Vargas Llosa, Mario (Vol. 85)
Mario Vargas Llosa 1936–
(Full name Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa) Peruvian novelist, critic, essayist, journalist, short story writer, and playwright.
The following entry focuses on Vargas Llosa's fiction, presenting criticism published between 1986 and 1991. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 3, 6, 9, 10, 15, 31, and 42.
A major figure in contemporary literature, Vargas Llosa is respected for his insightful examination of social themes and for the craftsmanship of his work. Best known for his novels, he 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. Suzanne Jill Levine commented on the significance of his artistic accomplishment: "With an ambition worthy of such masters of the nineteenth-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."
Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 in Arequipa, Peru. He attended schools in Lima, including the Leoncio Prado military school. His early school experiences served as the basis for the novella Los cachorros (1967) and the novel La ciudad y los perros (1963; The Time of the Hero). In 1952 in Piura, while finishing high school, he contributed articles to a local newspaper and wrote a play. In 1953 Vargas Llosa enrolled in law and literature courses at San Marcos University in Lima. He married a distant relative in 1955 and worked several part-time jobs while attempting to begin a writing career; he later depicted this phase of his life in the novel La tía Julia y el escribidor (1977; Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter). In 1957 his short stories began to appear in journals and newspapers; he also became a coeditor of the literary journals Cuadernos de composición and Literatura. The next year, his story "El desafio" 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. After finishing his graduate studies, Vargas Llosa worked at a radio and television network in Paris. There 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 in 1962 with 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 in public discussions on fiction writing; the record of their conversations was published as La novela en América Latina (1968). In addition to fiction, he has published dramas, most notably the highly acclaimed La señorita de Tacna (1981), and several highly respected volumes of literary criticism. 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 back down. 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 elections.
Vargas Llosa often addresses the nature of Peruvian life in his writings. For example, Conversacíon en la catedral (1969; Conversation in the Cathedral) is set in Lima and depicts a society torn by corruption and political strife. Also taking place in Peru, the events of The Time of the Hero depict the experiences of boys at a military academy and serve to illustrate the nature of violence, moral decay, and social conformity. Another story, The Green House, portrays numerous characters from both the jungles and the settled areas of Peru who share modest ambitions for their lives. In addition to examining social themes, Vargas Llosa commonly experiments with complex narrative designs. For example, in The Green House he employs a montage-like arrangement of rapidly shifting settings and points of view, while the complicated circumstances of Conversation in the Cathedral are related during the course of a single, lengthy conversation between two acquaintances. In Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, half of the chapters portray a young man, who aspires to be a great fiction writer, coming of age in a romantic relationship; interspersed with these episodes are soap opera stories ostensibly composed by a radio scriptwriter. Less concerned with formal experimentation, La guerra del fin del mundo (1981; The War of the End of the World) focuses on a series of battles fought between a group of social outcasts and forces representing a newly established republic; the novel is based on Os sertões (1903), an epic account of a Brazilian war by eyewitness Euclides da Cunha. In Historia de Mayta (1984; The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta) the fictional narrator conducts a journalistic investigation of the life of the title character, a Trotskyite who led a failed rebellion against the Peruvian government in the late 1950s.
Vargas Llosa's works, along with those of García Márquez, Fuentes, and others, are largely responsible for the international recognition of Latin American contributions to modern literature. In addition to the attention garnered by his first two novels, Vargas Llosa was also widely praised for his ambitious two-volume novel, Conversation in the Cathedral, though some reviewers found its labyrinthine structure difficult to comprehend. Although most critics have lauded Vargas Llosa's technical skill, a few have objected that in his early novels he pursued style and narrative complexity to the detriment of character development. Nevertheless, these early works are esteemed as astutely constructed microcosms of South American society, consistent with Vargas Llosa's concern with the dynamics and shortcomings of Latin American politics and culture. Perhaps most importantly, commentators agree that in all of his fiction Vargas Llosa successfully provides social commentary without subordinating his artistry to didacticism.
