Mario Vargas Llosa 1936-
(Full name Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa) Peruvian novelist, critic, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, journalist, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Vargas Llosa's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 6, 9, 10, 15, 31, 42, and 85.
A major figure in contemporary literature, Vargas Llosa is respected for his insightful examination of social themes and for the craftsmanship of his work. Known primarily for such novels as El hablador (1987; The Storyteller) and Lituma en los Andes (1993; Death in the Andes, Vargas Llosa 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. His literary works can generally be divided into three periods according to major changes in his political outlook. In the 1960s Vargas Llosa was a Marxist who enthusiastically supported the Cuban Revolution. In the 1970s, after witnessing the authoritarianism of Fidel Castro's government, he became disillusioned with the Latin American Left and entered a neo-liberal phase during which he sought to strengthen human rights by actively supporting democracy and free market economies. After his failed bid for the Peruvian presidency in 1990, Vargas Llosa entered a third phase marked by a seeming pessimism on his part about the effectiveness of political action in the face of human frailty.
Vargas Llosa was born on March 28, 1936, in Arequipa, Peru. Although he was born into a middle-class family, Vargas Llosa's parents came from an aristocratic background and held ties with the Peruvian ruling class. At the time of his birth, his parents separated, leaving him to be raised as an only child in his maternal grandfather's home. His early schooling took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia, between 1937 and 1941. Later his grandfather moved to Piura, a city on the northern coast of Peru, where Vargas Llosa attended a private religious school. In 1950 his parents reunited and moved with Vargas Llosa to Lima. He spent two years at the Leoncio Prado military academy, returning to Piura to finish his last year of high school at the Colegio Nacional San Miguel de Piura while living with one of his mother's brothers. His early school experiences served as the basis for the novel La ciudad y los perros (1963; The Time of the Hero) and the novella Los cachorros (1967). In 1952, while finishing high school in Piura, Vargas Llosa contributed articles to a local newspaper and began writing stories and plays. In 1953 Vargas Llosa enrolled in law and literature courses at San Marcos University in Lima. While active in university politics, he also held part-time jobs as a newscaster, librarian, and journalist and worked closely with the historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea. He married a distant relative in 1955 and worked part-time jobs while attempting to start a writing career. His short stories began to appear in journals and newspapers in 1957. That same year, he became a co-editor of the literary journals Cuadernos de composición and Literatura. In 1959 his story “El desafío” 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, García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio (1971; García Márquez: Story of a Deicide. After finishing his graduate studies, Vargas Llosa worked as a journalist for Agence France-Presse and the French radio-television network, where 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 upon 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 on a series of interviews discussing fiction writing called La novela en América Latina (1968). In addition to his works of fiction and journalism, Vargas Llosa is also a playwright, best known for the highly acclaimed La señorita de Tacna: Pieza en dos actos (1981; The Young Lady from Tacna). 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 abandon the proposal. 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 election. Throughout his career, Vargas Llosa has won numerous awards and accolades, including the Peruvian Congressional Medal of Honor in 1981, the Chevalier d'Order des Arts et des Lettres in 1993, the Cervantes Prize for Literature in 1994, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism for Making Waves (1996).
