Mario Vargas Llosa

Start Free Trial

Renata R. Mautner Wasserman (essay date May 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Wasserman, Renata R. Mautner. “Mario Vargas Llosa, Euclides da Cunha, and the Strategy of Intertexuality.” PMLA 108, no. 3 (May 1993): 460-73.

[In the following essay, Wasserman explores the phenomenon of intertextuality in Vargas Llosa's writing, particularly in La guerra del fin del mundo, his retelling of Euclides da Cunha's Os sertões.]

Intertextuality can be said to arise when literary texts connect with other literary texts, with nonliterary texts, and with broadly conceived cultural contexts. It comprises a historical component in the relation between new cultural productions and earlier ones and includes a notion of activity, by any consumer on any text and by producers on the texts with which new ones are intertextual.1 Intertextuality can be conscious, as a text parodies, imitates, or improves on another, or unconscious, as a text—like a fish in water—develops in a context that its will or even its keenest analytic faculty cannot touch. But intertextuality can be seen not just as a condition for the existence of a text but as an instrument used for the purpose of validating a cultural configuration, of asserting cultural power.

In The Boom in Spanish American Literature, a memoir, the Chilean novelist José Donoso recalls the thrill with which, in the early 1960s, he discovered new Latin American writings as innovative and exciting in form as the products of the “universal” literary cultures of France, Spain, and the United States but addressing matters specific to Latin America conceived as a community with its own independent, positively valued cultural traits.2 Like Donoso's memoir and essays of Angel Rama (Ciudad), Darcy Ribeiro, and Alejo Carpentier (Tientos), among others, La guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World)—with which the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa revisits Os sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands), the account by the Brazilian Euclides da Cunha of the uprising known as the war of Canudos—confronts what it means for Latin American intellectuals to look in Latin America for the expression of their national characteristics, for validation of their self-perceptions, and for analyses of their national problems.3

After becoming nations, the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies in America developed in ignorance of and in isolation from one another. Few roads cross the borders, and each country knows little of the others' histories, thought, literatures. Though at times official consensus within Latin American nations argues that their similarities demand separation or even hostility, at others it deplores such a lack of solidarity and proposes economic or cultural correctives. At the turn of the century, the Brazilian critic José Veríssimo speculated that Latin America was a culture whose participants had more in common with one another than with Europe or the United States, against which they commonly measured themselves (Cultura). In the 1950s, Latin America rediscovered itself within its continental boundaries and searched there for a sense of identity less dependent on confrontation with models derived from northern or transatlantic concepts of history or society than on the specific conditions of the continent itself.

Vargas Llosa's retelling of Os sertões participates in this recovery of the autochthonous, through fiction—not sociology, political economy, or reportage—and, like the work of Renaissance poets, through the conscious creation of an intertextual work that asserts the value of and at the same time derives value from a chosen ancestor.4 The reader of his novel is assumed to know about Os sertões and is invited to read La guerra doubly, intertextually (or hypertextually). By invoking the power of identity and similarity, of the documentary that...

(This entire section contains 10238 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

aims to capture an idea or event and of the novel that aims to approximate ideas and events, both works frame historically recurring questions about the particularity of the culture of the Americas: is there such a culture, distinct from others in the Western world, and, if there is, how should the distinction be defined and evaluated?5 By choosing to rewrite an earlier Latin American work, by eschewing originality of subject in this way, Vargas Llosa affirms the continuity, originality, and distinction of Latin American culture. Thus he strengthens the traditional claim of new nations to a historical depth they are customarily chided for lacking and consciously establishes a form of intertextuality, a conversation between canonical texts, that traditionally marks culturally predominant political entities.6 At the same time, in choosing a classic for the source of a new text, Vargas Llosa appropriates intertextuality to affirm cultural authority. And finally, by rewriting a canonical text, he plants this cultural authority firmly among the powers of the larger, validating culture, for, as Rama points out, his appropriation of Euclides da Cunha is similar to Joyce's de- and re-forming of the Odyssey or to Picasso's reimagining of Velázquez's Las meninas—Vargas Llosa's act produces a text immediately recognizable as characteristic of twentieth-century high culture, in being both creation and pastiche (“La guerra” 619), and by implication also assigns to Os sertões the high-culture value Joyce's and Picasso's borrowings automatically assigned to Homer and Velázquez.

Euclides da Cunha's Os sertões documents the Canudos war, that surprisingly difficult campaign waged by the troops of the young Brazilian republic against a band of backland followers of the messianic figure Antônio Conselheiro—“the Counselor.” As Cunha attempts to tell the full truth about the war, to analyze the real forces that opposed each other in the inhospitable Brazilian northeast, the book becomes a meditation on the entire nation—Brazil's land, people, and history—on the national character and its origins in European history, and on the ability of a discourse (as the concept would be called today), European still, to produce an accurate account of national reality. Unexpectedly, in the course of explaining Brazil, the author-journalist finds himself tracing his slow realization that European, scientific analyses of the social sphere do not, despite their theoretical plausibility and the force of the culture where they arise, provide an adequate assessment of the society that grew in Brazil or explain satisfactorily what happens when action is performed by dwellers in a land that at first seems to have conditioned its population (this wording echoes in reverse order the three section titles of Os sertões: “The Land” ‘A terra,’ “The People” ‘O homem,’ and “The Fight” ‘A luta’).7 Cunha's change of mind and heart results from the same objectivity that guarantees the truth of his account and that justifies his initial dismissal, in the name of reason, of the messianic movement whose destruction he went to cover.

When, almost a century later, Vargas Llosa picks up the same tale, he revalidates the problem of land, people, origin addressed by Cunha as central to the discussion of the development of a modern society in Latin America and simultaneously restates the issue. Thus while Cunha casts doubt on the adequacy of the conceptual and ideological framework with which, as a journalist, he had covered the war, Vargas Llosa goes a step further and, in the figure of a journalist modeled on Cunha, challenges the predecessor's basic capacity to perceive, and report on, the world. By turning reportage into fiction and making the journalist into one character among many, buffeted by physical and historical forces beyond the power of writing, Vargas Llosa also strips writing of its privileged status. He embeds reason in existence, the act of knowing in the object to be known. In attacking the basis for positive knowledge, he undermines the belief in effective action from which Cunha's text starts, and he places greater emphasis on the implications of Cunha's ending; this move in turn changes the terms of the discourse in which relations within the physical world and between that world and the realm of power are expressed.8 The frame of reference of the more recent book is intra-American; messianism—that of the Shining Path like that of Canudos—appears as one among a cluster of Latin American phenomena to be analyzed in accordance no longer with Taine, or even Marx, but with models so autochthonous as to arise within the text itself, displacing from its surface the theoretical framework on which the older work depended. Cunha, who though respected has generally been read as marginal in the development of Brazilian literature,9 is thus recruited for the task of constructing or—better still, given the implication of necessity and immanence—discovering a continental cultural identity.

If one stresses the literary, high-culture character of the two works by privileging discursive traits, the difference between the books begins to appear in their rhetorical stances. Cunha's style, singled out as remarkable by his earliest critics, is metaphoric,10 and it assimilates the natural and the human. In the geologic and geographic first part of Os sertões, Cunha describes a convulsed landscape, with plains and plateaus, mountains, bays, canyons, and rivers, features that run and fall, rise and clash, stretch and sway like beings with their own life and volition. For Mary Louise Pratt, Alexander von Humboldt's descriptions of the continent, famous in the nineteenth century, provide the model for investing the American landscape with human traits, continuing the process by which, from the beginning, Europeans discursively emptied the land of its inhabitants (Pratt, ch. 6; see also Hulme 156-58). But Cunha contests Humboldt and includes the inhabitants: they are the crux and telos of the description. In Os sertões, the movement of populations to cover the land is part of the same dynamic natural process that governs the geologic past: people flow in a divided torrent to cover the heaving territory. Similarly Cunha assimilates the defeated armies to the landscape in the last part of the book: is it the waters of the Vaza-Barris River or the soldiers trying to cross it that bubble, foam, and roar (435; 498)? Often one has to reread a rushing paragraph carefully to see whether its subject is a soldier, a jagunço,11 a river, or a mountain slope. At length it becomes clear that this verbal indeterminacy, this metaphoric riot, is at the heart of the relation Cunha uncovers between action, actor, and setting and is part of the import lent to the events by the collectivity for which his text acts as interpreter. “The exaggerated romancing of the most trivial events” ‘exagerado romancear dos mais triviais sucessos’ told and retold within that collectivity merges myth and history and determines the meaning of the campaign, “giving the war the impressive and legendary tone [that] shocked the public opinion of the old capital and in due course of the entire country” ‘dando à campanha um tom impressionate e lendário, abalavam a opinião pública da velha capital e por fim a de todo o país’ (388; 439). Though early critics base much of their favorable opinion of the work on the strength and originality of its language, which they see as an intentional product of thought and work, though they emphasize the link between word and thought and note that the relentless metaphoric blurring of the boundaries between land and people, between the movements of mountains and rivers and those of armies and explorers, carries an intellectual and ideological charge and constitutes an interpretation, ultimately their focus on the literary aspect of the work deflects attention from the real “shock” of the book.

Notably, toward the end the charge of the language changes: the line of refugees from Canudos—old men, women, and children the rebel command has forced to surrender so that the citadel can hold out—is described in terms of horror. Degraded and famished, dirty, sick, wounded, mutilated, the refugees are human, neither natural forces nor animals. Once established, however, this distinction between the human and the natural gives rise to a profound pessimism, which opposes the energetic beginning, where they were assimilated to each other: only humanity is capable of creating or suffering the horrors described. The bitter tone of the ending suggests that it were better had the metaphoric riot of the first sections been sustained and had the science that can read from a cut in a mountain the succession of geologic eras and the history of the planet not been degraded to contemplating Antônio Conselheiro's severed head and attempting to trace in the “expressive convolutions” ‘circunvoluções expressivas’ of his brain “the essential lines of crime and madness” ‘as linhas essenciais do crime e da loucura’ (476; 542). The cultural logic in this coupling of madness and crime to explain the Counselor is almost too obvious to a post-Foucauldian reader of Os sertões, but the final image of that disinterred head shipped to Bahia for study, pored over by those who did not take part in the campaign or learn what the actions of the living man had taught the journalist, functions as a gruesome deconstruction of the explanatory scheme into which the researchers try to fit Canudos.12 “Expressiveness,” Cunha implies, is imposed on the brain's convolutions and is mute about the essence of the man and about the meaning of his actions. Those who read these folds must err, as Cunha himself may err when reading the essence of the nation in the convolutions of the terrain described in the first part of the book—except perhaps insofar as the metaphoric flow of the description allows for meaning to extrude. Thus the earlier description of the sertanejo, the backlander, cuts through the racial theories behind it to an appreciation of the inhabitants of the sertão it had not set out to provide. It is also apt, then, that while abandoning explanation, the ending also abandons metaphor, and the book, so weighted down with theories in its middle parts, leads to openness and indeterminacy.

Vargas Llosa's basic figure of speech is not the metaphor, which blurs boundaries, but the simile, which perpetuates them: Antônio Conselheiro's clothes are like the cassocks of missionaries; the comparison implies that the Counselor is not a legitimate missionary. Starting with him, with his sharp outline “silhouetted against the light of dusk or dawn” ‘[s]u larga silueta se recortaba en la luz crepuscular o naciente’ (3; 15), Vargas Llosa promises a precision of figuration that will leave essence in the dark. He also prefigures an almost exclusive concentration on the human aspect of the story—decisions and errors are not attributable to forces outside the individual, like climate, soil, history, or the accidents of genetics. The racial explanation that rears its head even in the last pages of Os sertões has no place in La guerra. In avoiding the trap of an explanation tied to prejudices masquerading as knowledge, however, Vargas Llosa also abandons Cunha's gamble that knowledge is possible when founded on individual experience and ability. Thus La guerra emphasizes seeing, explored in all the contradiction between the certainty sight engenders in the recipient of the visual impression—vidi as the classic guarantor of an account's accuracy—and the uncertainty that accompanies any attempt to encode the impression in language, that creeps into accounts when they encounter other accounts, or that ensues when the instruments of perception are examined closely; the link between vidi and vici is shown up as a sleight of pen.

The tale ends, then, not with an ironic assessment of the role and claims of science but with the testimony of the old woman who has appropriated a consoling story and elected herself to the position of historical source: “surrounded by the eyes” ‘cercada por los ojos’ of the other women (568; 531), she testifies that the heroes of Canudos have ascended into heaven, that the secular, science-centered century has defeated but not assimilated her. She affirms at the end the separation between appearance and definition implied in the rhetorical stance of the whole novel. With her and with the difference between accounts—hers and the Lion of Natuba's, on one hand, and the journalist's and the novel's, on the other—Vargas Llosa reproduces the radical split running through the core of the population constituting the matrix of movements like Canudos and suggests that this split may in effect be the most characteristic quality of the civilization of the subcontinent. The novel thus becomes a metonym for the universe it contains, harboring the split and the separated sides.13

From the beginning, the experience of the New World has been validated by reference to the literature and mythology of the Old World, whether the New World is portrayed as Eden, as the evil place, or as a classical arcadia of forests primeval peopled by fauns and nymphs of surprising colors. But writers in the new American nations have always considered it necessary to pass from mythology to history. These authors wrote history because of its explanatory and culture-validating force and also because history is kin to the epic, which is commonly viewed as an expression of cultural identity and as an index of high cultural achievement. And they aimed for the epic because in it a product of the historically located human will is necessarily camouflaged as mythical and outside time. Thus in La guerra Vargas Llosa does more than appropriate an earlier theme, more than emulate the intertextual links between Iliad and Aeneid or Aeneid and Lusiad. In rewriting a tale of nationality, he strengthens what his work simultaneously posits as an already established New World epic tradition; in revisiting a non-European tale, he neutralizes the relation of dependence implicit in the classical succession—Graecia capta depends politically on culturally backward agreste Latio, which it civilizes. But La guerra arises from egalitarian intertextuality rather than from hierarchical influence. Yet, in epic mode, La guerra validates the event, told in a system of narratives by bard, hagiographer, journalist, and novelist that establish the work's capacity to stand up to continued scrutiny, to yield a variety of interpretations, to suffer the transformations characteristic of stories that inhabit the culture-determining space where myth turns to history. Thus Vargas Llosa's development of Cunha's figure of Canudos as the “mud-walled Troy” ‘Tróia de taipa’ (143; 160) ascribes to Os sertões this epic liminarity but also marks the difference that makes of their literary enterprise a defense rather than a simple account: mud-walled, can this other defeated Ilion originate a new system of tales and a new civilization like the one the earlier refugees carried to another shore? The first critics of Os sertões speak of it as a new Iliad; Vargas Llosa's book wagers that it can bear the burden of the ancient tale.14

The interrogation of history is a stage in the search for identity.15 As the two works probe history, they raise the ontological and epistemological questions that arise with any discussion of identity: what is identity and how can it be known? On the ontological level the two books come closest to each other; on the epistemological they differ. In trying to achieve adequate and complete knowledge, Cunha, an engineer of vast reading and multiple interests, who wrote Os sertões while building a bridge, asks contemporary European science for instruments that will allow him to study the society that has evolved in Brazil. Critics habitually list authors cited in Os sertões: Alfredo Bosi mentions Spencer, Darwin, and Comte (9); Magda Maria Renoldi-Tocalino adds Hobbes, Kant, Humboldt, Taine, Gumplowicz, and others (34n26); Nelson Werneck Sodré names Darwin among many (35); Guilherme de Almeida cites the German explorer and naturalist Martius (30); Nancy Stepan states that Cunha “synthesized the sciences of his day,” particularly in matters of “population analysis” (or race; 46).16 These sources are seen as shaping the framework of scientific “laws” Cunha calls on to explain Canudos and to interpret it as a representative event, one that characterizes the nation diachronically and synchronically, in history and character. The geographic, climatic, and racial determinism informing the theories that inspire such “laws” endeavors to arrest history by repressing contingency and denying difference and seems to drive the metaphoric impulse of Cunha's work. These “laws” then mediate between, on one side, the physical laws governing the flow of rivers, the rise and erosion of mountains, the scourge of droughts and, on the other, the social forces that enmesh and govern the populations whose history unfolds along those rivers, around those mountains, under those pitiless brilliant skies. The motion of the elements mimics the flow of history, and rivers and migrations roll on together in the same ideologically grounded figure of speech.

Intertextuality in Os sertões, then, is the call on science to furnish a more or less coherent theory of the events of Canudos, one underpinning and validating what the philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and historiography of the period offered as an interpretation of the rebellion, and is also a call on history to buttress science. Cunha, in his first approach to the movement, looked to a European historical precedent and, before going on the expedition against the rebels, wrote two articles comparing Canudos to the French wars of the Vendée, which pitted a conservative, Catholic peasant population, under the banner of the deposed monarchy, against the atheistic Revolution. The combination of historical precedents and scientific laws promises great explanatory power. The greater is the tension as it becomes progressively evident that they may not, even if valid in their premises, provide an adequate assessment of the events reported.17 The suspicion of inadequacy haunts Cunha's account. By rejecting certainty, then, Vargas Llosa does not depart radically from these implications, though his presuppositions are different. But Vargas Llosa too starts from current knowledge: the scientific insights of his own time that suggest the uncertainty of all knowing have deeply marked literary and philosophical discourse in this century.

Both books question history, finding it inadequate sometimes as an explanatory model for contemporary events and sometimes as a mode of knowledge. But by focusing on a historical occurrence, both works affirm the need for history as an explanatory and legitimizing tool in the definition of nationality and as a necessary basis for understanding the present. Both find a definition-defying dissonance among what are eventually seen as the various cultures coexisting dramatically in each political unit of Latin America, cultures embodied in populations not just different from one another but seemingly existing in disparate epochs. It is a dissonance that history attempts to regularize; Os sertões and La guerra ask how much of the character of the populations under scrutiny depends on that dissonance and imply that through the attempt to regularize, history deprives itself of explanatory power and renders itself an unfit guide for evaluation or for appropriate action in the inevitable shock among peoples. Eventually, Cunha questions whether the historical imagination as conceived in Europe and transplanted to Brazil is relevant to the situation at Canudos. History has no place in Canudos. She has become used to seeing the fearful face of peoples in “the majestic ruins of vast cities … in the epic savagery of the great invasions. There was nothing for her in that slaughterhouse” ‘na ruinaria majestosa das cidades vastas … na selvatiqueza épica das grandes invasões. Nada tinha que ver naquele matadouro’ (443; 506).

In the first part of Os sertões, Cunha describes the general geographic, geologic, and climatic conditions of the entire country, in broad sweeps from the coast to the hinterland and from north to south, assuming that such a delineation will help explain Brazil past and therefore present. Fascinated by geology, intrigued by Taine's geographic determinism, and excited, as Veríssimo says, by the mere thought of a geographic coordinate (“Diplomática” 135), Cunha eventually pans to the sertão, which, in his view, forms not only the physical but the moral substratum of the nation. The populations inhabiting this natural setting—the poor, the oppressed, the criminal—appear as a response to the topography; but it is their strength of will and their faith in the possibility of more than simple survival that allow them to withstand adverse circumstances and at the same time condition them to follow the messianic Antônio the Counselor. The result is a city, Canudos, located nowhere and made of nothing, negations that forced Brazil, which was constituting itself on a European model of positive rational power, to doubt itself. Taken seriously, Cunha's conclusions would have demanded a fundamental shift in the nation's sense of its identity and of its position in the world.

These backland populations are also racially non-European. The racial theories on which Cunha bases his account of the “atavisms” and backwardness that led sertanejos to the Counselor and to Canudos are among the most problematic parts of the book.18 Instead of railing at these sections as they deserve, however, or dismissing them to make the book more acceptable, it may be useful to regard them as the most shocking expression of the anxiety of difference that in some ways underlies all discussions of the present character and future possibilities of the continent. Assessed positively or negatively, the composition of the New World population has been a component of all meditations on value and difference in the Americas: ethnically (or racially) different from Europeans but resulting from the activity of Europeans on American soil, New World populations call into question all definitions of identity that rest on clear oppositions between those recognizably like and those unlike a predefined European self. That self is shattered and combined with other fragments into identities whose heterogeneity precludes complete acceptance as well as complete rejection and who are both self and other, kin and stranger. Implicit in Cunha's exposition of the nation's physical and geographic characteristics and of its mixed-blood population, there lies the attempt to find the source of positive value that would satisfy European criteria of civilization and at the same time that would encompass the non-European aspects of both nature and humanity in the tropics. Thus, though he repeats the prejudices of his age, Cunha also slides from the negative to the positive in his portrait of the sertanejo, whom, till the last page, he describes as uniquely strong because adapted to conditions that would kill the pure European though also as forever “weak” in qualities externally defined as determining civilization. In effect, the sertanejo moves, in the second part of the book, from clearly opposing civilization into a middle ground. The leather-clad jagunço, who can turn the deadly sertão into an ally, begins to stand for his own, legitimate civilization as he confronts, adapts to, and finally uses a hostile nature, even while seeming a barbarian to the Europe-oriented coastal cities, which, however, had formulated the policies that isolated him in his special ways and which now originate the barbarous impulse to eliminate him. The recognition of this duality in the central section modifies the work's initial definition of the national self and at the same time prefigures the disillusionment that ends the book.

When Cunha can no longer clearly attribute civilization to the coast and to the republic and barbarism to the interior and to Canudos, Os sertões develops a disturbing uncertainty about where each lodges; simultaneously arises a radical uncertainty about the explanatory power of two basic characteristics of Western civilization—rationality and reliance on science as they are defined by, and diffused from, Europe. National identity for Brazil begins to reside in the capacity to show that European rational schemes cannot explain the country's national reality and therefore cannot claim universality.

The matter of the composition of New World populations appears differently in the two works. The sexual relation between European and non-European often occupies an important metaphoric place in discussions of American identity. Cunha, whose book is strangely devoid of women, who sees them only in groups of hags (Andrade 324) and ignores their role in the internal economy of Canudos, allows this relation to appear only in scattered meditations on how racial mixing affects national character and on the real origins of Canudos.19

In La guerra, by contrast, a gallery of women confront men with the practical meaning of masculine theories and actions, actively like Maria Quadrado, at Canudos, and passively like Jurema, the most important of the women, charged with the role of “bedrock of the nationality” that in Os sertões is attributed to the entire population of the backlands (“o cerne da … nacionalidade … a rocha viva da nossa raça” [78, 464; 89, 529]). Jurema permits the journalist to complete his task: she offers him her body for sex, comfort, life; her eyes are his witness and protection when, in the thick of the last battle, his glasses break. The European anarchist Galileo Gall rapes her brutally and irrationally, as he would the land; his entirely coherent and completely irrelevant political theories lead him to interfere (destructively) in the American action and keep him from understanding it. But one of the fiercest Canudos bandits, whose violence, though harnessed for the movement, isolates and kills him, loves her respectfully. She is married to the good man Rufino, whose traditional, rigid, and simple virtue is inadequate to the political and personal crises that find him out. Finally, she inspires the Baron to rape her successor among his household staff, uncovering the brutality that underlies the high civilization he represented. In Jurema's marriage with Rufino, Vargas Llosa depicts an Edenic version of the people and shows the creative force of this ideal blocked by the destructive savagery of European ideology and high civilization and of backlands violence and superstition. Through Jurema's relation with the journalist, however, Vargas Llosa creates a symbiosis between the illiterate and the literate, the substratum and the superstructure, that Cunha could not find (see Renoldi-Tocalino, part 2, ch. 2).

Still, the manner of and tools for knowing, the techniques for telling, are for both authors the theories of European geographers, geologists, historians, and social scientists, the narrative forms of Euro-American literatures. Brazilian history is measured and understood in relation to European history, served by European science and art. Though Brazilian and European realities are defined ab initio as necessarily different, the latter is asked to furnish the conceptual tools, the terms of the discourse, that will make the former intelligible.

But creating intelligibility does not simply mean superimposing an adventitious and distorting grid on an autochthonous reality. Explanatory tools are not only used for the prestige of their extranational origins and do not only imply the hold of foreign cultures. Such means are also internally determined. As Roberto Ventura argues, the accusations of monarchism directed at Canudos served to give the movement an explanation compatible with a Eurocentric view of history. But they also clad in prestigious language a complicated internal fight for power: the new civilian government of Campos Salles contended with factions within the military determined to preserve the power they had gained by deposing the emperor, while the old landed aristocracy confronted a newly rising urban industrial and merchant class. Ventura traces Cunha's intellectual journey from giving Brazilian events a Europeanizing analysis to assigning them national explanations and recognizing distortions as originating not in alien schemes but in domestic “republican propaganda” (111). Ventura's close political analysis is unusual among critics of Os sertões, however, who praise the book less for its coverage of the immediate political situation than for the “scientific” accuracy of its generalizations. Cunha shares with his first readers the belief that science can explain the circumstances that gave rise to Canudos and therefore provide the key for changes to ensure that such an uprising never happens again.20 But even the initial project of the book, framing the account in terms simultaneously progressive and deterministic, contains a half-acknowledged contradiction: the same science that should make it possible to prevent Canudos also explains why Canudos must be.

Vargas Llosa's greatest departure from his predecessor's text is in removing from the start that faith in the power of science to explain, to lift the observer out of the thing perceived into a truth independent of the observer's limitations. The incident in which the nameless journalist who stands for Cunha loses his glasses at the climax of the fight he was hired to witness does more than add a touch of ridicule and pathos, against which the first text is armed; the journalist also becomes incapable of receiving the full impact of sights and events that can disabuse him of the notions with which he came to the fray. There is a weakening both of the ability to know and of the drama by which reasoned knowledge is acquired, both of the characters and of the drama that occurs when the strength of human beings—whether the illiterate sertanejo adapted to the dry and spiny wilderness or the journalist come to report on the backlanders' fate—confronts the forces of nature or of history.

In both works, however, history is naturalized, as the force that properly eradicates Canudos, and at the same time called into question, as one more of the elements that contribute to the definition of nationality. Carpentier calls the Americas “the Continent without History”21; they lack the coherent identity thought to derive from the march of significant events in orderly causal and chronological array. The events recorded by Cunha and Vargas Llosa are not out of history, however, but out of sync with—ahead or behind—“real,” or European, history. Yet both writers convey a sense of the significant passage of time, and the two works bear witness to events judged to determine the character and the image of a cultural entity. José Miguel Oviedo discusses the sense not only in Os sertões but also in the Argentinian epic Facundo that the image Brazil—and, by implication, the rest of Latin America—constructs of itself as a proper partner in the concert of nations dominated by Europe is discrepant with the ragged mass led by the mystic rebel from another age that Brazil has to contend with and to recognize as a part of itself (657). But what Canudos reveals is precisely that the mystic rebel is not of another age but of his own. Antônio Conselheiro revolts against contemporary events like the secularization of politics implicit in the removal of Pedro II or like the disturbance in the established relation between landowner and client effected by the shift in power from the slave-holding, sugar-producing north and northeast to the center and south of Brazil, where both agriculture and a nascent industry depend on “free” labor.22 The response to the Counselor in state and federal government, as well as in public opinion, is contemporary also, determined by specific conditions of the time, not only in the analysis of his “madness,” based on current psychological theories,23 and in the justification given for the attack on the rebels, seen as agents for international monarchism, but also in the instruments of this attack: the national army of the new republic took over from the regional militia of Bahia, which had been denied sufficient support in an earlier attempt to curb Canudos because the central government was reluctant to strengthen regional military forces. The central government's choice of Moreira César, bloody and successful “pacifier” of an earlier regional rebellion, to lead the first expedition of federal forces against Canudos had a symbolic meaning that was not lost on the nation.

But it is also necessary to see the Counselor as a mystic, living in an explanatory universe rejected by the republic that combats him, in a universe classified as mythical and relegated by a consensus among those in power to a stage of history earlier than that which, according to a similar consensus, the republic inhabits.24 For this classification allows another form of response to the Counselor: he provides historical depth, by constituting a living example of the material on which mythologies are built. This depth does not save him, since by definition the mythical past no longer exists; mythologizing may therefore provide justification for destroying him, implicit in the aspirations to the modern that the culturally respectable accounts of his exploits will attempt to satisfy. Vargas Llosa directs attention to this other reading by dividing his narration between the myopic journalist, on one hand, and the bardic Dwarf and the hagiographic Lion of Natuba, on the other; this splitting introduces into the narration itself the difference between the mythical and the historical views that in Os sertões establishes an almost unbridgeable distance between the account and the event, the literate reporter and the illiterate actors.

Although both Cunha and Vargas Llosa try to recover original (con)text, in the end the results of their efforts point to that distance as characteristic of the event and of its matrix. Each author's awareness of the distance leads him to deconstruct the event and the explanations his work suggests. Vargas Llosa displays skepticism about the possibility of reading, in his making the literate, modern teller deficient in sight, and Cunha expresses skepticism about the possibility of understanding, in the inadequacy of the explanatory schemes he himself introduces.

Vargas Llosa also casts doubt on even the limited possibility of integration he raises. On one had, his juxtaposition of narratives within one text implies that, although any one account will be flawed and any one point of view will be incomplete, the text in which all accounts and points of view appear can come close to encompassing the complexities of its context. On the other hand, however, as that text exists within the same context that conditions its fragmentation, the collected narratives may not, in the end, be able to fulfill the function that they criticize their model for not fulfilling. The paradox appears in the section at the end of La guerra where the journalist confronts the Baron, who has been, till then, the detached, more or less tolerant, slightly cynical and world-weary voice of the highest civilization among the characters, his estate an oasis of refinement in the rough backlands. The Baron does not escape the external consequences of the rebellion: his property is burned by the rebels; his wife goes mad. Under pressure he abandons his refinement, a development with which Vargas Llosa dramatizes that civilization simply superimposed rather than integrated will fail to function either intellectually (in relation to what the journalist represents) or morally (in relation to what Sebastiana and Jurema represent). As the rebels destroy the Baron's dream of creating a replica of the Enlightenment in the middle of the sertão and as his wife embraces unreason, his dismay corrodes what turns out to be a veneer of civility: he rapes his wife's maid, resolves not to read the journalist's book, and vows to confine its author to a menial job in his publishing empire. In all ways open by money and rank, the Baron, who has praised reason, asserts naked power over those around him.25 The power is also over reality: his threat not to read the book is at once ridiculous and apt; he can make silence wash over this disgrace, as over so many others, and make the shame cease to exist, as the massacre of the planation workers of Macondo ceases to exist in Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). In the Baron's refusal, Vargas Llosa also indicates how the journalist, who reports on the campaign, who at great cost learns something important about the nation, is distinct from the power structure, which, having hired him to do so, decides to ignore the uncomfortable things he discovers.

In the interplay among the problematically objective record kept by the journalist, the mythopoeic chronicle offered by the Lion of Natuba and placed at the conclusion of the book, and the silence enforced by the Baron, Vargas Llosa implies that there is nothing between myth and forgetting, that the place of History herself is problematic in the culture of the Americas—or, rather, that the culture of the Americas demonstrates the problematic nature of history and invites a change in the way its own validity is judged.

Taken together then, the two books create an inter-American intertextuality and affirm a kinship among American nations based on the recognition of shared problems that, more than economic, are social and cultural, ontological and epistemological. By attacking the problem of national identity and history frontally, Cunha forces a consideration of its centrality to American literary expression. By making the earlier text central in La guerra, Vargas Llosa forces the assertion of identity in difference and repeats the attempt to wrench from the long-standing external authority the tools that would define identity and evaluate difference.


  1. This sense of the historical component approximates Julia Kristeva's first characterization of intertextuality as the relation of a text to previous codified cultural production, written or oral (115, 132-37, 255). Michael Riffaterre establishes the consumer's role by arguing that textuality implies intertextuality, which is also defined by perception—a reader's recognition of the intertextual (“Syllepsis” 625; Production 121-22). Gérard Genette's notion that a text exercises a “transformative operation” on another implies the activity of the producer. Genette calls such transformations “hypertextuality,” a special case of “transtextuality” (12, 11). See Tilottama Rajan for a range of definitions of intertextuality.

    All translations of quotations from works cited in foreign language editions are my own, except for passages from Vargas Llosa's La guerra del fin del mundo, for which I give Helen R. Lane's versions. For the convenience of readers, however, the parenthetical documentation following each bilingual passage from Cunha's Os sertões first supplies the relevant page number in Samuel Putnam's translation; then, after a semicolon, the page number in the Portuguese edition appears.

  2. Donoso's memoir describes intellectual life under pressure of relations between societies at the centers of cultural power and those at the margins, focusing on the implications of accepting an international style, on the effort of defining national cultures while evaluating literary works in accordance with international criteria, on the problems of influence, translation, and publication. It is telling that naming the extraordinary eclosion of literary masterpieces in Latin American in the 1960s became controversial also, for “el boom” comes from English and connotes an unstable, dependent economy.

  3. La guerra is read consistently as intertextual. Mac Adam places on the reader the responsibility for developing the intertextual relation; Rama explores the connections among La guerra,Os sertões, and the Argentinian Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo as Latin American epics of a characteristic socioeconomic condition (“La guerra”); Bernucci does a superb job of tracing all the works with which La guerra is intertextual, somewhat deemphasizing its link with Os sertões. Renoldi-Tocalino's careful and informed analysis strengthens the argument for intertextuality by noting that La guerra is Vargas Llosa's first work based on bibliography rather than on biography (47); Renoldi-Tocalino also emphasizes La guerra over the older text, traces La guerra's recovery of the medieval European roots of Brazilian peasant beliefs in the backlands, and considers some implications of Vargas Llosa's transformation of Cunha into a character. In general, critics treat intertextuality as a “fact” (Mac Adam 157). I discuss it as an instrument or a strategy. I attend to the texts' transformations of the political and cultural, to the newer text's revision of the older.

  4. In an interview, Vargas Llosa states, “I only write about Peru and it only interests me to write about Peru …” (qtd. in Oviedo 645). One can argue that in La guerra he is still writing about the country: there were numerous insurrections in nineteenth-century Peru, and the most serious Indian peasant uprising, at Huanta in 1896-97, is roughly contemporaneous with Canudos (Vázquez 77). Rama mentions the many Latin American rebellions of the last century, all brutally suppressed, by which peasants resisted the modernization imposed by their governments (“La guerra” 619-20). It is significant then that Vargas Llosa finds the Peruvian in the continental.

    Though not explicitly, Vargas Llosa returns to intertextuality as strategy with El hablador (The Storyteller), which argues with Alejo Carpentier's Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps) about historical disjunction in South America, about writing and orality, about the role of the Latin American intellectual, about how the Latin American context affects Europeanizing definitions of nature and culture—variations on matters that La guerra also raises.

  5. A commonplace in cultural studies of American literatures is that the discipline concerns itself primarily with defining, studying, evaluating, and valorizing national character; novelists, poets, social scientists share this view with critics. The goal of achieving what Rama calls “independence, originality, representativity” (Transculturación 11) is pursued differently by different authors, some more and some less hostile to the European component in Latin America. Vargas Llosa, who broke with Fidel Castro (see Renoldi-Tocalino, part 2, ch. 2) and ran for the Peruvian presidency on a free-market platform (see, for example, Dietz 250-51), is often classed as (too) Eurocentric. I want to see La guerra as mimesis rather than as model, assuming, as Lukács does when discussing Balzac, that authors' beliefs do not necessarily determine the import of their fiction.

  6. The question of historical depth appears differently in Brazil and in Peru; José Matos Mar counts Peruvian history as continuous over the last 10,000 years, superior in “density” to European history (7-9). Vargas Llosa's choice of a post-colonial event for his subject can be read as an affirmation of continental historical solidarity or as a confrontation with European concepts of historical “density” on the grounds where they are usually expressed.

  7. Nelson Werneck Sodré is one of the few critics to follow this change in the author's vision. Cunha's campaign diaries indicate that “[t]wo weeks after arriving in Bahia [before leaving with the troops on the campaign], Euclides is struck by his first doubts about Canudos,” when he notices he has been fed misinformation about the situation (Sodré 31, 32).

  8. For Renoldi-Tocalino, this distrust prompts some to accuse La guerra of questioning whether effective action is possible (51-53, 117, 135; she refers to Cornejo Polar; Rama, “La guerra”; Delprat).

  9. Cunha occupies a peculiar place in Brazilian literature: on one hand, Os sertões stands apart from the literary tradition; the work is more fittingly classified as “writing,” in the sense of écriture. On the other hand, Cunha's preoccupation with the “bedrock of the nationality,” the stylistic force of his book, and especially his characterization, positive evaluation, even mythification, of the sertanejo, or backlander, provided Brazilian literature with one of its stock figures and place Os sertões at the origin of other, literary texts—from those of northeastern regionalism to Guimarães Rosa's subtle development of Riobaldo in Grande sertão: Veredas (see Castro-Klarén 388).

  10. In “Uma visão de Euclides da Cunha,” Afonso Arinos approaches his subject with a selection of consecrated critical tools—biography, sociology, politics, psychology—but, on the basis of some early effusions of Cunha's, begins by identifying the author as a poet and Os sertões as an epic, comparable to the Aeneid and War and Peace (11, 12, 14).

  11. A rough translation of jagunço might be “bandit,” in a complex sense that implies a sociopolitical or anthropological dimension: the jagunço could (and can) belong to the private army of a landowner or to an independent band of compeers operating with armed force on the margins of the economy of the Brazilian sertão, or backlands. Many jagunços joined Canudos; they were the warriors of the settlement. They also provided the Counselor's enemies with propaganda weaponry, especially after the theory of a “foreign influence” was discredited. For a review of the literature on banditry, including the Brazilian variety, see Gilbert M. Joseph.

  12. Maria Tai Wolff notes the implied parallel between the brutality of the soldiers and of the jagunços (53). Nancy Stepan documents the influence on Latin American social, medical, and political thinking of French, German, and Italian theories about the connection between physical characteristics and social behavior; the treatment of the Conselheiro's head shows the mark of Cesare Lombroso's “scheme for distinguishing criminal types according to their physiognomy and craniometry” (114). She notes Cunha's acceptance of theories of racial determinism (45-46) but also argues that Latin American thinkers often adapted such ideas to valorize rather than dismiss local populations (3-4, 19, 27). For Sara Castro-Klarén this ideological connection is a shortcoming Cunha shared with his time rather than a problem Os sertões eventually raises (372).

  13. Vargas Llosa addresses backlands fanaticism in one other work. The view in Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service) of Brother Francisco and his Brotherhood of the Ark, a messianic movement in Amazonian Peru, is less sympathetic, bitterer, and more comic than that of Canudos in La guerra (see Renoldi-Tocalino 116).

  14. Afrânio Coutinho places Os sertões at the end of a line that begins with the Iliad and includes the Chanson de Roland and War and Peace (7). Rama also links Cunha's book with other epics of nationality, like War and Peace. He quotes Cunha's À margem da história (“Marginal to History”) to show that the author knew and admired Sarmiento's Facundo, an earlier account (from 1845) of a popular rural rebellion against a central urban government; for Rama these two texts and Os sertões document a specifically Latin American “sociocultural structure not always liable to analysis in accordance with foreign sociological explanatory schemes” (“La guerra” 600, 601, 603). Like Rama, Mac Adam connects Os sertões with Facundo (160) and constructs an intertextual chain linking the Latin American texts to each other directly rather than through common relations to European texts.

  15. The epigraph of Roberto Ventura's essay comes from Cunha's Contrastes e confrontos (“Contrasts and Comparisons”): “we do not yet have a history” (109).

  16. Brazilian historiography commonly traces the weight of positivism on the intellectual foundation of the republican movement that ousted the emperor Pedro II in 1889. Luis Costa Lima notes that positivists favored a dictatorial republic and, quoting José Maria Bello (31) and José Joaquim Medeiros e Albuquerque (33), that positivists taught future political and intellectual elites in school (155-56). Cunha studied under the Brazilian intellectual Benjamin Constant (a namesake of the French revolutionary and writer), whose courses explicated positivism and defended republicanism in Brazil (Bosi 9). But Costa Lima also argues on the evidence of À margem da história that Cunha eventually rejected Comte (156). Describing Cunha's intellectual development, Sodré asserts that the author, unlike most of his contemporaries, kept abreast of scientific developments; Cunha committed errors in understanding, however, and he was blind to the class interests of the military establishment and of the public sector, with both of which he worked throughout his life, particularly during the Canudos campaign (33-46). The title of Almeida's pamphlet—A poesia d'Os sertões—asks the reader to judge the book as a literary text, by literary standards. The republic, whose reforms (secularization, the imposition of taxes) triggered the Canudos movement, expelled Pedro II one year after the abolition of slavery and little more than ten years before the writing of Os sertões. Abolition was accomplished in stages that coincided with increased European immigration and with the transference from Europe of an intense discussion on “race,” variously defined, and on the racial factor in the formation of national identities. Stepan documents these discussions in Latin America and their difference from their European versions. Cunha argues the “race” question in his work, which records the effect of European eugenics, biotypology, and anthropology on Brazilian thought about the Brazilian population and indicates the deviations that a focus on the Brazilian situation could impose on those ideological imports.

  17. This change of mind is sometimes located between the writing of the campaign journal from which Cunha drew his war dispatches and the elaboration of these notes into Os sertões (Andrade 342-43). Renoldi-Tocalino also deals with this change of mind (204-05).

  18. For background on the diffusion of theories about “race” in Brazil, see Stepan 44-46. Gilberto Freyre discusses this aspect of Os sertões at some length, conceding that Cunha “attaches an exaggerated importance to the ethnic problem and seems not to have realized the depth and extension to which the so-called ‘agrofeudal economy’ influenced Brazilian life.” Freyre notes, however, that cultivated opinion in Cunha's time held such “ethnocentric exaggerations” and “ethnic fatalism” to be scientifically defensible. Dissenters, like Alberto Torres, a follower of Franz Boas rather than of German and French proponents of racial determinism, or Manuel Bonfim, who still, like the Romantics, extolled the superior virtues of “primitives,” were exceptions among historians and among what would today be called cultural critics. All the same, Freyre concludes that Cunha never succumbed to the “mystical extremes of any theories proposing racial superiority” (39-41).

  19. The absence of women and of romance in Os sertões may fulfill another function: marking the book as definitely not a novel—that is, as a text addressed to a male, not a female, public, to readers with the power to shape both public events and the definition of national reality. Sousa Andrade quotes Manuel Benício's O rei dos jagunços (“The King of the Jagunços”) as one investigation of Canudos that attends to the role of women in the government and maintenance of the Counselor's holy city (324n24).

  20. Costa Lima considers both the cultural history and the political implications of Cunha's thought, tracing the evolution of the author's ideas through the book, from an explanation based on a European historical precedent (“our Vendée”) and on the politics of the moment (monarchism) to a biosocial interpretation (citing atavism, regression, the backwardness of mixed populations) to admiration and a heartfelt proposal not to marginalize and fight this backward, atavistic, mixed population but to integrate it fully in the nationality (160).

  21. The expression appears in The Lost Steps (89), which contradicts it by showing the Americas overlaid with history like a palimpsest, existing synchronically as many histories, an invitation to review the usual concept of history. Or one could argue that the novel presents the Americas as a universe where geography is history and where travel in space is inevitably travel in time. The novel's beginning and ending in the “metropolis of the North” (New York) thus makes of the United States another stop in the time-space of the Americas, erasing the usual separation between north and south—but reinstating it at the end, when the protagonist, by returning to the north, becomes unable to find the opening to the remotest past, in the Amazonian jungle.

  22. See Octavio Ianni, ch. 5, for a discussion of economic shifts preceding and following abolition. Note that some scholars—see Todd A. Diacon and Patricia R. Pessar—analyze movements like those of Canudos and of the Contestado Rebellion (in the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina between 1912 and 1916) as the results of socioeconomic conditions, expressed in millenarian terms. René Ribeiro, however, sees the movements as rooted in myth, both continuous in Brazil from pre- to post-Columbian times and universal.

  23. Freyre traces Cunha's views of the Counselor's mental health to the pioneer Brazilian sociologist Nina Rodrigues (40).

  24. Freyre states this view most strongly: “the truth is that the Counselor's movement was mainly a violent shock between cultures: between the modern, urban coast and the cattle-raising sertão, archaic and stagnant” (44). Rama notes that between 1870 and the turn of the century Latin America broke out into popular rebellions opposing modernization; he sees them as the resistance of unlettered masses against the urban culture of the literate elites (“La guerra” 621). Today those who think of the Third World as still stuck in history while the developed countries have reached a postmodern, posthistorical position have not abandoned the parameters according to which Canudos and the republic existed in different times.

  25. According to Rama, the figure of the Baron is one of the weak points of the book, for the character exists outside history (“La guerra” 633). But the Baron can also be seen as illustrating the strangely nonlinear form of history in Latin America, a concept Rama might have been less willing than Vargas Llosa to entertain.

Works Cited

Albuquerque, José Joaquim Medeiros e. Minha vida: Da infância à mocidade. Rio de Janeiro: Calvino Filho, 1993.

Almeida, Guilherme de. A poesia d'Os sertões: Comemorações euclidianas. São José do Rio Pardo: Departamento Estadual de Informações, 1946.

Andrade, Olímpio de Sousa. História e interpretação de Os sertões. Illus. Aldemir Martins. São Paulo: Edart, 1966.

Arinos, Afonso. “Uma visão de Euclides da Cunha.” Revista do livro 11 (1968): 9-22.

Bello, José Maria. História da República; Primeiro período: 1889-1902. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1940.

