Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2717
Vargas Llosa was considered a prodigy among the Latin American authors who emerged during the so-called literary boom of the early 1960’s. His love affair with literature and writing began very early. He recalls the pleasure that he found in reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), the tales of Sinbad the Sailor from One Thousand and One Nights, and other stories. During his adolescence, he immersed himself in the French novel. He learned through his readings the characteristics of modern fiction and began to assess the effects of narrative techniques. In addition, his readings introduced him to the works of Henry Miller, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Jorge Luis Borges, and William Faulkner.
An overview of Vargas Llosa’s works provides an insight into his narrative techniques and themes. In his first novel, The Time of the Hero, which is the story of a young cadet, Vargas Llosa’s cinematographic techniques, multiple character point of view, disturbed chronology, and incorporation of taboo language effectively portray the marginalized sectors of society. The military academy Leoncio Prado, where the novel takes place, becomes a fictional microcosm of Peruvian society and its ills.
By the time this book was published in 1962, Vargas Llosa had become concerned with the role of the writer in society. This preoccupation became evident in a speech, “Social Commitment and the Latin American Writer,” that he delivered at the conference held in his honor at the University of Oklahoma in 1977. In this speech, he stated the difference between Latin American writers and writers from Western Europe and the United States. In order to fulfill their mission, the former must rigorously uphold their artistic values and their originality to enrich the language and the culture of their countries. On the other hand, Latin American writers must also assume a social responsibility.
His social preoccupations, along with his craftsmanship, were also evident in his second novel, The Green House. It is a complex novel developed through five different plotlines that take place simultaneously in two Peruvian locales. Although The Green House seems to be a structural puzzle that the reader must solve, the themes of frustration and victimization are evident. Individuals are abused for economic gain or for religious reasons.
The victimization of an entire generation through political oppression is the main theme of his next novel, Conversation in the Cathedral. This work provides a panoramic view of Peruvian society during the dictatorship of General Manuel Odria from 1948 until 1956. The reader becomes aware that the brutality of this regime spread through all of Peru. Technically speaking, this novel presents on a larger scale some of the stylistic and structural characteristics of Vargas Llosa’s previous novels. The plot development appears fragmented and the characters’ relationships become at times extremely complex. Yet the theme that emerges constitutes an indictment against political regimes that bring about social depravity.
Vargas Llosa demonstrates new thematic and stylistic trends with the publication of Captain Pantoja and the Special Service and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. These works exhibit a simpler plot development than prior works. In Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, Vargas Llosa satirizes the Peruvian army and ridicules the members of a religious cult. Pantoja, a man endowed with maniacal organizational skills, is charged with the secret task of creating a squad of prostitutes to visit the military posts located in the jungle. He carries out his job with such dedication that he becomes entangled in a web of absurd adventures that produce hilarious results. Although this novel is a light, comic narrative, it contains a serious theme—the social evils of any sort of fanaticism.
The War of the End of the World is a historical novel that narrates an upheaval in the backlands of Brazil in the late nineteenth century. As in other works by Vargas Llosa, the reader finds two main settings in this novel: Bahia, a coastal city, and Canudos, a religious community. An argument arises among the conservative (yet also revolutionary) peasant masses, Bahia’s urban politicians, and the new Brazilian republican central government. This dispute rapidly acquires the proportions of a civil war of catastrophic consequences. Using cinematographic techniques such as close-ups (Vargas Llosa’s first involvement with the Canudos material was when the Brazilian filmmaker Rui Guerra asked him to write a script for a film based on it), Vargas Llosa makes the reader aware of the horrors of war. Moreover, the writer emphasizes the lethal consequences of all ideological fanaticism. The work was inspired by the Brazilian writer Euclides daCunha’s great nonfiction account of the Canudos revolt, Os Sertoes (1902; Rebellion in the Backlands, 1944).
In some of Vargas Llosa’s later works there appears yet another preoccupation—an insistent inquiring into the nature of writing. The author investigates the process of writing, the creation of fiction, and the difference between a real writer and a scribbler. Some works included in this category are Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (1986; Who Killed Palomino Molero?, 1987), Historia de Mayta (1984; The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, 1986), and even The Storyteller. In The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, there is the presence of a writer-narrator who announces that he is going to reconstruct the unknown or ignored story of the Peruvian leftist revolutionary Alejandro Mayta. He states that it will be a fictional story, but one that will carry the truth of fiction. Moreover, as the writer begins to produce Mayta’s story, he reflects on the question of bringing about changes in Peruvian society through revolutionary means. It turns out that Mayta is an insignificant individual who never was able to launch his revolution. At the end of the novel, the apparent underlying theme is intimately related to the production of fiction and the nature of fiction itself.