Vargas Llosa is often associated with the flourishing of Latin American literature that occurred in the 1960s—known as the “Boom” period—when the production of major works by a number of Latin American authors led to international recognition of the importance of their contributions to modern literature. In his first novel, The Time of the Hero, Vargas Llosa comes to terms with his painful years at the Leoncio Prado military academy. Led by Jaguar, the leader of a gang of cadets, a first-year cadet named Cava steals an exam to share with his peers. Another cadet, nicknamed El Esclavo (The Slave), witnesses the theft, but the secret code of honor shared by the group silences all who know about the robbery. El Esclavo finally breaks down and reports the theft, and the school's military authorities launch an internal investigation, which degenerates into a series of lies and cover-ups. The novel reveals Vargas Llosa's strong antimilitaristic stance, a consistent theme throughout his work. The publication of The Time of the Hero prompted a strong protest by the Peruvian army, which organized a book burning at Leoncio Prado. Vargas Llosa's second novel, The Green House, is split between two distinctive geographical regions of Peru, the northern coastal city of Piura and Santa María de Nieva in the Amazon jungle. The intricate plot and narrative structure divide the book into four chapters and an epilogue to develop a five-story line. Each chapter in turn is carefully crafted to include multiple stories that are fragments the reader must organize themselves. However, the main points of reference for the novel's many characters are the lives of the two main characters, Sergeant Lituma and a girl named Bonifacia. Vargas Llosa continued to explore complex, atypical narrative structures with his ambitious two-volume novel Conversación en la Catedral (1969; Conversation in the Cathedral), which depicts a society torn by corruption and political strife. The complicated plot—set against the backdrop of Vargas Llosa's experience as a university student during the dictatorship of General Odría—is related by means of a single, lengthy conversation between two acquaintances.
Abandoning the blunt realism he used to explore government corruption and militarism in his previous works, Vargas Llosa turned to parody and satire in Pantaleón y las visitadoras (1973; Captain Pantoja and the Special Service). Captain Pantaleón Pantoja is a model officer who genuinely believes in the values of service, obedience, and discipline in the army. Commissioned by his superiors to organize a secret prostitution service for the sex-starved soldiers stationed in the Peruvian jungle, Pantaleón carries out his mission with military zeal, running the operation with enviable efficiency. Humor also serves as a key element in La tía Julia y el escribidor (1977; Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter). Half of the chapters portray a young man concurrently coming to age in a romantic relationship and aspiring to be a great fiction writer; interspersed with these episodes are soap opera stories ostensibly composed by a radio scriptwriter. Vargas Llosa concentrated less on experimentation with form in La guerra del fin del mundo (1981; The War of the End of the World) and Historia de Mayta (1984; The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta), which evince his interest in the artist's manipulation of factual material. Focusing on a series of battles between a group of social outcasts and forces representing a newly established republic, The War of the End of the World is based on Os sertões (1903), an epic account of a Brazilian war by eyewitness Euclides da Cunha. In The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, the fictional narrator conducts a journalistic investigation of the title character, a Trotskyite who led a failed rebellion against the Peruvian government in the late 1950s. The novel emphasizes the role of the narrator, who attempts to embellish the facts with fictional details that would enhance the impact of his story.
In The Storyteller, Vargas Llosa returns to the Amazon jungle of Peru, adding another piece to the author's growing narrative mosaic of social, cultural, and literary concerns from previous novels. The Storyteller tells of an Amazon Indian tribe, the Machiguengas, and in particular the life of the community's storyteller, Saúl Zuratas. The novel opens with the narrator—who closely resembles Vargas Llosa—remembering his college days with Zuratas before he abandoned his anthropological studies to live permanently with the Machiguengas. In a society without writing or rigid political or religious hierarchies, Zuratas' role as a storyteller becomes crucial to remember the tribe's history. Vargas Llosa experimented with eroticism in Elogio de la madrastra (1988; In Praise of the Stepmother), in which a widower named Don Rigoberto and his new wife, Doña Lucrecia, attempt to arouse each other by telling ribald stories inspired by classic paintings. A sequel to the novel, Los cuadernos de Don Rigoberto (The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto), was published in 1997. The plot follows Rigoberto after he separates from Doña because of a sexual encounter between her and her stepson, Fonchito, a precocious boy who has yet to reach puberty. Rigoberto misses Doña terribly, and to appease his loneliness he imagines, and writes about, her erotic life—with him as well as with other lovers.