Benício, Manuel. O rei dos jagunços. Rio de Janeiro: Tipografia Jornal do Comércio, 1899.

Bernucci, Leopoldo M. Historia de un malentendido: Un estudio transtextual de “La guerra del fin del mundo” de Mario Vargas Llosa. New York: Lang; U of Texas Studies, 1989.

Bosi, Alfredo. Introduction. Os sertões. By Euclides da Cunha. São Paulo: Cultrix, 1982. 9-21.

Carpentier, Alejo. The Lost Steps. Trans. Harriet de Onís. Introd. J. B. Priestley. New York: Avon, 1979.

———. Los pasos perdidos. México: EDIAPSA, 1953.

———. Tientos, diferencias y otros ensayos. Barcelona: Plaza, 1987.

Castro-Klarén, Sara. “Santos and Cangaceiros: Inscription without Discourse in Os sertões and La guerra del fin del mundo.MLN 101 (1986): 367-88.

Cornejo Polar, Antonio. “La guerra del fin del mundo: Sentido (y sin sentido) de la historia.” Hispamérica 31 (1982): 3-14.

Coutinho, Afrânio dos Santos. Euclides, Capistrano e Araripe. Rio de Janeiro: Ministério de Educação e Cultura, Serviço de Documentação, 1959.

Cunha, Euclides da. Á margem da história. 1909. Sã Paulo: Lello Brasileira, 1967.

———. Rebellion in the Backlands. 1944. Trans. Samuel Putnam. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975.

———. Os sertões. Pref. M. Cavalcanti Proença. Rio de Janeiro: Tecnoprint, 1969.

Delprat, F. “El pesimismo social de Mario Vargas Llosa (una novelística de la destrucción).” Kaniña: Revista de artes y letras de la Universidade de Costa Rica 5.1 (1981): 47-54.

Diacon. Todd A. “The Search for Meaning in an Historical Context: Popular Religion, Millenarianism, and the Contestado Rebellion.” Luso-Brazilian Review 28 (1991): 47-57.

Dietz, Henry. “Elites in an Unconsolidated Democracy: Peru during the 1980's.” Elites and Democratic Consolidation in Latin America and Southern Europe. Ed. John Higley and Richard Gunther. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 237-56.

Donoso, José. The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History. Trans. Gregory Kolovakos. Foreword by Ronald Christ. New York: Columbia UP; Center for Inter-American Relations, 1977.

Freyre, Gilberto. Perfil de Euclydes e outros perfis. Illus. Cândido Portinari and Thomaz Santa Rosa. Rio de Janeiro: Olympio, 1944.

Genette, Gérard. Palimpsestes: La littérature au second degré. Paris: Seuil, 1982.

Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbeans, 1492-1797. London: Methuen, 1986.

Ianni, Octavio. Raças e classes sociais no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1966.

Joseph, Gilbert M. “On the Trail of Latin American Bandits: A Re-examination of Peasant Resistance.” Latin American Research Review 25.3 (1990): 7-52.

Kristeva, Julia. Σημειωτικη: Recherches pour une sémanalyse. Paris: Seuil, 1969.

Lima, Luis Costa. “In the Backlands of Hidden Mimesis.” Control of the Imaginary. Trans. and introd. Ronald W. Sousa. Afterword by Jochen Schulte-Sasse. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988. 152-86.

Lukács, Georg. Studies in European Realism. Introd. Alfred Kazin. New York: Grosset, 1964.

Mac Adam, Alfred. “Euclides da Cunha y Mario Vargas Llosa: Meditaciones intertextuales.” Revista iberoamericana 50 (1984): 157-64.

Matos Mar, José. “Dominación, desarrollos desiguales y pluralismos en la sociedad y cultura peruanas.” El Perú actual (sociedad y política). By Matos Mar et al. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1970. 7-45.

Oviedo, José Miguel. “Vargas Llosa en Canudos: Versión clásica de un clásico.” Eco: Revista de la cultura de occidente 40 (1982): 641-64.

Pessar, Patricia R. “Three Moments in Brazilian Millenarianism: The Interrelationship between Politics and Religion.” Luso-Brazilian Review 28 (1991): 95-116.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.

Rajan, Tilottama. “Intertextuality and the Subject of Reading/Writing.” Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History. Ed. Jay Clayton and Eric Rothstein. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 61-74.

Rama, Angel. La ciudad letrada. Introd. Mario Vargas Llosa. Prologue by Hugo Achugar. Trans. Emir Sader. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1985.

———. “La guerra del fin del mundo: Una obra maestra del fanatismo artístico.” Eco: Revista de la cultura de occidente 40 (1982): 600-40.

———. Transculturación narrativa en América Latina. México: Siglo Veintiuno, 1982.

Renoldi-Tocalino, Magda Maria. Polifonía e ideología en “La guerra del fin del mundo” de Mario Vargas Llosa. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1987.

Ribeiro, Darcy. América Latina, a pátria grande. Rio de Janeiro: Guanabara, 1986.

Ribeiro, René. “Messianic Movements in Brazil.” Luso-Brazilian Review 29 (1992): 71-81.

Riffaterre, Michael. La production du texte. Paris: Seuil, 1979.

———. “Syllepsis.” Critical Inquiry 6 (1980): 625-38.

Sodré, Nelson Werneck. “Revisão de Euclides da Cunha.” Revista do livro 4 (1959): 15-53.

Stepan, Nancy Leys. The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. Trans. Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ. London: Cape, 1978.

———. La guerra del fin del mundo. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1981.

———. El hablador. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1987.

———. Pantaleón y las visitadoras. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1973.

———. The Storyteller. Trans. Helen Lane. New York: Penguin, 1990.

———. The War of the End of the World. Trans. Helen R. Lane. New York: Farrar, 1984.

Vázquez, Mario C. “Immigration and Mestizaje in Nineteenth-Century Peru.” Race and Class in Latin America. Ed. Magnus Mörner. New York: Columbia UP, 1970. 73-95.

Ventura, Roberto. “A nossa Vendéia: Canudos, o mito da Revolução Francesa e a constituição da identidade nacional-cultural no Brasil (1897-1902).” Revista de crítica literária latino-americana 11 (1985): 109-25.

Veríssimo, José. Cultura, literatura e política na América Latina. Ed. and introd. João Alexandre Barbosa. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1986.

———. “Diplomática e literatura.” Rev. of Peru vs. Bolívia, by Euclides da Cunha. “A informação recuperada: Dois artigos de José Veríssimo.” Ed. João Alexandre Barbosa. Revista do Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros 7 (1969): 127-38.

Wolff, Maria Tai. “‘Estas páginas sem brilhos’: O textosertão de Euclydes da Cunha.” Revista iberoamericana 50 (1984): 47-61.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

M. Keith Booker (essay date winter 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Booker, M. Keith. “Fiction and ‘Real Life’: Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 35, no. 2 (winter 1994): 111-27.

[In the following essay, Booker compares Vargas Llosa and Vladimir Nabokov's approaches to the depiction of realism in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, respectively, asserting that both works “are centrally concerned with the relationship between fiction and reality.”]

Both The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight are centrally concerned with the relationship between fiction and reality, although Nabokov and Vargas Llosa themselves ostensibly hold very different attitudes about the nature of this relationship. Debra Castillo notes that the ambiguity of the title of Mario Vargas Llosa's Historia de Mayta “provides a central conceit for the work itself,” because the double meaning of the Spanish word “historia” suggests the confusion between history and fiction that is so important to the book as a whole (80). This effect is ostensibly lost in the title of the English translation, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, although the history/fiction confusion of the book suggests that “real” itself is a slippery term, indicating a possible irony in the English title of Historia de Mayta that recovers some of the richness of the original. As Vladimir Nabokov suggests in his postscript to Lolita, “reality” is “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes” (Lolita 314).

Michel Rybalka points out that the English title of Vargas Llosa's book has the advantage of pointing to a direct parallel with Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and thus to “a Nabokovian interpretation” of Historia de Mayta (130n). Rybalka does not indicate exactly what a “Nabokovian interpretation” might be, but his suggestion that one might productively read Vargas Llosa through the optic of Nabokov is a good one. It should be added, however, that one can usefully read Nabokov's book through Vargas Llosa as well.

Nabokov argues throughout his life that literature and reality are entirely separate spheres and that, pace Sartre, fiction should be entirely disengaged from reality. Thus, he claims to see no social or political role for literature at all and during his Cornell days began a lecture on Madame Bovary with a typical Nabokovian proclamation that “literature is of no practical value whatsoever” (Lectures 125). Vargas Llosa, on the other hand, begins his career as a devotee of Sartre and as an advocate of revolutionary politics. One might wonder, then, if the similarities to Nabokov's work in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta suggest that the later Vargas Llosa has moved toward a Nabokovian disengagement from reality. Or it might also be that reading The Real Life of Sebastian Knight through Vargas Llosa suggests that Nabokov's texts are more engaged than their author cared to admit.1

It would be simplistic to argue, on the basis of authorial intention alone, that Vargas Llosa's work is politically engaged, but Nabokov's is not. Authors frequently achieve effects very different from those they intend. The distinction between Vargas Llosa and Nabokov is in many ways similar to the one that Vargas Llosa himself draws between Brecht and Flaubert. In The Perpetual Orgy he suggests that Brecht's intense political commitment and democratic devotion to the masses lead to a didactic form of art that autocratically demands a fixed reaction of the audience. In contrast, Flaubert's concern with form and his apparent contempt for the masses produce a body of formally brilliant work that opens itself to multiple interpretations in a highly democratic way. Both writers, in Vargas Llosa's reading, achieved “results quite the opposite of the goals they had originally set themselves” (Perpetual 229).

Vargas Llosa's early political radicalism later moderates: works like The War of the End of the World show a disillusionment with revolution, at least of the violent variety—perhaps because revolution, like literature, quite often achieves the opposite of its original goals. This criticism of violent revolution (and of the general sorts of fanatical devotion to ideals that makes violent revolution a conceivable option) continues in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. The willingness of Mayta, Vallejos, and their cohorts to resort to violence in an effort to achieve their ideological ends results in a disaster the pathos of which is only increased by the comic ineptitude with which the rebellion at Jauja is carried out.2 Sensing Vargas Llosa's growing disillusionment with violent revolution as a political tool, some critics have argued that his later writing shows a turning away from the political commitment of his early career. Gerald Martin, for example, agrees that Vargas Llosa's early novels represent powerful and important political statements. He suggests that The Green House is Vargas Llosa's most mature work and “one of the greatest novels to have emerged from Latin America” (212). Further, he argues that this novel “represents the high point of his [Vargas Llosa's] political radicalism, an unmistakable if not militant critique of capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy characteristic of the era” (213). But Martin finds later Vargas Llosa works like Captain Pantoja and the Special Service and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter lighter, funnier, and oriented more toward entertainment than political statement, perhaps signalling the author's loss of faith in the power of fiction to change the world.3

Yet, funny though it may be, Captain Pantoja contains a powerful indictment of some of the most important political forces in Latin American society. Like The Green House, it suggests an ideological complicity between the military and the Catholic Church, even as it hints that the military and the Church are both in their own ways subtle forms of prostitution.4Aunt Julia shows a turn toward metafiction, but also continues Vargas Llosa's deconstruction of Catholicism. Motifs such as young Marito's comic story “The Humiliation of the Cross” and Captain Pantoja's depiction of the crucifixion cult of Brother Francisco undermine the Christian emphasis on the death of Christ by suggesting that this emphasis on sacrifice reinforces a passive mind-set that allows Latin Americans to be dominated by outside forces. Aunt Julia, in the mode of Theodor Adorno, also conducts a thoroughgoing exploration of the contributions of mass culture and of the commodification of art to the oppressive social and political conditions of contemporary Peru.

The War of the End of the World, although less reflexive, is even more obviously engaged than Aunt Julia. But with the blatantly metafictional The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, Vargas Llosa reaches the ultimate in reflexivity, even while conducting a powerful dialogue with a number of important issues in the real life of Peru. Indeed, although Martin suggests that the book is “coarser in texture” than Vargas Llosa's great early novels and that it shows signs of being hastily written, he admits that the novel raises serious and important questions and calls it perhaps “the most honest novel written by a Latin American in the last twenty-five years” (224-5). Other critics have been less generous to the book. For example, Raymond Leslie Williams devotes only three and one half pages to it in his book on Vargas Llosa, suggesting that Mayta is a “minor work” that has “neither the breadth nor the profundity of his previous novels” (172).

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta describes, in the first person, the efforts of an unnamed novelist (who bears certain similarities to Vargas Llosa himself) to research the life of the erstwhile Trotskyite revolutionary Alejandro Mayta. We are apparently presented with two basic ontological levels in the text: the “real” research of the novelist-narrator and the “fictional” account that he will presumably write as a result of that research. As the story proceeds, however, we discover an intermixing of these two ontological levels, to the point where it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish between them. If one adopts Brian McHale's suggestion that postmodernist fiction is principally concerned with the exploration of such ontological issues, then Mayta is a quintessentially postmodernist work. On the other hand, the book is structured around the narrator's epistemological inquiries into Mayta's past (inquiries of the kind that McHale would see as central to modernism). This fact suggests that the distinction between epistemology and ontology by which McHale differentiates between modernism and postmodernism is unsteady at best.

Vargas Llosa's narrator undertakes a series of interviews with people who had known Mayta and/or who had been involved in the crucial uprising in the Peruvian mountain town of Jauja that the narrator plans to make the central focus of his novelization of Mayta's life. That the various interviewees often contradict one another and that they often clearly distort events in order to present themselves in a better light seem to function as a relatively straightforward commentary on the difficulties that always face the biographer or historian in trying to reconstruct past events. These difficulties are of no great concern to the narrator; as he repeatedly reminds the various interviewees, he is writing a work of fiction and absolute accuracy in his facts in not required.

In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, V., the narrator, is attempting to write a biography of his half-brother Knight, a recently deceased novelist, who bears a number of similarities to Nabokov. Nabokov's first-person narration describes the gathering of “real” information for this factual biography as well as the imaginary world of Knight's fiction. This duality points toward a dialogue between fact and fiction similar to that in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, although Vargas Llosa's narrator is ostensibly writing a fictional account of “real” events, whereas Nabokov's narrator is writing a “real” biography based largely on Knight's fiction. Indeed, a fundamental difference in the attitudes of Nabokov and of Vargas Llosa may be reflected in the fact that Sebastian Knight is a novelist but Alejandro Mayta is a political activist. After all, Sebastian, like Nabokov, claims to have no interest in politics whatsoever: “Newspaper headlines, political theories, fashionable ideas meant to him no more than the loquacious printed notice … on the wrapper of some soap or toothpaste” (65). Still, Nabokov's V., like Vargas Llosa's narrator, discovers that fiction and reality are not so easy to separate. As he begins interviewing people who had known Knight, V. quickly realizes that the information he is gathering is of limited reliability:

don't be too certain of learning the past from the lips of the present. Beware of the most honest broker. Remember that what you are told is really threefold: shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale.


On the other hand, this same comment might apply to V.'s own narrative as well—perhaps his sources are misleading him, but then again perhaps he is misleading us.

Clearly, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight are books with more in common than the similarity in titles. Of course, the difficulty of grasping reality through epistemological investigation is a standard topic in much modern literature, and these two texts belong to a specific family of works that, like Sebastian Knight's own Success and The Prismatic Bezel, directly address the “research theme” (Knight 104). These texts raise important fundamental issues about the nature and possibility of human knowledge, and the biographical orientation of the research in them specifically questions the ultimate knowability of the human subject.

This mode of biographical metafiction (a special case of what Linda Hutcheon calls “historiographic metafiction”) can be found in numerous postmodernist works. For example, in Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot the narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite is a physician and amateur Flaubert scholar who is writing a biography of his favorite author. In the course of his researches Braithwaite discovers that the past is far more opaque than biographers generally indicate and that certain key facts of Flaubert's life are simply beyond retrieval. Further, he discovers that his own preoccupations constantly color his investigation, so that it is not entirely clear that he is really writing about Flaubert and not about himself. Braithwaite's difficulties in many ways echo those encountered by the narrators of Mayta and of Sebastian Knight.

The travails of these three narrator-biographers suggest that the past—and maybe the present as well—is largely a fictional construction the nature of which is determined at least as much by the expectations that we bring to it as by any objective notion of “reality.” Therefore, all three texts have a strongly postmodernist flavor, participating in a broad trend in postmodernist discourse that includes not only a whole range of works of reflexive fiction, but also the work of cultural critics like Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson. Indeed, McHale suggests that a sense of reality as an artificial human construction is perhaps the central informing idea of postmodernist fiction. He cites the work of sociologists such as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, who “regard reality as a kind of collective fiction, constructed and sustained by the processes of socialization, institutionalization, and everyday social interaction, especially through the medium of language” (37).

That The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was written in the late 1930s, while Flaubert's Parrot and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta were written in the early 1980s serves as a reminder that the “postmodern” concern with the boundary between fiction and reality is not an exclusively recent development. Indeed, another text that fits squarely in this family of metafictional “research” novels is Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, published in 1938—the same year in which The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was written. In Sartre's book Antoine Roquentin is a historian who becomes obsessed with writing the story of an eighteenth-century Frenchman named Rollebon. But Roquentin discovers that the truth of Rollebon's story is not so easy to determine: “I can search the past in vain, I can only find these scraps of images and I am not sure what they represent, whether they are memories or just fiction” (32). Indeed, Roquentin realizes that he cannot write this story without engaging in a great deal of fictionalization of his own, so much so that at one point he anticipates the narrator of The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta by observing in frustration that “I'd be better off writing a novel on the Marquis de Rollebon” (58). Sartre's own insistence on language as communication notwithstanding, this questioning of our ability to obtain a firm epistemological grasp of reality and to express that grasp in language may ultimately be every bit as radical as that found in Vargas Llosa or Barnes half a century later. Allen Thiher sees Nausea as an Ur-text of postmodernism; he notes “Roquentin's spirited disquisitions on the ontological separation between language and the world” and suggests that the radical questioning of language in this text marks “the beginning of our postmodern paradoxes” (93-4).

An investigation of the sometimes problematic boundary between fiction and reality has been a central preoccupation of the novel at least since Cervantes. In this sense, the fact that both Vargas Llosa and Barnes's Geoffrey Braithwaite are Flaubert scholars may not be entirely coincidental.5 Emma Bovary is a clear descendent of Cervantes' Don Quixote in her tendency to project literary fantasies onto reality, and Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet is an early example of a novel on the “research theme” that parodies the drive for complete knowledge that informs epistemological inquiry. One might also note that both Cervantes and Flaubert were among the authors lectured on most extensively by Nabokov in his days of teaching at Cornell, and this constellation of literary relationships is topped off by the fact that Sartre was not only a major direct influence on Vargas Llosa's development as a writer, but a biographer of Flaubert somewhat in the mode of his own Roquentin or Barnes's Braithwaite.6

The metafictional questioning of the reliability of biography in works like The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta,The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,Flaubert's Parrot, and Nausea inevitably leads to a questioning of the stability and definability of human identity itself. In this regard Vargas Llosa's book would appear to differ fundamentally from the others in that Mayta is still alive and thus available for direct questioning by the investigating narrator. But the epistemological advantage of this direct access is not so great as one might suspect. In general the subject of a biography is probably the one with the most interest in laundering the facts, and so the one whose testimony must be viewed with the greatest suspicion. For example, we learn in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight that a previous biography of Knight, by his one-time agent Mr. Goodman, was seriously flawed because Knight intentionally fed Goodman false information, relating, for example, old jokes as personal anecdotes: “Needless to say that Sebastian has been pulling Mr. Goodman's leg” (64).7 As Barnes's Braithwaite asks, “What chance would the craftiest biographer stand against the subject who saw him coming and decided to amuse himself?” (31).

Even if Mayta is not being intentionally misleading in his interview with the narrator, the crucial events in Jauja occurred a quarter of a century before the interview, and Mayta seems to have a great deal of difficulty remembering them. Indeed, so much time has passed that there is some question whether the subject whom the narrator interviews can be viewed entirely as the same person who participated in the Jauja uprising. We are warned early in the final chapter that the identification of the Mayta to be interviewed with the subject of the narrator's book may be somewhat tenuous. As the narrator himself muses, “The Mayta I've been researching was in his forties. The Mayta of today is over sixty. Is he the same man?” (280). When the narrator visits Lurigancho Prison and interviews a prisoner named “Alejandro Mayta,” he discovers that this individual is a completely different individual from the one he is seeking.8 “I'm not that one,” says this spurious Mayta. “He's not here anymore” (284). “Not here,” ostensibly refers to the prison, of course, but there is an underlying indication that the “real” Mayta of the narrator's investigations may no longer exist. After all, a great deal of time has passed, and intervening events could be expected to have changed Mayta greatly since the days of the insurrection at Jauja.

This questioning of the continuity of human identity over time resonates with contemporary concerns such as Jameson's argument that central to the postmodern condition is a “schizophrenic” and disconnected sense of temporality in general.9 But the narrator's inability to “know” Mayta even when he has Mayta before him in the flesh suggests that human identity itself is resistant to epistemological inquiry and that the very concept is problematic. Flaubert's Parrot raises a similar question, with Braithwaite wondering to himself in frustration, “How can we know anybody?” (174).

Braithwaite here directly echoes his great predecessor Sartre, who opens The Family Idiot by noting that his real task in that biography is to answer the question “what, at this point in time, can we know about a man?” (ix). The difficulties of Sartre's Roquentin in researching the life of Rollebon similarly point toward a questioning of the nature of human identity in general. For one thing, Roquentin discovers that the more he attempts to learn about Rollebon the more his quest turns reflexively back on itself. Roquentin's difficulty in knowing Rollebon also translates into a difficulty in knowing himself:

Antoine Roquentin exists for no one. That amuses me. And just what is Antoine Roquentin? An abstraction. A pale reflection of myself wavers in my consciousness. Antoine Roquentin … and suddenly the “I” pales, pales, and fades out.

(170, Sartre's ellipsis)

Roquentin's discovery of the slipperiness of the first-person pronoun also anticipates Vargas Llosa.

Perhaps the most striking questioning of the stability of identity in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta occurs in the narration itself, when at key moments the text switches from a third-person to a first-person narration of Mayta's experiences, so that the pronoun “I” at some points refers to the novelist-narrator and at some points to Mayta. This mode of narration unexpectedly begins about halfway through the book and results in a confusion of identities between Mayta and the narrator that suggests that the narrator may be projecting his own fantasies into the depiction of Mayta's “experiences,” just as Roquentin projects his own concerns into his investigation of Rollebon.10 This projection suggests that all human epistemological inquiry may be similarly reflexive, with the investigators finding not objective facts, but merely versions of the facts colored by their own interests and preoccupations. When we seek to know others, we may find that we are merely discovering reflections of ourselves, but the converse is true as well, so that the entire notion of selfhood is seriously destabilized.

This indication of the solipsism of human knowledge is a favorite theme of Nabokov, as when Charles Kinbote comments on John Shade's poem in Pale Fire only to argue that the poem is primarily inspired by Kinbote himself.11The Real Life of Sebastian Knight provides an especially strong anticipation of the confusion between narrating subject and subject of narration in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta when, at the end of Nabokov's text, V. discovers that he is beginning to find it extremely difficult to distinguish himself from his half-brother Knight. The book ends with a statement of this confusion of identities and of the unfathomability of human identity in general: “I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows” (205). The “someone whom neither of us knows” is presumably Nabokov, whose own presence in the text adds to the ontological confusion between V. and Knight.12

Much of the uncertainty in Knight's identity has to do with his position as an author. V.'s research turns out to be as much about Knight's fiction as about Knight himself. This motif raises fundamental questions about the relationship between an author and his text—how much can we know about Knight from reading his fiction, and how much of V.'s book will actually be personal information about V., regardless of the fact that it is supposed to be an objective biography of Knight? That V. and Knight are half-brothers reinforces this confusion, as does the ending conflation in the identities of the two semi-siblings. There are repeated hints in the narrative that, despite his protestations to the contrary, V. is not above projecting his own preoccupations into the text. For example, when V. goes to visit Madame Lecerf (who turns out actually to be Knight's ex-lover Helene von Graun) he conveys a growing sexual interest in the woman, which culminates in a combination disclaimer and confession: “Let me repeat here that I am loth to trouble these pages with any kind of matter relating personally to me; but I think it may amuse the reader (and who knows, Sebastian's ghost too) if I say that for a moment I thought of making love to that woman” (168).13

This instance of sexual fascination perhaps resonates with Freud's arguments (as in his analysis of Leonardo) that the epistemological urge which propels scientific inquiry is in fact largely a sublimation of the sex drive. But, given Nabokov's famed antipathy toward psychoanalysis, it is not surprising that V. specifically denies the importance of sexuality in his research. In exploring Knight's relationship with Clare Bishop, Nabokov's narrator eschews any mention of sex whatsoever, both because the intimate details of the sexual relationship between the two lovers are simply not determinable and because the narrator himself abhors the centrality often granted to sex in human experience:

I believe that granting “sex” a special situation when tackling a human problem, or worse still, letting the “sexual idea,” if such a thing exists, pervade and “explain” all the rest is a grave error of reasoning.


The denial of sexuality as a pivotal aspect of human identity is no doubt an implicit critique of Freud, but it also anticipates Michel Foucault, who essentially reverses the Freudian relationship between sex and epistemology by suggesting that the sex drive is merely an aspect of a more fundamental drive for knowledge.14 Foucault notes that in the past two centuries there has been an explosion of discourses concerning sexuality (of which psychoanalysis is only one) that has been marked by a tendency toward “transforming sex into discourse” (20). To Foucault, this phenomenon is intimately related to the tradition of the confession, both religious and secular. Modern society has been marked by a consistent compulsion to confess, especially to confess one's sexual activities, particularly if those activities happen to lie outside the accepted norm—as do the sexual activities of virtually all major Nabokov characters. Indeed, when characters like V. and Humbert Humbert deny an interest in sex, then find it impossible to stop talking about it, they would seem to illustrate Foucault's point rather nicely.

To Foucault, this intense emphasis on expressing the sexual is related to a persistent belief that sexuality is somehow “harboring a fundamental secret,” and that by bringing the sexual out into the open, one can discover hidden truths about the human condition. In particular, secret and fundamental truths about each individual can be discovered by exploring that person's sexuality, which reveals “the fragment of darkness that we each carry within us” (69). For the biographer who seeks to learn the ultimate “truth” about his subject, then, sexuality would be the most promising place to look. The obsession with sexuality in Western discourse, then, is primarily an epistemological drive, an aspect of that fundamental mechanism of power that Foucault refers to as the “will to knowledge.”

Of course, Foucault's important history of sexuality is largely intended to explore the genealogy of the Western proscription of homosexuality, and in this sense his work especially resonates with Vargas Llosa's treatment of the supposed homosexuality of Alejandro Mayta. Throughout the text, Mayta's homosexuality is depicted as a central reason for his consistent status as an outcast. In his interview with the apparently corrupt Senator Campos, Vargas Llosa's narrator is told that Mayta was a homosexual, and the socialist Campos goes on to deride homosexuality as being “intimately linked to the division of classes and to bourgeois culture” (96). If homosexuals are thus anathema to socialists, we also learn a few pages later that they were also a central target of the Catholic Inquisition in Peru in the sixteenth century, reinforcing an equation between homosexuality and marginality.

For this reason, Mayta is depicted as attempting to keep his homosexuality a secret, so that the narrator's revelations about Mayta's clandestine sexual activities provide a vivid enactment of Foucault's suggestion that sexuality in Western society is treated as an area of revelation in general. Indeed, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta contains several scenes of Mayta's intimate sexual activities, which are apparently intended to convey a sense that the “real” Mayta has been captured in the text. However, these scenes are so intimate that one inevitably wonders exactly how the narrator could have possibly come by such details. One suspects that these scenes may simply be projections of the narrator's own fantasies.

These suspicions are confirmed in the final chapter, when the narrator, in the course of his interview with Mayta, reveals that Mayta's homosexuality as presented in the earlier chapters of the book is a complete fabrication, invented by the narrator for dramatic effect. He explains to Mayta that he employed this device “to accentuate his marginality,” but the “real” Mayta in this last chapter is a typical Latin American heterosexual who is absolutely revolted when the narrator tells him that the “Mayta” in his book is gay. “I was never prejudiced about anything,” Mayta tells the narrator. “But, about fags, I think I am prejudiced” (301). In short, the depiction of Mayta's homosexuality in the earlier chapters, which had been presented as a way of revealing to us the “real” Mayta, turns out to have been entirely misleading, and the ostensibly “truest” part of the book has been the most fictional. Unlike Nabokov's V., Vargas Llosa's narrator is perfectly willing to present intimate details of the sexual life of his subject, but the fictionality of these depictions ultimately reinforces the suggestion of Nabokov's narrator that sexuality is not in fact the locus in which the “truth” of an individual can be found.15 This conclusion is also that of Foucault, for whom the traditional notion of the stable epistemological subject is itself a fiction.

Both The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta not only question the reality of the self as a fixed entity, but reality in general. This questioning occurs not only in the obvious unreliability of the information gathered and presented by the narrators, but in other ways as well. For example, perhaps the most striking moment in Nabokov's book occurs near the end when the narrator tells the story of how he sat just outside a hospital room, listening to the final breaths of his dying half-brother. V. is overwhelmed with emotion, carried away by “the wave of love I felt for the man who was sleeping beyond the half-opened door” (202-3). In a moment of epiphany he suddenly begins to understand truths about Knight that had never before been clear to him, only to have his reverie interrupted when a nurse arrives and he learns that there has been a mistake. The man in the room is in fact a stranger, and Knight had died the day before.

The sudden deflation of V.'s epiphany—somewhat analogous to the scene in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when Stephen Dedalus realizes that a moment of apparent revelation has been triggered by a misquotation from Nash—calls into question the general validity of such moments of sudden unmediated access to the “truth.” Other subtle hints in Nabokov's book indicate instabilities in the narrative that blur the line between fiction and reality to an extent that it is impossible to tell one from the other. For example, many of V.'s descriptions of the fiction of Sebastian Knight are equally applicable to his own narrative. Early on, he mentions a “fictitious biography” that Knight was planning, but which he never wrote (40). And his later description of the metafictional qualities of Knight's The Prismatic Bezel calls attention to the reflexivity of Nabokov's text as well:

the heroes of the book are what can be loosely called “methods of composition.” It is as if a painter said: look, here I'm going to show you not the painting of a landscape, but the painting of different ways of painting a certain landscape.


The “real” and fictional levels of Nabokov's book become even more confused near the end, as characters from Knight's fiction begin to creep into V.'s narrative. In the course of his search for Knight's former lover (who will turn out to have been Helene von Graun), V. meets a variety of personages, including a chess player whom he refers to as Mr. Black (142) and an overweight Mademoiselle Bohemsky with bright orange hair (153). He later tells us that Knight's last book The Doubtful Asphodel contained such characters as “the gentle old chess player Schwarz” and a “fat Bohemian woman with that grey streak showing in the fast colour of her cheaply dyed hair” (175). This coincidence cannot be explained by the fact that Knight's own fiction was often highly autobiographical and that he might simply have used these real people in his book: both Black and Mlle. Bohemsky turn out to have been false leads who didn't know Knight at all.

At the least, this crossing of characters from The Doubtful Asphodel into The Real Life of Sebastian Knight seriously undermines V.'s narrative, suggesting that he is indulging in a great deal of fictionalization either in his descriptions of Knight's work or in his descriptions of his own research, or both. The confusion of ontological levels brought about by this crossing of textual boundaries may also suggest that there is no level in this text that we can regard as “real” relative to the other “fictional” levels. McHale notes how the device of retour de personnages in Balzac, in which various characters reappear in more than one text, seems aimed at creating a sense of verisimilitude in those texts. But he also notes that similar devices in many postmodernist works have the opposite effect, creating an air of ontological instability that undermines any stable recuperation of the text (57-8).

Vargas Llosa himself employs this Balzacian device on numerous occasions, and specifically acknowledges Balzac as a predecessor in this regard.16 There is at least one instance of retour de personnages in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. A Civil Guard corporal named Lituma figures in the narrator's re-creation of the pivotal events at Jauja; a Lituma who is a Civil Guard sergeant also figures centrally in The Green House, and a guardsman named Lituma is featured in Who Killed Palomino Molero? and in one of Pedro Camacho's soap operas in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.17 The resulting suggestion that the Lituma whom the narrator presents as an historical figure is in fact a fictional character borrowed from earlier Vargas Llosa novels seriously undermines the credibility of the narrator's version of the events in which Lituma participates. This device also provides another link to Nabokov, in whose later work characters from previous works frequently appear and whose later novels often allude to earlier ones. For example, by the time of the late Look at the Harlequins! Nabokov employs a narrator who is a novelist bearing numerous resemblances to Nabokov himself and whose story is constructed largely from a patchwork of allusions to his previous novels, which echo Nabokov's own. One of this novelist's works, See under Real, closely resembles The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (with dashes of Pale Fire thrown in for good measure).18

The most radical confusion of textual boundaries and of the boundary between fiction and reality in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta occurs in the narrator's interview with Mayta himself in the concluding chapter, when we learn that the previous interviews presented in the book as realistic accounts of his research were in fact fictionalized. What we have been reading suddenly turns out not to be the history of the writing of a novel, but a novel itself—a fictional story about the writing of a novel. Thus, as in the case of Mayta's homosexuality, important “facts” uncovered by the narrator's research—facts that are often presented as corroborated by multiple interviewees—turn out to be nothing more than inventions on the part of the narrator. For example, the narrator—in the mode of the “we” narrator of Madame Bovary who claims to have been a schoolmate of Charles Bovary—informs us early on that he and Mayta had attended school as boys.19 But in the final chapter we discover that the narrator has never previously met Mayta and that his status as classmate was the narrator's invention. Similarly, we are repeatedly reminded throughout the text that the contemporary Peru in which the narrator conducts his research is in the grip of an apocalyptic civil war, fought not so much between different Peruvian factions as between Cuban commandos and American Marines in a battle for ideological supremacy. But in the final chapter the narrator admits that this entire scenario was fabricated for dramatic effect.

This sudden undermining of the verisimilitude of all that has gone before in the narration is made all the more powerful by the realization that this verisimilitude was itself highly illusory. The apocalyptic Peru invented by the narrator makes a very real commentary both on the scissions in Peruvian society and on the impact of outside forces on those scissions. But it is hardly historical; no such civil war has ever occurred, and the reader with even the slightest knowledge of Peruvian history knows it. Similarly, though we are led to believe that the narrator and Mayta were schoolmates, we are also clearly invited to identify this narrator with Vargas Llosa, a generation younger than Mayta.20 The text has been declaring its blatant fictionality, and the fact that most readers ignore such declarations until the last chapter demonstrates just how easily we can be taken in by a well-told story, even if that story is overtly false and contradictory.

This message is even more radical than it first appears. After all, how do we know that this final chapter is itself reliable? Both the final chapter and its predecessors exist at the same ontological level; they are all chapters in a fictional work by Vargas Llosa and none have inherent ontological priority. It would be just as logical to argue that—within the world of the text—the earlier chapters are “true” and the concluding chapter is “false.” If all of the other interviews turn out to have been fictionalized by the narrator, then there is no real reason to assume that this final interview has not been fictionalized as well. In the mode of Epimenides, the narrator announces to us in this final chapter that we can't believe anything he says, and we are left with the unsolvable dilemma of trying to decide whether we should believe him when he says we shouldn't believe him. In the final analysis we cannot even be sure whether Mayta “exists” at all, or whether he was simply created from the whole cloth by Vargas Llosa's narrator—an interpretation complicated still further by the fact that he was created by Vargas Llosa, using real historical events as an inspiration. Similarly, the parallels between V.'s biography of Sebastian Knight and Knight's own fiction contribute to a radical ontological uncertainty. There are hints in the text that Sebastian himself may have been created by V., or that V. may have been created by Sebastian, who is writing his own “posthumous” biography as a sort of Nabokovian literary joke.21 Both, meanwhile, were “really” created by Nabokov.

In the end, both The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight are highly metafictional works that question the relationship between fiction and reality by calling attention to their own fictionality even as they present certain stories as “true.” But one can read such overt fictionality in different ways. Given Nabokov's attitude of disengagement, one might see the reflexivity of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight as a means of creating a self-enclosed fictional world and of sealing the text off from any referential relationship with the outside world. But in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta Vargas Llosa suggests that the overt fictionality of the novel in fact serves as a direct commentary on the fictionality of life in contemporary Peru. Late in the book the narrator makes this message quite clear when he notes the total disjunction between “reality” and information about that reality in the apocalyptic Peru of the book: “Information in this country has ceased to be objective and has become pure fantasy—in newspapers, radio, television, and ordinary conversation.” But this narrator himself is apparently just as unreliable as the sources that he here criticizes. It is not surprising that he immediately relates the fictionalization of facts in Peru to what typically goes on in works of literature: “Since it is impossible to know what's really happening, we Peruvians lie, invent, dream, and take refuge in illusion. Because of these strange circumstances, Peruvian life, a life in which so few actually do read, has become literary” (246).

For critics such as Robert Siegle, such parallels between reality and reflexive fiction are important because they show the potential of reflexive fiction to expose the fictionality and conventionality of what we accept as “reality.” On the other hand, Gerald Graff warns that our sense of reality is too tenuous already and that the sense of the fictionality of reality conveyed by much modern reflexive fiction can lead to an irresponsible disengagement from important real-world issues. Graff suggests that “conventions of reflexivity and anti-realism are themselves mimetic of the kind of unreal reality that modern reality has become. But ‘unreality’ in this sense is not a fiction but the element in which we live” (180). Thus, for Graff, literature that calls attention to its own fictionality and criticism that calls attention to the fictionality of literature may be largely in complicity with the kind of blatant fictionalizations of reality that inform so much of modern society. On the other hand, Graff himself admits that “even radically anti-realistic methods are sometimes defensible as legitimate means of representing an unreal reality.” But, he suggests, “[t]he critical problem—not always attended to by contemporary critics—is to discriminate between anti-realistic works that provide some true understanding of nonreality and those which are merely symptoms of it” (12).

Of course, Graff's invocation of “true understanding” implies that in the final analysis there is a difference between truth and fiction. Similarly, works like The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight show just how difficult this difference can be to discern, but they do not necessarily imply that there is no difference. All of Vargas Llosa's novels address real-world social and political issues in a way that works strongly against any reading of his texts as denying the reality of those issues. And Nabokov's call for a radical separation between fiction and reality obviously depends upon the fact that there is a reality apart from fiction. One should remember that Nabokov characters (like Humbert Humbert) who cannot distinguish fiction from reality invariably come to some bad end.

If one considers The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight separately, specific subject matter and external authorial commentary may suggest that Vargas Llosa's book addresses itself precisely to the “true understanding of nonreality” that Graff indicates, whereas Nabokov's eschews commentary on this nonreality and thus can be seen as a mere “symptom” of that nonreality. Yet a comparative reading of the two texts shows a similarity in the actual mechanisms by which they call attention to the difficulty of distinguishing fiction from reality that works strongly against seeing them as polar opposites. Both books address the difficulty of separating fiction from reality not in order to suggest that the two cannot be distinguished, but to call for renewed vigilance in our efforts to make this distinction.

Graff seems generally more concerned with reflexive ways of reading than of writing, criticizing deconstructionists like Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller for reducing all texts to a commentary on the inability of language to represent reality. But The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta clearly resists these kinds of readings. The book certainly suggests that traditional realistic modes of representation are no longer adequate to modern reality, but it clearly seeks to comment on reality in its own way. A comparative reader might thus find that the clear political engagement of a book like The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta demonstrates that reflexive texts in general can comment upon reality in a powerful way, so that reading Nabokov through Vargas Llosa infuses The Real Life of Sebastian Knight with political potential as well. On the other hand, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is engaged with contemporary Peruvian social and political reality in a way that no amount of comparison with Nabokov seems able fully to efface. It thus seems much easier to argue that the clear political relevance of The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta indicates a political role for The Real Life of Sebastian Knight than that the ostensible disengagement of the latter undermines the engagement of the former. Once it has been demonstrated that reflexive fiction can in principle make important social and political statements, it then becomes impossible to argue that a given text lacks such a statement simply because that text is reflexive. In the final analysis, it may be that the most valuable conclusion that can be drawn through comparative reading of these two novels is that sociopolitical readings are inherently more powerful than formalist ones, which may simply be another way of saying that reality and fiction are not entirely indistinguishable and that reality—however slippery that concept may be—is more important than fiction.


  1. Critics have only recently begun to explore the political potential of Nabokov's work. See, for example, the articles by Brand and by Ermarth.

  2. Guzman suggests that the principal focus of Mayta is the narrator's fascination with Mayta's belief in violence as a mode of change (136).

  3. Sally Harvey is considerably harsher, hinting that in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter Vargas Llosa has capitulated to the demands of bourgeois society and wondering aloud whether Aunt Julia does not show Vargas Llosa vying for commercial success and “prostituting his pen” à la his character Marito (84).

  4. In this regard it is worth nothing that the “Cathedral” of Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral is in fact a brothel.

  5. Vargas Llosa's The Perpetual Orgy, a book-length study of Flaubert, significantly focuses on Madame Bovary, a text that is centrally concerned with confusions between fiction and reality. Note that The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and Flaubert's Parrot were originally published in the same year (1984), so it is unlikely that either influenced the other directly.

  6. The Family Idiot, Sartre's massive incomplete biography of Flaubert, ends his career on a note that oddly echoes the early days of Nausea. See Hazel Barnes for an interesting and useful study of Sartre and Flaubert. Among other things, she notes that this “biography” contains elements of both the autobiography and the novel. Nabokov's lecture notes on Flaubert's Madame Bovary are contained in the volume Lectures on Literature. His notes on Cervantes comprise an entire separate volume, Lectures on “Don Quixote.” See Rybalka for a succinct discussion of Sartre's importance to Vargas Llosa (124-5). For many of Vargas Llosa's own comments on Sartre, see his Entre Sartre y Camus. Vargas Llosa also directly addresses The Family Idiot in The Perpetual Orgy. He suggests that Sartre's comments on Flaubert are so speculative that “the book is of more interest to a Sartrean than to a Flaubertian” (43).

  7. Goodman is also chided for relating Knight's work to historical context, especially World War I. Thus Lucy Maddox suggests that “In the Nabokovian catalogue of possible authorial sins, Goodman's most heinous one is his attempt to make his commentary socially and politically relevant” (40). But V.'s attitudes are not necessarily to be confused with Nabokov's. In particular, V.'s depiction of Goodman's stupidity may be colored by professional jealousy and therefore not entirely reliable.

  8. This destabilization in the reference of the name “Alejandro Mayta” is increased as the narrator repeatedly assures Mayta his real name will not be used in the book. Apparently, then, either his name is not Mayta at all, or the narrator is lying to him. Incidentally, the narrator also assures most of the other interviewees named in the book that their names will not be used, again echoing Nabokov's V., who begins his narration by assuring an interviewee that she will remain anonymous, then revealing her name anyway, since “That she will ever read this book seems wildly improbable” (5).

  9. For Jameson the self reflected in modernist works is still relatively stable, but he sees the era of postmodernism as the end of the bourgeois ego and as a symptom of a new stage in the development of capitalism. He suggests a Lacanian notion of schizophrenia as a metaphor for the growing fragmentation of the self in the twentieth century, a phenomenon Jameson relates to the increasing sense of alienation brought about by the radical separation between workers and the products of their labor in late consumer capitalism. For Lacan, schizophrenia is related to the loss of an ability to maintain a sense of continuity in the use of language, and Jameson suggests that, like the schizophrenic patient, the postmodernist self is highly unstable, lacking any firm sense of continuity over time.

  10. Vargas Llosa's play with pronouns in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta has important precedents in Latin America literature as well. Carlos Fuentes's The Death of Artemio Cruz is an especially good example of the use of shifting pronouns to indicate that all narratives are told from a particular point of view and that the same story might look different from another perspective. Gabriel Garcia Márquez also employs frequent pronoun shifts in The Autumn of the Patriarch. Of course, subject pronouns have a certain special liquidity in Spanish, where they are generally omitted, person being indicated by changes in verb ending only.

  11. Kinbote also sometimes shifts into first person when narrating the experiences of the deposed King Charles II of Zembla, most obviously hinting that Kinbote himself is the exiled king (or at least that he thinks he is), but perhaps also suggesting that the King's whole story is Kinbote's fiction.

  12. A similar blurring of the boundary between Nabokov and his characters occurs at the end of Pale Fire, when Kinbote fades from the scene but suggests that he may reappear in “other disguises,” including that of an “old, happy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile” (300-301). And Vadim Vadimovich N. of Look at the Harlequins! is so much like Nabokov that even the other characters in the book continually confuse the two.

  13. At this point in the narrative, V. apparently does not yet know that Madame Lecerf is in fact Helene von Graun. However, it should be pointed out that he relates the episode from a future perspective in which this discovery has already been made.

  14. On the other hand, there is an obvious irony in the fact that Nabokov's attacks on the importance given to sex in psychoanalysis are generally carried out by characters such as V. or Humbert Humbert who can hardly be taken as reliable authorities. Virtually all of Nabokov's work in fact places a critical emphasis on sex and sexuality. Again, V. is not Nabokov.