∗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
La novela (essay) 1966
∗Los cachorros: Pichula Cuéllar (novella) 1967
"La literatura es fuego" ["Literature Is Fire"] (speech) 1967
La novela en América Latina: Diálogo [with Gabriel García Márquez] (essays) 1968
Conversación en la catedral. 2 vols. [Conversation in the Cathedral] (novel) 1969
García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio (criticism) 1971
Historia secreta de una novela (essay) 1971
García Márquez y la problemática de la novela [with Ángel Rama] (criticism) 1973
†Pantaleón y las visitadoras [Captain Pantoja and the Special Service] (novel) 1973
La orgía perpétua: 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
José María Arguedas: Entre sapos y halcones (criticism) 1978
La guerra del fin del mundo [The War of the End of the World] (novel) 1981
‡La señorita de Tacna: Pieza en dos actos (drama) 1981
Entre Sartre y Camus (essays) 1982
‡Kathie y el hipopótamo: Comedia en dos actos (drama) 1983
Historia de Mayta [The Real...
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SOURCE: "Epilogue: Literature Is Fire," translated by Maureen Ahern De Maurer, in Doors and Mirrors: Fiction and Poetry from Spanish America, 1920–1970, edited by Hortense Carpentier and Janet Brof, Grossman Publishers, 1972, pp. 430-35.
[Vargas Llosa delivered the famous speech "Literature Is Fire" in Caracas, Venezuela, upon acceptance of the 1967 Rómulo Gallegos Prize, which he was awarded for The Green House. In the following excerpt from that speech, he expounds on the writer's vocation as the critic and conscience of society.]
In general, the Latin American writer has lived and written under exceptionally difficult circumstances because our societies assembled a cold and almost perfect machinery to discourage and kill in him his vocation. That vocation, in addition to being beautiful, is absorbing and tyrannical and demands of its skilled total involvement. How could they make of literature an exclusive calling, a militant cause, if they lived surrounded by people who in their majority did not know how to read or could not buy books, or who in their minority had no inclination to read? Without publishers, without readers, without a cultural environment that stimulated and pushed him, the Latin American writer has been a man who fought battles knowing full well from the very beginning that he would lose them. His vocation was not recognized by society, it was barely tolerated; he couldn't...
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SOURCE: "Broken Blossoms," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIII, No. 5, March 27, 1986, pp. 34-8.
[Wood is an English-born educator, critic, and screenwriter. In the following excerpt, he praises the narrative technique of The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta while finding that Vargas Llosa fails to communicate his intended philosophical themes.]
Until recently Latin American fiction was preoccupied with forms of helplessness. History was seen as farce or fable, an endless parade of ogres and thieves. Decent people could watch it, run from it, hide in it, subject it to mockery, ravel it in fantasy. What they couldn't do was change it. The Cuban revolution suggested that the helplessness was willed rather than fated, a victory of irony and schism and despair over action, but this lesson only deepened the problem. The parade continued in most places, and a lack of historical necessity never made anyone's plight less real. Indeed, much of the energy of the so-called boom in Latin American writing, chiefly associated with the work of García Márquez, Fuentes, Donoso, and Vargas Llosa, seems to have come from a new awareness of how much style and imagination had been devoted to life in an impasse: a cultural triumph, no less, the preservation of wit, even gaiety, through a hundred years of turpitude.
The preoccupation of Latin American writers now, it appears, is not with...
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SOURCE: "The History of a Passion: Introduction to Mario Vargas Llosa," in Mario Vargas Llosa, Ungar, 1986, 202 p.
[In the following excerpt, Williams provides an overview of Vargas Llosa's career and the literary, social, and political contexts that influenced his writing.]
Mario Vargas Llosa is the prodigy of the writers associated with the "boom" of Latin American literature. With the possible exception of Carlos Fuentes, he has also been the most prolific. By the mid-1970s, this disciplined Peruvian—at that time still not forty years old—had published enough for three respectable lifetime careers. First, he was the renowned creator of five novels; second, he was an academic scholar, author of two critical studies and numerous articles; and third, he was a journalist widely read throughout the Hispanic world.
