Vargas Llosa, Mario 1936–
Born in Arequipa, Vargas Llosa is one of Latin America's most respected novelists. His best known work is La Casa Verde.
It was obvious from the beginning that [Vargas Llosa] was a man with a big natural talent and the dedication to go with it. Here was someone who knew what he was doing and had the means to do it. He seemed to have been born with a golden touch. He had ease, power, self-assurance. Recognition had come to him quickly, but he had earned it honestly and could live up to its demands. There is a second novel now [La Casa Verde], bigger and better than the first [La Cuidad y los Perros]. It is a fiery tone poem in chromatic scale that scores on almost every level, raising the Latin-American novel to a new peak…. He represents a coming of age, a widening of perspectives. He writes about Peru, but his work has a satisfying complexity that gives it a more universal relevance….
In a country where economic factors, among others, have reduced literature to the status of a marginal activity, a sideline desultorily practiced by honorable but frustrated Sunday writers, he has distinguished himself for the sort of uncompromising single-mindedness that is a sure sign of authentic vocation. He manages to combine an unusual talent and sensibility with a rare seriousness and professionalism. So far he has shown less depth than temperament. But he is a solid builder. His characterizations, though sketchy, are skillfully patterned and have a kind of germinal force that can only come from healthy roots in rich soil. He is something of a brooder, who can torture a scene without, perhaps, sufficiently complicating its protagonists. But he can always sustain a dramatic moment. If he tends to reduce human nature to a few basic emotions, none of them particularly exalted, he is adroit in handling these emotions, often with tumultuous results. He has a special, Hemingway-like knack for crisp dialogue. A sharp eye for detail and expert timing help give his prose drive and density. He is at home in the world of the modern novel; he ranges freely through a large variety of literary techniques, exploiting them all to good advantage, without falling into mannerism. He is an expert structurer who balances the tensions of plot and character with an unfailing instinct for order and cohesion….
Vargas Llosa has been deeply marked—"poisoned," he says—by French literature. Back home, in secondary school, he discovered the great nineteenth-century French novelists. He was an assiduous, almost "maniacal," reader of Dumas and Victor Hugo, figures he still considers venerable. But his particular admiration is Flaubert….
La Ciudad y los Perros is a desperate search for wholeness. A sort of vicarious return to the womb of a lost reality. Vargas Llosa fights hard to minimize and eliminate the distance that separates him from it. The techniques he uses all serve this main purpose. They are means of seduction. Flashbacks, interior monologues, shifting points of view, all tend almost compulsively to sink us up to our ears in that festering hotbed in which the characters breed and incubate. The seductions are not always equally effective. At least one of them is a bit too coy. Vargas Llosa has the bad habit of withholding vital information….
Vargas Llosa works toward the complete grasp of a situation. He will write around a scene until he feels he has wholly encompassed it. There is, of course, the danger that too many devices will draw attention to themselves and defeat his whole purpose by running interference. They do sometimes. But he is skillful enough not to get stuck in the quagmire. A more serious drawback in his method is that it is antieconomical—circular, repetitious: a series of superpositions, backsteps, reconsiderations….
[But] multiple points of view help him out…. There is a Faulknerian trait in Vargas Llosa, who readily acknowledges the influence of the master of retrospection. But in matters of technique only, as he is quick to point out. There is an emotional Faulkner who is completely foreign to him. Emotions in Vargas Llosa are of the cloak-and-dagger kind. He distrusts psychological subtlety and subjectivity….
[It] is the old environmental Naturalist that we sense in Vargas Llosa. In his somewhat obsessive "realism" an old danger is reborn. External reality, if there is such a thing, is a quicksand. The man who abandons himself to it ends up being detached from himself. And so it is in the work of Vargas Llosa, where individualities get lost in the density of their surroundings. There are no people, only states of mind that materialize in particular situations. Their reactions are generic. The person, when he is implied at all, remains diffuse. He casts no shadow beyond his immediate presence, which is a shadow itself. His absence suggests a failure of vision on the author's part. Though, in fact, the omission is intentional….