  15. On the other hand, Vargas Llosa—like his narrator, and like Nabokov—has never shied away from the depiction of sexuality in his work. But he shares the concern of Nabokov's narrator with the reductive depiction of sex as the core of all human experience. In The Perpetual Orgy he explains that “a novel that leaves out sexual experience annoys me as much as one that reduces life exclusively to sexual experience” (21).

  16. Vargas Llosa acknowledges in an interview his penchant for this device and identifies Balzac as a predecessor (Oviedo 163). Faulkner, a major Vargas Llosa influence, employs this technique as well.

  17. The fact that Lituma is a character in a fiction-within-a-fiction in Aunt Julia creates an especially confusing mixture of ontological levels. Camacho's soap operas represent the most spectacular example of retour de personnages in Vargas Llosa's work—the scriptwriter's mental breakdown leads to a total chaos in which characters freely jump from one soap opera to another.

  18. In See under Real the biography of a recently deceased English novelist is “being knocked together by the uniformed, coarse-minded, malevolent Hamlet Godman,” an obvious reinscription of the Goodman of Sebastian Knight (Look 121).

  19. Flaubert's narrator is a predecessor of Vargas Llosa's in other ways as well, as when he remarks of Charles early in the text that “It would now be impossible for any of us to remember any thing about him,” thus indicating that the following story of Charles is the narrator's fiction (6). Of course, one might also interpret this story as being presented by a different, more omniscient narrator, as does Vargas Llosa himself (Perpetual 186).

  20. There is, of course, a great deal of irony in this identification. Vargas Llosa, like Nabokov, adds to the ontological complexity of his work with his own presence.

  21. This radical ontological confusion is typical of Nabokov's work. One might compare here the case of Pale Fire in which some critics (e.g., Stegner) have suggested that Kinbote fabricated the entire text, including Shade, while other critics (e.g., Bader) have suggested that Shade fabricated the entire text, including Kinbote. Such interpretations are of course clouded by the obvious fact that Nabokov “really” created the novel in either case.

Works Cited

Bader, Julia. The Crystal Land: Artifice in Nabokov's English Novels. Berkeley: U of California P, 1972.

Barnes, Hazel. Sartre and Flaubert. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.

Barnes, Julian. Flaubert's Parrot. New York: McGraw, 1985.

Brand, Dana. “The Interaction of Aestheticism and American Consumer Culture in Nabokov's Lolita.Modern Language Studies 17 (Spring 1987): 14-21.

Castillo, Debra A. “The Uses of History in Vargas Llosa's Historia de Mayta.INTI 24-25 (Autumn 1986-Spring 1987): 79-98.

Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. “Conspicuous Construction; or, Kristeva, Nabokov, and the Anti-Realist Critique.” Novel 21 (1988): 330-39.

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Trans. Paul de Man based on the translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling. New York: Norton, 1965.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980.

Graff, Gerald. Literature against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1979.

Guzman, Jorge. “A Reading of Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta.Latin American Literary Review 15 (January-June 1987): 133-39.

Harvey, Sally. “La tía Julia y el escribidor: Self-Portrait of an En-Soi.Antipodas 1 (December 1988): 74-87.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 145 (1984): 53-91.

Maddox, Lucy. Nabokov's Novels in English. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983.

Martin, Gerald. “Mario Vargas Llosa: Errant Knight of the Liberal Imagination.” In On Modern Latin American Fiction. Ed. John King. New York: Farrar, 1987, 205-33.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York and London: Methuen, 1987.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. Ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. New York and Toronto: McGraw, 1970.

———. Lectures on Literature. Ed. Fredson Bowers. San Diego: Harcourt, 1980.

———. Look at the Harlequins! New York: Vintage, 1990.

———. Pale Fire. New York: Putnam, 1962.

———. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. New York: New Directions, 1959.

Oviedo, José Miguel. “Mario Vargas Llosa: Maestro de las voces.” In Espejo de escritores. Ed. Reina Roffé. Hanover: Ediciones del Norte, 1985, 147-72.

Rybalka, Michel. “Mario Vargas Llosa and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta from a French Perspective.” Latin American Literary Review 15 (January-June 1987): 121-31.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert 1821-1857. Vol. I. Trans. Carol Cosman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.

———. Nausea. Trans. Lloyd Alexander. New York: New Directions, 1964.

Siegle, Robert. The Politics of Reflexivity: Narrative and Constitutive Poetics of Culture. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

Stegner, Page. Escape into Aesthetics: The Art of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Dial, 1966.

Thiher, Allen. Words in Reflection: Modern Language Theory and Postmodern Fiction. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. Entre Sartre y Camus. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Ediciones Huracán, 1981.

———. The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and “Madame Bovary.” Trans. Helen Lane. New York: Farrar, 1986.

———. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. Trans. Alfred MacAdam. New York: Farrar, 1986.

Williams, Raymond Leslie. Mario Vargas Llosa. New York: Ungar, 1986.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

*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

*Los cachorros (novella) 1967

La novela en América Latina [with Gabriel García Márquez] (interviews) 1968

Conversación en la Catedral. 2 vols. [Conversation in the Cathedral] (novel) 1969

García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio [García Márquez: Story of a Deicide] (criticism) 1971

Pantaleón y las visitadoras [Captain Pantoja and the Special Service] (novel) 1973

La orgía perpetua: 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

La guerra del fin del mundo [The War of the End of the World] (novel) 1981

La señorita de Tacna: Pieza en dos actos [The Young Lady from Tacna] (play) 1981

Contra viento y marea: Volume I (1962-1982) (journalism) 1983

Kathie y el Hipopótamo: Comedia en dos actos [Kathie and the Hippopotamus] (play) 1983

Historia de Mayta [The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta] (novel) 1984

La chunga (play) 1986

Contra viento y marea: Volume II (1972-1983) (journalism) 1986

¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? [Who Killed Palomino Molero?] (novel) 1986

El hablador [The Storyteller] (novel) 1987

Elogio de la madrastra [In Praise of the Stepmother] (novel) 1988

Contra viento y marea: Volume III (1964-1988) (journalism) 1990

La verdad de las mentiras: Ensayos sobre literatura [A Writer's Reality] (essays) 1990

Lituma en los Andes [Death in the Andes] (novel) 1993

El pez en el agua: Memorias [A Fish in the Water: A Memoir] (memoir) 1993

Desafíos a la libertad (journalism) 1994

Making Waves (essays and journalism) 1996

Cartas a un joven novelista [Letters to a Young Novelist] (letters and criticism) 1997

Los cuadernos de Don Rigoberto [The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto] (novel) 1997

La fiesta del chivo [The Feast of the Goat] (novel) 2000

El lenguaje de la pasión [The Language of Passion: Selected Commentary] (essays and journalism) 2001

Paraíso en la otra esquina [The Way to Paradise] (novel) 2003

*These works are collected in English in the volume The Cubs and Other Stories, 1979.

†These works are collected in English in the volume Mario Vargas Llosa: Three Plays, 1990.

Paul Berman (review date 6-20 June 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Berman, Paul. “The Novelist as Politician.” New Leader 77, no. 6 (6-20 June 1994): 5.

[In the following review, Berman asserts that A Fish in the Water, though well-written, demonstrates that Vargas Llosa is “better suited to being a novelist” than a politician.]

A novelist who runs for president is a hyphenated personality, and A Fish in the Water, Mario Vargas Llosa's account of his 1990 bid for the presidency of Peru, is a hyphenated book. The even-numbered chapters recount his doomed campaign, the odd-numbered chapters recount his childhood and education up to the age of 22, when he departed provincial Peru for Paris and the big world. The narrative style has a hyphenation of its own. The even-numbered chapters are written with the muscular purposefulness that is typical of political analysis and ideological certainty.

“There are no doubt many bad things about our era.” Vargas Llosa writes in Chapter Two, “but there is one very good one, without precedent in history. Countries today can choose to be prosperous.” The way to make that choice, he affirms, is by adopting the free market strategies of the Asian “Tigers,” though he carefully adds that free markets should not mean unfree governmental systems. He invokes Karl Popper and Friedrich von Hayck. He inveighs against mercantilism, statism, populism, authoritarianism, and other lamentable “isms” that keep countries like Peru in a wretched condition. He has his irritated say about the self-serving political allies and hostile “cut-rate intellectuals” (as he calls them) who made it difficult for him to present these cerebral theories to the people of Peru in the course of his campaign.

In the odd-numbered chapters the muscular purposefulness dissolves at once. The author reminisces about his parents and their difficult marriage, the nastiness of his father, the complicated ties of his extended family, his boyhood adventures in a military academy, his amorous and sexual explorations with girlfriends and prostitutes. The flow of those memories is guided (or appears to be guided) only by the association of names and stories, as in fiction.

I assume Vargas Llosa sought to replicate here the wonderfully successful structure of his novel The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. That similarly jumps back and forth between past and present: the past of an old Peruvian Trotskyist who worked hard years ago to set up an idealistic revolutionary guerrilla movement, the present of that same man, now disillusioned, as he watches modern Peru get devastated by the ugly terrorism he himself did so much to bring about.

But the jumping back and forth in A Fish in the Water brings out something that you don't see in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. It is a contrast between two kinds of imagination: the playful (in the childhood chapters) versus the forceful (in the political chapters); the curious versus the didactic; the rueful versus the angry. And of the two imaginations, the one that is playful and literary ends up producing chapters that are noticeably more vivid—especially when the writer turns to the topic of literature itself, which was always a childhood pleasure for him and was soon enough (by his teenage years as a newspaper journalist) a source of income.

Nothing in the political chapters is so impassioned as Vargas Llosa's recollection of hiding out at military school, like some dissident in a dictatorship hunched over a samizdat manuscript, reading paperback novels: “I read at recess and at hours when I was supposed to be studying, hiding the book during classes underneath my notebooks, and sneaked out of the classroom to go read in the arbor next to the swimming pool, and read, at night, when it was my turn to be on guard duty, sitting on the floor of chipped white tiles, in the dim light of the dormitory bathroom.”

He read Victor Hugo in those days, and above all Alexandre Dumas—“the author to whom I am most grateful”: “The saga of d'Artagnan, which begins with the young Gascon arriving in Paris as a forsaken provincial and ends many years later, at the siege of La Rochelle, when he dies, without having received the marshal's baton that the King is sending him via a postboy, is one of the most important things to have happened to me in my life.”

For by reading Dumas, Vargas Llosa conceived a lifelong passion for France, a land of adventure and derring-do (as he first imagined), later on the land of Jean-Paul Sartre (whose magazine he read during his university days), later still the land he happily fled to when, having won a literary contest, he finally got the opportunity to leave Peru. Of course, his adult reading in Popper and von Hayck, as he describes it in the even-numbered political chapters, is also important to him. But not compared with the influence of that titan of his childhood, the author of The Three Musketeers!

The political chapters have their vivid passages, too. The presidential campaign was a dirty affair, and Vargas Llosa indulges a malicious pleasure in recounting some of the nasty things that were done against him, the slanderous and fraudulent leaflets that were distributed for instance.

One of those leaflets, he tells us, “was a supposed letter from me to the militants of Libertad [his political movement], in which, making a show of that brutal frankness I boasted of, I told them that, yes, we had to take jobs away from a million employees for the shock (the economic reform) to be a success, and that, without doubt, many thousands of Peruvians would die of hunger during the early days of the reforms, but that there would be prosperous times and that if, with the reform of education hundreds of thousands of poor never learned how to read and write, things would be better for their children or their grandchildren, and that it was also true that I'd married one of my aunts and then a first cousin of mine and later on I might possibly marry a niece, and that I wasn't ashamed of it because that was what freedom was for.”

Yet a wry and amusing passage like that mostly arouses the reader's interest in the candidate's long-ago real-life marriage to his “aunt”—actually his uncle's sister-in-law—particularly when we recall from the novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter that at the time they tied the knot he was 19 and she was 13 years older. In the odd-numbered chapters, we learn about Aunt Julia and how a few innocent outings to the cinema with her led to one thing and another; and more liveliness radiates from those amorous remembrances than from any of Vargas Llosa's earnest arguments about the need for Peru to cultivate a higher tone in its political campaigns.

I came away from A Fish in the Water thinking that, if I were Peruvian, I might well have voted for Vargas Llosa in 1990, even if his free-market doctrines are worrisomely dogmatic. (One part of his alliance did consist, in fact, of Social Democrats, who preferred to speak of markets that were “social” instead of “free.”) His chief opponent, Alberto Fujimori, once he became president, more or less enacted Vargas Llosa's economic program anyway and with good effect—except that Fujimori combined the program with the destruction of democracy. As Vargas Llosa says, this means that the deepest cause of Peru's backwardness, the tradition of authoritarianism, has actually been strengthened. But it is hard to see that Vargas Llosa would have been a good president, except in comparison to a dictator. He loves ideology too much, the political life and his fellow politicians too little.

The contrast between even-numbered and odd-numbered chapters shows that, as everyone would have guessed, the defeated candidate is in any event, better suited to being a novelist. Although the political chapters are intelligent, they are cold. The biographical chapters are not exactly warm (a tender heart has never been Vargas Llosa's strongest characteristic, despite his early and continuing admiration for Hugo). Still, you plunge into reading about Uncle Lucho and Aunt Julia and military school, and somehow—this is the great mystery of literature—you feel the same eager fascination of a young boy hiding from his teachers in order to read about d'Artagnan and the Count of Monte Cristo.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Abrams, Elliott. Review of A Fish in the Water: A Memoir, by Mario Vargas Llosa. American Spectator 27, no. 9 (September 1994): 68-70.

Abrams predicts that Vargas Llosa's autobiographical A Fish in the Water “will not disappoint fans of his novels,” concluding that the author “emerges here as the brilliant writer he has always been.”

Axelrod, Mark. Review of Letters to a Young Novelist, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 1 (spring 2003): 165.

Axelrod offers a positive assessment of Vargas Llosa's insightful literary criticism in Letters to a Young Novelist but notes that some of Vargas Llosa's commentary is “a bit superficial.”

Cheuse, Alan. “The Distant Corners of Happiness.” San Francisco Chronicle (7 December 2003): M3.

Cheuse commends The Way to Paradise as Vargas Llosa's “first truly international novel.”

Dirda, Michael. “An Activist and an Artist, Linked by Blood and Ambition.” Washington Post Book World 33, no. 46 (30 November 2003): 15.

Dirda compliments Vargas Llosa's skill at evoking the impact of Gauguin's paintings in The Way to Paradise but faults the novel's narrative as “virtually inert.”

Gould, Tony. “Fidel to Maggie.” New Statesman 125, no. 4288 (21 June 1996): 46.

Gould offers positive evaluations of Death in the Andes and Making Waves while “tracing Vargas Llosa's political evolution.”

Hopkinson, Amanda. “South Sea Trouble.” Observer (2 November 2003): 15.

Hopkinson praises Vargas Llosa's characterizations in The Way to Paradise, lauding the author for having “an exceptional knack for getting inside the mind of the artist.”

Additional coverage of Vargas Llosa's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 18, 32, 42, 67, 116; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 6, 9, 10, 15, 31, 42, 85; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 145; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Multicultural, and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Ed. 2; Hispanic Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Latin American Writers; Latin American Writers Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 14; Twayne's World Authors; and World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1.

Raquel Romeu (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Romeu, Raquel. “Influence of Climate on the Cultures of the Jungle as Perceived by Two Latin American Novelists.” In Climate and Literature: Reflections of Environment, edited by Janet Pérez and Wendell Aycock, pp. 107-13. Lubbock, Tex.: Texas Tech University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Romeu examines how the influence of the equatorial climate, experienced by Vargas Llosa and author Alejo Carpentier during separate jungle expeditions, impacted their writing in The Storyteller and The Lost Steps, respectively.]

Differences in [climate] patterns from place to place, and changes in them from time to time, have inevitably exerted a powerful influence on human affairs. They define regions in which man must exert special efforts to avoid freezing or roasting to death. … Climate, along with soil (which is itself heavily influenced by climate), determines what plants can flourish and thus what animals—including man—can survive by eating the plants, or one another.

(Claiborne 26)

Robert Claiborne in Climate, Man, and History also differentiates among four basic types of climates: polar, cold and dry; stormy, warm or cold depending on the season, but quite humid at all times; desert, very hot and dry; and equatorial, very hot and wet. In this last group is the Amazon basin where we find the two primitive cultures presented by Alejo Carpentier and Mario Vargas Llosa in their respective novels: The Lost Steps (Los pasos perdidos, 1962) and The Storyteller (El hablador, 1987).

In the first novel, Carpentier describes a village of the Guahibo Indians located on a channel (caño) of the Orinoco system, and the Shirishana tribe who live along the upper Caura, a tributary of the same river. In the second novel, Vargas Llosa introduces the reader to the Machiguenga, a tribe scattered throughout the region of the Madre de Dios and upper Urubamba rivers in the Amazon system. Both novels are the result of trips into the jungle which left a strong impression upon these writers. A new world totally unknown to them had unfolded before their eyes.1

Surprise, amazement, incredulity mark Carpentier's first encounter, in the remote jungle, with man living still in that second level that Claiborne calls barbarism. This is the stage where man already plants certain staples and raises some domestic animals, but still supplements his diet of meat by hunting. These groups live in this very hot and humid equatorial climate, in semi-permanent villages inhabited by just a few hundred souls.

Concerning groups classified as savages or barbarians, Claiborne observes that the Bushmen of Australia are less savage than almost any civilized nation and that they call themselves “the harmless people” (234). In The Lost Steps the narrator recalls the extermination of the Jews in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II and makes the same observation as Claiborne.

The primitive man of the Amazon basin, or rather, this man perfectly adapted to his surroundings, has survived in his isolation and the environment in which he lives has survived with him. Meggers says in Amazonia: “aboriginal man appears to have been no more destructive than his fellow organisms to the long-term stability of the tropical rain forest ecosystem” (150).

The jungle could not logically have been the cradle of civilization. Carpentier's narrator reinforces this theory when, penetrating into the heart of the jungle through a narrow channel (caño), he describes a setting that reminds the reader of the original chaos from which the world as we know it today sprang: “One felt the presence of rampant fauna, of the primeval slime, of the green fermentation beneath the dark waters, which gave off a sour reek like a mud of vinegar and carrion …” (160).2

Minute descriptions depict the “real” jungle as an asphyxiating place in constant state of decay: the asphyxiating climate of the equatorial regions. In the midst of such an environment, viewed as hostile by the narrator, the Guahibo Indians appear perfectly adapted to this milieu: “in their own surroundings … they were complete masters of their culture … The fact that they ignored many things that to me were basic and necessary was a far cry from putting them in the category of primitive beings” (173).3

Carpentier's narrator marvels at the precision with which one has caught a fish by putting an arrow through it; how another uses a blowgun; or the technique of a group covering the framework of a longhouse with palm fronds. They reveal themselves as “masters of the skills required on the stage of their existence” (173).4 But it is the climate that is ultimately responsible for the setting of the “stage.”

As the narrator pushes farther into the different climates of the South American continent, he also recedes in time. If the Guahibo culture had amazed him, his encounter with the Shirishana Indians of the upper Caura leads him to believe that he has arrived at the first stage of human life:

We had emerged from the Paleolithic … to enter a state that pushed the limits of human life back to the darkest murk of the night of ages. These beings I saw now with legs and arms that resembled mine … these people still without the primordial shame that leads to the concealment of the organs of generation, who were naked without knowing it … were nevertheless men.


These people, who have not yet discovered seeds, do not stay in one place, but wander aimlessly, eating whatever they can find. They fight the monkeys for palm hearts, climbing high up in the trees (“colgándose de las techumbres de la selva,” 243). When isolated by floods for long periods, they have eaten “the larvae of wasps, munched ants, lice, dug into the earth for worms and maggots” (182) and eaten even the earth itself. Fire is almost unknown to them and their dogs resemble primitive pre-dogs (“perros anteriores a los perros”).

The narrator doubts that he can communicate with them, even by gestures. The infra-human appears when the Adelantado, a character who has made his home in the jungle where he has founded a city—like the early Conquistadores—points out to the narrator the prisoners of the Shirishanas in a muddy hole that looks like a dirty pigpen full of gnawed bones. “I saw before me the most horrible things my eyes had ever beheld” (182). He calls them “fetuses with white beards” and “wrinkled dwarfs” (182).

These “human larvae” were captives of the Shirishanas, who believed themselves to be the superior race, the only rightful owners of the jungle. Horrified at this vision, the narrator asks himself if there might be yet other lower groups that, in turn, might have prisoners of their own whom they might consider their inferiors.

The Machiguengas presented by Vargas Llosa in The Storyteller also consider themselves the sole owners of the jungle. They call themselves “the men.” It seems to be a human trait for each ethnic group, regardless of cultural level, to consider itself the chosen people.

While Carpentier's prose is exuberant like the jungle he describes, Vargas Llosa sketches with tight strokes and unique language structure a way of life. Alien to our Western culture, this life is, nonetheless, very real in the jungles of Peru where the oppressive climate allows no alternative:

… three of four photographs … suddenly brought back to me the flavor of the Peruvian jungle. The wide rivers, the enormous trees, the fragile canoes, the frail huts raised up on pilings, and the knots of men and women, naked to the waist and daubed with paint, looking at me unblinkingly from the glossy prints.6


For Carpentier life in the equatorial climate contrasts with life in the great city, New York, where Western culture prevails and from which the narrator turns in disgust. Traveling to the jungle in search of certain musical instruments, supposedly the first which man had invented, the narrator really seeks his own identity. He is a man trapped between two cultures: the European, representative of our Western world; and the Latin American, that, depending on the climate, will have retained the romantic flavor of the nineteenth century, or will have remained in the Middle Ages or some earlier time. Once in the jungle, he imagines he has found what he had lost in the civilized world. The simple life, love without complications and the absolute disregard of time bring incentive and inspiration back into his life and make it meaningful again.

The novelist's approach combines personal and cultural elements. Much of the story in The Lost Steps has an autobiographical basis. America, especially Cuba and the Caribbean region, became an obsession with Carpentier, occupying the settings of his novels and short stories. Yet culturally he was very French, very European in his point of view. He underlines this fact with a profusion of quotes and literary, philosophical, and historical intertextual references to Western culture.

Vargas Llosa, whose novel The Storyteller appeared twenty five years after The Lost Steps, was educated in the Latin American pattern, never traveling to Europe until after completing his studies at Lima's University of San Marcos. His preoccupation with America centers upon Peru and Peruvian social problems. Vargas Llosa's interest in his country's well-being led to his becoming a presidential candidate in the 1990 Peruvian elections, although he had never participated in politics before and was, instead, completely dedicated to literature. The very fact that he decided to enter the political arena speaks of his great concern for his country, a sentiment profoundly coloring The Storyteller.

The diversity of climates in Peru and other South American countries generally has resulted in a plurality of cultures, producing serious economic, political and even moral problems, besides the cultural ones.

In The Storyteller, Saúl Zuratas and Mario Vargas Llosa (speaking as another character), represent divergent opinions with respect to the problem of jungle cultures in Peru.

… those compatriots of ours who from time immemorial had lived there, harassed and grievously harmed, between the wide, slow rivers, dressed in loincloths and marked with tattoos, worshipping the spirits of trees, snakes, clouds, and lightning. …


In A Writer's Reality (1991), Vargas Llosa has declared that if he were forced to choose between preserving the Indian jungle cultures or decreeing their complete assimilation, he would, with great sorrow opt for the modernization of those tribes as the greatest urgency is to combat “hunger and misery.” Concerning the Machiguenga tribe, he affirms that “their culture is alive in spite of the fact that it has been repressed and persecuted since Inca times” (36). They should perhaps be respected, but their fragile culture will not survive much longer. “… it is tragic to destroy what is still living, still a driving cultural possibility, even if it is archaic; but I am afraid we shall have to make a choice” (37).

Thus while Zuratas, alias Mascarita, defends the Machiguengas and their right to be respected in their jungle, the author speaks for those who believe in the need to sacrifice them in the name of progress.

Mascarita sees in the destruction of such cultures the destruction of the ecology. The white men (viracochas) and the Indians from the Andes mountains have come into the jungle at different times to clear the woods with fires burning large extensions of land; after planting one or two crops the soil has been rendered barren for lack of humus and because of the erosion caused by the rain. Animals have been exterminated because of the greed for hides; some species are disappearing rapidly. Not only is this happening in Peru, but in Brazil large portions of the rain forest have been pointlessly destroyed. The earth is now incapable of producing anything. In the equatorial climates the jungle thrives, but stripped of it the soil becomes barren.

Vargas Llosa first became aware of life in the jungle and its problems in 1957 during his first trip there, discovering a face of his country of which he had been totally ignorant. He, like Carpentier when speaking of Venezuela, comes to the conclusion that Peru is a country of many climates and many cultures: a country of the twentieth century, but also of the Middle Ages and of the Stone Age. His first impression of the Peruvian jungle recalls the reaction of Carpentier: “narrow river channels so choked with tangled vegetation overhead that in bright daylight it seemed dark as night” (72).

These Machiguengas that live around the Madre de Dios and upper Urubamba rivers are isolated, living in little groups of families and moving progressively deeper into the jungle, driven away by the viracochas and more warlike tribes. At different times there have been booms known as fevers, “fiebres.” Rubber, gold, rosewood and agricultural colonization have attracted those who have pushed them into more unhealthy and infertile regions where they live in tiny family nuclei without villages or chiefs.

By one of those remote rivers on the Amazon system, the Timpinía, the storyteller finds a Machiguenga family who have built their little camp in that isolated spot. When he arrives to spend a few days with the family, he is greeted with great joy, and they converse at length. The Machiguengas are noted for being great conversationalists. Tasurinchi-el de Timpinía, the head of the family, complains to Tasurinchi-hablador, the storyteller, that in those lands one can only plant a couple of times in the same place, no more. Sometimes only once. “It's land that tires quickly, it appears. It wants me to leave it in peace. … This earth here along the Timpinía is lazy” (221).8

A tremor occurs while the wife is alone in the camp. When the husband returns and she tells him, he beats her up because he thinks she is lying. And then, there is another tremor. Tasurinchi from Timpinía decides this needs much meditation. He goes off and sits on a rock all night and all morning. Toward midday he has found an explanation for that geophysical sign. He must move his family to another location. He tells the storyteller:

I remembered something I knew when I was born … Or perhaps I learned it in a trance. If an evil occurs on the earth, it's because people have stopped paying attention to the earth, because they don't look after it the way it ought to be looked after. Can it talk the way we do? To say what it wants to say, it has to do something. Shake, perhaps. To say: Don't forget me. To say: I'm alive, too. I don't want to be ill-treated.


Saúl Zuratas considers the cultures of Amazonia well equipped to deal with their surroundings, possessing a subtle and profound knowledge of things we, the civilized people, have forgotten: the relation between man and nature and, also, between man and God. That harmony we have “shattered forever.”

While employing different perspectives, both writers coincide with Claiborne who believes that

The dinosaurs and every creature that ever lived, or now lives, on earth, had adapted to their environment—flourishing when the adaptation was adequate to the circumstances, disappearing when it was not. Only man, with the aid of his brain, can adapt the environment to himself. He is the only creature, for instance, that can manipulate climate, even on a small scale. He is also the only creature that can wonder about it or write books about it.


But Carpentier's narrator, after having retraced man's steps back to the Fourth Day of Creation, loses that paradise forever, by returning to our Western world. He will not find the way back. For him, the artist, the composer, it was impossible to rid himself of his cultural baggage.

By contrast, Vargas Llosa's character, Saúl Zuratas, alias Mascarita, voluntarily renounces his Western culture, erasing all traces of his previous life and emerging fully in the Machiguenga world as Tasurinchi—the storyteller. His absolute transformation, like a rebirth, renders him a true Machiguenga possessing the power of the word that transmits the group's beliefs, legends, and their history.

In both novels our world, that of the stormy climate where our Western civilization thrives, is conceived as a totally different world, apart from that of the equatorial climate. In order to integrate them one must be sacrificed: the more fragile, but in doing so, the climate might be altered, which may endanger gravely the ecological stability of our planet.


  1. Carpentier visited the jungle twice during his long stay in Caracas. In July, 1947, he traveled in the direction of Guyana. In September, 1948, he made a second trip, this time up the Orinoco arriving at a village that he calls Santa Mónica de los Venados in the novel. It was on this last trip that he encountered the Guahibo and Shirishana tribes.

  2. “Se adivinaba la cercanía de toda una fauna rampante, del lodo eterno, de la glauca fermentación, debajo de aquellas aguas oscuras que olían agriamente, como un fango que hubiera sido amasado con vinagre y carroña …” (223). All quotes appear in translation in the text and in the original in an endnote. Both are from the editions cited.

  3. “Aquellos indios … me resultaban, en su ámbito, en su medio absolutamente dueños de su cultura. … La evidencia de que desconocían cosas que eran para mí esenciales y necesarias, estaba muy lejos de vestirlos de primitivismo” (234).

  4. “… maestro[s] en la totalidad de oficios propiciados por el teatro de su existencia” (234).

  5. Hemos salido del paleolítico … para entrar en un ámbito que [hace] retroceder los confines de la vida humana a lo más tenebroso de la noche de las edades. Esos individuos con piernas y brazos que veo ahora, tan semejantes a mí … esas gentes que aún no han cobrado el pudor primordial de ocultar los órganos de la generación, que están desnudos sin saberlo … son hombres, sin embargo (243).

  6. … tres o cuatro fotografías … me devolvieron, de golpe, el sabor de la selva peruana. Los anchos ríos, los corpulentos árboles, las frágiles canoas, las endebles cabañas sobre pilotes, y los almácigos [?] de hombres y mujeres, semidesnudos y pintarrajeados, contemplándome fijamente desde sus cartulinas brillantes (7).

  7. … esos compatriotas nuestros que desde tiempos inmemoriales vivían allá, acosados y lastimados, entre los anchos y lentos ríos, con taparrabos y tatuajes, adorando los espíritus del árbol, la serpiente, la nube y el relámpago … (15).

  8. Es una tierra que se cansa pronto, parece. Está queriendo que la deje en paz … Tierras perezozas son éstas de Timpinía (223).

  9. Me acordé de algo que nací sabiendo. … Si un daño ocurre en la tierra es porque la gente ya no le presta atención, porque no la cuida como hay que cuidarla. ¿Puede la tierra hablar, como nosotros? Para decir lo que quiere, algo tendrá que hacer. Temblar, quizás. No se olviden de mí, diciendo. Yo también vivo, … No quiero que me maltraten (217).

Works Cited

Carpentier, Alejo. Los pasos perdidos. Ed. Roberto González Echevarría. Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 1985.

———. The Lost Steps. Trans. by Harriet Onís. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.

Claiborne, Robert. Climate, Man, and History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970.

Meggers, Betty Jane. Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1971.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. El hablador. Barcelona: Editorial Seix Barral, 1987.

———. The Storyteller, translated by Helen Lane. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989.

———. A Writer's Reality. Ed. Myron I. Lichtblau. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Richard Eder (review date 11 February 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. Review of Death in the Andes, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 February 1996): 3.

[In the following review, Eder describes Death in the Andes as “less successful and more awkward” than Real Life of Alejandro Mayta but notes that Death in the Andes is “in some ways more haunting.”]

In the Andean regions of South America, travel is by altitudes; new worlds, climates and cultures are discovered not by going north, south, east or west but by going up or down. Those who live at the temperate altitudes (sea level to 4,000 or 5,000 feet) experience physical and psychological malaise when visiting the much higher cities of La Paz and Cuzco, a malady locally called soroche.

In a much broader sense, soroche is the theme and illness in a new novel by the urbane, prodigiously gifted Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. He is a lowlander whose life has been spent in Lima, Piura and Arequipa as well as in Europe and Mexico. Death in the Andes is his Heart of Darkness, reached not by traveling up a river in Africa but by climbing 12,000 feet into the central Andes.

The barren upland is home to the impoverished Indian descendants of the peoples whom the Incas ruled and, latterly, to the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a deviant Maoist cult that has posed a violent guerrilla threat to the country's stability. The fear inspired by Sendero in Peru's cities is something more than that of violent revolution; it carries the suggestion of the upland—silent, ignored, mysterious—descending like extra-planetary raiders upon the known world.

In The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, one of Vargas Llosa's strongest books, the author wrote of a movement somewhat resembling the Sendero. It was a psychological and political portrait of a Lima activist who turns his back on his fellow Marxists to work with a charismatic leader among the Indians in the mountains. Death in the Andes, less successful and more awkward but in some ways more haunting, attempts to portray the Sendero from the point of view of those Indians and those mountains.

It tells several different stories, related or in counterpoint to one another. It uses a variety of tones—realistic and dreamlike, with odd simultaneity of past and present, of incident and hallucination—often woven into the same paragraph. It confuses, it gets out of hand, and it is meant to. Vargas Llosa is evoking a ghost-ridden world which baffles those who come to it from outside, and into which those who live there—whether natives or Sendero activists—disappear and become part ghost themselves.

Death centers on two likable and entirely human characters, a corporal and private—both lowlanders—in the Guardia Civil assigned to guard a highway construction project in the village of Naccos in the Central Andes. Two hundred Indian laborers work there; docile—except when inflamed by drink—and elliptical or entirely unresponsive to the efforts of Cpl. Lituma and Pvt. Carreno to investigate the disappearance of three fellow workers.

This is the heart of Sendero territory; Lituma and Carreno know themselves to be pitifully vulnerable to a raid that could take place at any moment. They suspect that the three missing men have been killed or abducted by the terrorists or terrucos, but have no way of knowing whether the workers—serruchos or sierra people—are spying for them. The flamboyant bar owner, Dionisio, and his fortune-telling wife, Adriana, seem to wield authority. Their own sympathies and connections are a mystery; they know a great deal and speak in hints and contradictions.

Vargas Llosa interjects two scenes in which the guerrillas appear, though not in the vicinity of Naccos. They stop a bus, pull out two young French tourists headed for Cuzco and stone them to death. They raid a reforestation project, capture a valiant and distinguished woman ecologist on an inspection visit and execute her.

The author conveys their chilling robotry; otherwise, he writes these scenes in a desultory, contrived manner. In Death his novelist's interest is not really in the guerrillas themselves. It is in the upland: its Indians, the ghosts and legends that rule it and its ability to turn everyone who passes through, including the Sendero, into one more episode in a terrifying millennial history.

By day, Lituma and Carreno ask questions with no real hope of answers. At night, in their shack, they ward off their hopelessness and expectation of imminent death with the most human of lowland civilities: a story. In particular, a sexy story. In particular, the account by the youthful, naive Carreno of his one great love affair.

He served as bodyguard to a gangster—he got the job through his amiably corrupt godfather, a Guardia commander—fell in love with Mecha, the gangster's mistress, killed his employer for abusing her and fled with her through Peru, stopping at hotels and making blissful love along the way. The story takes a series of picaresque twists; furthermore, it is more than a story.

Lituma keeps interrupting for details and comments. The two are weaving a fabric of civilization, and Vargas Llosa uses an odd weaving device. The story of Mecha, though told by Carreno as the past, is written in the present: Lituma's interruptions take place in the same time frame as Carreno's and Mecha's comically erotic dialogues. It is as if Lituma were being invited in from the cold, ghost-haunted night outside.

The Lituma-Carreno story is rough and not particularly subtle or original; at times it seems close to puerile. But it provides a wonderfully fleshly contrast to the ghost-battling that the two policemen engage in by day.

They gather stories and stories that replace stories. The account of the three missing men are three ghostly vignettes of the upland, blending realism and fantasy. There is Pedro, the mute shepherd, who lovingly tended a herd of vicunas in caves far up the mountains. A Sendero unit machine-gunned them as part of its mission of destruction; they half-apologized to Pedro, who was heartbroken and subsequently fled to Naccos to work for Lituma.

There is the story of Casimiro, who escaped from the village where he was mayor when Sendero raiders arrived and persuaded the inhabitants to denounce and execute the leading citizens. There is the albino, who traveled the Central Andes as a peddler, seducing a succession of village women, one of whom later joined the guerrillas.

All three could have been victims of Sendero reprisals. But this notion gradually gives way to stories of landslides set off by angry deities, of monsters who suck the fat out of people, of mountain spirits who cause disasters. Lituma and Carreno hear accounts of human sacrifices practiced for centuries to prevent such things.

It seems clear that the three missing men were hurled down a mine shaft. Who hurled them? A crowd of villagers is described as lovingly conducting each of the three to the pithead, and praising and comforting them in advance of a propitiatory sacrifice. It is not clear who is describing this or why. Lituma, recovering from shock after nearly being caught in a landslide, seems to be hearing the story, but conceivably he could be hallucinating it.

Vargas Llosa has not drawn clear lines among events, stories, lies and the hysterical fantasies of two spooked policemen from the lowlands; or between guerrilla violence and that of a much older tradition.

But the theme of Death is powerful and suggestive. It is not that the Andes harbor Sendero guerrillas, but that they harbor 1,000 years of bloody subjection, along with the propitiatory rites that a powerless people devise to give the illusion that fate, if it can't be avoided, can at least be negotiated with.

Doris Sommer (essay date spring 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Sommer, Doris. “About-Face: The Talker Turns.” Boundary 2 23, no. 1 (spring 1996): 91-133.

[In the following essay, Sommer expounds on the implications of the opening of Vargas Llosa's Storyteller, in which the narrator expresses frustration at his inability to escape his native Peru.]

The first sentence of Mario Vargas Llosa's El hablador (The Storyteller)1 gives a start, a shock, a double take, as the narrator misses a step to gasp with surprise. Facing him is precisely the thing he had escaped. “I came to Firenze to forget Peru and the Peruvians for a while, and behold, the damned country forced itself upon me this morning in the most unexpected way” (S [The Storyteller], 3; 7). The first move of the story is no departure but an about-face, a shocking recognition that Peru will not be left behind. Long before the narrator identifies himself as a writer named Mario Vargas Llosa, even before the text spells out any identity or attributes, any subjectivity, background, or future for the speaker, he responds to Peru in this syncopated moment of choosing to leave and being taken aback. His double take is an involuntary reflex that will trigger reflection. Hailed by an authority that can stop him short and call him home, the call begins to constitute Vargas Llosa as a character.


This is the way Louis Althusser understood the subject of an ideology: as one who responds to authority—when, for example, a policeman yells, “Hey you!” to someone who is running. The runner can respond by accepting the interpellation of the law and stopping dead.2 And, more to the point here, the narrator's halt is like the commanding moment in Emmanuel Levinas's ethics, when the subject is born from the labor of facing an unknowable, but inescapable, Other who demands recognition. Transfixed and helpless in their derivative identity and in their humbling mortality, Levinas's subject and Vargas Llosa's character practically shudder at the awful impact of a human face that issues divine demands. The novel that follows is about the face, which is inscrutable on ethical, not on epistemological, grounds. After the stunning first sentence stops the narrator in his escapist tracks, the paragraph continues, fixed on photos from Peru:

I had visited Dante's restored house, the little Church of San Martino del Véscovo, and the lane where, so legend has it, he first saw Beatrice, when, in the little Via Santa Margherita, a window display stopped me short [me paró en seco]: bows, arrows, a carved oar, a pot with a geometric design, a mannequin bundled into a wild cotton cushma. But it was three or four photographs that suddenly [de golpe] brought back to me the flavor of the Peruvian jungle. The wide rivers, the enormous trees, the fragile canoes, the frail huts raised up on pilings, and the knots of men and women, naked to the waist and daubed with paint, looking at me unblinkingly [contemplándome fijamente] from the glossy prints.

Naturally, I went in. With a strange shiver and the presentiment that I was doing something foolish, that I was putting myself at risk [arriesgándome] out of mere curiosity.

(S, 3-4; 7; my emphasis)

The commanding images draw Vargas Llosa and turn him toward Peru, threatening nothing less than his freedom to be far away, a subject-centered freedom that Levinas would have recognized as ethically suspect.3 Curiously, though, the riveting presence of Peru is only a trace here, instead of the flesh and blood that would command a Levinasian engagement, face-to-face.4 The glare of pictures comes from already absent faces, flattened into two photographic dimensions to show already evacuated Indians, as well as the modern technologies of evacuation. The contradiction between the passivity of pictures and their active subject-effect on the narrator, “staring at me,” is not only a symptom of what Lacan might have called paranoia about things that know more than people;5 we will see that the contradiction is also a symptom of the novel's general indecision about Indians, in a country where they are either its deepest soul or its most stubborn obstacle to development.

Besides providing a double start for this story, the scene of impossible flight may also be an evocation of another Peruvian writer who had stopped in Italy years before and had been just as dramatically pulled homeward. Perhaps himself a sign for so many New World subjects digging for European roots, that Peruvian turned up more contrasts than confirmations, confirming his Americanist calling. In any case, the reflexive traveler seems, by now, an unlikely secret sharer for a narrator named after the increasingly conservative Mario Vargas Llosa.6 The other errant American in Italy was José Carlos Mariátegui, chief ideologue in the 1920s for the indigenized Marxism that has, until now, marked left-wing Peruvian politics.7

In Italy I felt the fragility of the lie that makes us a spiritual annex of Rome. I understood how alien we Spanish-Americans were at that banquet. I perceived simply and precisely how artificial and arbitrary was the flimsy myth of our kinship with Rome. … Like him [Waldo Frank], I didn't feel American except in Europe; on the streets of Europe I encountered that American country which I had left and where I had lived almost in absence, as a stranger. Europe revealed how much I belonged to a primitive and chaotic world, and at the same time it imposed on me the responsibility for an American project.8

Visions of a primitive world would compel Vargas Llosa's narrator, too, but more theatrically than in Mariátegui's nonfictional memoirs. The novel practically makes the pictures into protagonists who hail the speaker and dictate his mission. Whereas Mariátegui turns inward on his own American self during the famous disencounter with Italy, Vargas Llosa stages a sharp turn around, toward the American Other. The jolt of recognition is dramatic, probably to capture the disaffected narrator, and perhaps to capture readers who may have imagined themselves equally free from home. If Mariátegui had located an internally divided Peruvian self, between modernized Occidental and traditional “Oriental,” Vargas Llosa doesn't presume to contain the contradictory sides.

Either this reluctance to contain Peru is a facile admission of limits, based on rigid notions of difference between Indian tradition and modern projects, or the lack of presumption can be an ethical caution against containment and control of the incommensurate cultures in a multifarious nation. On the one hand, Vargas Llosa could be absolving himself from the moral obligation of inclusiveness and tolerance, a likely hand, given his impatient prescriptions for neutralizing and nationalizing specifically Indian cultures. But on the other hand, more promisingly, the refusal could be read against his politics, as a defense of difference. El hablador may not be an argument for the survival of parallel and simultaneous story lines; but the novel is a sustained performance of simultaneity. Primitive Peru is, admittedly, outside of the narrator named Vargas Llosa. But it holds him, along with us, hostage in its gaze.

The promise of recognition is gripping, and it announces the recursive shape of the entire novel, circling around the same sticking point of Peru's claim on our attention and returning obsessively to the confrontation in Florence. To repeat the danger and to predict calamities inside the novel as well as out, we should note that the grip may be paralyzing and nonnegotiable in ways that portend unethical responses to entrapment.9 The dilemma underlines a certain peril in the Levinasian moment of ethical engagement, a peril that comes into focus once the moment of confrontation drags into the messiness of narrative development. The problem is that unstinting attention to the Other cannot remain static and unblinking; the following move is either an identification with otherness so complete that it denies one's self or a self-preserving dismissal of the agonist. Absolute alterity, it seems, can make one kind of aggression or another practically inevitable. It leaves no room, philosopher Enrique Dussel worries, for the social dynamism that Latin America desperately needs.10

Vargas Llosa would experiment with both ways out of the Levinasian hold. Through a selfless storyteller, he wrote that any interference with the Other is murder: “‘These cultures must be respected,’ he said. … ‘And the only way to respect them is not to go near them. Not touch them’” (S, 98-99; 96-97). But more consistently, he has argued as a sorry, but single-minded, spokesperson for necessary interference and incorporations: “It is tragic to destroy what is still living, still a driving cultural possibility, but I am afraid we shall have to make a choice. … [W]here there is such an economic and social gap, modernization is possible only with the sacrifice of the Indian cultures.”11 Nevertheless, El hablador, at least, keeps the alternatives in tension and fixes the dilemma into static, unnerving irresolution. The rhythm of this novel is almost lyrical in its reluctance to move beyond the gripping moment, into the unethical disorder of historical time.


The visions that rush at the halting narrator would soon conjure up memories of talk, as if to move him from confrontation to engagement,12 or perhaps simply to move into a medium that might privilege narrative. The memories bring back a Jewish friend who had studied anthropology in Lima and become fascinated with the fragile existence of the Amazonian Machiguengas. That was before the misfit friend, called Mascarita, for the birthmark that covered half his face, disappeared from the capital, maybe to settle in Israel. His non-Jewish mother and his refugee father had produced the divided, or doubled, identity of their son, grotesquely masked in the two-tone face, so that Saúl Zuratas fit nowhere in Peru. (The splintered life and the line of escape are apparently modeled after the novelist Isaac Goldemberg. Like Mascarita, Goldemberg moved from his mother's province to his father's Jewish community in Lima. Then he went to Israel and to New York, where he told the story, The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner [1979].)13

Zuratas had abandoned anthropology early on, because, among other murderous incursions of modernity, he said ethnography itself was killing Indians. His professor seems incredulous:

“Saúl's starting to have doubts about research and fieldwork. Ethical doubts. … [H]e's taken it into his head, can you believe it, that the work we're doing is immoral. … He's convinced that we're attacking them, doing violence to their culture. … That with our tape recorders and ball-point pens we're the worm that works its way into the fruit and rots it. …” Saúl Zuratas had flabbergasted everyone, proclaiming that the consequences of the ethnologists' work were similar to those of the activities of the rubber tapers, the timber cutters, the army recruiters, and other mestizos and whites who were decimating the tribes. “He maintained that we've taken up where the colonial missionaries left off. That we, in the name of science, like them in the name of evangelization, are the spearhead of the effort to wipe out the Indians.”