By 1966, at the age of thirty, Vargas Llosa was already one of the most prominent writers in Latin America. That year he was awarded the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in Caracas, the most prestigious honor a novelist can receive in Latin America. Since then, his international reputation has grown remarkably. Most of his fiction has been translated into English and there have been numerous studies of his work; in the late 1970s he was named President of the International PEN Club; by the 1980s his name has been included in the list of potential candidates for the Nobel Prize....
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SOURCE: "Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral: Power Politics in a Corrupt Society," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 493-509.
[An American educator and critic who specializes in the study of Modernist literature, Rossman is the author and the editor of several books about D. H. Lawrence. In the following essay, he focuses on characterization in his examination of the themes and ideas presented in Conversation in the Cathedral.]
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SOURCE: "Mario Vargas Llosa: The Case of the Vanishing Hero," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 510-19.
[In the following excerpt, Davis asserts that The War of the End of the World. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and Who Killed Palomino Molero? feature antiheroes.]
During the course of a career that now spans more than twenty years, Mario Vargas Llosa has imagined an entire narrative universe, a cosmos whose atomic structure is made up of characters of several clearly recognizable types. Although he has been criticized for a shift in intensity since the publication of Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service) (1973), Vargas Llosa has continued the steady fabrication of his own history of Peru. The actual history of Peru forms a parallel motif in these complex novels, and, particularly in the later ones, the disillusionment of the author with the political process now evident in the twentieth century approximates that slow fall from idealism into gritty reality that commonly is the destiny of his characters.
The three novels published to date in the eighties, La guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World) (1981), La historia de Mayta (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta) (1984), and ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (Who Killed Palomino Molero?) (1986), all immerse the...
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SOURCE: "A Reading of Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. XV, No. 29, January-June, 1987, pp. 133-39.
[In the following excerpt, Guzman contends that the political interpretation of The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is key to a full understanding of the novel.]
The Latin American literary "Boom" of the Sixties remains one of the very few triumphant happenings ever to spring from that troubled and unhappy region of the world. In fact, widely different kinds of reading audiences enjoyed the magical quality of the novels produced in those years. Some read them because they were tired of European literary fashions such as the Nouveau Roman and, more generally speaking, because there was a wide-spread desire for reading experiences different from the ones afforded by novels produced in Europe or the United States. These audiences delighted in reading accounts of heroic deeds performed by characters convinced that there was such a thing as good and evil. They also delighted in a set of novels that, unlike the prevailing European trend, were not written primarily to attack the very concept of the novel.
Today we know that the "Boom" was the result of a variety of factors. Among the most important of these was the role played by the business interests of the Catalonian printing houses which were later joined by other European...
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SOURCE: "Resisting the Big Guys," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXIII, No. 27, August 24, 1987, pp. 83-6.
[Considered an extraordinary stylist and a perceptive observer of the human condition, Updike is one of America's most distinguished men of letters. Best known for such novels as Rabbit Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990), he is a chronicler of life in Protestant, middle-class America. In the following excerpt, he finds that Who Killed Palomino Molero? is a compelling portrait of racism in Latin America and of virtue amid pervasive corruption.]
The Peruvian man of letters Mario Vargas Llosa is almost too good to be true; cosmopolitan, handsome, and versatile, he puts a pleasant and reasonable face on the Latin-American revolution in the novel, and, in such gracious public performances as his panel appearances in New York last year and in Washington this, makes everybody, even North Americans, feel better about being a writer. Yet his fiction has a gritty side, a mode in which the ugly native truths of poverty and brutality abrasively rub through his urbane inventiveness. His recent The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, while in a sense mocking the unreal aspirations and clammy psyche of its Trotskyite hero, also conveyed the sour taste and decaying texture of modern-day Lima and in some of its incidental episodes...