Mockery, satire, irony, anything approaching humor in any way is taboo for Vargas Llosa. "I've always been completely immune to humor in literature," he says. For him, humor is a creator of distances…. But here, again, perhaps there are other factors to weigh. If so much of our literature is humorless, it may be because humor is antithetical to the epic tendency. For a man who works from a set of fixed coordinates, there is no room for such disruptive variants. And so it is with Vargas Llosa. He builds on the assumption that man is a calculable quantity whose relations with his immediate surroundings can be defined in accordance with a few primary rules of behavior that are universally applicable. There are never any unfathomables in Vargas Llosa. His blind creatures rush on a headlong course to a common fate that remains impersonal. Vargas Llosa is not a discoverer, he is a recorder. His surface turbulence emanates from wounds that may run deep but are tapped only at skin level, where they become palpable. His floating consciousnesses are physical effluvia. There is no inner man to support the outer gesture.
The virtues and limitations of a stubbornly objectivist narrative method are dramatically visible in the radiant but frustrating La Casa Verde. Technically—with Cortázar's Rayuela and Guimarães Rosa's Grande Sertão: Veredas—La Casa Verde is probably the most accomplished work of fiction ever to come out of Latin America. It has sweep, beauty, imaginative scope, and a sustained eruptive power that carries the reader from first page to last like a fish in a bloodstream. A huge circulatory system seems to be at work, irrigating every corner of the book with its countless veins and capillaries. Acts and events are mere shimmers, dots of dye tracing a tinted course as they wash along in the flow. Their pull is irresistible. After a few pages of mesmeric intensity, the reader goes down in a whirlpool. Were it not for its vastness, the book ought to be read at a single sitting: it has to be kept at fingertips, because, powerful as the verbal tow is, the sense evolving from it constantly hangs on a thread. Scenes overlap, different times and places overrun each other—the "hourglass" effect, here pushed to the limit—echoes precede voices, and disembodied consciences dissolve almost before they can be identified. There are few guidelines and a titanic effort, a lot of it spent on guesswork, is required to keep track of all the tenuous strands in the tapestry.
There are no advancing lines in La Casa Verde, only closing circles that spiral into each other. They meet and merge in a moment of violent interchange, then spin off again on their dizzying course like particles in an accelerator. In La Casa Verde man in his various psychic phases is little more than a momentary exhalation, a floating spirit on the waters, quickly drained of himself as his molecular image disintegrates.
If, in spite of its breath-taking sweep, its dazzlingly skillful patterning, its Joycean roll, La Casa Verde does not quite fulfill its potential, it is because it sometimes invests recklessly in areas that have no payload to deliver. It often goes into debt, and then defaults. As it grows, its intensity tends to lessen rather than increase, because a good part of the tension in early scenes is built on withheld information. We are kept in suspense over elementary facts that should be quickly disposed of. The plot is obscured. Identities are vague, circumstances undefined, consequences clearer than their causes. As things begin to fall into place toward the middle of the book, the law of diminishing returns sets in. There are too many surprises. They accumulate information, but not insight. Our curiosity, so sharply whetted and tantalized, is never really satisfied. There is a good story, we begin to realize, but little else. It is an end in itself. And that is not enough. Because underneath, we may suspect, there is another story, deeper, more significant, that remains untold, and, ultimately, undiscovered…. Vargas Llosa deliberately avoids subjectivity to fix his attention on objective reality. But, in attempting to penetrate the object—which is impenetrable—he simply infuses it with a subjective charge. The only way to avoid this would be to create independent psychologies among whom the charge could be distributed. Instead, because of the phenomenological approach to personality, we have floating appearances that at any given moment are no more or less than what they seem to be. Vargas Llosa's "hourglass," which ought to be an illuminated area where acts and gestures become meanings, turns out to be a revolving door that whirls us around and out at the same point where we came in.
Yet it may be in that same revolving door that the hope lies for Vargas Llosa as a novelist. If it leads nowhere definite yet, the force of its spin already establishes an orbit. What will be drawn into that orbit in the future depends on the author's field of vision. He has all the means to his end: style, powerful sources, stamina. The rest is a matter of focus.
Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann, "Mario Vargas Llosa, or The Revolving Door," in their Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers (copyright © 1967 by Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1967, pp. 342-75.