Like most Spanish American novelists writing since the 1960’s, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has made his reputation with complex novels that present both a gripping story and a formidable challenge to the reader. Two of the author’s earliest works, for example, The Green House (1965) and Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), both written at the height of the Spanish American novel’s “Boom” period, are works with intriguing stories and texts that provide even the most “initiated” reader with considerable difficulties. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta belongs to what many have called the “post-Boom” era (characterized by “smaller” stories told in a somewhat more straightforward manner), but it too provides the reader with an interesting tale as well as an invigorating reading experience.
Set in a fictitious 1983 Peru beseiged by Communist insurgents and United States Marines, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta follows the travels of an unidentified first-person narrator doing research for a novel that he wants to write on his former schoolmate, Alejandro Mayta. Mayta had been an “obscure revolutionary militant who twenty-five years ago, for a brief moment, flashed like a bolt of lightning.” Mayta’s “bolt of lightning” was an attempted uprising in the Peruvian mountains in 1958. Rather than spark a nationwide revolution, as was the plan, the attempted revolt failed to the point of being almost comic in its ineptness. Now, the narrator discovers, the episode has been forgotten by most; even those who do remember it are unable to agree on the details that surround it. Most of the people with whom the narrator speaks consider Mayta and his unsuccessful uprising so insignificant and so lost in past history that they ask the narrator why he would bother to write a book on the subject. He continues his investigations, however, gathering all the information he can on the period between Mayta’s first meeting with Vallejos, a major influence on Mayta and his partner in the uprising, and the revolt that never quite got off the ground. The first-person reports that the narrator receives from those who knew Mayta are skillfully intertwined with the narrator’s own largely third-person accounts of past episodes based in large measure on what he is told by eyewitnesses. This narrative constitutes the first nine chapters of the book. The tenth and final chapter records the narrator’s meeting with Mayta himself, now out of prison and working in an ice-cream shop.
As he does in all of his novels, Vargas Llosa populates The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta with a variety of captivating characters. One of these is the narrator himself. He is interesting not simply because he remains nameless (though he bears a striking resemblance to author Vargas Llosa), but also because he seems at once intent on writing Mayta’s story and yet appears so eager to alter that story and construct a version of it that will suit his needs as a novelist. His principal role is largely related to Vargas Llosa’s thematic interest in the relationship between fiction and reality and in an author’s manipulation of the truth in order to create fiction.
The central character of the novel-within-a-novel is Mayta himself. He is portrayed as a sensitive, naïve, and well-meaning individual who believes very deeply in the political theories of Leon Trotsky. He is a “professional revolutionary,” as Vallejos’ sister calls him. He is a revolutionary in theory only, however, not in action. Until he meets Vallejos, he is content to play the revolutionary by being a member of a seven-man group known as the Revolutionary Workers Party (Trotsky), or RWP(T), an organization whose only functions are to meet secretly in a small rented garage and to publish a leftist newspaper that hardly anyone outside the group itself bothers to read.
It is precisely Mayta’s revolutionary nature, coupled with his inability to act, that makes his relationship with Vallejos so intriguing and so central to Vargas Llosa’s (and the narrator’s) novel. Unlike Mayta, Vallejos is young, self-assured, effusive, a true man of action. The twenty-one-year-old second lieutenant makes up for what he lacks in knowledge of Marxist theory by possessing the willingness to take action, to do something about what he views as an unjust political system. He is therefore Mayta’s direct opposite. As he himself tells his friend Mayta, “I’m a man of action. You, you’re a theoretician.” Because of these two characters’ differences, because they complement each other so well, their bond is strong from the first time they meet. The middle-aged Mayta admires and envies his young colleague’s enthusiasm and instinctive revolutionary spirit, and after a bit of persuading on the part of Vallejos, Mayta seizes the opportunity to join in an act that will finally set his political theories into motion, an act that he sincerely, if naïvely, believes will lead Peru to a political paradise.
Though the narrator, Mayta, and Vallejos are the novel’s principal characters, they are not the only important characters in the work. Virtually every character that the narrator meets in his travels is important, as each one provides...