(S, 32-33; 33-34)

In a novel structure redeployed from Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977),14 where chapters from young Mario's autobiographical romance alternate with suggestively similar scenes in radio soap operas, El hablador switches back and forth from one kind of narration to another, from a history of the Hispanic intelligentsia in Lima to an evocation of repetitive Amazonian lore. The style of the evocation, it should be said, is a cause for concern in a novel that seems to respect culturally specific languages, because the indigenous sounds are familiar from Quechua-inflected Spanish, with its trailing gerunds (diciendo, hablando) at the end of sentences, for example.15 The Andean sounds are so improbable in the jungle that the effect is to suggest the writer's indifference to Indians.

One structural disparity between El hablador and Aunt Julia is that the story lines of the ethnographic novel don't implode into the hilarious jumble of the radio-style romance, where real life takes leads from fiction, and high art aspires to the charm of kitsch. Instead, the slips from one side to the other in El hablador feel like raids or contaminations. One story line overtakes the other, tragically. The overlaps are aggressions, not ironies; and differences vanish because they are overridden, not because they are misprized. Alternating chapters move from the narrator's memories of Saúl amid activities in Lima's mass media, to chapters in the hablador's voice, recitations of creation myths and cultural history of a people described as the dispersed and precarious Machiguengas. The tribe barely holds together through the act of ritual telling. That is why the American missionaries are so monstrous in the end, with their translated vernacular Bibles that evacuate lore from language. By the time Bible fragments filter into the jungle stories (adapted from the translations of Padre Joaquín Barriales), they sound like a prelude to doom.

The narrative slips might have suggested flexibility, the creative indefinition of frontiers that animates Aunt Julia. If one culture is not entirely immune to another, it may not be allergic, either. Millennial traditions can be adaptive, as activists for cultural survival argue.16 But here, the Machiguenga names that the narrator drops in his own story (e.g., S, 173, 181-82; 168, 176) amount to decoration rather than to a dynamic cultural disturbance. And on the other side, the unbidden biblicized tales of Tasurinchi-jehová, his triple form, an expulsion and a future annihilating wind (S, 215-21; 207-12) profoundly disturb listeners for whom time itself should work differently. “For the Machiguengas,” the narrator explains unambiguously, as if to forestall any more interpretation, “history marches neither forward nor backward: it goes around and around in circles, repeats itself” (S, 240; 229), so their response is to leave, to further disperse in an ever more precarious jungle (S, 240; 230). A small number of the tribe had survived natural disasters (thanks to their modest expectations of nature and to inflexible standards for themselves), and some had escaped the forced labor of lumber and rubber barons (by moving ever deeper into hardly habitable jungle), but the remnant is finally overpowered by translators:

Those apostolic linguists of yours [Saúl protests to Mario] are the worst of all. They work their way into the tribes to destroy them from within. … The others steal their vital space and exploit them or push them farther into the interior. At worst, they kill them physically. Your linguists are more refined. They want to kill them in another way. Translating the Bible into Machiguenga! How about that!

(S, 95-96; 93-94, see also 162-63; 157)

The accusation, and by extension the whole novel as a debate-driven drama about the future of Indians in the Americas, may remind some readers of the revolutionary climate that the jungle would incubate after Mario and his friend disputed the country's future between 1953 and 1956 (S, 34; 36). In 1963, when Saúl was reported in Israel (new that makes Mario intone a prayer to Tasurinchi for his friend's safety from border conflicts [S, 108; 106]), student rebellions were flaring in Peru (see S, 242; 232). During the same 1963, long before the Sendero Luminoso launched its guerrilla in 1980,17 some Cuba-inspired intellectuals were trying to trigger rebellions in focal points throughout the countryside. One early foco was in the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, where an unlikely combatant and victim was a personal friend of Mario. It was Javier Heraud, the well-known poet who was hardly more than a boy and who had recently been in Paris, making the rounds of cafés and bookstores with Vargas Llosa. Still stunned and grieving, his eulogy is an indictment of a desperate country. “That Javier Heraud should decide to take up arms and become a guerrilla only indicates that Peru has arrived at a breaking point. No one was further from violence than he, by temperament and conviction.”18 The memory returns in the novel, when the narrator mentions his frustrating 1981 trip to Puerto Maldonado. The entire production team of his television series “The Tower of Babel” went there to recreate the battle and to commemorate Heraud, although their dysfunctional equipment “screwed up” the effort (S, 149-50; 144-45). The martyred poet is the subject of another novel contemporaneous with El hablador; Aida Balta's 1987 El legado de Caín names Heraud among the country's irrecuperable losses to violence.

Heraud's move from the capital to the tribal interior may find a tribute in Vargas Llosa's portrayal of Saúl's desertion of the academy for the people it studies. But the fictional friend is a different kind of rebel. Saúl's specific rage is about cultural imperialism. Beyond the armed struggle at Puerto Maldonado, there was a distinctively anthropological battle being waged by nationalist ethnographers. One stimulus was the self-reflexive and engaged ethnology of José María Arguedas (1911-1969), whose Andean boyhood and cultural ties were giving social science a local cast. His enormous contributions to ethnology are sometimes overshadowed by Arguedas the novelist, wrote Angel Rama in a eulogy for the tormented bicultural man who had committed suicide.19 It was that novelist, with his flair for ethnology, who surely inspired Vargas Llosa as he doubled himself, irreconcilably, in the homonymic narrator of personal histories and in the nameless hablador.20 Arguedas is the only Peruvian writer about whom Vargas Llosa repeatedly writes and teaches.21

During the 1960s and 1970s, local ethnologists were taking positions for and against interference from foreigners, including American anthropologists who tended to idealize “native” cultures.22 The standard line of thought, and of government programs from the 1930s to the 1960s, favored a dynamic mestizaje, a politics that amounted to progress toward national integration and that objected to pristine indigenous cultures.23 But progressive anthropologists in Vargas Llosa's generation, according to Enrique Mayer, read the Americans' respect for Andean continuity as welcome relief from the establishment's renewed denigration of Indians. It was conservative Peruvians such as Vargas Llosa, and his conservationist alter ego Zuratas, who used anthropological romanticism to defend static and extreme distinctions between tradition and modernity; they were counterpoising “deep Peru” (doomed as backward and Indian) to “official Peru” (the modern and whitened future), and getting the country into “deep trouble,” Mayer says.

Critics are right to say that Zuratas is driven by the same abstract language of cultural incommensurability that defines Vargas Llosa's dichotomous and inflexible politics. But the novel's indigenist hero is not simply a sentimental double for its writer. Saúl is also the novel's vehicle for lingering in “deep Peru” during as many pages as are devoted to the official country. Whatever rush toward modernity may be moving the plot and pushing Vargas Llosa's political pronouncements, whatever evacuation confronts us from the first page of picture-book Indians, the novel performs a parity of attention span between tradition and modernity. It detains the rush for as long as we read. In fact, the “deep” and “official” lines will cross, in the crossover hero himself and in narrative threads that weave from one context to another. The borrowings bring back the Peruvian tradition of dialectical anthropology, even though the novel will frame the dynamism as contamination rather than adaptability. However Zuratas is framed, whether as the conservative's alter ego or as a self-defeating dreamer, his indigenous world holds us throughout the novel. Through Saúl, Vargas Llosa seems reluctant, not just guilty, to let go.

While debates about “American” anthropology simmered during the 1960s, another American interest in Peru was more explosive. The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) outraged traditionalists, who, like Saúl, railed against the “apostolic linguists.” SIL had been founded in the early 1950s by North American evangelical Protestants known as the Wycliffe Bible Translators (named for the fourteenth-century English translator), who shared McCarthy's anticommunist mission. From the beginning, SIL counted on support from USAID and the CIA to establish bases throughout the underdeveloped world.24 Its declared purpose was to study indigenous languages; in fact, SIL also established bilingual schools and vaccination campaigns, and otherwise introduced isolated peoples into an expanding market economy and state institutions, all of which pleased local governments. But SIL's most devout purpose, as everyone knew, was conversion. Indigenous languages mattered because they were potential vehicles for the Bible. The enterprise elicited countless conspiracy theories. Between them, David Stoll balances some complicated details:

Wycliffe has fielded linguistic missionaries in more than 300 languages, supported by air and radio networks and sponsored by governments. Although it has started [in 1982] to lose government contracts … in the mid-1970s Wycliffe was an official arm of the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Surinam, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. Unless all the mission orders of the Roman Catholic Church were counted as one, no other transnational organization surpassed Wycliffe's influence among Indians. None matched its command of Indian languages and loyalties, its logistical system and official connections. Nor did any collide so spectacularly with Indian civil rights organizing and Latin American nationalism. The ties binding together this interior empire, to native people and to governments, started to snap.

(FM [Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? The Wycliffe Bible Translators in Latin America], 2)

Local pressure strained SIL's delicate legitimacy, as the missionaries of God's truth kept telling strategic lies about their linguistic interests. “Then governments started to decide that SIL might be a useful sacrifice” (FM, 201). They warned Washington that SIL's influence had limits, as a way of conceding to Indian and indigenist oppositions while maintaining control. In Peru, SIL's days were numbered until 1976; Brazil issued an embargo against SIL in 1977; Colombia threatened SIL's expulsion; Mexico revoked SIL's contract in 1979; Panama followed in 1981; Ecuador ordered it to leave within the same year.

Each government faced the same, disquieting phenomenon: increasingly visible, militant Indian organizing. Indigenous nationalism was on the ascent, a trend to which, like a number of other brokers, SIL had contributed in largely unintended ways. Promotion of literacy, the trade language and inter-group contacts helped members of scattered local communities identify themselves as ethnic wholes.

(FM, 201)

Accused of everything from fronting for U.S. imperialism and misleading potentially Catholic souls to fomenting communist conspiracies, the relentless linguists are the main concern of chapter 4 in El hablador.25 It is not that Catholic evangelizers (so visible in La casa verde [1965]) were more benign, explains Saúl, but that they had fortunately become too isolated and impoverished to do much harm. By contrast, the Bible-belt evangelists have the resources to conquer peoples who had resisted everyone else, from the Incas to the colonizers and the capitalists (96-97; 94-95).

Vargas Llosa personalizes the history of the Summer Institute with mentions of his own visits (beginning in 1958) to an Amazonian camp, mentions condensed from his memoir about writing La casa verde.26 Despite warnings from the Hispanophile historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea about the nefarious influence of the meddling gringos, the narrator accompanied anthropologist José Matos Mar on an expedition organized for Juan Comas, a Mexican colleague. In his fictional persona, Matos is the mentor of an increasingly unwilling Saúl Zuratas, whose reluctance prefigures the generally “third world” skepticism about ethnography's interests and interferences, as Edward Said describes it.27 Today's self-critical anthropology is one response, although sometimes care can lead to even more self-interestedness, precisely by focusing on the investigating self instead of “objective” data. Conversely, some missionaries respond to the moral dilemmas of conversion—to saving souls by denigrating native religious identities—with tolerance (or at least forbearance) of “specific, limited, cultures.” Their mission can be preventive rather than acquisitive; it can be the obligation to bear witness in order to obstruct authoritarian power. “Not being able to speak for others, however, does not mean we have no obligation toward them.”28

Other observers take liberties to speak. One who spoke up for the Summer Institute's meddling was Mario Vargas Llosa. In 1976, seven years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia showed that Cuba was in dutiful step with the aggression, Vargas Llosa had long since abandoned socialist ideals. As he moved to ever more conservative positions, he found SIL in need of support. The novelist was grateful to the translators; their literal agility had helped him to write La casa verde. They were adept not only at moving from one language to another but also at getting from one place to another inside the apparently impassable greenery. Vargas Llosa did his research among the “primitives” with the help of the polyglots' airplanes.29 Other outsiders had benefited, too, he recalls, echoing Saúl's (and David Stoll's) list of ethically suspect allies: ethnologists, missionaries, teachers, and soldiers (S, 72; 71). But the suspicions did not complicate Vargas Llosa's political support. In a public letter of 25 April 1976, he urged the Peruvian government to renew SIL's contract with the country. The linguists should be liberated from the suspicious indigenists, he declared. The government evidently agreed; if SIL were to leave, the institutions it had initiated could be overtaken by more dangerous groups, such as communists and Indian organizers. The letter was published in the major papers of Lima, and co-signed by sixty-five notable citizens, later seconded by sixty-six others. None of these was a linguist, Stoll reports; and the few participating education officials, indigenists and anti-Marxist academics, hardly offset the number of retired military leaders (FM, 205).

A dozen years later, however, despite the echo of thanks to the linguists on the back page of acknowledgments in El hablador, and despite his alleged support for scientific investigation beyond “nativism,”30 the dilemma about the rights of translation had apparently revisited the troubled novelist. The return of the repressed is written into every aggressive photo that accosts his narrator in Florence. During the time between La casa verde and El hablador, the world had turned, and anxieties once directed at the jungle were now fixed on the Andes. From 1985 to 1987, while Vargas Llosa was writing El hablador, Peru's splitting political seams were unraveling more dangerously along the Andean mountain range than inside the Amazonian basin. The Indians who now seemed most at risk, and risky, were no longer the tribesmen of the lowlands but the perhaps dangerous peasants of the Altiplano. Once the Sendero Luminoso loosed confusion on the Andes, outside observers had trouble distinguishing “revolutionary” terrorism from “official” military abuses. Nor was it clear where the doubly imperiled indigenous communities stood politically. Displaced back to the jungle, the worries about Indians must have seemed safer.

Displacement is a mechanism Freud named when he noticed that problems so grave as to threaten the subject with annihilating abjection were routinely substituted by peripheral signs. When an experience is too painful to remember and too intense to forget, memory replaces that event with a related, but inoffensive, element. The process is metonymic, a sliding from the essential part of that experience to “something in the neighborhood.”31 And in the general neighborhood of the country, the most urgent problem was no longer in Amazonia. Vargas Llosa's soul-searching and sympathy during the 1980s might well have been displaced from the tangles of the highlands onto the forgotten front in the jungle. How sobering and sad it is to notice that a defensive mechanism like displacement finds no safe terrain in Peru but only in more or less urgently troubled territory. Self-conscious novel that this is (or self-interpretive in ways that preempt criticism), the text glosses or rationalizes the difference. Saúl argues that Andean culture has been contaminated since the Conquest, and the faster it can be fully absorbed into the Peruvian nation, the better for the already marginalized Indians; Amazonia, however, is still unconquered and independent. Absorption there, Saúl says, would bring only cultural death and ecological disaster (S, 100; 98).

In the quiescent jungle, the novel's peace-loving Machiguengas are, at first, reticent to change, but they soon become institutionalized in translation camps (S, 161-62; 155-56). With the exception of the storyteller, they raise little resistance to the culturally annihilating goodwill of the foreign linguists. It is his aggressive vagrancy that most distinguishes the storyteller from the others, and it becomes the last piece of the novel's puzzle over the hablador's identity (S, 181; 175). During Mario's second visit to the missionaries' camp, where he is preparing a television special, rumors about a skittish and obscure ritual talker are far more fascinating to him than the “athletic” and well-scrubbed hosts who are translating the Machiguengas into transparency. Readers, of course, have been hearing the hablador's ritualized narrative for several chapters and do not doubt his existence. What is more, his identity had, for a long while, been coming into focus as the red-headed, blotchy-faced, mixed-breed Jew, a millennial martyr to Christianity's forced conversions. He used to be Saúl Zuratas.

Is it Saúl whom Mario anxiously anticipates as he looks through the fifty photos in Florence? After fixing on scenes of scarce, scattered natives bent over their recent and meager crops, crouched among brilliant plumes for weaving crowns, and poised behind bow and arrow near a jungle river, Mario spots him “at first glance” (a primer golpe de vista). A silhouette standing in profile and talking animatedly inside a circle of cross-legged “hypnotically concentrated” Indians. What doubt can there be now? Mario has seen the real thing: “Un hablador” (S, 9; 10). The first chapter ends with this two-word gasp of recognition, after the clerk at the gallery has unglued the speculator from the photo and ushered him out. The very next words, in evident apposition on a second reading, are “Saúl Zuratas.” They begin chapter 2, as well as the novel's pendular rhythm between the city and the selva.


For a while, though, the rhythm is detained. The narrative delays its exploration of exotic folklore, and it stays the flights of political reflection. It invites, or commands, readers to withstand, for a bit longer, the Amazonian gaze that accosts and commands the narrator and his readers, perhaps to his peril and to ours. it will take an effort of submission to another's will to stay here, because an unwillingness to stop may be the most flagrant symptom of our spiritually diminished modernity, as Stanley Cavell puts it. He calls attention to this dehumanizing loss of attention span in a classic essay on King Lear, “The Avoidance of Love.” Relentless movement toward problems to be solved, toward anticipated developments, and an uncompromising need for conclusions—all this dynamism rushes beyond presentness and its insoluble mysteries, and rushes to impoverish modern art forms of music, theater, and narrative.32 Vargas Llosa's missionaries of monotheism and modernity are named Schneil, by the way, and are mentioned by name in Saúl's diatribe (S, 34; 36). The name obviously seems a corruption of the German “quick,” in a heavy-handed, redundant image of modernizing assimilation and acceleration. In fact, the real missionaries who translated and then published manageable condensations of Machiguenga lore were named Snell.33 Vargas Llosa took an orthographic liberty with the name, but history is already uncanny. Being quick and efficient in translating, moving one thing toward another, the missionaries have little capacity for the presentness that myth makes palpable in the recursive recitation of lore. Without that capacity, the most binding human relationships come undone, Cavell complains. Even love can be avoided.

Vargas Llosa's first pages call a temporary halt to the ravages of modernity, a pause in the acquisitive and problem-solving movement through time. They stop to stare hypnotically into the mystery of lost presence. The pages that follow, until the very last one, keep up the recursive rhythm that holds Florence in focus. Everything there, from the picture gallery to the mosquitoes, returns the reader to Peru (S, 33, 73-74, 78, 90, 94, 236-46; 35, 72, 77, 88, 92, 225-35). Arrested from the first page by photographs, in his exercise of a modern prerogative called escape, the narrator doubles back with surprise at seeing an object he had escaped transformed into the subject before him. Vargas Llosa had left Peru behind only to find the country confronting him, defiantly, across the distance. To take a lead from the ironic “behold” in the opening line, it is almost like God confronting Jonah after the reluctant prophet tried to take a different route. Or, to follow up on the feeling of double take, Peru may be more like that unrelenting cat in classic cartoons who is poised, ready to pounce, in the very room to which a desperate mouse has just escaped.

Face-to-face with the cat's demanding ubiquity, in response to its hunger and to the time-space bending enigma of its always being there before one arrives, a mouse is compelled to respond. And the responses to danger, to unsatisfiable demands, to the incommensurable differences between the cat and himself, constitute the mouse as a subject (like the vulnerable narrator who becomes a persona by stopping at Peru's call). Without the confrontation, what would either character be in the cartoon? A deconstructive reading could point to the constitutive overlaps between the agonists: the same turf, an understanding of the conflict, the same desire for victory and survival. Without sharing so much, there could be no cat-and-mouse conflict. On another, psychological reading, the mutual imbrication of antagonists might have a developmental dimension, since the mouse has become what he is through a series of near catastrophes. Because there is no escaping what he is, the catastrophic fantasies accompany the mouse as a structural necessity of his character; a cat appears because the mouse practically conjures him in order to feel normally neurotic.

On one reading, and on the other, we should note that the constructions and imbrications are mutual. They are reflexive, in the sense that reciprocal verbs are reflexive; we see one another, for example. Whether the subjects of the story are called antagonists or, more benignly, interlocutors, an assumption of both deconstruction and of a particular psychological reading is a fundamental parity between the partners. Some years ago, deconstruction's ironizing project promised to level, to decenter and democratize, the polarized terms that structuralism had deployed almost inevitably in hierarchical relationships. It was liberating to see beyond the confining oppositions between male and female, black and white, self and other, to see both in the mire of mutually dependent constructions and into the corollary of destabilizing traces constitutive of meaning itself. This fundamental skepticism about the possibility of true meaning had a profound philosophical and even moral appeal. By denouncing the arrogance of knowing anything absolutely, it made an appeal to carefulness and circumspection.

The problem, of course, for any democratic use of these insights, is that political difference is at risk, if difference seems universally constitutive of any terms and if all tensions relax into partnerships. Self can appreciate its collusion with the Other in ways that mitigate antagonism; male can presume to ally with female; and black becomes an enlightened, recuperable category for right-thinking whites. If troubling barriers seem less important than the fissures that make barriers collapse, from what position does one make demands? The point of an argument can get stuck in the rubble of collapsed categories. A more politically creative style of deconstruction might move from the cracks in one “language game” into another game, through political confrontation, to legal adjustment. Acknowledging difference, then, would be not the final word but a first step toward enabling ethical negotiations.


Dynamic and meritorious, maybe even feasible, this unstuck (Wittgensteinian?) twist on deconstruction may be a promising lead for pursuing some readings and some politics,34 but it has almost nothing to do with the opening lines of El hablador. There, relationship is not reflexive, in the reciprocal sense of mutually affective verbs and character constructions; rather, one character is reflective, in both senses of the word: the narrator thinks hard about the Other he would have preferred to ignore, and he is made visible in the Other's light. Instead of partnership between the narrator and Peru, there is astonishment before an already existing, ubiquitously demanding agonist.

Rather than reciprocity, the opening lines offer an initiating asymmetry; what is staged is not a deconstructive tangle of hand-to-hand struggles for meaning, nor a complicitous version of hand-in-hand conspiracies to make meaning stable, but something close to a Levinasian face-to-face. It is a confrontation with an inscrutable face whose godlike stare frames the yet formless “hostage” in a demand for recognition. The very fact that the Other (country, cat, God) is there before us, the fact of time, locks us into responsibility:

Diachrony is the refusal of conjunction, the non-totalizable, and in this sense, infinite. But … this commands me and ordains me to the other, to the first one on the scene, and makes me approach him, makes me his neighbor. … It provokes this responsibility against my will, that is, by substituting me for the other as a hostage. … it is the very fact of finding oneself while losing oneself.35

Hostage first, with persona as a consequence; the Other first, as a precondition for the response that constitutes a subject. The self as a by-product; persona as response-able. With this dramatic reversal of subject-centered ontologies, Emmanuel Levinas wants to trap traditional philosophy in its ethical shortcomings. He focuses on the unmanageable Other who can face off against philosophy and stop short its rapacious march against difference. In a stance similar to Vargas Llosa's tarrying with Amazonian images, Levinas's style detains readers in front of a difference that does not go away. Since the time of Socrates, he says, fundamentally developmentalist and aggressive Western ontology has made difference disappear; it has welcomed difference as a challenge to be overcome and incorporated into the self. Difference has been an opportunity to quest for greater and deeper dimensions of one's own humanity:

This primacy of the same was Socrates's teaching: to receive nothing of the Other but what is in me, as though from all eternity I was in possession of what comes to me from the outside—to receive nothing, or to be free. Freedom does not resemble the capricious spontaneity of free will; its ultimate meaning lies in this permanence in the same, which is reason. Cognition is the deployment of this identity; it is freedom. That reason in the last analysis would be the manifestation of a freedom, neutralizing the other and encompassing him, can come as no surprise once it was laid down that sovereign reason knows only itself, that nothing other limits it. The neutralization of the other who becomes a theme or an object—appearing, that is, taking its place in the light—is precisely his reduction to the same.

(TI [Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority], 43)

“Philosophy is egology” (TI, 44). This is a lapidary charge that Levinas hurls against voracious reason. The uncharacteristic staccato rhythm is surely meant to shock us with lucid simplicity. Sentences like these are stop signs along otherwise rambling and repetitive, passionate and almost excessive passages. My observation is certainly not made to dismiss the page-filling patience of his arguments with philosophy, as he veers away from its totalizing projects of cognitive control toward an openness onto infinity and vulnerability. I do not presume to judge how much detail a philosophical argument requires, though I call attention to Levinas's exorbitant performance. Some of his sentences frankly hover about an issue rather than press a point. The issues related to respect for Otherness, and responsiveness as initiating behavior, are glaringly simple. Anyone who cares to get the point will do so in the first few pages of his two long books and his many essays. But readers who are driven to follow more intellectually complicated and therefore self-flattering routes manage to avoid the obvious, as Cavell and Stanley Fish remind us.36 Readers do not necessarily stop at the signs of difference that command respect, so Levinas engages us there, for a long time, to circle the barricades and to underscore the threshold to which he is pointing. Like Vargas Llosa's circular novel, like the mythic time that preserves the Machiguengas, a dizzy reader can imagine that Levinas's text “marches neither forward nor backward: it goes around and around, repeats itself” (S, 240; 229). He insists doggedly and keeps us occupied with the unflagging energy of almost encantatory reiteration, riveted by the bullet-like condensations, possibly humbled and probably too overwhelmed to muster objections.

With this thrust and parry, Levinas manages to detain philosophers who are circumspect enough to listen. Perhaps he will detain them long enough to impart a different kind of sensibility. From the drive toward closed, controlling, philosophical totality, the alternative sensibility would divert them toward a capacity for wonder at infinity. It might spoil the imperializing appetite for philosophical knowledge (“To know amounts to grasping being out of nothing or reducing it to nothing, removing from it its alterity” [TI, 44; my emphasis]), and leave room for an infinite, unsatisfiable desire for the Other. Then, social science would cede to sociability, and instrumentality to love. Saúl Zuratas made that move when he turned from anthropology to the people it presumes to study. “Surely more emotional than rational,” the narrator knows that Saúl's fascination with the Machiguengas is “an act of love rather than intellectual curiosity or the taste for adventure that seemed to lurk in the choice of career made by so many of his fellow students in the Department of Ethnology” (S, 16; 19). This possibility of disinterested identification is the liberating commitment that Enrique Dussel holds out for Latin America as a step beyond Levinasian awe of the absolutely Other.37

The “being,” whose difference Levinas is loathe to reduce, dissents profoundly from its Heideggerian homonym, which was written with a capital letter and pointed beyond people to a general, almost otherworldly horizon between life and death. No less awe-inspiring for Levinas, but more exacting of response, is the “being” that resides in a particular human face, which is the ultimate horizon of our devotion and obligation. His transcendent ethics is rigorously grounded in worldly relationships; nothing is more holy, or more commanding, than a human being.


This is one reason to remember the silhouette standing inside the enraptured circle of the Peruvian picture. It is the man's posture that is disturbing, vis-à-vis (but not face-to-face with) the camera. The photographer catches him sideways, looking at his listeners or at the jungle, in an obviously stolen shot. Probably warned by the traducing missionaries that the hablador would refuse to cooperate, as so many South American Indians refuse and turn away from camera-toting tourists, the professional resorts to sharpshooting. And he produces gorgeous pictures, worthy of his best work on fashion models and furnishings for magazines such as Vogue and Uomo. It is surely not the quality of the photos that earns him the name Malfatti. The pictures are far from badly done, but malfeasance has produced them. Evidence of stealth is, as I said, one disturbing feature of the photo (“‘How did that Malfatti get them to allow him to … How did he manage to … ?’” [S, 6; 10]). Another worry is the very fact that the subject refuses to show his face.

The talker turns away from the host of modernizing Malfattis and missionaries. He makes no demand on the camera's eye nor on the viewer from the Florentine gallery. The man who denies his face thereby refuses to interpellate either viewer or reader as a subject. He will not talk to outsiders, because talking, he knows better than anyone else, works the social magic of acknowledging and legitimating one's interlocutors. The hablador is practically an allegorical figure for what Levinas calls the Saying. Saying is a sonorous appeal to the Other, more gripping than dynamic and as different from the data that are Said as sociality is from science. The talker knows he can preserve an entire vulnerable society by continuing to talk. That is what makes us human, after all, as Wittgenstein would remind philosophers who were losing their way in technical languages and forgetting the commonality of words and their social contexts. The translatable “content” of what the talker says is not the main point of his performance.

The point is to appreciate the enabling enchantment of address. That is why the title character of the novel is the “talker,” in Mrs. Schneil's tentative term (S, 91; 89), or “speaker” in Edwin Schneil's variation (S, 173; 168).38 The word is something of a neologism that seems neutralized by the common “storyteller” of the English translation. Nevertheless, it may be wonderfully apt as a reminder of an obsolescent tradition, a premodern narrative practice, which Walter Benjamin embraced in an essay called “The Storyteller.” It is a tradition of sparse and suggestive tales told to communities, in contrast to modern novels, which are written, pounced upon, and devoured in private.39 The distinction between storyteller and narrator is by now hard to maintain in English, and even harder to hear in the existing Spanish words narrador, or cuentero, or cuentista, so Vargas Llosa forced a new use for hablador. He evidently borrowed it from a colloquial register of Spanish that gives a name to unusual loquacity; but here, out of context, and conjured to capture a role of anonymous, ceremonial locutor, hablador calls attention to its foreignness in European uses. Escuchadores is the equally uncommon, even clumsy, counterpart for those who hear the talk. Oyente would have been the standard Spanish word; it is as unremarkable as the English translation “listener” (S, 209; 201). What is lost in this neutralization of strangeness into easily assimilable terms, I want to argue, is the use-value of the denaturalized words. Vargas Llosa's slightly strained semantics fixed attention on the socializing activity of talking and listening. He emphasized the contact, as opposed to the content; the process, rather than what was being processed.

Given the arresting first sentence of the novel, where Peru itself came out to confront the narrator, the cold shoulder from its most fascinating talker feels like an indictment. Startled into book-length reflections on the tragic heroism of indigenous cultures (reflections exhaustively interpreted and thematized in a novel that seems to make criticism superfluous), the narrator knows that he was the first to turn his back. Vargas Llosa, after all, is a runaway who had forfeited his chance for subjecthood (even in the Hegelian, pre-Levinasian sense of being recognized by the Other) when he averted his eyes from the Amazon that his fellow student was bringing home. The narrator stared a bit then; but only later, as the jungle pursued him, he stared uncomfortably and was unable to look away.


Some years earlier, the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa publicly reminisced about another shock brought on by photographs and about his helplessness in the face of unanswerable demands. The occasion was his acceptance speech of the Human Rights Award from the Congreso Judío Latinoamericano in 1977. At a time when dictatorship was the norm for the continent, the long address in Lima was more concerned with abuses elsewhere. It featured a roster of totalitarian menaces, mostly from misguided socialism abroad and, by extension, from misguided supporters at home. His theme of culturally and technologically advanced civilization that can develop devastating policies of homogenization and control begins, as one may imagine for this occasion, with the national socialism of Germany. Specifically, it begins with a personal memory. Two years before the speech, Vargas Llosa was in Jerusalem, where he was enjoying the rose-colored light and the distance from Peru. He was there not to think about persecution, or even to feel connected with the millennial culture that surrounded him, but to relax and to write Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. This is the novel that develops the alternating structure used later in El hablador. During the mornings of that autumn, he would write in an apartment that looked out on the Tower of David, the Jaffa Gate, and toward hills on the horizon just beyond the Dead Sea:

The vision was beautiful beyond reality and, in my case, it contributed every morning to accenting my sensation of being apart from the world. The story which I was trying to write had as its theme precisely the shifting of reality into unreality by means of melodrama. Since the story took place in Lima, thousands of miles from where I was, it required a real effort to disconnect from my immediate surroundings. In that state of somnambulism, my friend found me, the friend who came every afternoon to show me around the city.40

That particular afternoon, the escort did not take Vargas Llosa to the markets or to streets that seemed like stage sets for the Arabian Nights; he drove past Temple excavations, the orthodox quarters of Meah Shearim (the Hundred Gates), and the rest of the magical city. That afternoon, the writer remembers, “the return to reality was brutal. My friend took me to Yad Vashem, the memorial consecrated to the Holocaust, which rises on one of the pine-covered hills that circle Jerusalem.”41

What was it, exactly, about the memorial that startled the touring somnambulist back to reality? What is it, in fact, that foreign diplomats may see when standard Israeli protocol had, until very recently, required them to visit the shrine? It certainly was not the modern building, or the isolated setting, or even the knowledge that six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis in a high-tech eugenic cleanup campaign. Everybody knew that. The otherwise inert historical data about mass graves, advanced biological experiments on practically dead meat, artifacts hewn from human skin, teeth, and bones came into brutal focus through the pictures on the wall. “There, in front of the photos,” Vargas Llosa was also facing Nazi horror and the world's complicity. The pictures frame the 1977 human rights speech (pages 6 and 16), from the initiating shock to a final image of an absolutely lucid demand on the viewer:

There is in Yad Vashem a photograph which, I am sure, everyone has seen at one time or another. … It was taken after the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The picture is of a little Jewish boy, only a few years old, stuffed into a cap too big for him and a coat that looks old, with his hands in the air. A German soldier, wearing a helmet and boots, is aiming at the boy with a short-barrelled rifle, and looking toward the photographer with that blank look they call martial. The soldier looks neither proud nor ashamed of his trophy. His face shows only tranquil indifference to the scene he is acting. In the boy's expression, on the other hand—in the sadness of his eyes, the constriction of his face distorted by fear, and the squeezed shoulders of a body that wants to disappear—there is a dizzying clarity about what that moment means.42

One scene of confronting photos and another cannot be a fortuitous parallel. This cluster of coincidence—the liberating distance from home that he hoped to enjoy in Jerusalem and in Florence, the haunting history memorialized in Yad Vashem and the picture gallery, the structurally sibling novels about narrative and historical contamination between modern reality and lines of escape—suggests a corollary cluster of observations.


The Jewish Saúl becomes a figure for the Machiguengas for reasons beyond a general affinity between one marginalized group and another. He is more than a metaphor for the minority culture condemned to extinction by majoritarian redemption campaigns. For one thing, both nomadic tribes cling to, and are sustained by, ritually repeated narratives that amount to the Law. Diasporic Jews know, in the words of a folk refrain, that “Torah is the best Skhorah (merchandise),” because learning is one thing that cannot be confiscated. And oral—postbiblical—“Torah” is traditionally as important as Scripture itself. For another thing, the Jew as hablador is the kind of metaphor that earns some of its evocative power through a shared history. Had it kept the memory of horrible connections, the figure would have been a metonymy. The world that had stood by in disingenuous disbelief while extermination camps reduced Jews to smoke is the same world that stands by again, while Amazonian Indians are translated and traduced, and while jungle is processed into slum.

To recover the metonymy-turned-metaphor is not to minimize the differences of fate and possible futures between one remnant of a people and another. But we might note that just as Peru's Indians have been demoted and displaced since the Spanish Conquest, Jews were pushed out of Spain in the internal warm-up wars of the Reconquest. And like the Machiguenga misfits who are being squeezed deeper into the Amazon, perhaps to be squeezed out of conservative Peru, European Jews were at a loss to find a place almost anywhere in the Americas. “It is likely that many of them, faced with the upheavals of the last few years, will have opted for the traditional response ensuring their survival: diaspora” (S, 240; 230). During World War II, ships full of refugees were refused at American ports and sent back to German authorities. Even after the war, the Americas kept immigration quotas for survivors so inhospitably low that some waited for years in displaced persons' camps. Others managed to buy visas from the corrupt bureaucracies of Bolivia and Paraguay, while Ecuador and the Dominican Republic were officially hospitable to small numbers of refugees. Brazil took in larger numbers, but only later, after having barred “Semites” before and throughout the war of extermination.43 Sometimes without ever reaching their official destinations, the cosmopolites wandered to centers of westernized economy and culture, or they remained conveniently stuck on the active coastlands.

Mario banters about the last Peruvian indigenist being his friend, the Jew. But Saúl knows that he is a natural:

“Well, a Jew is better prepared than most people to defend the rights of minority cultures,” he retorted. “And, after all, as my old man says, the problem of the Boras, of the Shapras, of the Piros, has been our problem for three thousand years.”

Is that what he said? Could one at least infer something of the sort from what he was saying? I'm not sure. Perhaps this is pure invention on my part after the event. Saúl didn't practice his religion, or even believe in it. I often heard him say that the only reason he went to the synagogue was so as not to disappoint Don Salomón. On the other hand, some such association, whether superficial or profound, must have existed. Wasn't Saúl's stubborn defense of the life led by those Stone Age Peruvians explained, at least in part, by the stories he'd heard at home, at school, in the synagogue, through his inevitable contacts with other members of the community, stories of persecution and of dispersion, of attempts by more powerful cultures to stamp out Jewish faith, language, customs, which, at the cost of great sacrifice, the Jewish people had resisted, preserving their identity?

(S, 99; 97)44

Before I had read, or even known about, the Jewish Congress speech, before I could guess at any autobiographical link between photographs at Yad Vashem and Vargas Llosa's haunting book about Peru, I might have imagined that the novel was picking up a narrative design where Julio Cortázar had left off, a design in which pictures of reality put a stop to artistic escape. In “Apocalypse in Solentiname,” the last scene shows Cortázar back in Paris after a trip to Nicaragua. The slides he developed refused to repeat the fanciful primitive paintings by Nicaraguan peasants that had filled his camera frame; instead, the pictures played back the horrors of military repression that he had refused to see. Likewise, photos would force Vargas Llosa to look at an endangered people. The possibility of literary borrowing exists, no doubt. But when I had the opportunity to talk to Vargas Llosa about his novel, the question seemed uninviting. Instead, I asked what had motivated his pairing of the Mosaic cult with the Machiguenga. Almost an idle query, it was meant to go elsewhere, perhaps into the pairing structure of the novel as an experiment in politically tolerant imaginings. If parallel narrative lines were legible and preserved a relative autonomy one from the other, perhaps a country could imagine itself along those lines, despite the narrator's postsocialist skepticism about a future mosaic of Peruvian cultures (S, 78; 76).

As far as the question about Jews and Indians goes, the very leitmotivs of the novel—the parallel marginalizations of Jews and Indians, the annihilating dangers of assimilation, their survival against all odds thanks to a collective narrative—insist on obvious answers, although the novel does not play this up. The point would, of course, have helped Vargas Llosa to explain why he seems as taken with “the people of the Book” as with the Machiguengas. For both premodern cultures, his vocation as narrator would have amounted to the ultimate political career:

I believe that his identification with this small, marginal, nomadic community had—as his father conjectured—something to do with the fact that he was Jewish, a member of another community which had also been a wandering, marginal one throughout its history, a pariah among the world's societies, like the Machiguengas in Peru, grafted onto them, yet not assimilated and never entirely accepted.

(S, 243; 233)

But the answer I got from Vargas Llosa was neither about obvious parallels nor about overlaps. It was, instead, the polar extremes of their difference, he said, that attracted him. They revive the kinds of social and geographic differences whose coordination was the heroic project of nineteenth-century national consolidation, a project inherited from colonial times.45 Together, Indians and Jews represented Peru at its limits, like the geo-historical limits of dusty Piura in the north and the steamy jungle on the south side of the Andes that La casa verde barely braces together.46 Primitive and poor Amazonian Indians and generally rich cosmopolitan Jews were at opposite ends of the country's population, he explained. And the novel was an effort to talk about Peru in the most inclusive and capacious way possible—from a focus on its demographic extremities.47 Surprised by what I took to be an about-face from the intimacy of the vulnerable bedfellows I found in the book, and perhaps personally reluctant to pursue a line that cast Jews, once again, as extraneous to national constructions, the conversation hobbled onto other issues. Only now do I begin to appreciate Vargas Llosa's narrative reach. It went purposefully beyond mainstream Peru, toward an idealized nation, either to argue for continuing the homogenizing Conquest that pursued Indians after it had finished with the Jews or to show that the country was too narrowly focused on consolidation and was obliged to open into a capacious embrace.


Vargas Llosa, the political persona, evidently holds on to the culturally coherent focus. The hold is notorious in a 1983 document commissioned by Peru's President Balaúnde Terry. Appointed to lead an investigation into the murder of eight reporters and photographers in the Andean town of Uchuraccay, Vargas Llosa wrote up the collective report. His authoritative voice there provides the tone for an equally notorious journalistic version of the report called “Inquest in the Andes” (New York Times, 31 July 1983), “Historia de una matanza” in its Spanish form. The possibly profitable Times article, among other damaging details of Vargas Llosa's comportment, was an issue in a subsequent investigation. A skeptical provincial judge, Hermenegildo Ventura Huayhua, appointed to the case in November 1984, grilled the urbane defendant about allegations of official cover-up for military malfeasance and governmental complicity.48

In the Times article, Vargas Llosa recalled early speculations that blamed the Sendero Luminoso for yet another act of terrorism, against Indians, police, tourists, and now reporters, speculations that the newspapers were eager to develop. But the evidence that the commission gathered, of ritual mutilations and of the victims' distinctive burial positions, indicted the “innocent” Indians themselves. Skeptics wondered, because although the residents of Uchuraccay were known to take reprisals against terrorism, and were therefore capable of collective violence, their action had always been a response to evident abuse. Moreover, the peasants were clearly outgunned on both sides, by the military and by the guerrillas. And since the signs of violence against the newspapermen differed from the Sendero's typical traces, suspicion fell to the notoriously aggressive and insecure armed forces. The army was new to the area, in order to replace the openly abusive police, and it was just as new to the rigors of legitimate authority. Suspicious, too, was the fact that each of the Indians who testified in the case turned up dead, soon after the commission had absolved the authorities. Later reports, and the incriminating photographs that Vargas Llosa managed not to face, confirmed that neither the killings nor the burials showed any signs of Andean ritual. Instead, bodies were found in pairs, wrapped in plastic and buried in lowlands to promote decomposition, the way North American soldiers buried the Viet Cong.49

The commission's report speculated about various motives and scenarios. Oddly, it affirmed them all: maybe the residents had decided to keep all white men safely away from their community, imagining that Senderista encroachments were no different in kind from others; maybe they were especially incensed or terrified by the photographers, who didn't bother to hide from their subjects (much harder to do on the Altiplano than in Amazonia for Malfatti). Vargas Llosa even takes seriously a careless quip by General Roberto Clemente Noel, military commander of counterinsurgency, who said that the Indians probably could not tell a camera from a gun.50 In any case, the Indians' alleged failures to distinguish between professionals and delinquents, and no less the Spanish speakers' failure to fully understand their Quechua informants (rushing over the fact that two of the victims spoke Quechua), all bring Vargas Llosa to the conclusion that incomprehension is deadly, and dead-ended: the Indians will simply have to become real Peruvians, to “talk Christian” in Spain's enduring jargon of the Reconquest, because the difference is paid too dearly in white, and mestizo, blood. Indians will finally have to assimilate into a modern state derived from Western principles of democratic responsibility.

The conjectures about ritual murders later took on more fabulous proportions, in the 1993 novel Lituma en los Andes, where the benighted, but lovable, army lieutenant takes almost four hundred pages to figure out why his host village has been safe from the Sendero.51 The implicit absolution of the army is one measure of the distance between this novel and El hablador, where memories of “civilized” savagery by militia men and mercenaries against Indian leaders revived the horrors detailed in La casa verde.52 On his way out of the mining town, now a ghost town without metal or men, Lituma can hardly control his nausea. He has finally solved the mystery of missing bodies, sacrifices to a decaying culture of drunken homosexuality and ritualized cannibalism that appeases pre-Incan gods.53 In the novel, homosexuality is a figure for cannibalism, as if one invasion of the flesh opens irreversibly onto the other. Vargas Llosa's willful version of Andean practices is, no doubt, a metaphor to capture a country turned against itself, but his poetic freedom takes dangerous liberties.54 They recall his commission report, both its allegations of Indian barbarism and its vindication of the army.

Homosexuality evidently disturbs Vargas Llosa the novelist.55 It disturbs the journalist, too, as when he fretted about the Rainbow Crusade in a piece that chronicles the Gay Rights march on Washington, 25 April 1993. He notes that the democratizing effects of gay activism are now irreversible in the United States, where sexual politics has practically eclipsed other concerns. But the price of legitimacy for the “perverse” population of apparently normal citizens who thronged to the capital and represented far greater numbers could be, he warned, the desexualization of sex. Without some secrecy, without the titillation of almost unspeakable urges or the discreet dangers that whet desire, sex threatens to stop being fun, at least for Vargas Llosa. “Gays and lesbians might come to discover at the end of their efforts to be recognized and considered ‘normal’ that, once the transgressive character of their sexual choice has disappeared, it has lost, if not all, then a good part, of its reason for being. Totally ‘normalized’ sex ceases to be sex.”56

Similar objections to banalized homosexuality in the United States had been raised by Reinaldo Arenas, in the book that he finished before ending his own AIDS-ridden life.57 But why should Vargas Llosa be ruffled, and even defensive, about the democratizing “perversities” that the Rainbow Crusade chose to flaunt? In the article, he stays carefully uncontaminated by Arenas's sympathies. So cautious is he to write himself into the company of his wife during the march, and during the conversations with activists, that Vargas Llosa seems to safeguard against any possible implication of self-interest in the homoerotic debates between ludicism and legitimacy. Hardly at stake here are the violent intimacies that Vargas Llosa's fictional men visit on their women in one novel after another, including Lituma. In the heterosexual love story of its subplot, the heroine is “saved” from a scene of mock abuse when her naïve hero shoots the client who was paying the prostitute to plead for her life between desperate screams. Hardly in danger at the march, I am saying, are Vargas Llosa's titillating representations of remunerated abuse, or the almost ritualized rape we get in The War of the End of the World, or the range of heterosexual tussles that evidently excite his fiction and fantasy. Vargas Llosa's discomfort at the Gay Rights march, therefore, seems unfounded on the alleged grounds that it secularizes sex, if heterosexuality remains, as Foucault said of the Victorians, discreetly underrepresented in political arenas. (More obviously threatening is the notorious incident of Lorena Gallo, who castrated an abusive husband.)58 The uneasiness, perhaps, hovers around homoeroticism itself—not around a loss of intimacy but around a loss of shame.