A new theme appears in Vargas Llosa’s novel In Praise of the Stepmother, for in it the reader is confronted with the presence of evil in innocence and the difficulties of utopias. It narrates the story of a man who thinks that he has a perfect grip on life until his wicked child seduces his stepmother. This book has some of the characteristics of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and The Storyteller, for it presents two clearly noticeable textual divisions.
In sum, the novels of Vargas Llosa move gradually from extremely complex structures to simpler works with substantial themes that are more appealing to the general public. Some critics asserted that there was a correlation between this development and his rightward move politically; as he wrote in more traditional forms, his politics moved more toward the mainstream.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
First published: La tía Julia y el escribidor, 1977 (English translation, 1982)
Type of work: Novel
An eighteen-year-old boy struggling to become a writer marries his uncle’s sister-in-law, who is twelve years his senior.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter has become one of Vargas Llosa’s most popular novels and has been freely adapted for film under the title Tune in Tomorrow (1990); the film was in English and its setting moved to 1950’s New Orleans. Like other novels by this author, this narrative presents two definite textual portions telling two different types of stories. The first story depicts the autobiographical account of the narrator’s love affair with his aunt by marriage, Julia. This relationship causes an uproar in the narrator’s family, for Julia is not only a distant relative but also a divorcé from Bolivia who is twelve years older than the narrator. Hence, the lovers must elope.
The second textual track contains segments of soap operas composed supposedly by Pedro Camacho, the scriptwriter who figures in the title of the novel. Camacho, a machinelike writer of radio soap operas, eventually overloads his memory and has a nervous breakdown, bringing catastrophic consequences to his works. His characters become entangled in different stories, and situations become chaotic, culminating in apocalyptic tragedies in which the characters expire en masse.
Vargas Llosa’s skillfulness becomes evident when he occasionally brings together those two different tracks. These points of contact occur when the narrator’s personal affairs begin to acquire the characteristics of Camacho’s melodramatic sagas and also when people around the narrator bring up the occurrences in Camacho’s stories. The two evident tracks touch each other in this manner. Nevertheless, in between those two plotlines there lies the story of the narrator, who is desperately struggling to become a successful writer. He is searching for ways to achieve realism in fiction. When he urgently needs funds to sustain his relationship with Julia, he engages in a frantic writing activity that his friend Javier calls prostituting one’s pen. Javier means that the narrator is producing book reviews and articles for mere profit. The narrator finds this type of writing disgusting, too. On the other hand, when he writes a short narrative, he eagerly shares it with Javier and Julia. Unfortunately, they consistently find his stories unrealistic.
Although Camacho is very successful, the narrator dislikes his style. The scriptwriter’s work is a type of wholesale writing to be sent over the air waves for the masses to enjoy. The narrator, however, cannot help but admire Camacho’s tenacity and his fanatical dedication to his work. In the final chapter of the novel, the reader knows that the narrator has finally found the kind of writing for which he longs. Nevertheless, one sees Camacho reduced to a disgraceful state. He has turned into a simple gofer for a sensationalist newspaper. Thus, the roles of the narrator and of Camacho are reversed in terms of success and productivity. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter constitutes an artistic and humorous novel. In it, Vargas Llosa disguises one of his major themes: the inner workings of creative writing.
First published: El hablador, 1987 (English translation, 1989)
Type of work: Novel
An autobiographical narrator tells the story of a Jewish friend who becomes a storyteller among the Machiguenga Indians of the Peruvian jungle.
Vargas Llosa initiates The Storyteller with the presence of an author-narrator who, while strolling the streets of Florence, sees an exhibit of photographs depicting Peruvian Indians. He notices that one of the photographs shows what he believes to be a Machiguenga storyteller surrounded by his listeners. This encounter prompts him to recall a journey to the upper Marañón River in the Peruvian jungle and his keen interest in the Machiguenga Indians. At the same time, the photographs unleash memories of his Jewish friend Saúl Zurata at San Marcos University, who was well versed in the ways of the Machiguenga.
In the second chapter, the story leaps to the past; the reader becomes acquainted with Zurata, who, from the beginning, appears to be a specially marked individual. He bears an enormous wine-colored birthmark that covers the entire right side of his face and that earns him the nickname Mascarita (Little Mask). Although he is apparently not bothered by unkind comments on his external appearance, and although he seems open and uncomplicated, the reader suspects that he secretly harbors feelings of alienation. One comes to this conclusion when the narrator points out Zurata’s singular affinity for Franz Kafka’s writings, especially Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), which he knows by heart. This short story by Kafka centers on Gregor Samsa, a character who is so alienated from his world that one morning he wakes up and discovers that he has turned into an enormous, repugnant insect.