Vargas Llosa's first novel after running for president in 1990, Death in the Andes, is set in his homeland amid the modern political and social strife evidenced by the rebellion of the Shining Path guerilla movement. In part a murder mystery, the novel follows Corporal Lituma as he ventures from his home in Peru's coastal region to a mountain village to investigate the disappearance of three men. Vargas Llosa blends fiction and fact in La fiesta del chivo (2000; The Feast of the Goat), concerning the former dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, and his death remains a cause for celebration in the Dominican Republic. Despite his cruelty and perversions, Trujillo was supported by the U.S. government since he was seen as being strongly anti-communist. Vargas Llosa tells the story of Urania Cabral, a successful New York City lawyer who was victimized by her father and Trujillo shortly before the dictator's death. Moving forward and back in time, the novel gives a detailed portrait of Trujillo and his frustration with the one enemy he could not conquer—his own advancing age. In 2003 Vargas Llosa published Paraíso en la otra esquina (The Way to Paradise), a work of historical fiction which chronicles the lives of the nineteenth-century French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin and his grandmother Flora Tristán.
Though he is best known for his novels, Vargas Llosa is also an award-winning journalist, essayist, critic, playwright, and memoirist. In 1983 Vargas Llosa began publishing many of his journalistic writings under the title Contra viento y marea. A three-volume anthology, Contra viento y marea gives an overview of Vargas Llosa's political and literary ideals ranging from his early admiration for Sartre and Cuban socialism in the 1960s to his defense of neo-liberal free-market capitalism of the 1980s. This shift to a conservative position often placed him at the center of intellectual controversy both in Peru and abroad. Several additional collections of his essays and journalism have been released, including Making Waves and El lenguaje de la pasión (2001; The Language of Passion: Selected Commentary). Vargas Llosa has also published a variety of works on literary criticism, ranging from critical analysis of Gabriel García Márquez, García Márquez: Story of a Deicide, to analytical commentary on the works of Gustave Flaubert, La orgía perpetua: Flaubert y “Madame Bovary” (1975; The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and “Madame Bovary”). After his failed attempt for the presidency of Peru, he produced a volume of memoirs in 1993, El pez en el agua: Memorias (A Fish in the Water: A Memoir). Using the counterpoint technique common in his previous works of fiction, the book is a behind-the-scenes look into Vargas Llosa's political campaign in the context of Peruvian political history as well as a biographical account of his childhood through young adulthood and his slow rise to literary stardom. A passionate and often bitter narrative, A Fish in the Water provides the author's views on Peru's tumultuous history as a nation and his participation as a writer in its cultural development.
Critics have consistently ranked Vargas Llosa as one of the most significant authors to emerge during the Latin American “Boom” era, often comparing his works with the writings of García Márquez, Cortázar, and Fuentes, among others. His focus on exploring the social implications of South American politics has attracted wide praise from commentators and social activists alike. However, some reviewers have faulted Vargas Llosa's shifting political allegiances throughout the years, arguing that his writing that focuses on the radicalism of the 1960s stands as his finest work. Similar critics have asserted that, since the 1990s, Vargas Llosa has split his attention between literature and politics, resulting in inferior and prejudiced works. Conversely, many scholars have viewed Vargas Llosa's evolving opinions as a microcosm of the tumultuous South American political climate, consistent with the author's concern with the dynamics and shortcomings of Latin American politics and culture. Vargas Llosa's flair for experimenting with narrative forms has also been an issue of debate among critics. Some have lauded his early works—such as Conversation in the Cathedral—for their rejection of Latin American literary conventions and their unique authorial voice. Others have found Vargas Llosa's more technically ambitious works to be confusing and overly dense, claiming his pursuit of style and narrative complexity comes at the detriment of story and character development. For example, some reviewers have asserted that Vargas Llosa's foray into eroticism with The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto resulted in a work of literary pornography. Despite such claims, Vargas Llosa has remained as one of the most dominant contemporary Latin American writers, with many of his most recent works—including A Fish in the Water and The Feast of the Goat—receiving some of strongest reviews of his career.