The shameful sexual perversity in Lituma is, as I said, an irreversible step toward the ultimate perversion, as physical contact translates into a more perverse “communion”; the baneful banquet of blood and flesh from sacrificial bodies. “‘Everyone had communion and, although it disgusted me, I did too,’ said the worker, stumbling over himself, ‘That's what's screwing me up. The mouthfuls I swallowed.’”59 The cult's bartending and prostituting priests are Dionisio and Adriana, declensions of their Greek namesakes, as the town named Naccos is a corruption of Naxos60 and perhaps a hint of Soccos, site of a massacre by the police in 1983.61 The explicit analogies between one primitive cult and another call to mind Garcilaso's comparison between the heathen prehistories of both Europe and Peru. We should not be surprised, he says, by the spottiness or by the fabulous quality of founding Incan fictions. Are not the first murmurs of Old World civilization equally faint, and their fables just as laughable?62 In both the Greek and the pre-Incan cases, barbarous practices of cannibalism and promiscuity were what civilization had wisely conquered. The problem for Lituma is that heathen remnants remain. The detective story ends with the frustration of having learned too much, enough to know that horror outstrips any hope of overcoming it. “I regret having been so stubborn about finding out what happened to them. Better to have stayed suspicious.”63 Knowing, it should be noted here, is dangerous for the detective himself in Lituma's epistemological trap. His is a tale of self-preservation. How different this is from the epistemological problem that plagues El hablador. There, knowledge was threatening to neutralize difference, to cannibalize the “primitive” Other into the insatiable sameness of modernity. The danger was ethical in nature, worrying about the ravages we modernizers wreak on others. For Lituma, in stark contrast, worry is self-centered in a world too imperfectly modernized.

The unhappy hero descends toward the coast and hopes not to remain haunted. The novel groans at a political impasse, but the greater effect is a sigh of fatigue. Peru's predicament is inherited, perhaps insoluble: not only did the Europeans never finish the job of consolidating the country, but the Incas failed in their preparatory work. Barbarism stubbornly persisted in “many regions never conquered by the Incas, and is still today found in many places conquered by the Spaniards,” grumbled Garcilaso.64 In gory detail, he quotes the mestizo Jesuit Blas Valera, who locates cannibalism mostly in the unconquered jungle, far away from Incan practices; but his care to distance the taste for human blood from Peru removes it suspiciously as far as Mexico, where it was a staple of urban life and possibly an influence on other urbane Indians. “They performed these sacrifices of men and women, lads and children by opening their breasts while they were still alive and plucking out their hearts and lungs. The idol that had bidden the sacrifice was then sprinkled with still-warm blood.”65 By the time Lituma abandons the terror-breeding mountains that gobble up men in avalanches, mud slides, and demonic lusts (by the time Vargas Llosa himself leaves Peru), the authorities have to admit that they cannot gauge, or even stomach, the degree of unfinished business.


The self-conscious narrator of El hablador felt far less victimized than does Lituma. The Vargas Llosa who doubled back from Florence to Peru suggested lingering complicities with an ethnic disappearing act. His country's campaigns to “reduce Indians” to civilization, in Garcilaso's language, through a history that runs from Manco Cápac's Incan foundations to Lituma's farce, pause and lose their way amid the jungle talk. Here, Vargas Llosa's writing takes a step back from the journalistic problem-solving of “Inquest in the Andes,” where he required that misfits be made to fit, and takes another step down from the Andes to the Amazon. From there, stretching our view to the limits of Peru's peripheral vision, the probing fiction of El hablador deliberately stages a coincidence between the country's polar opposites, as if they mattered most as indices of the country's humanity. But the solidary response, in this fantasy about Jews and Indians, is also a sure index of their shared danger inside paralyzed civilizations, the danger of complicity between oppressors and bystanders. Theirs (his, ours) is the guilt of passive association, of unresponsiveness, and of nonacknowledgment in Cavell's term. In the speech framed by Yad Vashem, Vargas Llosa says that Jerusalem's Holocaust memorial tells the story of

good, educated, gentle citizens of an ancient country who one day turned into wild animals, lunging at defenseless victims, or letting others do the dirty work for them, while the surprised and stupid world stared complicitously. And that is Yad Vashem's terrible accusation; it is directed against not one, but all, countries.66

Vargas Llosa's novel of a decade later would writhe in the guilt-ridden hyper-consciousness of collusion. Novels can make these admissions with impunity, cynics may be saying. Fiction's reckless lucidity and breast-beating histrionics can act out a self-criticism that does not demand redress. If the novel turns out to have a tragic shape, it may make us suffer; but it lets us off in the end, exhausted with grief and relieved to have finished.

The essay is a different form, at least in the case of Vargas Llosa's essays about the Indian question, from the “Inquest” to his 1990 presidential campaign and afterwards. His essays take sides. The status of Indians in Peru has been perhaps the most burning question since independence, since the Spanish Conquest, in fact. It began when Quechua chroniclers contested Spanish authorities, and it continued with the rash of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century uprisings that delayed cautious Creoles from proclaiming independence. From the nineteenth century on, liberal programs in law and literature have striven to incorporate Indians, programs that produced novels such as Narciso Aréstegui's El Padre Horán (1848), Clorinda Matto de Turner's Aves sin nido (1889), José María Arguedas's classic, Los ríos profundos (1957), and culminated ideologically in the indigenized Marxism of Mariátegui's slogan Peruanicemos al Perú, the title of a posthumous collection.67 Like the 1983 report on the “Inquest in the Andes,” Vargas Llosa's postelection essay, “Questions of Conquest: What Columbus Wrought, and What He Did Not” (Harper's, December 1990), takes sides to affirm the value of a coherent country. The essay reappeared as chapter 2 of A Writer's Reality (1991),68 without the first page that had marked it as an occasional piece.

The occasion was Vargas Llosa's response to a press conference held in Madrid by “a shadowy group calling itself the Association of Indian Cultures” that was preparing acts of sabotage in Spain and throughout Latin America to protest the planned celebrations of Columbus's quincentennial conquest. The threats, for Vargas Llosa, seemed fixed on the past, misguided as “means of achieving justice, or self-determination.”69 To him, they were obviously inspired by the same kind of fanaticism that was making Peruvian terrorists blow up their country along a Shining Path. In fact, the media blitz from Madrid continued mostly through the media, in demonstrations and in spectacular “sabotage” of celebrations. Nevertheless, and despite what he considers to be self-defeating efforts at self-determination, Vargas Llosa impugns his own Hispanicized culture for fomenting the misguided protests when he asks:

Why have the postcolonial republics of the Americas—republics that might have been expected to have deeper and broader notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity—failed so miserably to improve the lives of their Indian citizens? Even as I write, not only the Amazonian rain forests but the small tribes who have managed for so long to survive there are being barbarously exterminated in the name of progress.

(WR [A Writer's Reality], 46)

He gives no answers that could lead to reversals of the failure or to relief from guilt. “We, the westernized Latin Americans, have persevered in the worst habits of our forebears,” he continues. “We must remember that in countries like Chile and Argentina, it was during the Republic, not during the colony, that the native cultures were systematically exterminated” (WR, 35). But it is useless, concludes Vargas Llosa, to speculate about whether the Conquest was a good or bad thing (WR, 34). What is significant is simply that the Conquest happened, which is to say, in the narrative logic of things past, that it was historically necessary.

What are we to do now? This is a different kind of question from the one about redress of past sins, a question presumably suspended because it led nowhere. Pointing nowhere, in this essay, is a gesture that erases the politics of indigenous rights, including efforts to achieve autonomy, a politics that would fissure Vargas Llosa's imagined community of Peru. This putative “nowhere,” in fact, marks a dynamic somewhere in which non-Western strains of culture and politics have a distinguished national history, from the indigenous chroniclers of the Conquest through to the Indian organizations spurred by SIL's meddling. So the question of amends is silenced, along with the possibility of lessons to be learned from historical blunders. The argument skips, with no apparent textual motivation, to present programs. There is nothing to be done, Vargas Llosa concludes, but sorrowfully to choose modernization, as if Indian tradition were incapable of adaptation. Referring to the anguish scripted into El hablador, he admits, “It is tragic to destroy what is still living, still a driving cultural possibility, even if it is archaic; but I am afraid we shall have to make a choice” (WR, 37). That is, to sacrifice the Indian cultures, since they interfere with modernity's fight against hunger and need. The line of argument has made two skips: first, by eliding any consequence to the question about the West's failures regarding Indians; and second, by moving from choices that Indians face to choosing for them. Of course, Vargas Llosa had already noted that leaders of Latin American republics inherited reprehensible traits from their forebears.

Choice is the pivotal concept on which his essay turns. It is the apparently nonideological axis on which the individual can turn. In Peru, however, the words choice,individuality, and freedom are part of an abstract and inflexibly “ideological” vocabulary that paralyzes political debate, because the abstraction does not acknowledge dissent, as critics of Vargas Llosa have complained.70 It preempts dialogue, just as the self-interpretive passages that I occasionally note in El hablador want to preclude more interpretation. In both genres, Vargas Llosa tries to fix the delicate anthropological balance between observer and participant into the noncontested collusion between witness and judge, a move that had raised suspicions about his Uchuraccay report. The collapse of ethics into pragmatics confuses authoritarian means with allegedly liberal (free-market) ends, according to William Rowe.71 What gets lost in the crush, Mirko Lauer points out, is liberalism as a form of politics that defends individual freedom.72 Vargas Llosa exercises his own freedom by making authoritative, enlightened, and despotic choices for others; he tends to speak for them in general. Even in the Commission's report, witnesses in Uchuraccay lose their voices to mediating “experts” who truncate sentences and translate the peasants away.73

Indian words won't fit into the “official” nation, Vargas Llosa laments. “Perhaps there is no realistic way to integrate our societies other than by asking the Indians to pay that price” (WR, 36). Personal freedom is at the heart of Western culture, and it was the magic charm that allowed a handful of willful Spaniards to topple Amerindian empires, according to Vargas Llosa. Hosts of overly disciplined and suicidally obedient soldiers were at a loss for what to do after the Inca was taken hostage. Overlooking the forty years of sustained resistance, under four successive Incas,74 Vargas Llosa alleges that, rather than run, or fight, or decide on any move at all, the Indians allowed themselves to be slaughtered. Personal initiative, as well as voluntary and self-determining capacities in the face of the unexpected, characterizes Western, or modern, subjects (WR, 29). Freedom is not only a liberating slogan from the French Revolution; it is also the voluntarism of the Conquest's most crass and criminal agents (WR, 32). Still, Vargas Llosa celebrates it as the West's greatest contribution to static and hierarchical cultures. “The first culture to interrogate and question itself, the first to break up the masses into individual beings who with time gradually gained the right to think and act for themselves, was to become, thanks to that unknown exercise, freedom, the most powerful civilization in our world” (WR, 33-34; my emphasis).

Could the skips in his argument be symptoms of bad faith? Do they recall his unacknowledged nervousness about homoeroticism? The doubt follows in the wake of inexplicable contradictions. On the one hand, if Western voluntarism was so devastating to Indians, both because they were unaccustomed to making choices and because the Spaniards insisted on choosing for them, what justifies making more sorrowful choices for others? And on the other hand, if the essay's point is to show the enabling virtues of freedom and self-determination, why do Indian initiatives seem so pointless when they write history or take over bilingual schools and establish autonomous institutions? In the absence of answers, Vargas Llosa sees no dearth of solutions.

The contradiction here is not just personal or Peruvian. It is practically constitutive of modern cultures. In the language of political philosophy, it is the disparity between (Lockean) liberty and (Rousseauian) rights to free access. To a great degree, the difference between them is what motivates modern history, its conflicts and negotiations. Emmanuel Levinas refuses to get caught up in the action. He would agree that freedom is at the core of Western culture; that is why he targets it for attack in his argument about philosophy having bulldozed alterity into sameness. Freedom, for Levinas, is not simply available for abuses, not merely given to skipping from negotiation to conquest; it is the very vehicle of abuse and recklessness. The same caution that focuses the dilemma in Vargas Llosa's novel now haunts the discussion of his essay.

Freedom has its ultimate meaning in this permanence in the same, which is reason. … That reason in the last analysis would be the manifestation of a freedom, neutralizing the other and encompassing him, can come as no surprise once it was laid down that sovereign reason knows only itself, that nothing other limits it.

(TI, 43)

The ravages of subject-centered freedom and the raids on difference led by a tautological reason that presumes, potentially, to comprehend—literally, to contain—everything are the dangers that El hablador exposes in Peru's drive toward modernity. Vargas Llosa's programmatic pronouncements would take sides, as I said, but the unconnected dots in “Questions of Conquest” link up to show the scars of an ethical wound that had worried the narrator of his novel. Vargas Llosa's critics do not hesitate to connect those dots.75


The most trenchant critic of them all, however, may be the Vargas Llosa who narrates El hablador; more precisely, he is the writer who doubled himself through the novel: as the troubled tourist in Italy and as the traditional talker of the alternating chapters. Saúl asked Mario why thinking about the habladores gave him goose bumps. “‘They're a tangible proof that storytelling can be something more than mere entertainment,’ it occurred to me to say to him. ‘Something primordial, something that the very existence of a people may depend on’” (S, 94; 92). Both narrators turned their backs on Peru: one with weariness, the other with purpose. Both know the power of narrative, even if the essayist Vargas Llosa makes bitter jokes about the connection between literature and political life after the 1990 election defeat. Is this why a possibly self-serving novelist sometimes holds back from the modernity that loosens the social grip of stories, while the essayist rushes forward to modernize? The Latin American habit of mixing fiction and reality, he banters, is one reason “why we are so impractical and inept in political matters” (WR, 25). Both storytellers could be fictional figures for the philosopher Levinas, who draws a line between the sociality of Saying and the crippling control of fixing on the Said. They know that presuming to understand the Other willfully ignores the mystery of his Saying; it razes difference and replaces it with the same.

Learn the aboriginal languages! What a swindle! What for? To make the Amazonian Indians into good Westerners, good modern men, good capitalists, good Christians of the Reformed Church? Not even that. Just to wipe out their culture, their gods, their institutions off the map and corrupt even their dreams.

(S, 96-97; 95)

Vargas Llosa's novel displays the flair for self-criticism that the essays credit with dignifying Western culture. Bartolomé de Las Casas is his best example of “those nonconformists” (WR, 33) who turned their backs on adventure in order to face Indians. We know, although Vargas Llosa does not say, that blind spots obstructed Las Casas's view; they were deadly blind spots for the Africans whom Las Casas briefly suggested could replace the disappearing Indian laborers, and deadly, too, for many Indians whom he persuaded to deal peaceably with the Spaniards. Even the successful evangelizations and the liberalizing laws that he championed were, in the spirit of El hablador's radical indictment of encroachment, travesties against the Indians. His most laudable work was probably not programmatic or problem-solving; it was the published stories of devastation, so devastating for Spanish readers that many simply dismiss Las Casas as a madman or a liar. No doubt he exaggerated some things and misremembered others. But the glaring truth is that only one generation after the Discovery, so few Indians were left in the Caribbean that, to save the remnant, a man such as Las Casas would promote African slavery only to rue it later. His “fiction” confronts the facts of Conquest, even though his policies negotiated with conquerors. Las Casas was one inspiration for Andrés Bello, when the dean of nineteenth-century education advised young historians to train themselves on the personal narratives and fictionalized accounts of Latin America's past. They were truer in spirit than the professional histories.76

The spirit of Las Casas's stories implicates his readers. No wonder some Spaniards tried to discredit him. Their entire country would become his ideal targeted reader in this question of Conquest. It almost does not matter if Las Casas himself is vindicated or condemned along with the company he kept, because the text survives as an indictment of general complicity. Instead of judging his text, readers are invited to judge themselves. Vargas Llosa's novel survives his essays in the way that Las Casas's history survives pedantry. El hablador can bring some critics to decry the author's fatalism about Amazonian cultures, so apparently doomed from the first page of the novel.77 And some can call him cynical, alleging that the novel repeats his patronizing lament over cultures that refuse to be redeemed from primitivism and poverty, that it dismisses Indians' “utopian” efforts to plot a self-determined future.78 One could say of Mario Vargas Llosa the novelist something like Angel Rama's comment about José María Arguedas the ethnologist: he has sometimes been overshadowed by Mario Vargas Llosa the politician. Whether unsympathetic critics complain about fatalism or about aggressive dismissal, they read the novel like formalists, from its tragic ending backward toward a general meaning.79 Bakhtin, of course, cautioned against reading novels reductively and retrospectively, because the “genre” defies fixed forms; to fix on a novel's closure is to lose sight of its experimental risks and specificity. In literary criticism, jumping to the conclusion of novels falls into the interpretive trap about which El hablador talks endlessly. It reduces wonder to legible signs; it translates alterity into a language that we already know, and it flattens difference into sameness.

The attendant danger to interpreting the novel away, as so much predictable disaster or necessary pain, is that the reduction allows us to turn away from the book, like the disingenuous readers of Las Casas who prefer to quibble about numbers of Indians massacred and dates of devastations than to get the glaring point. And the point of Vargas Llosa's Amazonian novel, for readers who want to face it, is our general complicity with the cultural extermination campaigns. Our uncontainable modernity expands in concentric circles, turning peripheries into reflections of the center. El hablador does not simply dissolve into a tragedy that can be a mere diversion from activity, the way that classical tragedy managed to divert revolutionary rumblings into paralyzing horror and cathartic tears. Detained for many pages and fixed on visions that refuse to evaporate, readers rehearse the narrator's turn toward Peru once the country takes him hostage and refuses to let go. At the end of the novel, Mario knows that the country occupies him. Through the friend who defends particular traditions against homogenizing modernity, a vision of Peru grips Mario more powerfully than any feelings of fear or love: “It opens my heart more forcefully than fear or love has ever done” (S, 245; 234). The very last words admit that all lines of escape would be futile. The voice of the Other is ubiquitous: “But tonight I know that wherever I might wander—on the ocher stone bridges over the Arno, … I will still hear, close by, unceasing, crackling, immemorial, that Machiguenga storyteller” (S, 245-46; 235).

We have heard that voice, too, and, perhaps sullied by a sense that we cannot or will not respond to demands for respect, because cultural convivencia was never really an option for the modern West,80 readers remain caught inside the doubled narrative of Spanish exploits and Machiguenga tradition. Unresolvable as the book is, it is in the same measure uncontainable by a tragic frame, by Shakespeare's frame for Lear, for example, which displays the impossibility of love. That play dramatizes the corrosive effect of dynamic modernity on the mystery of presence, as each of the main characters turns away from the Other's love-demanding gaze. Vargas Llosa's “Questions of Conquest” also sighs for refusals to look and to love: Peru, he says, is “an artificial gathering of men from different languages, customs, and traditions whose only common denominator was having been condemned by history to live together without knowing or loving each other” (WR, 35). The complaint repeats after Abimael Guzmán is captured in September 1992: unlike other Latin American countries, where mestizaje and middle-class mobility helped to heal historical wounds, Peru stays schizophrenic.81

El hablador performs the doubling act without diagnosing it as schizophrenia. The duality, as I said at the beginning of this essay, is a source of both concern and of hope. It can lead to dismissing indigenous otherness as inassimilable and inessential to the Peruvian body politic, a dismissal that countrymen read in Vargas Llosa's consistent carelessness about Indian cultures and lives. Instead of two souls in one body, his novel shows two faces, as one confronts the Other in an endless, but intimate, standoff. This literarily sustained confrontation also holds out a hope: the possibility of recognition—on a reading from this geographic remove—even if the promise is betrayed by the man called Vargas Llosa.

The fact is that the confrontation Vargas Llosa stages generates an unresolved tale that stops to look, learns to listen, and dares to love. It loves selflessly, through a narrator whose face is the color of an open wound. The novel stares, uncomprehendingly, perhaps, but respectfully, at the Other. A voyeur such as Malfatti ends badly here; mediated by his camera and motivated by self-interest, he is literally a victim of jungle fever. Along with him, all of us selfish visitors are contaminated by the contact. After the reading ends, however, the novel may survive, hauntingly, like the talker who will accost Vargas Llosa beyond the very last line: “… I will still hear, close by, unceasing, crackling, immemorial, that Machiguenga storyteller” (S, 246; 235). Or, like the little Jewish boy—lost in his cap and very present in his lucidity—pictures and sounds from the novel may survive to haunt a range of readers.

What do we do with a hostage imagination? This is the question that Dussel demands of Levinas. Perhaps we will plan our escape to magical cities. And maybe we'll stop there, at museums erected to the boy's memory. It may even be possible that we will pause for a while, in our translations of living areas such as Amazonia into empty, available space for more of the same modernity. Can we also imagine some creative responses to jungle talk? They would go beyond the paralyzing awe that grips Vargas Llosa the narrator, and they would break out of the brittle redundancy that dooms the Other talker. Real responses would also stop short of the cultural conquest demanded by Vargas Llosa the politician. Creativity can come after the speechlessness of first confrontations and before the murderous monolingualism of final solutions. It can come inside experiments such as El hablador, where the novelist Vargas Llosa has been engaging us, patiently, in the slippery space that moves back and forth from one permeable language to another.


  1. Mario Vargas Llosa, The Storyteller, trans. Helen Lane (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989); originally published as El hablador (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1987). Subsequent references to this work are cited parenthetically as S, with English translation page numbers followed by the original Spanish-edition page numbers. Lane's translations are occasionally altered here; unless otherwise noted, all other translations are mine.

  2. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 162.

  3. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 43. Hereafter, all references to this work are cited parenthetically as TI.

  4. Francisco Ortega made this intelligent observation to me.

  5. Jacques Lacan, “Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis,” in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 8-29.

  6. For an excellent summary of his ideological trajectory, from socialist sympathies in the early 1960s to increasingly authoritarian postures, see William Rowe, “Liberalism and Authority: The Case of Mario Vargas Llosa,” in On Edge: The Crisis of Contemporary Latin American Culture, ed. George Yúdice, Jean Franco, and Juan Flores (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 45-64. For a recent example of Vargas Llosa's conservative animus, see his editorial “Jouer avec le feu,” Le monde, Thursday, 18 May 1995, 17, where he offers his opinion that the recent confessions of the Argentine military leaders during the Dirty War makes them no more culpable than the revolutionaries who incited the army to terror.

  7. The parallel with the author of the notoriously deployed slogan “Sendero Luminoso” may be surprising. Nevertheless, Mariátegui was a model for the youthful Vargas Llosa, remembered in the novel (S, 78; 76).

  8. José Carlos Mariátegui, El Alma matinal y otras estaciones del hombre de hoy (Lima: Amauta, 1972), 146-47 (article of 1925); and 192-93 (article of 1929). Quoted in José Guillermo Nugent, Conflicto de las sensibilidades: Propuesta para una interpretación y crítica del siglo XX peruano (Rimac: Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas-Rimac, 1991), 55-57.

  9. See James Dunkerley's review, “Mario Vargas Llosa: Parables and Deceits,” New Left Review 162 (April-March 1987): 118-19.

  10. Enrique Dussel and Daniel E. Guillot, Liberación Latinoamericana y Emmanuel Levinas (Buenos Aires: Editorial Bonum, 1975), 9.

  11. Mario Vargas Llosa, A Writer's Reality (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 37. Hereafter, this work is cited parenthetically as WR.

  12. Dussel and Guillot, Liberación, 25. “Persona is what makes a sound, and what makes a sound is the voice and the eruption of the Other in us; it does not erupt as ‘the seen,’ but as ‘the heard.’ We should no longer privilege the seen, but the heard.”

  13. Ilán Stavans, Tropical Synagogues: Short Stories by Jewish-Latin American Writers (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1994), 31.

  14. The structure repeats, as well, in Historia de Mayta and Elogio de la madrastra, as Mary Berg and José Mazzotti remind me.

  15. José Mazzotti confirmed this impression in a letter of 5 April 1995. The Quechua-flavored Spanish appears—importantly, too—in José María Arguedas's Andean stories, which Professor Vargas Llosa assigns to students. “¡El Wamani está ya sobre el corazón! exclamó ‘Atok' sayku,’ mirando … Ahistá en tu cabeza el blanco de su espalda como el sol del mediodía en el nevado, brillando.” See “La agonía de Rasu-Ñiti,” in Relatos Completos (Madrid: Alianza, 1983), 140-41.

  16. I am grateful for conversations with David Maybury-Lewis on these issues and for his leadership in “Cultural Survival, Inc.”

  17. “Sendero Luminoso,” or the Communist Party of Peru, had been organizing and slowly building bases during the 1960s and throughout the 1970s, from its regional headquarters at the public University of Huamanga, near Ayacucho, but it launched its military campaign against the state in 1980. See David Scott Palmer, ed., Shining Path (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992).

  18. Mario Vargas Llosa, “Homenaje a Javier Heraud, Paris, 19 mayo 1963,” Contra viento y marea (1962-1982) (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1983), 36-37.

  19. Angel Rama, “Introducción,” in José María Arguedas, Formación de una cultura nacional indoamericana selección (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1975), ix.

  20. The same speculation, though more elaborate and convincing, is in Enrique Mayer, “Peru in Deep Trouble: Mario Vargas Llosa's ‘Inquest in the Andes’ Reexamined,” Cultural Anthropology 6, no. 4 (Nov. 1991): 466-504. The article was reprinted in Rereading Cultural Anthropology, ed. George E. Marcus (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), 181-219 (see especially 196). Subsequent references are from the latter publication. His vehicle is the caricature of Arguedas published in the Senderista newspaper El Diario (cited in Carlos Iván Degregori, “Entre los fuegos de sendery en el ejército: regreso de los pishtacos,” in Pishtacos: de verdugos a sacaojos, ed. Juan Ansión [Lima: Ediciones Taréa, 1989], 109-14): “Internationalism has to fight against magical-whining nationalism, whose fossilized remains we have had and continue to have in a chauvinist nationalism, whose promoter was none other than that writer who rejoiced in declaring himself ‘purely apolitical,’ but who, during World War II, was proud of his little Hitler moustache. His name: José María Arguedas, affable disciple and animator in Peru of North American anthropology. … Such is indiofilia zorra. …” Mayer glosses this skewed picture of anthropological intransigence with, “The image of Zuratas again!”

  21. See Rafael Humberto Moreno Durán, included in Semana de Autor: Mario Vargas Llosa (Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispánica, Instituto de Cooperación Iberoamericana, 1985), 82; and Mario Vargas Llosa, José María Arguedas, entre sapos y halcones (Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispánica, 1978). He continues to engage Arguedas, even if it is to disengage the writer from the ideologue. For example, the entire undergraduate course he taught at Harvard University in the fall of 1992 was dedicated to Arguedas.

  22. For criticism of American anthropology in Peru, see Orin Starn, “Missing the Revolution: Anthropologists and the War in Peru,” Cultural Anthropology 6, no. 1 (1991): 63-91, reprinted in Rereading Cultural Anthropology, 153-80.

  23. Mayer, “Peru in Deep Trouble,” 190-91. The line goes from the 1930s with men such as Julio Tello, through Luis Valcárcel (both Ministers of Education), Arguedas himself (head of the National Institute of Culture), and Mario Vázquez (designer of agrarian reform in the sixties).

  24. David Stoll, Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? The Wycliffe Bible Translators in Latin America (London: Zed Press; Cambridge, Mass.: Cultural Survival Inc., 1982), 7. Hereafter, this work is cited parenthetically as FM.

  25. “The Schneils, like all the other linguists, had degrees from the University of Oklahoma, but they and their colleagues were motivated above all by a spiritual goal: spreading the Glad Tidings of the Bible. I don't know what their precise religious affiliation was, since there were members of a number of different churches among the linguists of the Institute. The ultimate purpose that had led them to study primitive cultures was religious: translating the Bible into the tribes' own languages so that those peoples could hear God's word in the rhythms and inflections of their own tongue. This was the aim that had led Dr. Peter Townsend to found the Institute. He was an interesting person, half evangelist and half pioneer, a friend of the Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas and the author of a book about him. The goal set by Dr. Townsend still motivates the linguists to continue the patient labor they have undertaken” (S, 86-87; 85).

  26. Mario Vargas Llosa, Historia secreta de una novela (Barcelona: Tusquets, 1968).

  27. Edward Said, “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology's Interlocutors,” Critical Inquiry 15 (winter 1989): 215.

  28. Kristin Herzog, Finding Their Voice: Peruvian Women's Testimonies of War (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1993), 145, 156.

  29. Vargas Llosa's unacknowledged debt to Catholic missionaries is the subject of an angry editorial by Domiciano García Benito, superintendent of Catholic schools in the diocese of Caguas, Puerto Rico. See “Truenan contra Vargas Llosa,” El Nuevo Día (Puerto Rico), 22 Feb. 1995.

  30. Nevertheless, anthropologist Luis Millones expresses dismay at the novelist's careless and prejudiced portrayals of Andean culture. See Luis Millones, “Vargas Llosa y la mirada de Occidente: Lituma en los Andes,El Peruano (Lima), “Opinión,” Wednesday, 12 Jan. 1994.

  31. Sigmund Freud, “Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis (1909),” in Collected Papers, trans. Alix and James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 1959), 3:376. See also “Screen Memories (1899),” in Collected Papers, 5: 52-53.

  32. Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” in Must We Mean What We Say: A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 267-353. Rael Meyerowitz reminds me that this is a sweeping simplification of Cavell's position. He also approves of American “onwardness,” what Emerson calls “abandonment.” For an excellent reading of Cavell's subtle and humane balancing acts, see Rael Meyerowitz, “Welcome Back to the Republic: Stanley Cavell and the Acknowledgment of Literature,” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 4 (1993): 329-52.

  33. Betty Elkins de Snell, Cuentos folklóricos de los machiguenga (Yarinacocha: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, 1979).

  34. Two recent and provocative explorations are Paul Ricouer, Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), and Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).

  35. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991), 11.

  36. Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in “Paradise Lost” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971; originally published by Macmillan and Company, 1967). See, for example, 208, where he quotes C. S. Lewis on the “blind alleys” pursued by readers of Paradise Lost. “How are we to account for the fact that great modern scholars have missed what is so dazzlingly simple?” (from Lewis's A Preface to Paradise Lost [London: Oxford University Press, 1942], 69-70). See also Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love,” whose very title announces a brilliant development of the theme.

  37. Dussel and Guillot, Liberación, 29.

  38. Reflecting later on his obsession with that role, the narrator remembers how he hounded Irish friends to introduce him to an equally untranslatable “Seanchaí: ‘teller of ancient stories,’ ‘the one who knows things,’ as someone in a Dublin bar had off-handedly translated the word into English” (S, 165; 159).

  39. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in Illuminations, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), 83-109.

  40. Mario Vargas Llosa, “En torno a los derechos humanos,” Lima, dated at the end of the essay on 19 de Setiembre [sic] de 1978. First published in Premio Derechos Humanos, 1977 (Lima: Una edición de la Asociación Judía del Peru, por encargo especial del Congreso Judío Latinoamericano, Junio 1979), 5; my translation. The speech was reprinted as “Ganar batallas, no la guerra,” in Contra viento y marea (1962-1982), 309-23.

  41. Vargas Llosa, “En torno,” 6; my emphasis.

  42. Vargas Llosa, “En torno,” 17.

  43. I am grateful to Judith Laikin Elkin for this information on immigration and for her lucid suggestions in general.

  44. When Vargas Llosa first ventures that Mascarita's deformity is felt in exclusions and allies him to the excluded tribes of the jungle, his friend answers, “Still laughing, he told me that Don Salomón Zuratas, being sharper than I was, had suggested a Jewish interpretation. ‘That I'm identifying the Amazonian Indians with the Jewish people, always a minority and always persecuted for their religion and their mores that are different from those of the rest of society … Okay … Suddenly being half Jewish and half monster has made me more sensitive to the fate of the jungle tribes than someone as appallingly normal as you” (S, 28-29; 30).

  45. I thank José Mazzotti for this clear formulation.

  46. Mario Vargas Llosa, Historia secreta de una novel, 8-9.

  47. I am grateful to Mario Vargas Llosa for his personal generosity and attention during that conversation of 23 October 1993, during his teaching semester as John F. Kennedy Professor of Latin American Studies at Harvard University.

  48. Mayer, “Peru in Deep Trouble,” 202-3. Ventura Huayhua was later removed, for “mistrial,” but not before he garnered immense popular support.

  49. See Mayer, “Peru in Deep Trouble,” for documentation of the gory details, remembered, too, by Julio Ortega and José Mazzotti, and for facts that do not fit the commission's report.

  50. Mayer, “Peru in Deep Trouble,” 187. See also Mario Vargas Llosa, Informe de la comisión investigadora de los sucesos de Uchuraccay (Lima: Editora Peru, 1983), 23.

  51. Mario Vargas Llosa, Lituma en los Andes (Barcelona: Planeta, 1993).

  52. The story of repression against Jum, a chief of the Aguaruna, is a continuous thread, from his refusal to be robbed by a local rubber boss to an Indian resistance against a soldier, and a general vengeance by the whites and mestizos. See Mario Vargas Llosa, The Green House, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Avon, 1968), 49-50, 119-20, 156, 172, 231, 252-53, 271, 281-84, 324, 339-41.

    In Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? David Stoll refers to Vargas Llosa's version of these events (see 117). El hablador summarizes: “But in Urakusa, besides the copper-colored bodies, the dangling tits, the children with parasite-swollen bellies and skins striped red or black, a sight awaited us that I have never forgotten: that of a man recently tortured. It was the headman of the locality, whose name was Jum. … The ostensible reason for this savagery was a minor incident that had taken place in Urakusa between the Aguarunas and a detachment of soldiers passing through” (S, 74-75; 72-73).

  53. For a responsible history in English, see Sabine MacCormack, Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

  54. One of the anthropologists who collaborated in Vargas Llosa's commission to investigate Uchuraccay writes that the novelist should know better. See Millones, “Vargas Llosa y la mirada de Occidente: Lituma en los Andes.

  55. To Vargas Llosa's arguments about Mayta's inability to fit into society, a Brazilian interviewer repeatedly asks, “Mas por que tambén homosexual?” See Ricardo A. Setti, Conversas com Vargas Llosa (Sao Paolo: Editora Brasiliense, 1986), 59.

  56. Mario Vargas Llosa, “Cruzados del Arcoiris,” in Desafíos a la libertad (Madrid: El País/Aguilar S.A., 1994), 234.

  57. Reinaldo Arenas, Antes que anochezca (Autobiografía) (Barcelona: Tusquets Editores, 1992), translated as Before Night Falls: A Memoir, trans. Dolores M. Koch (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 106.

  58. Mario Vargas Llosa, “El pene o la vida,” in Desafíos, 301-6.

  59. Vargas Llosa, Lituma, 311.

  60. I thank Mary Berg for her reading of the parallels.

  61. Herzog, Finding Their Voice, 83.

  62. From pt. 1 of Los comentarios reales (1609). English translations come from Garcilaso de la Vega, El Inca, Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru, trans. Harold V. Livermore, foreword by Arnold J. Toynbee (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966), bk. 1, chap. 18.

  63. Vargas Llosa, Lituma, 312.

  64. Vega Garcilaso, Royal Commentaries, bk. 1, chaps. 11 and 13.

  65. Vega Garcilaso, Royal Commentaries, bk. 1, chap. 11.

  66. Vargas Llosa, “En torno,” 16.

  67. See Efraín Kristal, The Andes Viewed from the City: Literary and Political Discourse on the Indian in Peru, 1848-1930 (New York: P. Lang, 1987).

  68. See Mario Vargas Llosa, “Novels Disguised as History: The Chronicles of the Birth of Peru,” in A Writer's Reality, 21-38.

  69. Vargas Llosa, “Questions of Conquest,” Harper's, Dec. 1990, 45.

  70. See Rowe, “Liberalism and Authority,” who cites and agrees with Mirko Lauer, Julio Ortega, James Dunkerley, Julio Cotler, Gerald Martin (who comes to the defense as well), and Elizabeth Farnsworth. Rowe himself points out that “along with the globalizing attitude that flattens out historical differences, the language tends to solidify into imperviousness, losing referential accuracy and analytical precision” (49).

  71. Rowe, “Liberalism and Authority.”

  72. Mirko Lauer, “Vargas Llosa: Los límites de la imaginación no liberal,” La República (Lima), 15 Apr. 1984, 30.

  73. Mayer, “Peru in Deep Trouble,” 207.

  74. In a letter to me, José Mazzotti names them: Manco Inca, Sayri Túpac, Titu Cusi Yupanqui, and Túpac Amaru I, who fought in Vilcabamba until 1572.

  75. One simplified version of the impatience Vargas Llosa's novel, along with his fiction in general, elicits among educated Peruvian readers is presented by Mirko Lauer in El sitio de la literatura: Escritores y política en el Perú del siglo XX (Lima: Mosca Azul Editores, 1989), 10, 97-119. His fundamental objection, it seems, is that the novelist fails to maintain an ethical and coherent position.

    I prefer to think of this demand for ethics in Julio Ortega's terms of holding a position that is open to doubt rather than dogmatic and orthodox. See Julio Ortega's review of El pez en el agua, “El pez en la sartén,” La Jornada (Mexico), 9 June 1993.

  76. Andrés Bello, “Autonomía cultural de América” (1848), in Conciencia intelectual de América, ed. Carlos Ripoll (New York: Eliseo Torres, 1966), 48-49. An editor's note informs that the present title “has been used in various Anthologies to present this piece.”

  77. See Mayer's essay, “Peru in Deep Trouble,” especially the section “Anthropological Authority,” 190-200.

  78. Rowe's “Liberalism and Authority” represents this tendency (61).

  79. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 3.

  80. See Marc Shell, Children of the Earth: Literature, Politics, and Nationhood (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

  81. Mario Vargas Llosa, “El Preso 1.509,” in Desafíos a la libertad (Madrid: El País/Aguilar S.A., 1994), 153. José Mazzotti points out that it is Aníbal Quijano who coined the term “dualismo medular” to describe Peruvian society as irreconcilably diverse, so that some pieces have to be sacrificed.

I am profoundly grateful to Julio Ortega, José Mazzotti, and David Maybury-Lewis for their expert advice, for their erudition and generosity. I am also indebted to Francisco Ortega and José Ayalamacedo for their unstinting bibliographical support and to Rael Meyerowitz, Judith Elkin, and Harvey Mendelsohn for lucid readings.

Gene H. Bell-Villada (review date 1 March 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Bell-Villada, Gene H. Review of Death in the Andes, by Mario Vargas Llosa. America 176, no. 7 (1 March 1997): 36-7.

[In the following review of Death in the Andes, Bell-Villada argues that Vargas Llosa “wrote better books when he was a man of the left,” noting that his “greatest works” were written when the author was a sympathizer with 1960s radicalism.]

Few would admit it, but Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa wrote better books when he was a man of the left. His greatest works—The Time of the Hero,The Green House and the truly magisterial Conversation in the Cathedral—all date from the 1960's, when he openly sympathized with that decade's radical causes. In the 1980's, however, the erstwhile independent leftist redefined himself as a crusading conservative. Since then, in his abundant opinion pieces for the Spanish-language press. Vargas Llosa regularly invokes free-market ideologues Robert Nozick and Milton Friedman, and, usually with little factual basis, dwells insistently on the nefarious effects of labor unions, government pensions, taxes and any other such limits on magical capitalism. Some of his cruder arguments sound like a sermon out of Ayn Rand.

It may seem too neat a connection, but Vargas Llosa's weakest and slightest novelistic efforts date precisely from this conservative phase. For one, his new obsession with the threat of fanatics of every stripe—already a key concern in The War of the End of the World—has become far too pat and predictable. Hence, for all its formal, post-modern wizardry, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta comes off essentially as an attack on the Latin American guerrilla left. In addition, Vargas Llosa's intense exertions as libertarian publicist and, in 1989, his failed bid for the Peruvian Presidency (beautifully recounted in his autobiography, The Fish in the Water) served to siphon off much of his creative time and energies. Though The Storyteller brought into play the author's more objective and humane qualities, it is a sloppily written book, presumably scribbled on the run between political speeches. The proven artist Vargas Llosa seemed to have succumbed to the would-be politician.

Death in the Andes goes a long way toward reclaiming Vargas Llosa's literary legacy. While not at the level of his earlier masterpieces, it is in many respects an admirable novel, perhaps his best in 15 years. The protagonist, Corporal Lituma, is in fact a self-borrowing, a leading character brought back from the desert heart of The Green House and the army intrigues of Who Killed Palomino Molero? Here, Lituma and a young adjutant have been posted for guard duty at Naccos, a moribund, Andean mining village. The only available recreation is at a dive where local men, mostly of Quechua Indian stock, hang around after hours and get drunk at the behest of the tavernkeeper (tellingly named Dionisio) and his wife. News from other Andean towns concerning brutal acts by Shining Path guerrillas has everybody on edge. When, on separate occasions, three well-known, marginal eccentrics inexplicably disappear, Lituma automatically suspects the terrorists, yet the details do not quite point to Sendero. Subsequent investigations, chance encounters and sheer intuition lead Lituma to realize of the macabre truth: Under encouragement of the tavernkeeper couple, the town residents had been secretly practicing human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism in order to placate the mountain spirits (known as apus) and, in Dionisio's phrase, to “pay a visit to one's animal.”

I have given away nothing here. The story appears summarized on the volume's dust jacket. What matters far more than the plot, in any case, is the artfulness and suspense with which Vargas Llosa builds up his solution, first hinting at it fragmentarily and finally bringing it into full view only on the next-to-last page. Behind these strange events, however, lurks a more tendentious, cultural-ideological agenda—namely, Vargas Llosa's own oft-expressed libertarian conviction that the indigenous past has little to offer a modernizing (and even indigenous) Latin America. Human sacrifice, portrayed in this novel as an atavistic survival, actually forms part of an entire, pre-Hispanic way of life that, along with other “totalitarian” patterns, is, in Vargas Llosa's view, best relegated to the dust-bin of history. So subtle and seductive are the author's narrative gifts, however, that few U.S. readers will latch on to this subliminally imbedded message.

It is a simple idea, then, at the core of a complex book. Actually, the thriller plot is only half the story. Alongside the mystery there runs a subplot involving Lituma's adjutant Tomasito, a wide-eyed whelp who, over the past year, has lived an action-packed romance with a prostitute, worshipping her with a devotion that is both touching and funny. To pass the time, he tells Lituma about the bizarre relationship, starting with his accidental shooting of her sugar-daddy and continuing with their on-the-road misadventures across Peru. These episodes, besides providing comic and erotic relief, allow for Vargas Llosa's trademark device: lengthy flashbacks mingling freely with present happenings, a technique that he first learned from the livestock-fair scene in Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

Death in the Andes deftly captures the closed world of military corruption (a subject frequently novelized by Vargas Llosa), and the rarefied atmosphere and social-geographic isolation of the Peruvian highlands. There is a surprisingly varied cast of characters. Among the more memorable is a long-haired, bearded Danish professor-cum-hippie, a roving sage crazy about Peru who furnishes Lituma a framework for understanding the disappearances. The weakest portions are Vargas Llosa's accounts of Shining Path violence. The victims of the terrorists are depicted as so saintly and good that this reader felt ill-used and manipulated. Otherwise, it is refreshing to see Vargas Llosa back as a novelist. Aside from a few stiff Englishings (“touch wood” instead of “knock on wood,” for example) and other minor oversights, Edith Grossman has performed her translator's task with sure-handedness and sensitivity.

Mario Vargas Llosa and Luis Rebaza-Soraluz (interview date spring 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Vargas Llosa, Mario, and Luis Rebaza-Soraluz. “Demons and Lies: Motivation and Form in Mario Vargas Llosa.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 15-24.

[In the following interview, Vargas Llosa discusses the influence of history and other authors on his work as well as explaining his personal view of fiction as the “secret reality.”]

[Rebaza-Soraluz]: In García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio (García Márquez: Story of a Deicide), a book whose circulation—if I am not mistaken—you helped minimize, you developed your theories of “inner demons” and the “total novel.” What course have these ideas taken since then? Could you summarize your understanding of these ideas and explain how you see them now in relation to your narrative poetics?

