it may scare many American readers who have already forgotten their Faulkner, have always shied away from Nabokov, have been utterly baffled by Thomas Pynchon, and sincerely believe that Saul Bellow and John Updike are writers of this century. It would be a pity if the enormous but not insurmountable difficulties of reading this massive novel prevent readers from becoming acquainted with a book that reveals, as few others have, some of the ugly complexities of the real Latin America. (p. 1)
Suzanne Jill Levine, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 23, 1975.
One of the virtues of Vargas Llosa, still a relatively young writer …, is that he attempts and dares so much [in Conversation in the Cathedral]. (p. 10)
This kind of catchall canvas no longer provides a particularly fresh view of the ways of the world, but it could still yield interest. It might have been transformed into a surrealist nightmare sustained by a variegated prose style—as Miguel Angel Asturias achieved in El Señor Presidente. Or narrated in the multifaceted manner of Dos Passos's USA to give us social history with all the interest it commands on its own. Or, since Vargas Llosa's vision is scarcely more than naturalistic, it could be told as a straight, simple narrative—a manner that stood Tolstoy in good stead. Instead, he has chosen in this third novel, as in his second, The Green House, to be a prose experimentalist and has imposed on his material a style that creates complications but not complexities. He seems beguiled by the success of Borges, Cortázar, and García Márquez, whose stylistic departures are genuinely dictated by their visions of the world.
Vargas Llosa himself tires of experimentations, and after some 200 pages the scenes are often given straight, though the time sequence from one to the other remains erratic. The first such undisturbed scene one comes upon is an enormous relief, and this reading ease provides an untoward revelation: the prose and characters are flat and the actions no more significantly depicted than in a police reporter's dispatch. Indeed, one realizes that the whole thing is a kind of scrambled James T. Farrell novel. (pp. 10-11)
Jose Yglesias, "Lackluster Prose Experiment," in Bookletter (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine Company; excerpted from the April 28, 1975, issue by special permission), April 28, 1975, pp. 10-11.
Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral is huge, almost a quarter of a million words, and manages that bulk with often amazing skill. On the one hand it is a panoramic novel, about dictatorship, squalor, and despair … that shows how limited and paralyzing decent responses must be under conditions of oppression and decay. On the other hand it is terribly elaborate technically, a dense inter-weaving of conversations, juxtaposed without explanation or warning, framed by a conversation in a bar called The Cathedral between the son and the former chauffeur of a wealthy businessman. Vargas Llosa has an excellent instinct for how much time and place shifting and cutting we can take, so that just when one thinks he is getting too close to imitating Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch and is playing games for their own sake, he relaxes back into simpler panoramic realistic story-telling. When the technique is working well, which must be at least half the time, he traps the present and the past with each other very nicely, erodes hopes into despair without a touch of self-pity or authorial self-regard.
What limits Conversation in the Cathedral is that it probably would be a better movie than it is a novel. The private history of Peru is seen externally, as though feelings and actions were always coherent. The cuttings in time and space are essentially a cinematic technique, so what is lost in prolonged consideration of character seeks to be balanced by suggestive metaphoric effects in juxtapositions. For a six hundred page novel this suggestiveness, this externality, comes to seem a little pat, but for a two-hour movie it could be very exciting. Conversation in the Cathedral is immensely knowing, and so it makes a reader feel knowing; it is an excellent rather than a moving novel, not great, but very good. (pp. 619-20)
Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76.