After the presentation of Zurata, the novel presents two well-defined textural divisions. Chapters that present the narrator’s relationship with Zurata alternate with chapters in which a Machiguenga storyteller is the sole narrative voice.
The storyteller’s discourse depicts the way of life of the Machiguenga, including their rituals, cosmogony, and system of beliefs. One of the most noteworthy accomplishments of Vargas Llosa in these portions of the novel is the creation of Machiguenga speech. It is a mythic narrative style of soothing simplicity that seems to flow forever, joining one story to the next without noticeable pauses. The reader sees the Machiguenga always walking, always moving toward a more secure spot near a river. The author-narrator, who derives great pleasure from probing his Jewish friend about his knowledge of ethnology, is deeply disappointed when, on accepting a scholarship to Spain, he loses contact with Zurata, who seems to disappear into thin air. A missionary mentions having heard the unending discourse of a Machiguenga storyteller, which prompts the author-narrator to want to know more about this person. This storyteller is an albino with an immense wine-colored birthmark on the right side of his face, which reveals to the reader that the Machiguenga storyteller is Zurata. In addition, the reader finds the storyteller identifying himself as Gregor Tasurinchi and narrating a horrifying experience; he dreams that he has turned into an enormous, repugnant insect.
The Feast of the Goat
First published: La fiesta del Chivo, 2000 (English translation, 2001)
Type of work: Novel
This historical novel centers around the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo—the “goat” of the title—in the Dominican Republic.
The Feast of the Goat has two narrative strands: one set during the time leading up to Trujillo’s assassination and the other set more than thirty years later and focusing on Urania Cabral, a middle-aged businesswoman who remembers her youth under the Trujillo regime. Now living in the United States, Urania returns to Santo Domingo, the capital city that during Trujillo’s administration was renamed Ciudad Trujillo after the dictator. Urania’s trip leads her into reveries and evocations of the traumatic political past of her youth. Her father had been a confidante of Trujillo’s, and his collusion with the dictator led to Urania’s sexual abuse.
As an adult, Urania is celibate and lonely, despite being professionally accomplished. This sexlessness contrasts with the fervid sexual power of many of Vargas Llosa’s other heroines, such as Jurema in The War of the End of the World or the title character in Travesuras de la niña mala (2006; The Bad Girl, 2007), as well as the more creative ebullience of Flora Tristan in El paraíso en la otra esquina (2003; The Way to Paradise, 2003). Vargas Llosa has often linked the sexuality in his work to the twentieth century French thinker Georges Bataille’s ideas of excess and expenditure; in contrast, Urania’s asexuality indicates a certain vacancy in her consciousness that still enables it to operate in a keen, observant fashion.
Urania is the muse of astronomy; Urania Cabral’s lack of physical connection with her own sexuality and with the Dominican Republic from which she has long been exiled give her a valuable perspective upon the legacy of dictatorship. What Urania looks back upon are the feverish last days leading up to Trujillo’s assassination on May 30, 1961, which results in the end of an era of dictatorship and its prolongation in a far less exhibitionistic form. Joaquín Balaguer, Trujillo’s long-standing right-hand man, outfoxed Trujillo’s son to gain control of the country. The inconspicuous Balaguer becomes an unlikely but ruthlessly effective successor to Trujillo; confirmed by ostensibly democratic elections he nearly always managed to win, he ended up ruling the country for a longer period of time than the more charismatic Trujillo.
Yet it is Trujillo who is the novel’s dominant character, and a good portion of the book is told from within his consciousness. Trujillo is politically masterful yet sexually frustrated, supreme over his own country yet subservient to the United States, which ultimately keeps him in power.
Vargas Llosa, who is often criticized for being too pro-American and too enthusiastic a proponent of free-market economic policies, here tacitly but decisively differentiates his own brand of democratic neoliberalism, which embraces transparency and multiculturalism, from the authoritarian and racist Trujillo. Vargas Llosa interweaves strands of fiction and history with an extraordinary discursive nimbleness, revealing at once the public aspects of Urania’s private trajectory and the deeply pathological inner correlates of Trujillo’s lust for power. Thoroughly based on history, Vargas Llosa’s novel nonetheless crackles with the inventiveness of the alertly observed.
The novel was adapted into a Spanish-language feature film, La fiesta del chivo, released in 2005 with Isabella Rossellini in the role of Urania Cabral.