[Vargas Llosa]: I continue to believe that the basic ideas expressed in that book, and in other books or essays I have written about the novel, are valid. They are fairly general ideas that do not explain particular cases but that do explain a certain characteristic akin to the genealogy of novels. The point of departure of the novelistic calling, the vocation of creating with words and with the imagination worlds that are distinct from the real world, is born of a certain conflict, some incompatibility with lived experience, that induces a person, in a generally obscure, nonrational manner, to seek out the alternative offered by fiction. The imagination does not work in a vacuum, it is not a gratuitous movement of the spirit, it operates drawing upon that conflict, trauma, interdict, enmity. … That difficult relationship with reality, such as it is lived, can be called many things. In any case it is from this that the imagination constructs that parallel world that is fiction. I call all of this “demons,” metaphorically. I did not want to use the word trauma so as not to give an orthodox Freudian explanation; nor do I believe that it can be explained as merely stemming from a neurosis. It is a type of conflict that can be infinitely broader than that determined purely pathologically. If there were no basic conflict with reality this vocation would not emerge. This vocation, in my opinion, consists of a rejection of reality and the substitution of another reality re-created in the image of its inventor, drawing from those types of problems or conflicts that I call “demons” because of their obsessive nature. This is a point of departure that establishes an immensely broad common denominator into which practically everything that could create difficulty in adaptation to lived experiences could fit; so you have motives ranging from the most altruistic (the rejection of injustice or social abuse) to the most private or egotistical (not being able to accept an eccentricity or an anomaly) or simply a thirst for the absolute (wanting to live existence more intensely, more fully, going beyond the limits of the human condition). Anyway, that form of rebellion is for me the point of departure for fiction. The originality of a narrative lies not in what it portrays of the real world but rather in what it reforms or adds to it. That is, for me, the specifically literary. The value of fiction is not in its similarity but rather in its dissonance with a reality which it should, nevertheless, represent—in order to obtain recognition, identification with the reader. That is what we call fiction: a reality that, without being reality, being distinct and alternative, asserts itself, in the case of successful narratives, due to its power of persuasion, as the real reality, the authentic, secret reality, reflected in literature. It seems to me that this is a valid explanation for all cases, and yet, of course, a generalization; each particular case represents a distinct method, technique, set of problems, and ambition.

Returning to the idea of the “added element”: in The Perpetual Orgy, speaking of Flaubert, you separate description from the anecdote, considering the latter an obligation of novelistic prose. An anecdote is made up of all kinds of experiences, which the author uses unscrupulously. What is important is its organization and its new form; it is here that the “added elements” make the anecdote a fictitious reality, which appears before the reader as a more conceivable reality than the very same reality he himself experiences. Systematically and impersonally exhibiting and withholding information, according to a previously conceived project, make the narrator disappear, who, impassive before what is narrated, does not absolve or condemn. This system leads him to alienate himself from the anecdote to the point of not intervening as a voice, resulting in a broad command of dialogue. Is this your point of view as a fiction writer? Is this your personal idea of realism?

That is Flaubert's idea, the description of what Flaubert called the impersonality of the narrator: the absolute neutrality that a narrator should maintain with regard to his narrative world. The narrator should be like God, omnipresent and at the same time invisible, an active absence, that is Flaubert's idea. Broadly speaking it is a valid concept, yet not exclusive. There are other versions. There is a very rich narrative in which the narrator is not invisible but rather a domineering, despotic presence, as well as that of an egomaniac. This is the type of narrator most often found in the classic novel. In a novel like Les Miserables, which I admire very much, the main character is a narrator who is constantly interfering, pontificating, judging. He does it from beginning to end with such coherence and congruence that he creates an order that in the end establishes itself as acceptable. But as a writer I feel closer to Flaubert's idea of the narrator than to the classic idea of the tyrannical and exhibitionistic narrator. It is very true, and in this Flaubert was extremely perceptive, that although the narrator may be visible, if the fiction does not gain independence, sovereignty, if it does not truly emancipate itself from the reality that serves as its model and has provided it with materials, it does not begin to live, it is ephemeral. Any fiction that needs to be checked against reality in order to justify itself does not attain the category of fiction—it is a document, a testimony. It may have historical or sociological value, but fiction should find justification in and of itself, disregarding its model. This is where a parasitic literature, such as regionalist literature, for example, or literature based on local customs and manners, fails.

In your article “Los miserables: el ultimo clasico” (“Les Miserables: The Last Classic”), published in the magazine Cielo abierto in 1983, you call Victor Hugo's work a “grandiose lie.” Is the narrator of Les Miserables a liar not because he creates fiction but because he wants to make the reader believe that what he says is true?

That is the ambition of all fiction, to impose itself on the reader as the truth. The raison d'être of all fiction is to be experienced, lived, not as a lie but as truth. Paradoxically, because of its own nature, fiction is and can only be a lie. This lie would never reach recognition, that enthronement as a great literary work, if it did not somehow reveal some truth, if through this lie a truth were not expressed, that can only be expressed through this periphrastic, symbolic, metaphorical path that is the path of fiction. The world is not as Proust, Joyce, or Balzac describes it, because the world is not organized that way, nor does it close up over itself as it does in a novel, where we can follow with absolute clarity the behavior and secret motivations and the reverberations or consequences of conduct. All of this within an order that is not the order of reality, which is fundamentally chaotic. One possible order is that which literature imposes, an artificial, invented reality. There are other orders of course, all of which proceed from culture, religion, and which organize this protoplasmatic chaos that is reality. If in some way it did not reveal something that we identify through our own experience of life, it would be difficult for fiction to gain the approval of the reader.

Let's take a look at an interesting and very explicit example: Kafka. When Kafka writes his stories he has no intention of symbolically re-creating a set of social and historical problems. Absolutely not. He writes stories stemming from a very traumatic and anguished personal experience, stories that he perceives as fantastic, sometimes as pure irreality. He sees this pure irreality as a way of confronting his vital anguish. Kafka's immense prestige has to do with this anguished, absurd world that reflects the instability, insecurity, the orphaning of the individual faced with social forces beyond his control, forces that can destroy him for reasons he cannot fully understand. All of this renders a very graphic expression of a phenomenon that all of Europe and parts of the rest of the world experienced in the era of police states, of totalitarianism—more concretely: Nazism and the persecution and extermination of entire societies. Weighed against this experience, the world of Kafka suddenly takes on symbolic value, and the extraordinary premonitory force of a historic event that the world was to experience. Although it would be completely absurd to say that a novel like The Metamorphosis is written to denounce, premonitorily, what would become Nazism, without a doubt an experience like that of the concentration camps, of the Holocaust, does give The Metamorphosis tremendously persuasive symbolic value. This is true of all great literature, though it may not necessarily have a direct historical or sociological, moral or cultural or psychological bearing. If we did not identify some aspects of our own experience of reality which, until then, had been obscured, clouded to rational knowledge, literature would reveal itself as a pure game of the spirit, as the creation of a parallel but superfluous reality, and it would not have much validity. All great literature, as distant from historical experience as it may seem to us, is always rooted in lived experience, though that can only be expressed through the lie that is the fabrication of a fictional world.

In The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta the protagonist, as a writer, is carried along in an ambiguous flow of realistic information constantly repeating that what he is constructing is a “lie,” a term that is in opposition to the truth. Does he distinguish between lie and falsehood, because it seems to me that he also uses the term falsehood in the framework of the interplay of author-character-fictitious reality. Is it this “added element” that differentiates lie from falsehood?

The theme of that novel, the least understood of all the ones I've written, is precisely the relationship between fiction and reality and between the distinct manifestations of fiction. In this novel there is a political and ideological fiction: that which Mayta experiences, and that experienced by the group of people who, believing they have seen a scientific description of historical reality in ideology, jump into this ludicrous adventure in which they fail. They act, guided by a fiction that is not literary. It is an ideological fiction. The person telling us the story is a narrator who has undertaken an investigation in order to determine all possibly reachable truth as to what occurred, so that he may use it to write a novel, a fiction, a lie, a false re-creation of that reality. What the novel tries to show are two manifestations of fiction: fiction that does not recognize itself as such, that has pretensions of being an objective reading of reality (ideological fiction, which appears very clearly in the novel as a consequence of frustration and violence), and fiction that does not have pretensions of being a scientific description of reality but rather, on the contrary, a visionary, subjective, “lying” re-elaboration of reality. What is surely bothersome is the use of a word that comes with negative religious and moral associations. Nevertheless, lie means something very concrete: contrary to truth. A lie is a false truth, it presents itself disguised as the truth. Literature is a lie that presents itself as such, it is a lie that does not pretend, as is the case of ideology, to be a truthful, objective description of reality. It is true that there are many writers who say, “In my novels I denounce a hidden, secret truth”; but what writers say is not as important as what they do. It may be that some really do describe the world as it is, but these are writers who have failed as creators of fiction. The writers who have been successful have not described the world as it is but rather the world as it is with some additions that revolutionize it, transform it, convert it into something very different, and that is what permits us to recognize its originality, a break not only with literary tradition but with the real world as it is.

And in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, where might one find the intersection between these two spheres: reality studied scientifically and reality … ?

… and reality as it is. Which is of almost infinite complexity because it does not have just one face but rather multiple faces. Even a very demarcated phenomenon can always be approached from another perspective. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is an attempt to recount, in its minimum expression, what would be a revolutionary movement: the group is very small and the action lasts only a few hours. It would seem that one could know everything about it, due to its minimal dimensions. Yet, this is not so. If one continues to unravel the ball of yarn, one discovers that it is almost infinite, there are psychological factors, social factors, economic, cultural, and geographical factors. Each one contributes a new element to the explanation, the determination of exactly what happened. Literature is a very special form of knowledge, charged with subjectivity and imagination. It is evident that it is not scientific knowledge, not the type the historian or the sociologist, much less the scientist could aspire to. Which does not keep fiction from profoundly impregnating other disciplines or sciences. I find this topic very fascinating. The realm of fiction is much broader than that of literature, the difference being that literature has no intention of deceiving anyone in that respect. Literature is fiction, it presents itself as fiction, and when one reads a novel one does not read it as one reads a biology or chemistry book, or a history or sociology book, because one is obliged to ask these books for something no novelist would accept: a type of photographic compliance with an exterior model. In the field of literature this is totally unacceptable.

Could you tell us a little about your interest in the historical novel and the historical vision originating from this type of novel? Would it be correct to say that the historical novels that you have written fully express your vision of history? Or is it more a question of a speculative construction as to the most extreme possibilities of a human being in Latin America? The work I have in mind is The War of the End of the World and its apocalyptic and atavistic vision. It would seem that prophets and their followers are destined always to engender violence, brutality, and a lack of communication. Also, some of your commentaries and writings on the historic course of Quechua speakers in Peru indicate that, in your view, they too have a destiny similar to the people of Canudos. Would it be correct to say that your historical novels can be read as archetypal commentaries on history?

I have not written novels in order to spread a conception of history; not in the least. The War of the End of the World, which is the most historical novel of those I have written—because it's based on a very precise historical fact, about which there is a lot of literature—and which broadly speaking, only broadly speaking, does follow what happened in Canudos, is not so much a novel to defend a theory of history but rather to show the fiction that theories of history can represent as well, when they have a strong ideological and political charge. That is what happened in Brazil with the republic, with the republicans and their attitude regarding the movement of the people of Canudos. What fascinated me about this story was seeing how political and ideological prejudices succeeded in blinding an entire country to such an extent to the meaning of the rebellion of Canudos, the intentions of the rebels, and the reality of the danger that Canudos represented to the republic.

Could you also call it intolerance?

But an intolerance totally conditioned by ideology. Many of the republicans were very generous and idealistic people who had fought for the republic because they very sincerely believed that the republic was going to bring justice, the development of Brazil, and that it was good for the poor. So they simply could not understand why the poor would rise up against something that would be beneficial to them. That is why this whole theory of conspiracy emerges, which is a fiction in the most novelistic sense of the word, stretching from England to the monarchists and the military linked to the Empire, which is assumed to be manipulating the strings of the rebellion in Canudos. The only thing that does not appear is reality; that is, the religious fear of these very primitive peasants, very indoctrinated by fanatical monks with respect to the idea of the republic, which was another fiction as well: a conspiracy of the Masons, agents of the Devil, to do away with Christianity, the true religion in Brazil. What fascinated me about the Canudos phenomenon was how these ideologies, which were totally impermeable to direct experience, managed to blind those two sectors of Brazilian society and bring them to the point of killing each other in that fashion. I was so fascinated by this because it was a phenomenon we were experiencing in many places in Latin America at that moment, those absolutely insurmountable divisions among social groups basically due to ideological and political fictions. The novel is not trying to say that this is history; what it is trying to communicate is that this is not a convincing theory as to what history or society is, nor is it the vision of the Yagunzos or of the Consejero as to what true religion is, which is also a very fictitious and imaginary vision, conditioned by all kinds of prejudices, resentments, rage. That is what fascinated me so much in the case of The War of the End of the World. But yes, one could say, in some sense, that it is a novel about the fiction in life, now not only in literature but in history and politics as well. The world of fiction is a protoplasmatic world, it is everywhere; it is in religion without a doubt, and I believe this because, evidently, man cannot live without fiction.

Is there any common ground, for example, with the Andes of your latest novel, Death in the Andes?

The phenomenon of the Shining Path is present because its members, the Senderistas, appear there. Yes, they represent that form of extreme intolerance, a unilateral division of history, reminiscent of a Jacobin, of a Moreira César in The War of the End of the World, and in some way, of a Consejero. But in The War of the End of the World there is something more that is not ideological and not at all political, which is a mythology, a religious vision of the atavistic reality that has survived Westernization and the Christian presence and that is somehow expressed in the old Hellenic mythology; that is why I have also re-created this in the case of Dionysus, the world of the Pishtacos, and the world of Andean mythology. This has to do with structures that seem to me to be more permanent than historical or sociological structures. Mythology also has an order that fictitiously imposes itself on the world; myths are literary explanations of the incomprehensible, of that which proves incomprehensible in reality, in nature, and in the human condition. Myths are not gratuitous, they are fictions that, like great novels and great poems, a community recognizes and makes their own, because in some way they resolve a doubt, they appease some kind of spiritual need. That is what I was interested in showing in that novel: how certain myths are perennial, are always there because evidently the types of questions that brought them about have not been completely resolved (they are questions that reappear under certain circumstances); and also how the idea of modernity and progress is such a precarious idea; and how beneath all this lies an atavistic force belonging to a certain tradition that is not easily uprooted. In the event of any collective crisis or insecurity, it erupts with great force and violence. The story of Lituma had been going back and forth in my head for quite some time, but the actual characteristics of the novel were born of the impression that the news of the invasion of Pishtacos in Ayacucho left upon me a few years ago. It provoked a huge commotion in the shantytowns, in the poorest slums of Ayacucho, where the rumor of an invasion of Pishtacos—that hundreds, thousands of Pishtacos were arriving to wrench the body fat off the people to pay the external debt, to export it abroad, so that the government would turn it over to the United States—provoked a phenomena of mass hysteria and even lynchings. Evidently, this was coming from the sediment that had been stirred about and brought up to date, due, of course, to the very particular political and economic circumstances that the region was experiencing. This struck a vein with me that eventually resulted in Death in the Andes.

You have always been very interested in the work of Arguedas, despite some of your concerns regarding his style. You are the two most distinguished Peruvian novelists of this century. What comparison would you make with regard to the issue of style in each of your cases? And as to the form in which you deal with indigenous characters in the novel? You are currently writing a book on Arguedas; on what specific level does Arguedas continue to interest you after so many years?

I have always had, since I was very young, since the first time I read him, a strong interest in the work of Arguedas, for many reasons. First of all, because his work seems to me to be very rich, very creative, and also because I believe that the world of Arguedas is a world created from a set of problems that any Peruvian writer, so as not to say any Peruvian, has experienced directly (or indirectly) as a central part of his life, because Peru's major problems are the point of departure in Arguedas's work. His case is exceptional because he experienced those problems in his own life: the problem of two cultures; the problem of societies living together without communication under immense tension and violence; the problem of the Indians; the problem of bilingualism; the problem of societies living at different historical levels; the problem of possibilities for the integration of a society with these characteristics; and the problem of the type of literature that could emerge therein. Arguedas took all of this personally, as his own problem. He resolved this creatively in his best moments, in his best books, like Yawar Fiesta or Los ríos profundos. In the books in which he is not as original nor as creative, even in the books in which it could be said that he failed, he always left a powerful dramatic testimony of enormous authenticity, dealing with the type of conflict in which the literary, the historical, and the cultural all meet. Also, I have always been interested in that process in Arguedas by which traumatic personal experience, the “demons,” are raw material for a writer. And how they are used to create a world of fiction. The world of Arguedas is a world of fiction, especially in its better moments, the most creative ones, precisely in the sense of being not a description but an invention of a reality—a reality that he invented based upon a very genuine experience that does not reflect reality as it is, but rather, a reality that has passed through the very delicate, sensitive, and very wounded sieve of a person like Arguedas. That is what interests me about Arguedas, how a person so committed to the idea of justice, to restoring the rights of the peasant, of the Peruvian of the Andes, did, at the moment of creating literature, exactly what good literature does: he invented a world, he did not reflect it, he dismantled it and reassembled it in a very persuasive way, in an absolutely subjective and personal manner. Also, Arguedas is writing within the tradition of the indigenist, regionalist literature which at times conditioned him but which, in some of his better moments, he interrupted. With Arguedas, in some way, indigenism disappeared, despite the indigenist writers who would follow. He creates a kind of literature that puts an end to the characteristics of indigenist literature. The literature of Arguedas is concerned with Andean problems; there are peasants, there are Indians, but it is not indigenist literature.

In your words, the narrator of Les Miserables “judges, excommunicates.” In that same article you say “whoever judges and condemns does not listen, he listens only to himself, there is no dialogue, only monologue.” Who is the narrator of A Fish in the Water? Is he too engaged in a monologue? Is this narrator the most ambiguous, paraphrasing your words, of the characters that Mario Vargas Llosa, the author, creates in the “novel of his life”?

A Fish in the Water is not a novel, it is not fiction; it is an autobiography, it is a book of memoirs. An incomplete autobiography since it covers only two periods of my life. It contains no type of fictitious, literary re-elaboration of reality. It is a document of lived experiences in which there are, of course, very explicit, surely controversial, opinions expressed. In this book there is no fiction, or if there is fiction, it is involuntary fiction, in spite of myself. It is a book in which I wanted to tell what happened and not to use what happened as I do when I write novels: as raw material that I can magnify, add to, or eliminate with complete liberty. The testimony in A Fish in the Water is a reliable, truthful testimony, it is not a fictitious testimony.

Nevertheless, there is a scene in which you reproduce a conversation with your wife about the motives that led you to run for president. At one point you say something to the effect of: well, it is possible that things are not as I present them but rather what I wanted was to create the novel of my life. There are a couple of similar affirmations where you seem to be weighing the possibility of fiction and that of reality.

One can be truthful and reliable with respect to one's acts. With respect to one's deep-seated motivations, there is always a margin of subjectivity, of error. One thinks one knows oneself, but one only knows oneself based on reason, and we know there is a nonrational part of the human personality that, from that shadow the conscious cannot reach, is always exerting pressure, pushing, inducing, in such a way that we cannot know the most secret motivations behind our acts. It was an act of honesty on my part, an ethical necessity, to say that my wife does not entirely share the reasons I believe to be the ones that induced me to present my candidacy in the elections in Peru. She believes there is also a secret, maybe unconscious, literary reason: the ambition to live a great novel in real life. I don't know, but clearly it is not what I believe led me to be a candidate in Peru.

Would this be applicable to the motivations behind writing A Fish in the Water?

No, absolutely not. I am basically a writer, and, naturally, a writer is only able to fully understand his experience insofar as he writes about it. I would not say “insofar as he invents it,” but yes, insofar as he writes about it. It was important for me to leave this testimony precisely because of the proliferation of lies that accompanied all of my political activities in Peru. At least this way my own testimony on the matter will be on record. I always knew the book would be controversial, but it was also a way to close the file on this experience. Once written—this happens to everyone who writes—this experience somehow distances itself, and one somehow bring sit to a close and finishes it off. It is like what happens when one writes a novel, there is always an uneasiness, a restlessness, rooted in those particular experiences that lead one to write a novel. Once the novel is finished, a sort of cathartic effect has been produced; the novelist has expelled that inner “demon.” I can say that with A Fish in the Water, I expelled the demon of politics, at least of Peruvian politics.

Efraín Kristal (essay date spring 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Kristal, Efraín. “Captain Pantoja and the Special Service: A Transitional Novel.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 52-7.

[In the following essay, Kristal examines Captain Pantoja and the Special Service as an illustration of Vargas Llosa's period of “artistic transition” in the early 1970s, during which the author began to move away from rigidly rule-abiding characters to fanatics who challenge any impediment to their fervent beliefs.]

Mario Vargas Llosa's reflections on socialism have always informed the themes of his major novels. In the 1960s, when he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban revolution, his novels reflected his conviction that Peruvian society was too corrupt for reform. In the 1980s, after repudiating socialism, his novels explored the dangers of ideology. Unlike the 1960s or 1980s, the 1970s—the period dealt with in this essay—were for Vargas Llosa a time of political ambivalence: he was no longer at ease with socialism, but he did not yet want to give it up.

Even after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which he condemned, and the incarceration of dissidents in Cuba, against which he protested, Vargas Llosa was not willing to break with the socialist states. As late as 1974 he was writing articles rationalizing Fidel Castro's policies:

Cruel and pressing economic realities, the scarce resources of a tiny underdeveloped island, and the gigantic, savage blockade imposed by imperialism in order to drown it—all this kept “socialism in freedom” from prospering even initially. Castro's dilemma was to maintain an open socialism in the absence of international support, risking the demise of the revolution by linking its economy and its project to the Soviet model. With his famous pragmatism, Fidel chose the lesser of two evils. Who could reproach him, especially after the death of Allende and the fall of his political movement. … Notwithstanding my visceral horror of police states and of the dogmatism of systems that believe in single truths, if I must choose between capitalism and socialism. I bite my tongue and continue to say “on with socialism.”1

By 1975, however, Vargas Llosa began to reconsider his allegiances to the Cuban revolution and to the Soviet Union. The first half of the 1970s was a period of artistic transition during which Vargas Llosa gradually abandoned the character type most prevalent in his first novels: tragic or innocent victims of a corrupt society, the likes of Ricardo Arana, Gamboa, Santiago Zavala, Jum, and Ambrosio. Vargas Llosa's artistic transition first becomes apparent in Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973), where he explores, with humor and irony, two themes he had earlier treated with the utmost seriousness and pathos: the depravity of military institutions and prostitution in a society “with a corrupt heart but with a puritan facade.”2

Captain Pantaleón Pantoja has received a special mission from the general headquarters of the Peruvian armed forces: to establish a secret prostitution service to appease the sexual appetite of those soldiers who rape women near their jungle garrisons. In order to carry out his duties in secret, Captain Pantoja is ordered to live as an ordinary citizen. He is forbidden regular contact with other soldiers and is not allowed to reveal the nature of his clandestine activities to anyone, including the two women he lives with: his wife Pochita and his mother Leonor. The novel's main story line traces Pantoja's adventures and misadventures from the fateful day he receives his orders until his failure and transfer to a humiliating post.

The novel has two types of chapters. Four of them consist of dialogues in which different conversations that took place in distinct times and places are juxtaposed and intertwined, a literary technique José Miguel Oviedo has called “telescoping dialogues.”3 Vargas Llosa gives this technique a twist summarized in his book A Writer's Reality: he eliminates the verba dicendi (e.g., “he said,” “she affirmed with sincerity”) and replaces them with the descriptions and observations of a third-person narrator.4 Instead of identifying Pantoja as the speaker, for example, Vargas Llosa interjects description into his character's transcribed dialogue:

“Because the first time you name me or speak about the Service, I'll throw all fifty specialists on top of you, and let me warn you, they all have long fingernails,” Pantaleón Pantoja opens a desk drawer, takes out a revolver, loads and unloads it, spins the cylinder, takes aim at the backboard, the telephone, the rafters. “And if they don't put an end to you, I'll finish you off myself, with one shot in the head. Understood?”


The other six chapters are comprised of letters, notes and reports from the military, articles from local papers, clips of radio programs, and accounts of Pantaleón's dreams.

The contrast between Pantaleón's keen sense of professionalism and the outrageous nature of his operation creates many comic situations in the novel. Determined to carry out his orders and accomplish his secret mission according to strict military protocol, Pantaleón resorts to a series of euphemisms. He refers to his prostitutes as “visitors,” and he uses the word service to designate the sexual act. With scientific rigor Pantaleón reads books and articles on male sexuality to determine the number and the duration of the “services” each soldier requires per month in order to placate his sexual appetite. For the sake of thrift, he distributes pornographic materials among the soldiers in order to reduce the length of each “servicing.” The comedy in the novel arises not only from the unusual nature of the service but also from the way in which it is presented to the reader. For the activities of the service are never narrated from the point of view of either an omniscient narrator or a character but by indirect means such as letters and documents. Panta's official reports use dry bureaucratic language to describe his struggles against unexpected follies: the fury of a soldier who discovers his sister is the prostitute waiting to service him; the cunning of a homosexual who dresses as a woman “to practice his vice with the troops” (133); the connivances of the soldier who escapes with a prostitute he wishes to marry.

The local authorities are aware of but displeased with Pantaleón's service. Father Godofredo Beltrán Calila, commander and chaplain of the Peruvian Amazon region, resigns his position as a discreet protest against the service; and Scavino, the general in charge of the region, distances himself, from Pantaleón and his activities. Pantaleón's mission also creates strains in his marriage: Pochita feels uneasy about her husband's mysterious activities, and Pantaleón falls in love with la Brasileña, a prostitute he takes as a lover. Pochita finds out about her husband's secret service and his infidelity in a letter written by Maclovia, a prostitute expelled from the service who hopes to regain her job by ingratiating herself with the wife of her former boss who she assumes is privy to the whole thing. After reading the letter, Pochita leaves Pantaleón.

In the first draft of Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, written between 1971 and 1972, Vargas Llosa created an opposition between Pantaleón and “el Sinchi,” an announcer for the local radio station who takes to the airwaves to judge the morality of the local citizens.5 He is an opportunist who utilizes his radio show to ruin the reputations of those who refuse to surrender to his blackmail. The first draft does not contain the complete development of the novel's plot, but it is evident that “el Sinchi” represented the main threat to Pantaleón's success: he figures out the nature of the secret service and threatens to expose it if Pantaleón does not pay him off.

In the second draft Vargas Llosa began to elaborate a new opposition, more important and decisive to the plot of the novel in its final form: that of Pantaleón and Brother Francisco, the leader of “The Brotherhood of the Ark,” a religious order that expresses its spirituality in weird rites that include the crucifixion of insects and small animals.6 The men and women of the brotherhood must remain celibate. They can “live together, but only as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’; the apostles have to be pure” (152). As their numbers grow, the brotherhood's religious practices degenerate into criminal acts: the members begin to crucify children and adults.

Between the two drafts, Vargas Llosa encountered a book that would have a great impact on his literary career: Rebellion in the Backlands (1902) by Euclides da Cunha. Vargas Llosa read it on the recommendation of the Brazilian filmmaker Rui Guerra, who had asked Vargas Llosa to write a screenplay (the movie was never shot) based on some of the historical events that had inspired da Cunha: the Canudos rebellion at the end of the nineteenth century in which a community of humble devotees of Antonio el Consejero—a messianic leader—were massacred by the army of the recently constituted republic of Brazil. In his historical research Vargas Llosa went beyond da Cunha and studied other books on the history of Brazil and on religious messianism that helped him develop the theme of religious fanaticism in other literary projects, including The War of the End of the World. The atmosphere of popular exaltation for a charismatic, messianic leader is elaborated in the drafts of the screenplay Vargas Llosa wrote for Rui Guerra. It is the same kind of atmosphere that Vargas Llosa would transpose with black humor in the second and subsequent drafts of Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. It is no coincidence that Brother Francisco is Brazilian.

In his early novels, Vargas Llosa developed characters such as Gamboa of The Time of the Hero, or Pantaleón himself, who are obsessed with the rules of the institution to which they belong. With Brother Francisco, however, a new kind of character will become commonplace in Vargas Llosa's narrative: the fanatic of unyielding convictions, ready to challenge anything or anyone who presents obstacles to his heartfelt beliefs. The model for the religious fanatic in Captain Pantoja and the Special Service was clearly Antonio, the counselor from da Cunha's Rebellion in the Backlands.

The relevance Vargas Llosa grants Brother Francisco and his brotherhood as the main counterpoint to Pantaleón and his service led him to downplay Sinchi's role as the character who, in the first draft of the novel, was to precipitate the failure of the service. Vargas Llosa decided to water down Sinchi's significance and turned him into a burlesque character with whom he would project onto the Peruvian jungle the amusing epistolary quarrels of medieval knights whose bark is louder than their bite.

One of the ways in which Sinchi attempts to blackmail Pantaleón is through a threatening letter. Here Vargas Llosa is alluding to the letters Joanot Martorell wrote to challenge knights he had no intention of confronting, which Vargas Llosa and Martín de Riquer published (in a book) shortly before Captain Pantoja and the Special Service.7 According to an introductory note by Riquer, Martorell would scrupulously follow the epistolary protocol with which medieval knights accused other knights of an offense and demanded satisfaction. If the addressee denied the charges he should expect a challenge to a duel. Sinchi's epistolary threat fits the pattern:

Accept the reality: the life and death of your millionaire business are in my hands. Until now I have resisted the pressures and I have limited myself, from time to time, to placating the citizenry's anger somewhat, to launching discreet warnings; but if you persist in your lack of understanding and obstinacy, and if, before the end of the month, what is due me is not in my hands, there will be for your enterprise, as well as for its boss and the brains behind it, nothing less than a fight to the finish with neither piety nor compassion, and both of you will suffer the fatal consequences.


Eventually, Sinchi decides to make peace with Pantaleón; he has made enough enemies with his attacks on Brother Francisco, whose influence, in the jungle has overshadowed his own. In the course of the novel Francisco's Brotherhood of the Ark becomes overwhelmingly popular. Several prostitutes abandon the service in order to become chaste members of the brotherhood, and even Pantaleón's mother becomes a follower of Francisco until she finds out that they have crucified a child. The military which had been indifferent to the activities of the brotherhood, decides to repress the movement when it begins to crucify people. Brother Francisco is captured but escapes with the help of his converts, some of whom are soldiers and officers. He dies a martyr when he orders his devotees to crucify him.

Pantaleón's mission fails after another crucifixion, Brasileña's. The story of Brasileña, like Bonifacia's in The Green House or Hortensia's in Conversation in the Cathedral, evokes the standard plot of Mexican cinematic melodrama. La Brasileña was a poor child forced into a life of prostitution because of her unusual beauty. Her life as a prostitute leads her to a bloody death (the kind worthy of tabloid journalism), occurring under strange and mysterious circumstances. It is suspected at first that the Brotherhood of the Ark was behind her death because she was crucified in their manner. After other suppositions and conjectures, the case is finally broken: she was murdered by Teófilo Morey, the ex-mayor of a jungle town, and his accomplices, who had plotted to attack a ship of the service to rape the prostitutes on their way to a military outpost. They decided to pirate the ship because Pantaleón had denied them the use of his service. Brasileña's murder was not premeditated, but the criminals crucified her to implicate the Brotherhood of the Ark.

Pantaleón decides to give a eulogy at Brasileña's burial dressed in full military regalia. He does this (as he explains to his superiors) to raise the morale of his female “visitors” following the assault on the ship and threats of further violence. Pantaleón is unable to convince his superiors of the propriety of his action, and the service is subsequently dissolved. Like Gamboa in The Time of the Hero, Pantaleón is punished with a humiliating transfer before his actions jeopardize the reputation of the military. The novel ends with a joke. Pantaleón and Pochita have reconciled and are living together in a remote and barren military outpost. Pantaleón is as obsessed as ever with his military duties, but he is still in love with the deceased Brasileña and has become a devotee of the cult to Brother Francisco: “Poor little specialist, oh, how awful, my little crucified girl, my pretty little ‘sister’ from the Ark.” (243)

Although treated in a humorous and ironic manner, the theme of Captain Pantoja and the Special Service—the downfall of a well-intentioned military man who fails precisely because he has tried to be faithful to a hypocritical military institution—has an antecedent in Gamboa's predicament in The Time of the Hero. But the contrast between Pantaleón Pantoja, as a man obsessed with military discipline, and Brother Francisco, as a religious fanatic (“some guy crucified himself to announce the end of the world” [1]), would reemerge years later as Vargas Llosa developed the theme of his most important novel. In The War of the End of the World Vargas Llosa juxtaposes Moreira César, an obsessive general, and Antonio el Consejero, a messianic leader, to explore the nature of violence aroused by fanaticism, be it religious, military, or ideological. In the 1970s, when he published Captain Pantoja and the Special Service as well as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter he left the political issues in his novels vague and humorous. Vargas Llosa was uncertain about his own political convictions and was therefore not yet prepared to make a decisive connection between fanaticism and utopias or to explore themes that would have clashed with his waning conviction that capitalist society should be eradicated in order to establish socialism.


  1. “Un francotirador tranquilo,” in Contra viento y marea II (1972-1983) (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1986), 298-99. The translation from the Spanish is mine.

  2. Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, trans. Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 104; hereafter cited parenthetically.

  3. José Miguel Oviedo, Mario Vargas Llosa: la invención de una realidad (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1977), 127.

  4. “I used the acotaciones to present all necessary description in the novel”—A Writer's Reality, ed. Myron I. Lichtblau (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1991), 96. Note that Vargas Llosa uses the Spanish acotaciones to refer to the descriptions the narrator interjects into the dialogues that replace the verba dicendi.

  5. The first draft of the novel can be found in Notebook [E-1], Box 3, Folder 3 of the Mario Vargas Llosa Archive at Princeton University's Firestone Library. According to a note in Vargas Llosa's handwriting, he used the notebook between 1971 and 1972.

  6. Brother Francisco appears for the first time in 1973 and was therefore conceived after Vargas Llosa's first reading of da Cunha's Rebellion in the Backlands (Mario Vargas Llosa Archive, Firestone Library, Notebook [E-4], Box 3, folder 6).

  7. Martin de Riquer and Mario Vargas Llosa, El combate imaginario. Las cartas de batalla de Joanot Martorell (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1972).

Elizabeth Dipple (essay date spring 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Dipple, Elizabeth. “Outside, Looking In: Aunt Julia and Vargas Llosa.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 58-69.

[In the following essay, Dipple discusses Vargas Llosa's ambivalence in accepting the classification of much of his fiction as autobiographical.]

In Mario Vargas Llosa's late 1980s novel The Storyteller, his typical and frequent narrator, who is a thinly fictionalized Vargas Llosa, beckons the reader to join him in Florence during an undated stay there, while Vargas Llosa, pursuing his European agenda, reads Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli in the tourist-ridden summer heat. The story that he draws us into, after seeing an exhibition of photographs depicting an Amazonian tribe by a recently deceased Italian photographer, is that of a college friend of his, a Peruvian Jew named Saul Zuratas, marked by otherness not only by his Jewish background but also by a huge disfiguring strawberry birthmark that covers the entire right side of his face. Zuratas's subsequent nickname, Mascarita, indicates his life within and behind a mask, his very being altered by the marred countenance he presents to the world.

Vargas Llosa has also posed for the camera with a mask coquettishly held beside his face—an indication no doubt of his disguised persona in the novels. That persona, he argues, is automatically a mask or fiction, although it might call itself Mario, Marito, Varguita, Vargas Llosa. That all too thinly disguised hero dominates the form and function of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977; trans. 1982) as it later does The Storyteller (1987; trans. 1989). My emphasis on the mask would, however, be an inefficient introduction to a brief commentary on Aunt Julia if a simple but important semiotic reading were not called into play. Abe Franjndlich's photograph of Vargas Llosa (reproduced on p. 8) depicts the writer in partial three-quarter facial view, the face nervously grim and cropped off at the right border. Held in the subject's right hand is a carnivale mask that dominates two-thirds of the photograph and is presented full face to the viewer. The allegorical reading is straightforward: the writer Mario Vargas Llosa dons the mask of literary fiction in order to alter freely the autobiographical self presented. The mask is the fictional representation; the reality behind that mask is inaccessibly other.

The complication that presents itself, of course, is the fact that the face is not behind the mask but beside it. Vargas Llosa doesn't don a mask but holds it out at a fair distance and angled away from his face, stressing the separation between the two—and no doubt cautioning critics to beware of the salacious voyeurism of autobiographical commentary. I shall return later to the hauteur of such a warning, but for the moment I wish to contrast it to the lived-in, inescapable mask of Saul Zuratas in The Storyteller.

Against all odds, in an extended act of passionate identification, Zuratas sheds his Jewish and Peruvian cultures and becomes a speaker or story teller among the isolated, uncontaminated Machiguengas, a wandering Amazonian tribe spread through the “unhealthy forests of eastern Cusco and Madre de Dios.” Vargas Llosa's narrator describes the habladores or speakers thus:

I was deeply moved by the thought of that being, those beings … bringing stories from one group of Machiguengas to another and taking away others, reminding each member of the tribe that the others were alive, that despite the great distances that separated them, they still formed a community, shared a tradition and beliefs, ancestors, misfortunes and joys: the fleeting, perhaps legendary figures of those habladores who—by occupation, out of necessity, to satisfy a human whim—using the simplest most time-hallowed of expedients, the telling of stories, were the living sap that circulated and made the Machiguengas into a society, a people of interconnected and interdependent beings.


Saul Zuratas knows that, marred and masked as he is by his bizarre birthmark, he would not have survived the first culling within the tribe; he nevertheless gives himself, body, life, and soul to them, leaving the Vargas Llosa narrator to puzzle his way through a situation that is alien to him. This narrator can understand Zuratas's hatred of the “intrusion of destructive modern concepts,” the longing for “an equilibrium between man and the earth, the awareness of the rape of the environment by industrial culture and today's technology, the reevaluation of the wisdom of primitive peoples, forced either to respect their habitat or face extinction” (242). He can understand that

Mascarita should have decided to turn his back on a bourgeois future and go to Amazonia in search of adventures. … He erased all trace of his departure and of his intentions. … It is evident that he left Lima with the intention of never coming back, of being another person forever … I am able to follow him this far, though not without difficulty, I believe that his identification with this small, Marginal, nomadic community had—as his father conjectured—something to do with the fact that he was Jewish, a member of another community which had also been a wandering, marginal one throughout its history, a pariah among the world's societies, like the Machiguengas in Peru, grafted onto them, yet not assimilated and never entirely accepted.


The narrator also accepts that “surely, his fellow feeling for the Machiguengas was influenced … by that enormous birthmark that made of him a marginal among marginals, a man whose destiny would always bear the stigma of ugliness” (243).

This limited comprehension, although generous, sympathetic, and rational, also defines even as it haunts Vargas Llosa: the narrator goes on to say that what moves him most in Saul's story and makes him “weave and unweave it a thousand times” is the next stage, which he cannot understand. Taking a giant step beyond conversion, Zuratas in becoming an hablador “was adding what appeared impossible to what was merely improbable” (244). Saul has gone beyond the possibilities that Vargas Llosa can imagine as a writer, and it is this knowledge of limitation that makes this novel so crucial, so touching, so important within the career of this self-divided novelist. A translation of Vargas Llosa's own words is useful:

The rest of the story, however, confronts me only with darkness, and the harder I try to see through it, the more impenetrable it becomes.

Talking the way a storyteller talks means being able to feel and live in the very heart of that culture, means having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors. It means being, in the most profound way possible, a rooted Machiguenga, one of that ancient lineage who—in the period in which this Firenze, where I am writing, produced its dazzling effervescence of ideas, paintings, buildings, crimes, and intrigues—roamed the forests of my country, bringing and bearing away those tales, lies, fictions, gossip, and jokes that make A community of that people of scattered beings, keeping alive among them the feeling of oneness, of constituting something fraternal and solid. That my friend Saul gave up being all that he was and might have become so as to roam through the Amazonian jungle, for more than twenty years now, perpetuating against wind and tide—and above all, against the very concepts of modernity and progress—the tradition of the invisible line of wandering storytellers, is something that memory now and again brings back to me, and … it opens my heart more forcefully than fear or love has ever done.


Years before, after the narrator's first visit to the Amazonian jungle, the idea of the habladores raised goosebumps, as it does in the novelistic present in Florence. On the earlier occasion he had explained it to Mascarita by saying that the habladores are “a tangible proof that storytelling can be something more than mere entertainment … something primordial, something that the very existence of people may depend on” (94). Saul's disappointed response is “Oh, I see. It's the literary side that interests you.”

In the terms set up in this novel the limitations of Vargas Llosa's career as a writer are here poignantly and honestly encountered. What interests me principally in this writer's struggle with both the technical and ideological aspects of fiction is the sense, unavoidable within the dynamic bond between writer and critic, that he actively suffers from a fragile sense of not being inside the mask he would don, of failing at some level to participate. His analytical and observational capabilities are exceptional, and, as we learn from his autobiographical narrators, he does his literary homework—he is extremely well read in Western cultural texts and has been thoroughly influenced by his infrequent but profound contacts with the primordial Amazonian forests. Unlike the resolute Mascarita, his narratorial use of the mask is a literary device, not a commitment involving body, soul, life in a single-minded way that denies the temptations of power, the love of women, the wealth and progress of a successful professional. He can therefore tell the story of Mascarita's dedication but must stand uncomprehendingly outside of it, made nervous by it, coming up in goosebumps over a profound path not to be taken by himself as a successful Westernized ecrivain.

By contrast, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter presents a more mixed representation within the same contours of a deep problematic in Vargas Llosa's fiction. Here, he offers a version of the fictionist's dilemma within the traditional genre of the bildungsroman. Whereas The Storyteller describes a state of affairs, Aunt Julia ironically presents a series of obstacles within a complex mise-en-abyme framework. Aunt Julia and The Storyteller share a structure of contrast and balance, tightly conducted in Aunt Julia and ingeniously interwoven in The Storyteller. A few words about that structuring device are both appropriate and necessary.

Vargas Llosa describes himself as a man driven by obsessions and writing out of them—indeed, he is at pains to convince the readers of his interviews and speeches that he is passionately committed to the very principle of obsession. This tenet, if correct, should verify his absolute insider status in the novels and obliterate most of what I have been arguing through an internal reading of a single text, The Storyteller. The actual structure of the novels and the literary problems of realism in the works are, however, more revealing and contradictory.

Formally, Vargas Llosa's tendency is to alternate tales of his own early life and background with the primary subject matter of the text he is writing. He does so in both of the novels I have mentioned and also, interestingly, in the account of his ill-fated political run for election as president of Peru, A Fish in the Water. In each case the fixing of his obsession is on his life as lived up to the age of twenty-two; he carries that life farther only in terms of prologue, epilogue, or, in the case of the memoir, as part of an ongoing political expose. It is as though the passion of obsession was spent early and that his interim years have been spent in analysis, rumination, reworking, fictionalizing, finding a form, thinking about the underlying structures of his art. As A Fish in the Water points out, his second wife Patricia saw his political ambition to be president as “the adventure, the illusion of living an experience full of excitement and risk, of writing the great novel in real life.”

The key word here is illusion, which indicates Vargas Llosa's removal from a firm concept of materiality and belies much of his often stated desire to root his work in reality. There is no doubt that crucial things happened to Vargas Llosa in the world of material existence—his marriages, his exile, his study of European literature, his political ambition; it is equally true that he relives them in the written word in ways that have more to do with illusion than with realistic (i.e., potentially objective) accounts. The very fact that he sees himself as an ex-patriot and a cosmopolitan combines with his hatred of nationalism and the Peruvian rancor he describes in the memoir to help define the primary life decisions that he has made. I am certainly not the first to remind others that his marriages, first to his aunt, the titular Julia of the novel, and then to his first-cousin Patricia, express an extraordinary halt in emotional attachment at a young age, leading him to consolidate his position within the love of his mother's family—the first and best love he knew—and to regain partially the paradise that was lost when his macho father returned to reclaim his wife and make miserable the ten-year-old Mario. Within the boundaries of potential criticism of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, the narrator's wanton cruelty to Julia through his casual discarding of her after eight years of marriage and then absolving himself of blame by vindictively citing her expectation of no more than five years, invites a strong Lacanian feminist reading. His illusion that he is presenting a real story is quickly upset.

It seems clear and much more to the point that the experienced world of Vargas Llosa as a writer in the late twentieth century is troubled by the exigencies of both his obsessive autobiographical interest in himself as a young man and his writing fiction in a postrealist period. In some ways the hapless term postmodern is worthwhile, if only because its various usages raise the issue of the materiality of fiction, study the appropriation of novels as a commodity through the history of capitalism, and present a perception of fictional literature as parody, while destroying its formerly privileged position of realism.

Although Vargas Llosa began his career as an impassioned defender of the possibility of a totalizing fiction that perfectly balances subjective and objective and high and low culture and presents a whole vision of society, he shortly came to see the idea of the total novel as naive and even demented. That did not, however, reduce his interest in the accomplishments of medieval romance, his interest in melodrama, his admiration of Dumas, his taste for pornography, his study of Flaubert's complex theories of realism, and so on—all of them part of his onetime sense of how a totalizing fiction could be stitched together.

In spite of the extraordinary fecundity of experimentalism in the early novels, especially The Green House,Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is the pivotal novel for his acknowledgment of the entire problem of realism and especially of how he as a writer is affected by it. In The Green House the very foundation of the realist enterprise is questioned when Anselmo claims that there never was a green house, with the result that the pastiche of stories and opinions and reportages compiled as a compendium of the tales told by local inhabitants of Piura crumbles. But it is in Aunt Julia, eleven years later, that the specific issues of Vargas Llosa's sensibility as a writer within the realist agenda come into direct play. Naively reviled by some as a frivolous novel because it and the preceding novel, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, define the moment when Vargas Llosa says he learned the art of the comic, it is, I think, central to an understanding of this writer's work.