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SOURCE: "Mario Vargas Llosa's The Green House: Modernist Novel from Peru," in The Modernists, Studies in a Literary Phenomenon: Essays in Honor of Harry T. Moore, edited by Lawrence B. Gamache and Ian S. MacNiven, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987, pp. 261-74.
[In the following essay, Rossman studies The Green House as a modernist novel.]
Mario Vargas Llosa spent the first nine years of his life outside his native Peru, in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Then, in 1945, he moved with his family to Piura, a provincial town in the coastal desert some five hundred miles north of Lima and nearly a thousand miles from his birthplace far to the south, Arequipa. The family spent only a year in Piura before moving on to Lima. Nevertheless, Vargas Llosa remembers that year as the most formative period of his life.
In Piura, a startling new world engraved itself on the nine-year-old's imagination. There he had his first glimpse of the ocean and of the dunes of blowing, desert sands. There he was intrigued by the sights and sounds of the Mangachería, a tough neighborhood where many of the people lived in mud huts but where, nevertheless, a vivid nightlife of bars and musicians flourished. Above all, the young Vargas Llosa's imagination was piqued by a mysterious, green house on the sandy outskirts of town, a building that lay strangely silent by day but exploded with music and laughter...
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SOURCE: "Feeling the Hot Breath of Civilization," in The New York Times Book Review, October 29, 1989, pp. 1, 49-50.
[An American novelist and critic, Le Guin is considered one of the most important authors in contemporary science fiction and fantasy literature. Her works have been especially praised for their style, rich inventiveness, and deep humanism. In the following excerpt, she praises The Storyteller, contending that Vargas Llosa's imaginative rendering of a preserved ancient culture provokes much-needed self-examination by modern society.]
We human beings long to get the world under our control and to make other people act just like us. In the last few centuries, some of us—variously described as the White Man, the West, the Colonial Powers, Industrial Civilization, the March of Progress—found out how to do it. The result is that now many of us all over the world are eating hamburgers at McDonald's. Since other results include forests destroyed for pasture for the cattle to make the hamburgers, and oceans suffocated by the waste products of making plastic boxes for the hamburgers, the success of the White Man's control of the world is debatable; but his success in making other people act just like him is not. No culture that has come in contact with Western industrial culture has been unchanged by it, and most have been assimilated or annihilated, surviving only as vestigial...
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SOURCE: An interview, translated by Susannah Hunnewell, in The Paris Review, Vol. 32, No. 116, Fall, 1990, pp. 46-72.
[In the following interview, Vargas Llosa speaks on several subjects, including authors and literature that have influenced him, the creative process, and the significance of writing in his life.]
[Setti]: You are a well-known writer and your readers are familiar with what you've written. Will you tell us what you read?
[Vargas Llosa]: In the last few years, something curious has happened. I've noticed that I'm reading less and less by my contemporaries and more and more by writers of the past. I read much more from the nineteenth century than from the twentieth. These days, I lean perhaps less toward literary works than toward essays and history. I haven't given much thought to why I read what I read…. Sometimes it's professional reasons. My literary projects are related to the nineteenth century: an essay about Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, or a novel inspired by the life of Flora Tristan, a Franco-Peruvian social reformer and "feminist" avant-la-lettre. But then I also think it's because at fifteen or eighteen, you feel as if you have all the time in the world ahead of you. When you turn fifty, you become aware that your days are numbered and that you have to be selective. That's probably why I don't read my contemporaries as much....
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SOURCE: "A Materialist Look at Eros," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVI, No. 33, October 1, 1990, pp. 107-10.
[Below, Updike describes Vargas Llosa's erotic novel, In Praise of the Stepmother, as a work that vividly and seriously treats the subject of sex and sensuality.]