I wish to refer specifically to two moments when Vargas Llosa himself discusses the novel, one in an interview with Jose Miguel Oviedo just after the completion of the novel, the other in A Writer's Reality, a compilation of lectures on his own work. In the Oviedo interview, given on the heels of his having just completed Aunt Julia, there is a spontaneity that allows some of the contradictions intrinsic to realism to rise to the surface. Vargas Llosa chose to alternate the fantastic soap operas of Pedro Camacho (based on a real figure he had met in 1953 when he worked for Radio Panamericana in Lima, Raul Salmon) with “another story that serves as a kind of counterpoint, that anchors in the tangible, verifiable world the purely imaginary, purely fantastic, mad world of the protagonist and his soap operas” (Oviedo, “A Conversation” 157). Originally, Vargas Llosa saw this other story to be precisely the opposite of the soap operas—“something absolutely objective and absolutely true” (“A Conversation” 157). During the construction of the novel, he learns, or perhaps relearns, the basic lessons of realism:

my project began disintegrating when put into practice. That is, it was totally impossible to write the chapters in which I wanted to be absolutely truthful and tell only of things which I was absolutely sure had happened precisely so, because memory is tricky and gets contaminated with fantasy, and because even as one is writing, an element of imagination seeps in, takes hold and inevitably becomes part of what one is writing. And at the same time, in the chapters that are supposedly syntheses or paraphrases of the soap operas of the protagonist there is no “pure invention.” There, too, there are foreign ingredients which come from objective reality, which infiltrate little by little.

(“A Conversation” 159)

In his 1991 lecture Vargas Llosa is less precise and works harder at the level of theory to differentiate the binary structure of the novel, arguing that “A serious writer is someone who is able to distort reality out of a personal obsession or personal belief, and to present this distortion in such a persuasive way that it is perceived by the reader as an objective description of reality, of the real world. This is what achievement in art and literature is. A good scriptwriter of soap operas is also someone who distorts reality, not out of a personal obsession or personal vision, but out of the stereotypes that are established in society” (A Writer's Reality 115). Here, Vargas Llosa tenaciously maintains a distinction that had attracted him years before—Roland Barthes's differentiation between ecrivain and ecrivante. For Vargas Llosa, the scriptwriter is an ecrivante who uses language only as an instrument for the minor task of entertaining, whereas a real writer, an ecrivain, “is someone who uses language as an end in itself, as something that in itself has justification” (A Writer's Reality 115).

I find his earlier sense of the reciprocal flow between the two forms of writing in Aunt Julia more creatively and critically interesting than his Barthesian allegiance, which tips him over into the structuralist camp and helps fuel a sense of his separation from the practical function of language as it extends itself into extra-aesthetic realms. Interpreting at a political extreme, one can say that the passage quoted above regarding the definition of a serious writer denotes romantic existentialism and participates in an elitist culture that the experience of reading Aunt Julia almost but does not quite encourage.

In speaking of the cultural past, Vargas Llosa claims that “the richest moments in civilization, in history, have occurred when the boundaries separating popular and creative literature disappear, and literature becomes simultaneously both things—something that enriches all audiences, something that can satisfy all kinds of mentalities and knowledge and education, and at the same time is creative and artistic and popular” (A Writer's Reality 116). His examples are Dickens, Hugo, Dumas, and Perez Galdos. Although he could also mention his Latin American contemporaries—Puig, Garcia Marquez, Carpentier, and others—he is typically stuck in the nineteenth century. He overlooks, however, an important quality, especially in the case of Dickens: the lack of contempt for popular culture, a contempt that is irreversibly part of the fabric of his structurally divided novel. This disdain is ideologically dangerous, defining as it does much of the sense Vargas Llosa has of himself as an artist, as a power figure, and as a man. In A Fish in the Water he studies not only the vicious political battlefield but also Peruvian rancor. Paralleling to some degree the negativity that Garcia Marquez sees in the idea of soledad, Vargas Llosa gives analyses of the deep pain of his background, of his rancorous father, of the various miseries and indignities he suffered at the hands of that tyranny at home and school. He also furnishes a distinction between the concept of blanco versus cholo, white versus colored, not only seen as racist terms but also in common usage in Peru to indicate where the power lies in any given personal or political situation. As he describes it in A Writer's Reality,

We were surrounded by a world of ignorance and prejudice that we took for granted was objective reality.

The divisions in Peru were many. First, racial: there was the Peru of white people, the Peru of Indian people, the Peru of the blacks, and the small minorities of Peruvians, the Asians and the people of the Amazon region.


Given the painful uncertainty of his and his father's status, Vargas Llosa can be understood as a person eager to be symbolically blanco, and it is no doubt an essentializing of this that lost him the Peruvian presidency.

It is nevertheless true that in Aunt Julia the overriding sense of the superiority of the ecrivain that young Varguita will become is a double-edged sword. At the level of social materiality, it justifies his prioritizing of writing styles and of readerly competence: young Marito sees his piddling stories as literarily more valuable than Pedro Camacho's symbolically cholo soap operas, and above both hovers the actual achievement of the mature Mario Vargas Llosa who has written the text(s) we read. Similarly, Aunt Julia is an unliterary ignoramus who has read only Argentine magazines, trashy books, and two novels, The Sheik and Son of the Sheik by E. M. Hull: erotically suggestive stuff and no doubt an addition to the comic structure of the novel—but sexist in the extreme and used to arm the snobbish Mario against a continuation of the marriage. Pedro Camacho has read nothing, partly because he has no time and interest and also because he pretentiously feels it would contaminate his style: it is this ignorance that makes him a bad writer. Young Marito reads all the correct literature of the European past, and the assumption is that the mature Mario Vargas Llosa is in clever collusion with the sophisticated reader of Aunt Julia, who shares the scale of values presented.

I take little pleasure, however, in the social politics that would render Vargas Llosa's work less interesting than it is. In a recent study M. Keith Booker compellingly argues that a sophisticated metareading of Aunt Julia and of Italo Calvino's marvelous If on a winter's night a traveler creates an ironic situation in which both naive readers and sophisticated metareaders are finally equivalent in their quasicrotic desire to watch the misé-en-abyme complexities. Like Vargas Llosa himself, however, Booker is delighted with the idea that the pleasure of the metareader's experience of the novel is heightened by a gentle contempt for the more naive reader (Mon semblable! Mon frere!). The charms of ingenuity are intrinsic to the mise-en-abyme structure in which endless repetitions of irony upon irony, parody upon parody are called out, as in the novel's epigraph from Salvador Elizondo's The Graphographer. “I write. I write that I am writing. Mentally I see myself writing that I am writing …” etc. I do not, however, think that the novel's primary justification or interest lies on this side of the ecrivain's task.

The presentation of the binary fiction, divided between Pedro Camacho's stories and Vargas Llosa's tale of his youthful marriage, is doubly engrossing in that the author seems to me to have chosen the wrong title for the novel. In the Oviedo interview he still, shortly before publication, thought he would give it a picaresque title: Vida y milagros de Pedro Camacho (The Life and Miracles of Pedro Camacho). The fact that he changed his mind at the last minute and called it La tía Julia y el escribidor foregrounds Aunt Julia but nevertheless tries to balance the two parts of his structure. In doing so, he stresses the unequal tale of the young Marito's marriage to Aunt Julia, which in spite of its sentimental and fantastic elements can be seen as an antifeminist tract unconsciously feeding the male vanity of a callow, ambitious boy who wants very much to take his place within what Adorno called the culture industry.

Critics of Vargas Llosa said that he would get a good book out of the Peruvian presidential election, and so he did, as he did out of the early marriage which, despite its fourteen-year age difference, is not as grotesque or unreal as it is assumed to be within the sexist text. To say that Julia is the mother of his creativity, as Oviedo and others do, is a sleight of hand and not acceptable within social politics; to argue that Vargas Llosa is the victim of his own acquiescence to the social construction imposed by the mainstream culture on his liminally uneasy family is to make him look less intelligent than he obviously is.

The adventures of Pedro Camacho, however, are of riveting significance. Once again Vargas Llosa's narrator, like that of The Storyteller, is on the outside looking in and attempting to use a sort of argumentum ad blanco to ease himself as writer into a dominant position. I write now from a vantage point beyond the charms of the text, the metafictional games, the sophisticated mise-en-abyme and the rigorous self-discipline, analysis, and questioning of Vargas Llosa's extraordinary genius; and I do so in order to try to clarify what the internal workings of the novel reveal about the author's realist agenda. In Literature and Rationality: Ideas of Agency in Theory and Fiction the realist critic Paisley Livingston's central argument is summarized in his statement that “assumptions about agency and rationality are in fact essential to all literary phenomena” (5). Vargas Llosa's life of literary discipline has taught him to believe this, in spite of the great amount of experimentation, self-reflexivity, and metafiction that characterize his work. He states firmly and frequently that he has never written fantastic literature and that his is a neorealist agenda. Cerebrally it is, but in the praxis of fiction something else comes out, and that is his deep separation from the obsessions he describes, the commitments he observes, the mad fantastical tricks that others play. Thus, when he proposes to Aunt Julia, her answer and his response ruefully tell all:

“Are you asking me to marry you to show your family you're grown up now?” Aunt Julia asked me affectionately.

“There's that, too,” I granted.


Basic eroticism and impressing the family are hardly the stuff of a grand obsession, and indeed the marriage is so curtailed from the beginning by reiterations of its unsuitability and its short-term projection that it is not really in the category of Camacho's parallel fantasies. Aunt Julia says that the marriage of an older woman to a young boy is part of soap opera lore, but as a device, it lacks conviction.

Pedro Camacho's scripts, on the other hand, are so ebulliently told, so bizarre, so full of violence and morbidity, that they transcend their genre and explode on the page. The reader, naive and sophisticated alike, fastens attention onto them and is consistently disappointed by the tepidity and political, moral blindness of the Marito-Aunt Julia text, which functions, at its best, as mere commentary. Vargas Llosa thus achieves something beyond the high crafting that is immediately evident: he manages to widen the base of realism into the realm of the fantastic and to allow Camacho, an essentially naive writer, to become an exemplum of the sturdy (but now nonviable) roots of realism, rather than the merely parodic figure that metafiction would make of him. Why are his alternating tales so much more successful than Marito's story? Not because fantasy is superior to the neorealist experiments presented in the Marito-Aunt Julia line but because, I would venture to guess, Vargas Llosa is more restrained, more inhibited, more uneasy, more self-involved with his own narrator, whereas in the productions of Camacho, his imagination is freed and his creativity is full flow. Oviedo argues (in “La tía Julia”) that both lines offer a betrayal and critique of reality: I would go further and say that all realism does this in our time and that Nabokov was right (in his commentary on Lolita) when he said that “reality” should always be put in quotation marks.

But whereas Vargas Llosa's narrator is perforce cool, rational, ironic, and restrained, Camacho is not. His scripts bridge the popular and the structurally significant, and his use of language is far above the junk-speak of popular culture. He is also a man dedicated to his task of ecrivante, obsessed by his work, austere in his life, and endowed with an enormous capacity for work—all qualities instantly recognized and admired by Marito and the mature narrator of the novel. Dedicated to realism even as he plunges in roiling fantasy, Camacho passionately plays the characters he creates, pulling out of his suitcase “an incredible collection of objects: an English magistrate's court wig, false mustaches of various sizes, a fireman's hat, military badges, masks of a fat woman, an old man, an idiot child, a traffic policeman's stick, a sea dog's cap and pipe, a surgeon's white smock, false ears and noses, cotton beards” (134), which he quickly tries on, transforming himself into a rapid succession of characters, and arguing thus: “And why shouldn't I have the right to become one with characters of my own creation, to resemble them? … What is realism, ladies and gentlemen—that famous realism we hear so much about? What better way is there of creating realistic art than by materially identifying oneself with reality?” (134-35).

Vargas Llosa contends that he is materially present in the realism of his work but that it is much altered and thereby utterly changed; Pedro Camacho's passionate entry into the reality of his characters involves a masking and costuming of himself, a losing of himself in an unrestrained, joyful act of composition. Vargas Llosa's creation of Pedro Camacho is a triumph; his creation of himself is not. The only way he can justify his central literary achievement in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is by praising Camacho's commitment but ambiguously applauding and damning his achievement and status: Camacho's hilarious confusion of his story lines, his certifiable madness, and his subsequent sorry life as a reporter/office boy put him firmly into his place in the ultimate value structure of the novel.

But just as Vargas Llosa is divided against himself, so is this book, where the sense of the author looking from the outside at a verbal star shows how his rational agency is somehow limited by characters that he has met in his life and fictionalized with only a partial view of them. The poignancy of Vargas Llosa as a writer consists in the fact that his work reflects an awareness of his separation—from Mascarita, from Pedro Camacho, from Julia whom he poorly understands, from the Peruvian mainstream.

At the same time, it must be pointed out that his fiction shines brilliantly within the possibilities of genre. Mikhail Bakhtin, stressing the idea of unfinalizability as a mark of major literary works, distinguished between the ideas of context and code: “A context is potentially unfinalized; a code must be finalized. A code is only a technical means of transmitting information; it does not have cognitive, creative significance. A code is a deliberately established, killed context” (147).

Among the many anomalies that characterize Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is an essential and unresolved problem of genre. Every appearance of serious attention has been paid to elements of this enigma by both Vargas Llosa and his critics, without any firm sense of resolving the problematics of the novel. It is a fiction written under the aegis of realism, participating in postmodernism and metafiction, but it nervously defies definition. It escapes the killed context of code and enters freely and originally into the category of the unfinalized, with the cognitive, creative significance thereby implied. Its importance lies in this haunting unfinalizability, which reaches backward and forward through aesthetic, social, political, and personal categories, without ceasing. If Vargas Llosa were freed further in his creative consciousness, anything might be possible.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “From Notes Made in 1970-71.” Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1986. 132-58.

Booker, M. Keith. Vargas Llosa among the Postmodernists. Gainesville: Univ. of Florida Press, 1994.

Livingston, Paisley. Literature and Rationality: Ideas of Agency in Theory and Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991.

Oviedo, Jose Miguel. “A Conversation with Mario Vargas Llosa about La tía Julia y el escribidor.Mario Vargas Llosa: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Charles Rossman and Alan Warren Friedman. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1978. 153-65.

———. “La tía Julia y el escribidor, or the Coded Self-Portrait.” Rossman and Friedman. 166-81.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Trans. Helen R. Lane. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982.

———. A Fish in the Water. Trans. Helen Lane. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994.

———. The Storyteller. Trans. Helen Lane. London: Penguin, 1990.

———. A Writer's Reality. Ed. Myron I. Lichtblau. Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1991.

Luis Rebaza-Soraluz (essay date spring 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Rebaza-Soraluz, Luis. “Out of Failure Comes Success: Autobiography and Testimony in A Fish in the Water.Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 70-5.

[In the following essay, Rebaza-Soraluz criticizes A Fish in the Water for failing to discuss Vargas Llosa's personal experiences during the Boom period in Latin American literature, concluding that the memoir actually “functions as a novel.”]

Between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, Latin America produced an extraordinary number of novels. They were soon recognized, edited, published, and translated by and for European and North American intellectual and cultural markets. The event was called the Boom of the Latin American novel. In 1963 the Boom defined its character and gained definitive access to those markets when Mario Vargas Llosa's The Time of the Hero received a prestigious award granted by the publishing house Seix Barral of Barcelona. Some say the Boom ended in 1976, with the well-known violent encounter between Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garda Marquez in a Mexico City movie theater.

In spite of being part of these two key moments in the Boom's history, Vargas Llosa has published a memoir that barely touches on any events from those fundamental years in his writing career. Published thirty-one years after Vargas Llosa's international debut, A Fish in the Water extensively collects various events from pre- and post-Boom years, favoring recent events in which Vargas Llosa portrays himself as a political and moral leader, the best candidate for the Peruvian presidency, a man—possibly the only Peruvian—of spiritual and material success or, at least, one with an international image constructed as such.

Vargas Llosa's first novel (written at age twenty-three) can be seen as the Boom's first product to obtain European sponsorship and markets. The novel was also part of the massive production and consumption of a vocabulary that would later become the predominant instrument for the political interpretation of Latin America. Within the renewed discussion concerning the social responsibilities of literature during the 1960s, the writer's public acts redefined the Latin American tradition of literature and politics joined by the power of words. For his readers, Vargas Llosa's life became a part of any argument regarding ideologies. As a professional intellectual with a political position, he has exemplified the antagonisms of his time: he has been on both sides of the Cold War, first supporting the Cuban revolution and later distancing himself from any leftist thought.

Vargas Llosa has successfully produced modern fictional images of Latin America. His fame has given his words a powerful platform from which he can be an important essayist producing political imagery. But his fiction and his analytical thought, despite the use of different strategies to persuade and captivate his public, are part of a single verbal world. His memoir combines strategies from both genres like a coin joining two sides, back to back, in apparent opposition, an encounter between fiction and methodical analysis.

A Fish in the Water, a five-hundred-page volume, is organized in twenty chapters symmetrically intercalating two different temporal sequences in parallel progression: an itinerary of his short political career in Peru (from 1987 to 1990) and an autobiography of his years as an apprentice writer. The book, subtitled “A Memoir,” opens with a fragment of Max Weber's work, chosen, I think, because it embodies Vargas Llosa's major concerns: a good/evil dichotomy combining religious and political rhetoric. Weber writes: “anyone who becomes involved in politics, that is to say, anyone who agrees to use power and violence as means, has sealed a pact with the devil. … Anyone that does not see this is a child, politically speaking.” After this epigraph, the two narrative threads weave together to form the biography of one protagonist split into two spheres of existence.

The sequence of memories from childhood to youth and the detailed sequence of recent events in the mature writer's life develop their own cause-and-effect relationships. They establish analogies that in the end create a new product by means of their similarities. This final product is the fusing and confusing of both protagonists as the adult writer begins to relive his apprenticeship in an unknown field. Thus his political career turns into a brief new period of childhood and youth where, as a “political novice,” he discovers that real politics consist “almost exclusively of maneuvers, intrigues, plots, paranoias, betrayals, a great deal of calculation, no little cynicism, and every variety of con game” (87).

From distant memories, Vargas Llosa chooses episodes of a happy infancy, without a father, in Bolivia; of an unbearable childhood, in “Lima the Horrible” (a name coined during the thirties by the Peruvian poet Cesar Moro) in the heart of paternal tyranny and a dysfunctional family; of a difficult adolescence in a military school resembling Peruvian male society on a smaller scale; of an early adulthood given over to journalistic writing, bohemian promiscuity, and liberation from paternal torment; of separation from the father and from Lima and the subsequent return to the 11 right path” under the protection of the maternal family and the coastal province; of a young intellectual's explorations as a university student caught between communism and existentialism; of an impulsive adult, adventurous in marriage and literature; of marital ties with the maternal family and their material and emotional support; and of a trip to Paris, ending the narration with the young writer on the threshold of the door to success.

The sequence of recent events deals with topics related to the presidential campaign rather than episodes geared toward narrative climax. The selection of details about Peruvian politicians and the upper class resembles the type of notes taken by foreign travelers more than a century ago concerning “customs and manners.” From time to time there are reflections, analyses, judgments, attacks, and defenses. Through autobiography, the narrator and main character form a sole voice, a subjectivity dominating every aspect included in their discourse.1

Nevertheless, the nature of those events seems to belong to the public domain: facts that can be traced and confirmed by the objectivity of research. They occur between 1987 and 1990, these boundaries formed by political landmarks: the Alan Garda administration's attempt to nationalize the banking system, and the last presidential election. The chapters are organized to outline the writer's itinerary in this flow of historical events. His participation consists mainly of speeches at mass demonstrations, the founding of political organizations (such as the Democratic Front and the Movimiento Libertad), and duties required by his presidential campaign in Peruvian territory and overseas. These scenes are surrounded by brief anecdotes and a long annotated list of auspicious and ominous names, woven into the quick ascension and abrupt finale of Mario Vargas Llosa as a public figure in the Peruvian political arena. The level of detailed information reveals documentary and even judicial intentions, giving a sense of settling accounts for an improbable future trial.2 Because of the amount of information on display that can be corroborated and because of the journalistic, even sociological tone of the language, the political sequence differs greatly from the undocumented facts and intimate tone of the childhood-youth memories. Throughout the former, Vargas Llosa's voice becomes testimonial, the “mouth” of an eyewitness attempting to represent a subordinate group, victim of a political system and an aberrant society, struggling for justice. Two omniscient narrators methodically overlap: one interferes and condemns, the other uses scientific precision to conceal his proximity to the fictionalization of reality. One could say that Vargas Llosa is at his most fictional when he appears most truthful.

Through these and other narrative strategies, the relationships of cause and effect in the recent memory sequence (a plot that claims to be an objective testimony) become the standard by which the sequence of distant events (the most subjective) is arranged and evaluated. Thus one discovers that the writer's formative period was also a political career toward the presidency. At the same time, the episodes of infancy and adolescence extend their emotive forces toward the recent events, fusing the conclusions of both sequences (artistic success and electoral failure) into one structure. When the reader finishes the book, both endings rise up as a single triumphant and heroic story.

In the realms of the nuclear family and nationality the protagonist confronts an identity conflict: whether Or not to belong to an order established in terms of patriarchal rules, and how one might overcome these rules. The protagonist belongs to a family and a nation without having chosen them and without being able to reject them. Liberation from father/fatherland is a struggle toward impossible success. To be free from the paternal order is a deception: “That interview … marked my definitive emancipation from my father. Although his shadow will doubtless accompany me to my grave, and although at times, even today, all at once the memory of some scene, of some image of the years he had complete authority over me gives me a sudden hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach” (334). Something similar occurs to the links with the fatherland's order: “Although I was born in Peru … my vocation is that of a cosmopolitan and an expatriate who has always detested nationalism. … [Nevertheless] what happens in Peru affects me more—makes me happier or irritates me more—than what happens elsewhere. … I feel that between me and the Peruvians of any race, language, and social status, for better or for worse—especially for worse—there is something that ties me to them in a seemingly invincible way” (42).

The conflict with the paternal order is deferred and then left behind without resolution: “and even though I always tried to be polite to him, I never showed him more affection than I felt—that is to say, none whatsoever. The terrible rancor, my burning hatred of him in my childhood, gradually disappeared in the course of those years” (335). The narrative offers an alternative in order to reduce tension, allowing the story to continue: a trip to seek sanctuary in the maternal family, in the coastal province or in a foreign land. But family and state overlap: “Perhaps saying that I love my country is not true. I often loathe it, and hundreds of times since I was young I have promised myself to live a long way from Peru forever and not to write anything more about it and forget its aberrations. But the fact is that it is continually on my mind, and whether I am living in it or residing abroad as an expatriate, to me it is a constant torment” (43).

In this scenario of paternal patria potestas one can see the concealed coherence of his political discourse, where modern national and electoral problems are explained as being a result of “racism, ethnic prejudice, social resentment” (498). Those are the same factors that cause the collapse of his family—a social nucleus: “But the real reason for the failure of their marriage was not my father's jealousy or his bad disposition, but the national disease that gets called by other names, the one that infests every stratum and every family in the country and leaves them all with a bad aftertaste of hatred, poisoning the lives of Peruvians in the form of resentment and social complexes” (5).

In the story of Vargas Llosa's life his father's marriage fails. In the story of Vargas Llosa's political career the country fails, confined to a cyclic and invariable plot: “We always used to talk politics whenever we were together, and each time, somewhat cast over with sickly melancholy, we wondered why everything in Peru always tended to get worse” (37-38). A strong reason for this failure is what he calls a Third World (tercermundista) disposition: “One of the most damaging myths of our time is that poor countries live in poverty because of a conspiracy of the rich countries, who arrange things so as to keep them underdeveloped, in order to exploit them. There is no better philosophy than that for keeping them in a state of backwardness for all time to come” (44). Vargas Llosa insinuates that this tercermundismo is pre-Columbian and essential to the “ancient realm” that is Peru because it fuses with the “social resentment” which (he feels) “existed in Peru since before the arrival of Europeans” (498).

On the other hand, a detailed and extensive discourse offers political and economic solutions for the country:

The recurrent theme of my three speeches had been that the way out of poverty does not lie in distributing the little wealth that exists but in creating more. And in order to do that markets must be opened up, competition and individual initiative encouraged, private property not be fought against but extended to the greatest number, our economy and our psychology taken out of the grip of the state, and the handout mentality that expects everything from the state replaced by a modern outlook that entrusts the responsibility for economic life to civil society and the market.


Here it seems inconsistent to argue resentment in a technical analysis of the origins of national problems. The novelistic strategies of the fiction writer and the technical reasoning of the former presidential candidate's discourse interlace successfully because of a strong structure of analogies—a solid base for an artistic construction that persuades through polysemy and ambiguity.

Mixing “urgent letter” and “memorandum” styles, the book closes with an epilogue in which the perspective of the author-narrator (with respect to his private and public life) and the events of historic reality converge, Vargas Llosa imposes the successful conclusion of the young writer story onto the story of his political career. He only appears to have failed and thus his misfortune gains novelistic intrigue. The book's plot has no proper conclusion; the epilogue closes the book by endowing “real” events—those not organized by the memoir—with a sequence that coincides with the writer's story. While Peru fails, Vargas Llosa's truth succeeds: “Early in the morning on April 6, 1992, I was awakened by a telephone call from Lima. Alberto Fujimori had just announced on television, to everyone's surprise, his decision to close Congress. … In this way, the democratic system reestablished in Peru in 1980, after twelve years of military dictatorship, had its very foundations destroyed yet again, by someone whom, two years before, the Peruvian people bad elected president” (525).

In A Fish in the Water, with the honesty of a fiction writer, Vargas Llosa brings together major problems being discussed in contemporary literature. Alongside the truth, if it exists, his realism, verisimilitude, autobiography, testimony, and sociology become as ambiguous as our perception of reality. This book creates a solid possible world, which is why, in my opinion, it functions as a novel. The book is the novel of his life, and therein lies its success. The problem presented by a book such as A Fish in the Water, which claims to be sociological truth, is its ambiguity with regard to the validity of a subjective interpretation of the Peruvian political situation, given its apparent neutrality. This problem of blurred borders has led to the mishandling and manipulation of Vargas Llosa's work and public life.


  1. These strategies bring to mind Vargas Llosa's description of those Victor Hugo creates in Les Miserables, a gigantic presence interfering in the flow of events, judging, anathematizing: “he who judges and sentences does not listen, he listens to himself; he does not dialogue, he speaks only to himself” (“Los Miserables: el ultimo clasico” 34; my translation).

  2. This recalls Vargas Llosa's study of Flaubert's techniques: “one of the most effective tactics for concealing the existence of the omniscient narrator is to make of him an impartial and meticulous gaze, eyes that observe the fictitious reality from a distance that never varies and a mouth that relates what those eyes see with scientific precision and total neutrality … [T]he verisimilitude of what is recounted depends on this invisibility” (The Perpetual Orgy 227-28).

Works Cited

Vargas Llosa, Mario. A Fish in the Water. Trans. Helen Lane. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994.

———. “Los Miserables: el ultimo clasico.” Cielo abierto 23 (Jan.-Mar. 1983): 32-40.

———. The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and “Madame Bovary.” Trans. Helen Lane. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1986.

Richard Eder (review date 20 May 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “An Erotic Trip That Traverses Too-Familiar Territory.” Los Angeles Times (20 May 1998): E6.

[In the following review, Eder asserts that The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto offers “stylish turns of phrase but little other excitement,” claiming that the novel is merely “Rigoberto, or perhaps Vargas Llosa, taking his thoughts for a walk.”]

Mario Vargas Llosa seemed to depart from his fictions of Latin American darkness when he wrote In Praise of the Stepmother a few years ago. It is the elegant and highly erotic tale of Don Rigoberto: timid and proper in public and lush keeper of a pleasure garden in the harem-like privacy of his Lima home.

Certainly Don Rigoberto's comic sexual rituals with his second wife, Lucrecia, and her artful seduction by Fonchito, Rigoberto's 12-year-old son—as the bough is bent, so bends the twig—are delicate irony and insidiously pleasurable. Yet the “seemed” is appropriate.

Stepmother was not an entire departure. It is a parody of a theme developed in Vargas Llosa's weightier novels: the Latin American male as conqueror and solipsist, and the indistinguishable line between solipsism and conquest.

In public, Don Rigoberto is a compliant insurance executive. Yet why should insurance, that epitome of calculated caution, exclude art? Look at Kafka and Wallace Stevens, he demands. And once at home, he is the kingly artificer of a kinky domestic establishment—or tries to be. He is too nice to quite succeed: the Marquis de Sade with a heart of meltable butter and awkwardly large ears.

At the end of Stepmother, he had brokenheartedly expelled Lucrecia to an apartment, leaving Fonchito, a golden cherub in whose mouth no butter would ever melt, in place. The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto picks up a year later.

Lucrecia is sorrowful and pining. Rigoberto is in worse shape: prey to lacerating sexual hallucinations, and writing pompous denunciations of all manner of contemporary practices. And one day Fonchito appears at Lucrecia's apartment, golden and plaintive as ever. It was his tears as much as his beauty that had seduced her, and now he employs them—along with a forged correspondence he sets up between father and stepmother—to seduce her into coming home.

Notebooks shares some of Stepmother's qualities: elegant writing, lovely conceits and a fusing of humor with erotic arousal. It is, nevertheless, a twice-told tale and suffers from it. The characters remain the same: Don Rigoberto, erotic philosopher, as architect of his own disaster; Lucrecia, his devoted pupil and beguilingly helpless before Fonchito; and Fonchito as a cherub-satyr souffle.

Accordingly, perhaps, Vargas Llosa forces his material. The witty erotic balance with which Rigoberto recounted life with Lucrecia is lost in his hallucinations after she has left. One of these is delightful: He imagines a suitor spiriting her away on a luxurious European tour, with Lucrecia meting out one additional favor each night. The suitor, nicknamed Pluto, is as hapless as Rigoberto. To sustain intercourse, he must sing pop songs at the top of his voice.

Other fantasies are strained: Rigoberto's brother and Lucrecia have sex while he and the brother's wife look on—she aroused and he miserable. There is a coprophilic affair between Lucrecia and a man in a wheelchair, and another in which she and her maid make love.

There are bright spots. Rigoberto describes how he limits his library to exactly 4,000 books. As he acquires new ones, he burns others. “I was engaging in literary criticism as it should be practiced: radically, irreverently, flammably,” he remarks.

In a series of unposted letters, he descants upon many things, including religion and Playboy magazine. He is against the latter because it “municipalizes” eroticism, which, properly practiced, requires “risk and modesty.” Declining to join the Rotary Club, he inquires why there are no women. Surely, he writes, the members cannot all be gay, “which would be the only vaguely acceptable justification for the trouserism.”

Unfortunately, the letters go on, with stylish turns of phrase but little other excitement. It is Rigoberto, or perhaps Vargas Llosa, taking his thoughts for a walk. There is more spirit when Fonchito lays siege to an eventually wavering Lucrecia to repair the marriage. The boy charms while Lucrecia displays a winning ability to feel two opposite emotions at once. A resilient realism underpins her susceptibility.

Notebooks is burdened with an excess of padding. Fonchito's belief that he is really the Viennese painter Egon Schiele helps Vargas Llosa talk about Schiele, but it does little for Fonchito. If his seduction of Lucrecia is less lively than in Stepmother, it is because he uses his wiles not to do but to undo.

Instead of unfolding a comic disaster, the movement in Notebooks consists of folding it and putting it away again, a process unable to sustain its own artifice. It is not the same to pack for an exotic trip as to repack for the return.

Carole Angier (review date 25 July 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Angier, Carole. “The Purest Pornography There Is.” Spectator 281, no. 8868 (25 July 1998): 32.

[In the following review, Angier asserts that, despite Vargas Llosa's skillful prose, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto is merely a work of literary “pornography.”]

When is pornography not pornography? When it is well written, Mario Vargas Llosa said in a recent interview. That is tempting the gods, or at least the reviewers. Is The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto well written? Is that enough to stop it from being pornography? And does it matter if it is? The answers are yes, no and yes.

Vargas Llosa's arrogance is justified (but arrogance generally is; if not it's something else, delusion or pretension). He writes well, and has done so ever since Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter 20 years ago. In fact, he has never written better than that. Only one thing has ever happened to him: falling in love with his much older aunt when he was a boy, and marrying her against the wishes of his family. Of course, much else has happened to him since—the marriage ending, for example, and running for President of Peru. But for many writers there is one main thing that moves them to write. And that is the other half of Aunt Julia: the young narrator's longing to write, like the mad, tragicomic Scriptwriter.

Peru is Vargas Llosa's other great subject, as in The War of the End of the World. But he is regularly drawn back to the twin peaks of Aunt Julia: semi-incestuous sex, and art. In Praise of the Stepmother, a decade ago, he made the aunt into a stepmother; in The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto she remains a stepmother, and the boy is only 10.

Apart from a paragraph or two about Fonchito's tiny tongue in Dona Lucrecia's ear, the physical sex between these two is in the past (and perhaps the future), and never described. Thankfully, therefore, we do not have to consider whether this book is paedophilia as well as pornography. But we come to that now. I grant that The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto is well written. Fonchito is a powerful, if not entirely believable, creation; the book's structure is cunningly varied, and its suspense (who wrote the anonymous letters?) teases, even though we can easily guess the answer. Yet all this is not enough to stop it from being pornography. The reason is this. The book consists only and entirely of Don Rigoberto's erotic fantasies about his wife Lucrecia, whom he has had to leave after the sexual incident with his son. These too are well written; though there is a limit to what you can describe in sex, as to what you can do in it, without slipping into perversion, and this The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto does not avoid: voyeurism, transvestism, S & M, licking by kittens, to mention only a few. All these are imposed on the helpless, because imagined, Lucrecia, who is pictured in a constant state of quivering receptivity. Now, I am disgracefully unfeminist, but even I was outraged. This is pure manipulation of the woman as object, despite all Don Rigoberto's invocations of love.

He—or rather Vargas Llosa—tries to dignify it further by reference to the books and paintings which Don Rigoberto collects and which inspire his fantasies, and by a theory, repeated ad nauseam, that what most enriches and expresses our individuality, and distinguishes us from ‘the herd’, are our manias, phobias and sexual fetishes. The first is mere showing off; the second is arrogance again, and plain wrong. People are trapped and reduced by their manias, not freed by them: the book itself ultimately shows this to be true of Don Rigoberto, and the only thing that can be said in its defence is that that may be its final self-cancelling implication.

This is a cold, clever, narcissistic book. It is pure pornography, because it is about nothing else but sexual fantasy. Lady Chatterley's Lover, for example, was about so much more—politics, class, love; and it came when we needed more sex in literature. If you're a man you might enjoy The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. If you're a woman, and/or if you'd like to read a really good and entertaining novel about a wicked child, buy Nancy Mitford's The Blessing instead.

David William Foster (review date fall 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Foster, David William. Review of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 3 (fall 1998): 233.

[In the following review, Foster offers a positive assessment of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, calling the novel “a masterful exploration of the abyss of erotic endeavors.”]

Erotic fiction in Latin America remains confined to the margins of cultural production. While the reader may find strategically placed erotic encounters in “mainline” fiction, the idea of focusing a work on the erotic is still not widely appreciated. [The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto] is a notable exception: a masterful exploration of the abyss of erotic endeavors. Such explorations constitute an abyss in that, by challenging the conventional morality that narrowly circumscribes them—and the genius of conventional morality is that a modicum of sexual life is constantly transgressing it—one must live with the constant panic of the loss of a legitimate relationship to constituted society. The fact that Don Rigoberto is more of an intellectual eroticist than a Sadeian activist provides the novel with a metafictional dimension which can be viewed as either taming erotic desire by inscribing it with complex narrative structures or as leading to a contemplation of how erotica must necessarily be an intellectual undertaking, since the brain is the one human organ most capable of unlimited sexual fulfillment.

Kristal points out in his fine study that Vargas Llosa's recent writing, including Notebooks, is concerned with “the importance of imagination and fantasy in curbing those irrational elements that can endanger social coexistence,” that it, I assume, is better to create cultural texts of enormous erotic depth rather than to seek to pursue an erotic program with other bodies, certainly a reendorsement in favor of the latter of eros versus civilization. However, the value of Kristal's comment is, as he goes on to demonstrate in this finely nuanced examination of Vargas Llosa's literary output, that the project of containment in Notebooks fails and the irrationality that underpins the pursuit of eroticism cannot ultimately be contained by literature or any other form of sublimation. This may end up effectively challenging the popular image of Vargas Llosa as the 1960s committed-writer-gone-reactionary. But that depends on whether one wants to see this investment in the “inevitability of irrational propensities” as stridently challenging bourgeois decency and order and the authoritarianism they require or as doing little more than entertaining pessimistic, and therefore potentially quite dangerous, male fantasies.

Deborah Cohn (essay date January-June 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Cohn, Deborah. “‘Regreso a la barbarie’: Intertextual Paradigms for Peru's Descent into Chaos in Lituma en los Andes.Latin American Literary Review 28, no. 55 (January-June 2000): 27-45.

[In the following essay, Cohn observes that “intertextuality pervades” Lituma en los Andes, asserting that an effective reading of the novel considers its political and social backdrop “as well as Vargas Llosa's interpretation of its significance from an evolutionary standpoint.”]

In Jorge Luis Borges' “La muerte y la brújula,” a story of murder, sleuthing, and revenge in Buenos Aires, a single character controls the course of the investigation from behind the scenes, planting evidence—and plotting new crimes—that ultimately deliver the detective, his arch-enemy Erik Lonnrot, directly into his hands. Red Scharlach the Dandy, also known as Ginzberg, Ginsburg and Gryphius, is deliberately depicted as Godlike in his omniscience and apparent omnipotence. While Mario Vargas Llosa's 1993 murder mystery, Lituma en los Andes, takes place far removed—both spatially and culturally—from the city streets of Buenos Aires, one of its characters nevertheless invites comparison to Red Scharlach.

In what may be construed as a nod to Borges' story, a Danish anthropologist known as Stirmson, Stirmsson, and Stirmesson, but also as Escarlatina, plays a small but absolutely pivotal role: armed with a seemingly unbounded knowledge of the Andean indigenous populations, he provides Vargas Llosa's protagonist with information on local beliefs which allows him to identify the culprits of the murders that he has been investigating. Establishing the exact nature of the relationship between these two works is not the goal of this essay. Rather, after a brief summary of the novel and an overview of the political context within which it was written, I hope to demonstrate how “La muerte y la brújula” and the novel's numerous other intertextual references revolve predominantly around a single theme with a longstanding tradition in Spanish American literature and cultural studies: the struggle within society between forces of civilization and savagery. Far from being a mere exercise in literary virtuosity, however, the novel deliberately deploys a wealth of references in order to underscore Vargas Llosa's sense of the urgency and implications of the political crisis and social breakdown in Peru during the 1980s and early 1990s.

In Lituma en los Andes, Lituma, a character who has appeared in several other Vargas Llosa works, is stationed in the fictional mining town of Naccos in an extremely isolated part of the Peruvian sierra during the height of Sendero Luminoso's terrorist activity. He and his subordinate, Tomás Carreño, are there ostensibly to keep tabs on the construction of a road through the mountains. Although their presence is intended to serve as a reminder of official Peruvian authority, frequent Sendero attacks in the vicinity provoke a sense of fear in the pair that leaves little doubt as to who is truly in control of the region. The narration of five separate and brutal Sendero attacks in the early part of the novel serves to heighten the tension and lend credence to the men's fear of being killed in Naccos. The novel revolves around two main story lines which are interwoven in the manner of Vargas Llosa's trademark vasos comunicantes. On the one hand, Carreño tells Lituma of his love affair with a woman whom he “rescues” from her druglord escort, but who ultimately runs away from him. On the other hand, Lituma is investigating the disappearances of three men from the town. The scant information that he is able to glean through interviews is supplemented by information gathered from Stirmson and Adriana who, with her husband, Dionisio, runs the town's only bar and seems to be implicated in the disappearances. From these data, Lituma is eventually able to imaginatively reconstruct what happened to the men in a manner that satisfies his curiosity, even though he lacks the empirical evidence necessary to prove it to the authorities.

Vargas Llosa finished writing Lituma en los Andes before Abimael Guzmán, Sendero's leader, was captured, and the waves of terrorism and violence that had plagued Peru since the early 1980s began to subside. The novel was also written in the wake of the autogolpe carried out by President Alberto Fujimori in April of 1992 with widespread public support, in an attempt to restore order to and eradicate corruption from the country's government. With the autogolpe, Fujimori dissolved Congress, regional governments and the constitution, assumed control over the judiciary, and gave the armed forces free rein to pursue terrorists. In a series of articles that appeared in periodicals in Europe during this period, Vargas Llosa excoriated the actions of Sendero and the President alike, claiming that the violence wrought by both sides, in conjunction with the fear and social chaos that they had engendered, had set the nation on a course towards destruction. While the titles of many of these articles—for example, “Regreso a la barbarie” and “El Perú en llamas”1—clearly convey Vargas Llosa's concern with Peru's social and political disintegration, it is in the essay “Violencia y ficción,” written in August of 1992, that he explicitly characterizes the deterioration as a “devolution” or descent to a level of savagery from whence the human race had, supposedly, long since evolved. The vocabulary in the article, as shall be seen in a moment, suggests that Vargas Llosa's argument is at least partly rooted in nineteenth-century anthropological paradigms for social evolution such as that of Lewis Morgan, who posited that societies evolve from a state of savagery through one of barbarism to arrive, finally, at the telos of civilization.2 Similar paradigms, of course, inform yet another of the novel's intertexts: Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo: Civilización y barbarie—vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga (1845), which sparked the longstanding debate over the role and strength of these two forces in Spanish America. Progress is the driving force behind these Western-oriented models, whose index of development is the complexity of a group's tools and technology, and which presuppose the establishment of institutions and rules to restrain violent behavior, as well as the privileging of reason and rationality over instinct in order to protect the social order.3 The return of—or to—the predominance of such uncontrolled and uncontrollable forces may be either symptom or cause of the breakdown of community. In either case, as we shall see, the simultaneous and concomitant nature of both processes is foregrounded in Lituma en los Andes.

Vargas Llosa's scathing criticism of Sendero and Fujimori in “Violencia y ficción” is worth quoting at length, for it clearly illustrates his strategy. Today, he writes,

hay peruanos convencidos de que, volando en pedazos edificios y viviendas y pulverizando a familias … se repara injusticias y se mejora la condición de los pobres. Eso ya no tiene nada que ver con la política. Es el triunfo de lo irracional, el retorno a ese estadio primario de salvajismo del que el hombre partió, hace millones de años, a conquistar la razón, el sentido común, los valores primordiales de la supervivencia y la convivencia, en una palabra, a humanizarse.

Pero acaso lo más terrible de todo lo que ocurre en el Perú es que la helada crueldad con que Sendero Luminoso perpetra sus crímenes parece estar dando exactamente los frutos previstos: la gradual barbarización del conjunto de la sociedad. No de otra manera se explica que, si las encuestas no mienten, una inmensa mayoría de peruanos haya celebrado como una bendición del cielo que el ingeniero Fujimori, en complicidad con una cúpula de generales, pusiera fin al sistema democrático, clausurara el Congreso e instalara un régimen basado, como todas las dictaduras, no en la ley sino en la fuerza bruta.

(Desafíos a la libertad 144)

With the autogolpe, he states that Fujimori has replaced a legitimate government with “una forma de barbarie semejante a la de quienes [la] combaten con asesinatos y atentados,” and that Peru has “triz[ado] esa delgada película que separa la civilización de la ley de la jungla, aceptando que lo que era el enfrentamiento de la legalidad contra el terror … se convirtiera en la lucha entre … dos encarnaciones del salvajismo” (146). Democracy, then, which Vargas Llosa views as one of the hallmarks of civilization, has been one of the worst casualties in the battle with forces representing humanity's atavistic impulses. The implications of this are of the utmost importance in a subcontinent witnessing the growth of fragile, new democracies, for Vargas Llosa fears that Fujimori's caudillista regime “inaugurar[a] otra larga noche de brutalidad y salvajismo políticos para toda América Latina,” that it might become “un mal ejemplo que de cundir retrocedería a los países latinoamericanos a una época de barbarie que ya parecía superada” (116).

It is against this political and social backdrop, as well as Vargas Llosa's interpretation of its significance from an evolutionary standpoint, that Lituma en los Andes must be read and its use of intertextuality explored.4 Intertextuality pervades the novel and operates at numerous levels. For example, the frontispiece, Picasso's The Minotaur, and the epigraph—“Cain's City built with Human Blood, / not Blood of Bulls and Goats,” from William Blake's The Ghost of Abel—function as frames which anticipate the novel's classical Greek and biblical intertexts as well as its central themes and motifs: labyrinths, bacchanalia, human sacrifice and fratricide (in this case, figurative). All of these are, additionally, construed as indices of Peru's social disorder. Also, Cervantes' immortal twosome serves as a structural prototype for the two voices which dominate the novel, although, as is the case in “La muerte y la brújula” as well, the pair is additionally filtered through the detective story mold of Sherlock Holmes and his companion, John Watson. And, finally, interpolated stories such as reworkings of the myths of Dionysus and Ariadne explore the roots of the instinct-driven behavior and irrationality whose release threatens society's stability and, ultimately, existence. The varied sources of these intertexts suggest both the constancy throughout history and the cross-cultural ubiquitousness of the beliefs and practices that the novel depicts (Penuel 453). However, further analysis of these references, as well as the novel's Christian symbolism and use of other motifs from the Western literary tradition, will show that they complement and expand the implications of Vargas Llosa's tale of Peru's decline, as well as emphasizing the autochthonous sources thereof.