Literature owes a debt to the Peruvian electorate, for recently declining to elect Mario Vargas Llosa to the thankless position of being their President. So elegant, pessimistic, and Europeanized a literary performer's candidacy for this high office, amid the perils of terrorism and the sludge of daily speechifying, seems, at our distance, even more mysterious than Norman Mailer's campaign for the New York mayoralty or Gore Vidal's gracious offer, some years ago, to serve as a senator from California. Novelists presumably understand the workings of the world, and perhaps would govern no worse than lawyers, movie stars, or retired oilmen, but why anyone with an opportunity to create imperishable texts would want to exhaust his body and fry his brain in the daily sizzle of power brokerage lies quite beyond my own imagining. At any rate, the good people of Peru, with the masses' customarily sound instinct, turned from the novelist, once the odds-on favorite, to a Japanese-Peruvian agronomical engineer, thereby releasing Vargas Llosa to the contemplative solitude and part-time irresponsibility necessary for artistic creation. He has been...
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SOURCE: "Transforming a Lie into Truth: A Metaphor of the Novelist's Task," in National Review, New York, Vol. XLII, October 15, 1990, pp. 68-70.
[In the following essay, which is adapted from his A Writer's Reality, Vargas Llosa explains that he intended The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta to expose the role of fictions in life.]
I am aware that a writer does not have the last word about what he has written; that in many cases a critic or reader can have a better understanding of the writer's work. This was the case with my novel The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. My goals were not what readers imagined, although I'm not saying the readers were wrong. In fact, it may be that my planning and conscious work were less important than the intervention of my unconscious.
The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta has been read mostly as a political book, and in many cases has been considered an essay about violence and revolution in Latin America—a political statement disguised in novel form, the essence of which is the description of an objective historical reality. That was not my intention. I was, of course, using political ideology and historical facts as raw materials, but my goal was literary, not political. In my opinion, a novel should create an illusion of reality—whatever that may be—and is not a genre suited to political statements.
As is the...
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SOURCE: "Cinematography and The War of the End of the World," in Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, 247 p.
[Castro-Klarén is a Peruvian-born educator specializing in Latin American literature. In the following excerpt, she studies the plot of The War of the End of the World, comparing Vargas Llosa's narrative to Euclides da Cunha's Os sertões (1903), on which it is based.]
In many of the interviews given by Mario Vargas Llosa since the publication of his first novel, The Time of the Hero, he has freely spoken of himself as a dedicated and voracious movie fan and of the influence that cinema has had on his narrative strategies. [In "The Green House: Formal Experimentation and Marginal Territories" in my Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa, Luis A. Diez and I have] endeavored to show how many of Vargas Llosa's narrative innovations are closely linked to the speed and montage of cinematographic narrative. His interest in the melodramatic side of Mexican blockbuster movies has also been documented in the truculent and even grotesque configuration of the characters and stories of Captain Pantoja and the Special Service and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.
In 1973 the Brazilian movie director Rui Guerra was planning to make a film based on the classical Brazilian essay Os Sertões (1903...
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Perry, Larry Stephen. "Mario Vargas Llosa: A Checklist, 1952–1984." Bulletin of Bibliography 43, No. 4 (December 1986): 235-47.
An extensive primary bibliography introduced by a brief overview of Vargas Llosa's career and literary concerns.
Marzorati, Gerald. "Can a Novelist Save Peru?" The New York Times Magazine (5 November 1989): 45, 47, 100, 102, 104, 106.
Examines Vargas Llosa's political hopes and intentions apropos his campaign for the presidency of Peru.
Alter, Robert. "The Metamorphosis." The New Republic 202, Nos. 2-3 (8 & 15 January 1990): 41-2.
Finds that, in The Storyteller, the title character shows "how the act of narrative invention gives us a human handle on birth, sex, and death; sky, earth, and water; pain and healing; animal, vegetable, and human—everything that inspires perplexity and wonder and threatens to defy human control."
Castillo, Debra A. "The Uses of History in Vargas Llosa's Historia de Mayta." Inti 24-25 (Fall-Spring 1986–87): 79-98.
Maintains that The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta revolves around "the narrator's...
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