Direct and oblique references to the Quijote abound throughout the novel. As Arnold Penuel has observed, Vargas Llosa makes the connection explicit by having his narrator “mistakenly” refer to Tomás Carreño on two occasions as Tomás Carrasco, invoking the character of Sansón Carrasco from part II of the Quijote as well as echoing Cervantes' fluctuating denomination of Sancho's wife (455; Lituma 13, 249). As both Penuel (455) and Mary Berg (26-27) have noted, it is Carreño who more closely resembles the hidalgo: he is the knight in not-so-shining armor who is intent upon rescuing his damsel-in-distress from the sordid world that she inhabits, whereas, as in his previous appearances in Vargas Llosa's works, the corporal tends to be more concerned with his creature comforts (or the lack thereof), physical pleasures (or the lack thereof), and his general physical well-being. But Vargas Llosa's pairing is also reminiscent of Borges' reworking of Cervantes' duo as Detective Lonnrot, who prides himself on being a “puro razonador” and whose belief that logic will lead him to the truth leads him instead to his death, and Commissioner Franz Treviranus who, with consummate practicality, immediately figures out the solutions to the murders that are under investigation, only to have them dismissed as insufficiently interesting (148). Thus I would like to return to “La muerte y la brújula,” for I believe that, in many respects, it functions as a blueprint for the novel's setting and central concerns, as well as its characters.

In “La muerte y la brújula” and in Lituma en los Andes, the fumbling lead investigators, Lonnrot and Lituma, meet with authoritative figures—Scharlach and Escarlatina, respectively—who provide them with the clues that allow them to identify the murderers even as they lead them not into the light of clarity and reason, but further towards knowledge of the evils of which humans are capable. Red Scharlach the Dandy, with his dual trinity of names, uses the sacred name of God—in search of which the Hasidim had been known to commit human sacrifices (161)—to trap Lonnrot. He is seemingly aware of the detective and his partner's thoughts and activities during their search, controls their actions, and, in the end, holds the power of life and death in his hands. The presence of Stirmson-Stirmsson-Stirmesson in Vargas Llosa's novel is much more limited, but his role is nevertheless critical: he brings to Lituma's attention the pre-Conquest indigenous practice of offering human sacrifices to placate the apus or spirits of the mountains for the destruction of land entailed by the construction of roads. This information leads Lituma to the conclusion that Naccos' victims had died in an atavistic resurgence of this practice triggered by the construction of the highway. As crucial as the information provided by Escarlatina is, Lituma's apotheosis of the Dane—he comments that Stirmson “era como Dios, sabía todo y conocía a todos,” and almost believes at one point that a halo is about to form about the latter's head (174, 180)—seems fairly excessive; it is only when I look at Escarlatina through the lens of the infinitely powerful Scharlach that I find it more understandable.5

The settings of Borges' and Vargas Llosa's works are both literally and figuratively labyrinthine. Both are pervaded by images of and references to the labyrinth which, in addition to suggesting the difficulty of escape, is often used in modern fiction as a metaphor for the contingency of knowledge and order, and the difficulty of comprehension even when the truth is right before one's eyes. In the two works, labyrinths comprise the site of the murders as well as their solutions, even though the issues that they raise remain far from resolved. The final confrontation between Scharlach and Lonnrot takes place in a maze-like mansion in the outskirts of Buenos Aires where outlaws thrive, that is, in a hinterland where the “law of the jungle” prevails, beyond the reach of the rules of civilization. Here, roles and binaries are reversed, as is emblematized by the statue of the two-faced Janus that is one of the last images that Lonnrot sees: the hunter has become the hunted, and Scharlach takes his pursuer as his prey. In Lituma en los Andes, the mountains themselves are Lituma's labyrinth. They are a geographic hinterland in which Lituma additionally finds the people, their language and even the very forces of nature incomprehensible. Their unintelligibility renders both his investigation and his daily life fraught with difficulties, as well as the fear that he will not be able to escape the trap that the sierra and Senderistas alike represent to him. The symbolism becomes even more charged when we see him longing nostalgically for his hometown of Piura, cast as a “paraíso perdido” (177), and convinced that the sierra is “infernal” (71).

In the end, like the settings, the “solutions” to the murders serve to undermine the role of reason as the key to unlocking the mysteries of human experience and preserving (the) social order: Lonnrot's “logical” interpretation—or, rather, misinterpretation—of facts leads him to his death, while Lituma solves the mystery but, try as he might, can find no rational explanation for the killings, only truths about the human capacity for evil that he wishes had remained hidden. That is, the latter's powers of reason unveil reason's own absence as a force guiding human behavior. Thus both works turn the detective story—essentially a genre whose goal is to make sense of events, and whose successful outcome is predicated on the assumption that events are governed by a logical chain of causality for which a rational explanation may be reconstructed—on its head. And as the murder mystery in Vargas Llosa's novel is itself, as Mary Berg has pointed out, an investigation into the state of the nation, his attack on the genre may be read as a synecdoche of his depiction of a nation where reason and the other tools of civilization have ceased to hold sway (27).

The breakdown of order and the attendant ascent of primal forces are also dramatized in Lituma en los Andes through the use of the myths of Ariadne and Dionysus, both of which converge in the frontispiece, Picasso's The Minotaur, which shows the monster engaged in bacchanalian revelries. According to Greek mythology, Ariadne (in Spanish, “Ariadna,” an anagram of Adriana) was the daughter of King Minos of Crete and the lover of Theseus, whom she helped to escape from the labyrinth after he killed the minotaur to whom several Athenian youths were sacrificed each year. Subsequently, the couple moved to the island of Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne, and where the latter later met and married Dionysus. Vargas Llosa fuses the story of Theseus' rescue with indigenous folklore: the minotaur here is a pishtaco, a malevolent figure in Andean legend who, as shall be discussed further presently, is often depicted as a foreigner, and who, in this case exacts a yearly tribute in the form of several of Adriana's hometown's virgins; Timoteo Fajardo slays the pishtaco and escapes from the labyrinthine mountain caves in which it was living, thanks to Adriana's ingenuity; the couple then moves to Naccos, where Adriana eventually meets (and marries) Dionisio while Timoteo disappears.

Adriana's tale renders explicit the novel's motifs of human sacrifice, the labyrinth, and the man-beast dominated by the instincts of its baser half and symbolic of the dark forces at work in society. Nevertheless, it is Vargas Llosa's reworking of the Dionysus myth that is much more pertinent to the novel's endeavors as a whole. Despite the prominence afforded to Adriana's tale by having her narrate it herself, in the final analysis, it is the Dionysiac symbolism that brings to the foreground Peru's struggle between the forces of civilization and those of savagery that are constantly attempting to undermine them. Vargas Llosa's Dionisio draws on several variants of the myth of Dionysus, as well as Euripides' play, The Bacchae. According to these sources, Dionysus is the son of Zeus and a mortal woman from Thebes who was killed when struck by a lightning bolt from the divinity. He is eventually granted divine status, and becomes the god of nature, its chaos and fertility; of irrational states such as drunkenness, ecstasy and madness; sexual energy; liquids, including wine and the reproductive fluids; the theater; and festival or Carnaval in the Bakhtinian sense of a celebration in which the normal social order is suspended or inverted. That is, Dionysus incarnates the forces and sources of instinct, irrationality and chaos. He is both catalyst and emblem of a world upside-down: he travels around the country accompanied by a group of women, the maenads, introducing wine wherever he goes; to avenge Thebes and his family for not recognizing him as a divinity, he leads the women of the city away from their home and families—the ultimate social transgression—and away from the city and its law, to the open space of the mountains where they engage in disorderly behavior; and his final act of revenge is to have his mother's sister slay her own son, Pentheus, heir to the throne of Thebes, while under his spell. By the time Dionysus has finished, Thebes is shattered: the progenitor has destroyed her offspring and, as the victim is a public figure, both representing and representative of public order, the ultimate symbol of disorder at the level of the family also brings down the macrocosm of the city.

Vargas Llosa's Dionisio has numerous superficial parallels with the god: his mother is rumored to have been killed by lightning (212, 243) and he travels around the Peruvian sierra with his maenads—here “unas indias medio putas” (200-1), “locas” (241) who by night “se enloquecían y hacían barbaridades” (241)—introducing pisco to the local populations. More importantly, however, is the threat that he, like his namesake, poses to culture's creations and, above all, structure. His presence represents the eruption of nature in all its wildness, for he reawakens the needs that humans have tried to repress, shattering the fragile veneer of social order. His role in Naccos renders this aspect of his personality explicit: he is a bartender whose greatest delight is to ply his customers with alcohol, incite bacchanalia and Carnaval,6 and spur on homosexual liaisons—“mariconadas” (73)—which fly in the face of conventional morality. Time and again, he is depicted as encouraging the townspeople to “visitar a su animal,” to let loose the instincts whose repression is demanded by the needs of communal living. Together with Adriana, Dionisio is directly responsible for catalyzing the behavior that results in the sacrifices at Naccos which, not surprisingly, take place during such revelries. This violence, moreover, springs from an allegiance to superstitions that have been eradicated in “lugar[es] civilizado[s],” but that the couple reintroduces and promotes (104). In this way, the savagery that they engender is cast as a resurgence of primal instincts at the level of the individual and, at that of the collectivity, of a “primitive,” irrational belief system. In the end, Naccos, like Thebes, is destroyed by their revival. Thus Dionysiac impulses collaborate with the larger political forces that are propelling Vargas Llosa's Peru backwards, towards prior stages of social evolution.

There is one final motif rooted in classical Greek literature that Vargas Llosa draws on to emblematize the climate of social disorder that is destroying Peru. Since the times of the tragedies and Thucydides' histories, the plague has been the symbol of a world turned upside-down. In conjunction with revolution, the counterpart whose origins may be traced to human actions, the plague has served as the metaphor par excellence for the collapse of the social order: both are cast as precipitating a rampant disregard for laws and conventions which results in the disintegration of civilization as a whole, and both foreground the insufficiency of human powers such as reason either to put an end to the upheaval or to control its effects. Vargas Llosa's 1992 statement that Sendero's terrorist activities and the efforts to combat them had pushed Peru to the brink, bringing about “el deterioro generalizado de la vida, [el] desplome de la moral cívica y de los supuestos básicos de la convivencia” implicitly invokes this paradigm (Desafíos 143). Here, as in Lituma en los Andes, revolution is, of course, represented by the battle between Fujimori's government and Sendero, and the attendant violence which spreads unchecked across the nation. But the plague itself appears in the novel, too. It is construed as the indigenous superstitions which further undermine civilization's veneer of logic and rationality, as well as directly causing even more violence. The characterization of superstition as irrational beliefs associated with societies that are less “advanced” on the evolutionary scale pervades the novel. For example, when mountain spirits such as the muki, apu, and pishtaco are first proposed as possible suspects in the disappearances of the three men, Lituma dismisses them as “cosas que no se cree ya nadie en ningún lugar civilizado” (104). Nevertheless, in keeping with the plague motif, these superstitions have “contagi[ado]” such “civilized” places as Lima, Chiclayo and Ferreñafe (188).7 The Lima newspapers that Lituma reads attest to their destabilizing effects in the city: they carry stories about “robaojos,” gringos believed to be kidnapping young children and removing their eyes, and the posses set up to find and lynch them. Lituma understands the “robaojos” to be the capitol's counterpart to the pishtacos feared by the Andean indigenous populations, figures who, anthropologist Enrique Mayer writes, are “believed to be white marauders who capture Indians and kill them to obtain human grease needed to cast specially sonorous bells for sale abroad, to run complex machinery … or to pay Peru's international debt” (472). Belief in the pishtaco is common among Andean communities, and became even more prevalent with the increase of political violence in the highlands (473). Lituma deems the spread of these beliefs “una epidemia,” explicitly casting it as a modern version of the plague which has transported the savage instinct of the mountains to the metropolis (Lituma 188). But to a certain degree, this is a vicious circle, for has not the current political crisis fostered a climate which makes acting upon such superstitions possible, as well as making the notion of human sacrifice credible? “¿No matan aquí de todo y por todo?,” one character remarks, “Qué de raro que comiencen los sacrificios humanos también” (201-2). Hence Naccos' problems are seen to be not just causes but also symptoms of “los diablos y la locura” that are “adueñándose del Perú” (189): certainly the sacrifices reflect compliance with “primitive” belief systems in order to ensure the construction of the highway, but in turn, the completion of this project, which was the only thing standing between the town and certain economic death, was also being jeopardized by the nation's political and economic crises.

The use of the apocalyptic motifs of the plague and revolution to encompass the situation in Peru,8 as well as the trajectory of violence and social breakdown which heads from the mountains to the metropolis, bring to mind Vargas Llosa's 1984 work, Historia de Mayta, his first attempt at exploring the political upheaval of the Sendero era. This novel is based on a historical event which took place in 1962, an unsuccessful Marxist uprising in Jauja, in the Peruvian highlands. In the novel, however, the rebellion takes place in 1958; that is, it is set up as the spark which precipitates the Cuban Revolution and is therefore responsible for all subsequent socialist activity throughout Spanish America, including the “Perú de apocalipsis” that is the setting for the novel's frame tale. In effect, the novel dramatizes Vargas Llosa's contention that the contemporary crisis in Peru and, on a larger scale, throughout Spanish America as a whole, was the culmination of the violence unleashed by the Spanish American Left in the early years of the revolutionary movement. In Historia de Mayta as in Lituma en los Andes, the mountains are the site from which the chaos of terrorism irradiates, turning the civilized life of the capitol upside-down and threatening Peru's stability and sovereignty. However, where the earlier novel holds the various splinter groups of the Spanish American socialist movement in Peru responsible for the region's current political predicament, Lituma en los Andes foregrounds the internal, homegrown sources of violence.

Time and again, Vargas Llosa deliberately traces Peru's troubles back to its own roots, counterbalancing a Peruvian tendency that he has criticized elsewhere, that of blaming outsiders for the nation's problems (see Penuel 453-458 for an extended discussion of this topic).9 Hence the political violence is ascribed to the reawakening of instincts from a prior stage in the nation's own social evolution which had been thought extinguished by the advent of modernity and civilization. “Me pregunto,” one character remarks, “si lo que pasa en el Perú no es una resurrección de toda esa violencia empozada. Como si hubiera estado escondida en alguna parte y, de repente, por alguna razón, saliera de nuevo a la superficie” (178). This atavistic quality is further underscored by Stirmson's observation that Sendero's massacres “no tienen explicación racional” (178), and by Lituma's designation of the goings-on at Naccos as “cosas de salvajes calatos y caníbales” (204-5). And several other characters take a historically-revisionist stance, asserting that the image of the Incas, who had virtually obliterated their enemies, had been whitewashed, as if there were “un complot internacional de historiadores para disimular el aporte peruano al arte de los sacrificios humanos” (170). On numerous occasions, Vargas Llosa shows the contemporary violence to be part of Peru's cultural patrimony, a direct outgrowth of pre-Conquest indigenous cultures. This is a provenience which places the blame for the actions of the Senderistas, but also the government forces and the people of Naccos, squarely on the nation and its heritage, refuting any suggestion that foreigners may be responsible.

The Peruvian tendency to fear difference is acknowledged by the novel's treatment of pishtacos who, according to Mayer, are generally construed as “quintessential outsiders … coherent and historically mythologized versions of the real threat of externally perpetrated violence against which collective outrage is one possible outlet” (473).10 But while the demonization of the Other is conceded a certain amount of legitimacy, ultimately, their culpability in the novel proves to be no more than a red herring; even Tomás, who was raised to fear pishtacos, declares that he would rather face one of them than the Senderistas. On the whole, rather than predators, outsiders—whether by virtue of nationality, belief or physical difference—are portrayed in the novel as victims: Sendero's and Naccos' victims alike are identified in some manner as outsiders, and many embody positive qualities, or could have made a difference to Peru and its future. The French tourists whose death is narrated at the beginning of the novel had a primitivist love for the country which they would have promoted, enhancing Peru's reputation abroad, upon returning home. Similarly, the European-born Mrs. d'Harcourt had devoted many years to the promotion abroad of her adopted homeland, setting up environmental programs to preserve its natural resources for those who would be able to take advantage of them when peace returned, and informing and inspiring the Peruvians to take an interest in their own heritage. The disappeared of Naccos are likewise all cast as outsiders: Casimiro is an albino, Pedro is mute and retarded, and Demetrio is considered to be impure for having changed his name and for living under a false identity. Casimiro, it must be confessed, is portrayed as a fairly unsympathetic character. Pedrito and Demetrio, on the other hand, are not: the former's association with vicuñas underscores his innocence, whereas the latter, the former lieutenant governor of Andamarca, had attempted to restore order to his town after the Senderistas—“en nombre del fomento del espíritu colectivista” (78)—incited its inhabitants to accuse, try, and punish one another for wrongdoing until the streets were littered with unburied dead.11

The magnitude of the wrongdoing wrought by Naccos is underscored by the final intertextual frame that I would like to consider here, the Christian symbolism used to frame the deaths of the town's victims. Both Demetrio and Pedrito are victims of violence three times over: each sees the community in which he lives brutally destroyed by Sendero; the government aggravates the initial situation, in Demetrio's case by vandalizing the town and refusing to protect Andamarca from further Sendero attacks, and in Pedro's by torturing him mercilessly—without realizing that he can neither understand them nor even speak—for information about the terrorists; and each is finally sacrificed in a ritual which deliberately echoes Christ's crucifixion. Lituma reconstructs Pedro's sacrifice as a procession in which the victim is first marked by the “besos de Judas” given to him by Dionisio (263, 264),12 and subsequently dressed up as Naccos' “santo” and “salvador” prior to being taken to his death (266). Although the details of Demetrio's death are never disclosed, Lituma does ultimately learn that those who sacrificed him had also partaken of his remains—textually, had “comulga[do]” (311), or taken communion.13 And while both deaths bear out the epigraph's promise of “Cain's City built with Human Blood,” Demetrio's represents an even deeper level of betrayal. His death in Naccos, whence he had fled in order to avoid reprisal, represents a figurative turning of brother against brother, for at least one of the coworkers who killed him was a former neighbor from Andamarca, now also relocated to the mountains. Moreover, as I mentioned before, the act of cannibalism is figured here as a rite of communion, a reliteralization of the symbolic partaking of Christ's flesh and blood which renders the gesture wholly intranscendent and unredemptive. And, to make matters worse, the sacrifice fails: in the end, a landslide levels the town of Naccos and, with it, all hopes of continuing work on the road. The gods have abandoned their people and primal forces have been released irreversibly; the death of the innocent, on the one hand, and, on the other, of the one man who had tried to protect his town and later hold it accountable for wrongdoing, signals the triumph of evil. And certainly, the death of Demetrio—that is, of Demeter—suggests the ascendancy of the forces of darkness and the lack of a harvest of anything other than evil for the nation as a whole.

In the end, violence is the factor that unifies the novel. Sendero Luminoso, the Peruvian government and its anti-terrorist forces, and the town of Naccos are all agents and emblems of the violence—evidence of the unleashing of instinct—that has set the nation on a course towards self-destruction. Sendero tortures the innocent, destroys communities and the bonds that hold them together, and kills both those who could promote the nation abroad and those who have done the most at home to protect its resources. Government forces similarly torture the innocent and refuse to protect communities threatened by Sendero; additionally, their anti-terrorism campaigns exacerbate the prevailing climate of violence and destruction. And, finally, Naccos commits the ultimate act of human brutality, without really being able to explain why.

Not only is violence the thematic center around which the intertextual references revolve, it is also the bridge between the novel's fictional world and the political reality that Vargas Llosa has set out to criticize. For the complementarity between Lituma en los Andes and his journalism of the same period (as was discussed at the beginning of this essay) clearly demonstrates that, although the novel deploys a battery of timeworn literary topoi,14 from Sarmiento's dialectic between civilization and barbarism through the regionalist and primitivist novels of the early twentieth century, to indicate the extent of the political and social turmoil in Peru, it is far more than a mere rhetorical exercise. In fact, as Efraín Kristal has observed in his recent study of Vargas Llosa, Temptation of the Word, the Peruvian's novels as a rule “could have been written as conscious attempts to exemplify his own political and moral views … [Moreover,] the political content of his novels happens to coincide with his most passionately held political beliefs” (197). The political content of Lituma en los Andes clearly reflects the failure of Vargas Llosa's political aspirations and a loss of hope in a better future for Peru: his 1990 campaign for the presidency of Peru (which he lost to Fujimori) was predicated on eradicating Sendero Luminoso through legal means (189). Hence during the early years of Fujimori's regime, he grew increasingly disturbed by the violence and violations of human rights perpetrated by the military in its ineffective efforts to quell terrorism, and watched as social order from Lima to the Andes deteriorated even further. In effect, Vargas Llosa saw the autogolpe of 1992 and concomitant near-dictatorial rule as a reflection of Fujimori's inability to control the situation within the rule of law (ibid.)—or, rather, with the tools whose use, in his view, defines “civilized” societies.

However, even as he excoriates Fujimori for implementing a mode of government that has plunged the nation even deeper into political and social chaos,15 Vargas Llosa also criticizes the Andean indigenous populations for what he considers to be their perpetuation of violent practices derived from pre-Columbian cultural traditions (ibid.).16 He faults the indigenous groups for the current crisis by further telescoping its origins back to Peru's own roots, a strategy reminiscent of Historia de Mayta, in which historical cause-and-effect is short-circuited in order to visit the blame for the nation's political situation during this same period on the actions of Spanish American socialist groups in the 1960s. In both novels, the result is disappointing, for it offers a simplistic, essentialist (and essentially idiosyncratic) analysis of Peru's complex situation by completely skipping over determining factors in the nation's recent political history, as well, of course, as the buildup of these problems over centuries of colonial and postcolonial rule. In the end, though, the dual targeting of Fujimori's regime and the indigenous populations in Lituma en los Andes renders the ubiquitous topos of civilization and barbarism both a timely description of the predicament brought about by the president and a timeless synopsis of the author's view of the relationship between modern, Westernized Peru and its “primitive” populations.

Recently, Kristal has shown how Lituma en los Andes represents a turning point in the representation of violence in Vargas Llosa's works. He observes that in the author's previous novels,

violence always had an explanation or a rationalization, such as passion, rebellion, or vengeance. In his socialist period, violence was inherent to the inhumanity of capitalist society, and in his neoliberal period it was the result of a fanatic's utopian dreams for a better world. In Death in the Andes, some participate in the most depraved acts of murder and cannibalism for no apparent reason at all. The brutal massacre of the three people is therefore more disturbing and perverse than the killings of the Shining Path guerrillas, who justify violence as a means toward military and political aims, or the murder that Tomás Carreño commits when he thought his loved one was being tortured.


As was mentioned before, it is suggested that the men were offered as sacrifices to apus prior to building the highway; it is also claimed that, as all of the victims had at one point been victims of Sendero, their presence in Naccos opened the town up to the risk of a future attack, and that eliminating them was therefore an act of self preservation. But these excuses “explain” the killing alone; the cannibalism has no conceivable justification, self-serving or otherwise, and none is, in effect, offered. The men marked by Sendero become convenient sacrificial offerings, and also, in a sense, scapegoats which, traditionally, are blamed for a disruptive force or event and expelled from the community as a symbolic banishing of evil. In this case, the three men are eliminated in order to avert the disaster threatening the town, whether its source is the apus or Sendero.

William Arrowsmith has written of The Bacchae that “if we understand that the rewards of the Dionysiac life are here and now, that the frenzied dances of the god are direct manifestations of ecstatic possession, and that the Bacchante, by eating the flesh of the man or animal who temporarily incarnates the god, comes to partake of his divinity, we are in a position to understand the play” (144). In Lituma en los Andes, as in the Dionysiac rite, the scapegoats are ingested rather than being excised. But in this act, which is also explicitly a distortion of the communion ritual, rather than partake of the divinity of the god whose substitute is eaten, evil, and evil alone, is literally internalized. Ultimately, knowledge of the secret—tantamount to participation in the sacrificial rites—establishes a pact of solidarity and silence among the participants, uniting people of different backgrounds (from the miners to Dionisio and Adriana) into a community which clearly separates insiders from outsiders. Here, then, violence is paradoxically the only force which still has any power to hold a community together. It is effective in Naccos alone, however, for Peru's larger cities are falling apart under the destabilizing effects of terrorism, anti-terrorism and superstition. And in the end, even that fails when the highway, symbolic of the advent of progress and the advantages of civilization into the wild space of the mountains, is destroyed by the landslide, and the project, like the town itself, is abandoned.

This essay has thus far focused primarily on Vargas Llosa's rewriting of timeworn Western paradigms, motifs, and intertexts in his depiction of the breakdown of civilization in Lituma en los Andes. I conclude by identifying two canonical Spanish American works whose presence in this novel—however understated—suggests further ramifications that this incarnation of the Spanish American debate over civilization and barbarism may have for the entire region. In the opening pages of the novel, a troubled Lituma, who has been unable to make any headway in his investigation of two disappearances, is informed that there has been yet a third, and he asks himself “¿Se los habían tragado los cerros, entonces?” (12). His question reworks a phrase which is familiar to all students of Spanish American literature, the final words of José Eustasio Rivera's La vorágine: “los devoró la selva.” This phrase is, however, better-known to many as “se los tragó la selva,” perhaps as a result of Carlos Fuentes' famous misquoting of the same passage in his widely-read La nueva novela hispanoamericana.17 By invoking the novela de la tierra in which, as Fuentes has claimed, nature—with all its symbolic implications of wilderness and wildness—is the protagonist (10), and by paraphrasing this statement in particular, which signals the triumph of the wild over man and his attempts at civilization, with all that that implies for Colombia's—and Spanish America's—future, Vargas Llosa sets the stage for his dramatization of a “regreso a la barbarie” from the very beginning of the novel.

The final source that I want to discuss is one that is practically hidden: Miguel Angel Asturias' Hombres de Maíz. Asturias' novel, about which Vargas Llosa has written a brief essay,18 offers a vision of society in which the traditional representatives of the forces of civilization and barbarism are—as in much primitivist literature—reversed: he presents Guatemala's indigenous populations as a source of cultural revitalization and redemption, an antidote to the advent of modernity and its dehumanizing values in Spanish America. Additionally, he proffers a unique rewriting of the Dionisiac myth which so informs Vargas Llosa's novel. Much of Hombres de Maíz is devoted to showing how Nicho—short for Dionisio—rejects his role as mailman, that is, as a bearer of written culture who is a go-between between the changing life of his indigenous community and the modern life of the city, and instead undertakes an apprenticeship in the traditional way of life. Nicho's ability to transform himself into a coyote, his nahual or protective spirit in the Maya tradition, reflects his continued contact with and desire to uphold the beliefs of his people. For this Dionisio, then, being in touch with his animal is an affirmation of positive values and the symbiotic relationship with a nourishing nature upon which indigenous culture is predicated and which Asturias feared was being destroyed by capitalist society. It is a far cry from here to the characterization of visiting one's animal as the release of primitive forces disruptive to the social order that is the traditional interpretation of the Dionysiac myth, as well as the message underlying Vargas Llosa's novel. It would seem, then, that Vargas Llosa has reclaimed Asturias' challenge to the traditional paradigm, and realigned it with the struggle between order and disorder which pervades his novel, and which he saw Peruvian society as being on the verge of losing. “To understand Dionysus,” Helene Foley writes of The Bacchae, “is to understand that the order imposed on the world by human culture is arbitrary, and the permanent potential for a reversal or collapse of this order exists” (124). To understand this, in turn, is to understand Vargas Llosa's Dionisio, the evil that he incites in Naccos, and the deterioration of Peruvian society as a whole.


  1. These have been collected and published in a volume entitled Desafíos a la libertad, along with other articles written between 1990 and early 1994.

  2. Needless to say, by choosing disputed teleological models of social evolution based on highly-charged and value-laden terms, and by describing the nation's situation as a “regression” to a prior stage of its social evolution, Vargas Llosa is advancing an extremely controversial argument.

  3. Ramón Mujica Pinilla has shown how Vargas Llosa's privileging of notions of progress and rationalism also conditions his analysis of José María Arguedas' work in the novelist's recent La utopía arcaica (see “La ‘mentira literaria’”; this subject is also discussed in an unpublished interview with Mujica done by María Rita Corticelli). Vargas Llosa expresses his own views on the impact of the discourse of progress on Andean indigenous populations in his essay, “Questions of Conquest,” and dramatizes them in his novel, El hablador.

  4. Mary Berg and Arnold Penuel have identified several main sources for Lituma en los Andes, including: Greek myths and numerous motifs from classical Greek literature; the Old and New Testaments; beliefs and myths held by Peru's indigenous populations, both pre-Conquest and modern; and, last but not least, Don Quijote. My reading of the novel is indebted to their analyses.

  5. For Penuel, what I have interpreted here in terms of a struggle between civilization and barbarism is instead a battle between Apollonian and Dionysiac forces. Penuel sees the former, which include the use of reason and the desire to uncover the truth, as positive forces that might contribute to Peru's regeneration, and that are (for him) personified by Lituma, Mrs. d'Harcourt, and Stirmson; in fact, he attributes Lituma's apotheosis of the latter to his reverence for the constructive values embodied by the Dane (454-55). Given the overall pessimism of the novel and the fact that Lituma's rationality provides him only with answers that he wishes he did not have, I find this argument unconvincing.

  6. Adriana's description of Dionisio's first visit to Naccos corresponds item by item with Bakhtin's description of Carnaval as a festival in which conventions are suspended, limits erased, roles reversed and the body's lower or baser needs exalted. Dionisio, she says, exhorted the miners to “‘sabore[ar] el pisco purito de uva de Ica, hace olvidar las penas y saca al hombre feliz de tus adentros.’ ‘¡Visita a tu animal!’ … Atendía a los clientes y salía a bailar y contagiaba a todos su alegría … Horas de horas, poniéndose y quitándose las máscaras del Carnaval de Jauja, hasta que todo Naccos era un remolino de gente borracha y feliz: nadie sabía ya quién era quién, dónde empezaba uno y dónde terminaba aquél, quién hombre, quién animal, quién humano, quién mujer” (242). Given the political moral of the novel, it is hardly surprising that the holidays thus celebrated were the Fiestas Patrias.

  7. As I mentioned previously, Adriana's description of the introduction of Carnaval and pisco to Naccos similarly notes that Dionisio “contagiaba a todos su alegría” (242; emphasis added).

  8. Their apocalyptic implications are underscored by the characterization of the rains which eventually precipitate the landslide in Naccos as “el diluvio universal” (200).

  9. In a 1986 essay, he articulates this belief within a general Spanish American context as follows: “One of our worst defects—our best fictions—is to believe that our miseries have been imposed on us from abroad, that others have always had the responsibility for our problems; for instance, the conquistadores. There are countries in Latin America … in which the ‘Spaniards’ are even now severely indicted for what ‘they’ did with the Indians. Did ‘they’ really do it? We did it. We are the conquistadores. They were our parents and grandparents who came to our shores and gave us the names we have and the language we speak. They gave us also the habit of passing to the devil the responsibility for any evil we do. Instead of making amends for what they did, by improving and correcting our relationship with our indigenous compatriots, mixing with them and amalgamating ourselves to form a new culture which would have been a kind of synthesis of the best of both, we—the Westernized Latin Americans—have persevered in the worst habits of our forebears, behaving towards the Indians during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the Spaniards behaved towards the Aztecs and the Incas” (“Fiction and Reality” 16). His article, “El preso 1,509,” in Desafíos a la libertad, on the capture of Abimael Guzmán, reflects this belief within the specific context of Peru. It first traces Peru's troubles back to the Conquest and through the Colony and Republic, throughout which period a small elite dominated all of the country's resources, creating conditions of irremediable poverty for the majority of the population, predominantly indigenous. Subsequently, Vargas Llosa credits these conditions, aggravated by the policies of the Velasco regime (1968-1975), with having fostered a social and political environment that led on the one hand to the founding of Sendero Luminoso and, on the other, to a receptive audience in certain sectors of a desperate population (156-7).

  10. Both Dionisio, who is an itinerant outsider, and one of the victims, Casimiro, who is both a wanderer and an albino and therefore physically distinct from the majority of his compatriots, are also considered to be pishtacos.

  11. Since the time of the Homeric epics, improper burial has, in the Western literary tradition, been a sign of the breakdown of social order and, eventually, of the community as a whole.

  12. Previously, Dionisio had represented himself as a Judas figure, claiming that he had planned to tell Lituma about the murders “por plata, a sabiendas de que lo mandaba al matadero” (102).

  13. The death of the other victim, Casimiro, also has explicit Christian resonances: having escaped near-death at the hands of the Senderistas, he considers himself to have already died and been resurrected, and thus to be invulnerable to death (he is, as one of the men of Naccos says, “como Jesucristo” for precisely this reason [226]); the moments preceding his death, when the men of Naccos took him, drunk, out of the bar, remind Lituma of a “procesión” as well as of the Holy Week Masses of his childhood (238). Despite these parallels, however, I consider his case to be different from those of Pedro and Demetrio for, in the first place, his lack of compassion and failure to take responsibility for his actions deliberately cast him as unsympathetic and, in the second, his boastful public claims to invincibility cast him more in the mold of the characters of Greek epic and tragedy whose hubristic vaunting inevitably betokens their downfall.

  14. The sheer number of intertextual references in the novel has, in fact, left a number of readers wondering why Vargas Llosa felt compelled to rely to such a great extent on such crutches, rather than on the strength of his own story.

  15. As Kristal writes, Vargas Llosa believes that “authoritarian practices encourage the growth of revolutionary groups … He believes that the conditions accounting for the rise and success of the Shining Path have worsened because he considers Fujimori to be a dictator” (189). Kristal further observes that, “from Vargas Llosa's perspective the revolutionaries are responsible for their crimes, but in the final analysis the Peruvian government is responsible for the neglect of the Andean population and for the social climate wherein groups such as the Shining Path can flourish” (188).

  16. This attitude gains currency in Vargas Llosa's work as of 1983, when he was appointed by then-President Fernando Belaúnde Terry to head a commission to investigate the brutal massacre of eight journalists by the Iquichano in Uchuraccay. The Commission, Mayer observes, ultimately ascribed part of the blame for this act of collective violence to inherited traditions, buying into a fallacy that points toward “historical evidence of cruelty, bloodthirstiness, and ritual involvement with violent acts using pre-Hispanic iconography, historical text, and hearsay as proof of the ‘inherent violent nature of the Indian,’ a psychological or racially inherited trait” (473). For further discussion of this subject, consult Mayer's “Peru in Deep Trouble”; also, Kristal (188-93) links Vargas Llosa's investigation directly to the attitude towards indigenous populations that informs Lituma en los Andes.

  17. “‘¡Se los tragó la selva!’, dice la frase final de La Vorágine de José Eustasio Rivera” (9). That this is the way that Vargas Llosa remembers the phrase is apparent in his 1987 novel, El hablador, where one character remarks that “Pero, a los misioneros se los está tragando la selva, como al Arturo Cova de La vorágine” (94).

  18. “Una nueva lectura de Hombres de Maíz,” in Gerald Martin's critical edition of Hombres de Maíz.

Works Cited

Arrowsmith, William. Introduction to The Bacchae. Euripides V: Electra, The Phoenician Women, The Bacchae. By Euripides. Trans. William Arrowsmith. Eds. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959. 142-53.

Berg, Mary G. “Narrative Multiplicity in Vargas Llosa's Lituma en los Andes.La Chispa '95: Selected Proceedings. The Sixteenth Louisiana Conference on Hispanic Languages and Literatures. Ed. Claire J. Paolini. New Orleans: Tulane University, 1995. 25-38.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “La muerte y la brújula.” Ficciones. Madrid: Alianza, 1987. 147-63.

Foley, Helene. “The Masque of Dionysus.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 110 (1980): 107-33.

Fuentes, Carlos. La nueva novela hispanoamericana. Mexico: Joaquín Mortiz, 1969.

Kristal, Efraín. Temptation of the Word: The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998.

Mayer, Enrique. “Peru in Deep Trouble: Mario Vargas Llosa's ‘Inquest in the Andes’ Reexamined.” Cultural Anthropology 6.4 (November 1991): 466-504.

Mujica Pinilla, Ramón. “La Utopía Arcaica: Mario Vargas Llosa y la negación occidental del mundo andino.” Revista Debate 19.94 (Mayo-Junio 1997): 40-44.

———. Interview. By María Rita Corticelli. Lima, Peru (September 3, 1997).

Penuel, Arnold. “Intertextuality and the Theme of Violence in Vargas Llosa's Lituma en los Andes.Revista de estudios hispánicos 29.3 (Octubre 1995): 441-60.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. “Una nueva lectura de Hombres de maíz.Hombres de maíz (Edición crítica). Ed. Gerald Martin. Paris: Editions Klincksieck, 1977. xvii-xx.

———. Historia de Mayta. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1984.

———. “Latin America: Fiction and Reality.” On Modern Latin American Fiction. Ed. John King. NY: The Noonday Press, 1987. 1-17.

———. El hablador. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1987.

———. “Questions of Conquest.” Harper's (December 1990): 45-53.

———. Lituma en los Andes. Barcelona: Editorial Planeta, 1993.

———. Desafíos a la libertad. México: Aguilar, 1994.

Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Villanueva Chang, and Jimena Pinilla Cisneros (interview date June 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Vargas Llosa, Mario, Jorge Villanueva Chang, and Jimena Pinilla Cisneros. “An Interview with Mario Vargas Llosa.” World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 65-9.

[In the following interview—originally conducted in June 2000 and published in the June 24, 2000, edition of El Comercio—Vargas Llosa discusses the implications of the computerization of literature, the most successful novels of the past century, and the Boom period in Latin American literature.]

Since the early 1960s, Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa (b. 1936) has been regarded as one of Latin America's leading writers, a novelist whose books can be read as a modern-day saga of Peruvian and Latin American society. Among his more notable works are La casa verde (1965; Eng. The Green House), Conversación en la Catedral (1969; Eng. Conversation in the Cathedral), La tía Julia y el escribidor (1979; Eng. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), Historia de Mayta (1984; Eng. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta), and La guerra del fin del mundo (1992; Eng. The War of the End of the World). His most recent novel, La fiesta del chivo (2001; Eng. The Feast of the Goat), re-creates the final days of the dictatorship of General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and has been hailed as one his finest literary achievements to date. The following interview took place at the writer's home in Lima in June of 2000 and was first published in the Lima daily El Comercio on 24 June 2000.

—César Ferreira, for WLT

[Chang and Cisneros]: You once told a story about Bill Gates leaving a meeting where he had just promised the members of the Spanish Royal Academy that he wouldn't remove the letter ñ from his keyboards. He confessed that he wanted to accomplish one more grand design before he died: make all books obsolete. How would you respond to the richest man in the world?

[Vargas Llosa]: Bill Gates' idea isn't to end literature as we know it, but he really believes that computers can perform flawlessly all of the functions of a book. I believe that's correct when we're talking about information, but it's false when we're talking about literature, because the act of reading a piece of literature demands a sort of intimacy that disappears when one sits down in front of a computer screen. If books disappear, then literature will be transmitted through computer screens, and that will certainly be less private and less intimate. Much more informative, but less creative. It will suffer the same process of generalization, not to speak of a certain tackiness and impoverishment, that has plagued media which rely on visual images as they have become more popularized. It will never produce a César Vallejo, a T. S. Eliot, or an André Breton, because it will completely do away with any creative experimentation with the language of the text. I still don't believe that this grand design of Gates's will ever come to fruition, but what could happen eventually is that books little by little may become less relevant, until literature expressed with computer images converts itself into the literary diet of a steadily growing majority. In a worst-case scenario, the audience for literature would be limited to a small minority, which would eventually become an important secret society of literary catechists who would keep it going almost as an underground activity.

Borges had such contempt for the novel that he once even dared to say that García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude had fifty years too many. How do you think Borges would feel in today's climate, where editors have a marked distaste for the short story? Do you see the short story as a nineteenth-century genre that is on the verge of extinction in the twenty-first?

No, I think that the short story is still alive and well. Several writers of short stories rank among the twentieth century's most influential authors, and in fact Borges is the best example of this in terms of Latin American literature. But we also have Cortázar, Rulfo, and Onetti. I would say that Borges's attitude toward the novel is more one of disdain than outright rejection, since he always considered it a second-class genre. But within the confines of his own writing, that's perfectly understandable. He was an author who accepted only perfection, and in a novel perfection isn't possible due to its very nature as the expression of the human condition in the midst of social chaos. It clearly demonstrates just how far we are from achieving those absolute ideals of coherence, rationality, and technical perfection that, to a certain extent, are possible in poetry and the short story. Borges managed to obtain that level of perfection in his short stories, that seamless circularity, almost geometric, which constitutes the goal of pure art, free of any flaws either in the plot structure or in the use of language. His instinctive antipathy toward the novel is a further rejection of imperfection.

Which of this century's most critically acclaimed novels do you think will be condemned to the bonfires of obscurity?

I think it's easier to mention those novels that have survived the test of time and are going to be with us in the future. For example, Joyce's Ulysses is a novel that will always be relevant: it introduces a new narrative language that allows the reader to probe the depths of human consciousness. Proust's Remembrance of Times Past will last as long as a cathedral. There are also authors like Faulkner, who is more popular today than when he first wrote his novels: in order to construct different worlds, he created an instrument which mimics reality and which continues to offer fertile ground for the elaboration of depth, ambiguity, mystery, and tension in a work of fiction. We also have writers who are no longer widely read, like Malraux: I think that Man's Fate has to be one of the greatest novels of this century, but nowadays it lacks the wide audience it really should have. Malraux the political figure worked to a certain extent against Malraux the author, and this cost him readers. Sartre is an example of a writer who at one time was widely read but has now been eclipsed by the passage of time: today his novels are hard to read, and anyone who reads them carefully will find that there's nothing really original about them, since they owe so much to precursors like Dos Passos. To writers of the present generation, his views on literature seem idealistic and self-righteous. Very few authors today accept the idea that literature can change history or that it plays a role in transforming everyday politics.

The often-remarked death of ideology has something to do with that. …

Oh yes, and in Sartre's case that's had a big effect, but the incoherence of his work has something to do with it too. What Josep Plà said about Marcuse is also applicable to Sartre: “He contributed as no one had before him to the confusion of our times.” Sartre could make us believe everything that he wrote, because his way of rationalizing things could persuade you to accept the most absurd and contradictory things as a logical function of their fluctuating ideological currents, but that has progressively made his work less meaningful in today's world. This didn't happen to Camus, who was more of an artist and a better writer. In both the literary and the public sphere, his ideas are still very relevant. Today his demand that morality must influence politics seems more valid than ever. On the other hand, the pragmatism that Sartre advocated, even when it conflicted with moral values, seems reprehensible to us because it gave the worst dictatorships a veneer of legitimacy.

In the twentieth century, novels were written that revolutionized literary prose. One thinks of the language found in Joyce's Ulysses, Lezama Lima's Paradiso, or Guimarães Rosa's Gran Sertão: Veredas (Eng. Rebellion in the Backland). However, as this century winds down, novels tend to be more beholden to the tastes of a reading public composed of simple dilettantes or literary tourists. Could it be that authors simply tired of the struggle to achieve the novela total, a work that would seek to explain and reshape the entire universe in which we live and have everlasting significance?

In this age characterized by consumerism and constant change, life seems to revolve around the present moment, and the idea of a novela total, an immortal work of art, is scarcely accepted today. In the past, an author wrote to achieve immortality, so that when he died his work would remain and he would continue to live on through it. The author's ambition was to attain this immortality through a perfect work of art. Nobody believes in immortality today, and such a notion has been replaced everywhere by an obsession with the present. In literary terms, this has given rise to “Literature Lite,” which is more entertainment than a groundbreaking reevaluation of moral values or of how one perceives things. We also can't ignore literature written from a sectarian or group-specific point of view, because it contains attractive elements that reflect a great talent. But one doesn't write this type of fiction with the intention of shattering temporal boundaries in order to live forever, as is the case with the masterpieces of literature. Today's authors think that such a lofty goal is presumptuous, conceited, and utopian. Now they hope that by writing about the present they'll be able to gain a large following of readers to satisfy a much more limited obsession: fame, fortune, and success. To attract the reading and buying public here and now. Who cares about what might happen tomorrow?

Was Kafka perhaps the writer who best expressed the horrible aspects of the situation which confronts modern man?

As a writer, Kafka is inseparable from this modern concept of existential anguish. When we read him, we sense the void that results from being aware of our own finiteness, the brief span of our own existence when compared to eternity, and how helpless we are when we face this vast machine that is society and life itself. Of course, Kafka is one of the writers who best captures this in an original way, relying on parables, stories, and situations that are extraordinarily convincing because they come to us in a language and a fictional structure which fit nicely with this outlook on life. Moreover, the relevance of his work stretches across circumstances, times, and cultures which have little in common on the surface: Kafka's world has been lived in China, in Cuba, in Peru, and in any country where, for certain reasons, human beings come to be nothing more than instruments of a powerful elite over which they have no control and against which they are completely defenseless. People are forced to become the puppets of hidden forces that can be political, ideological, or religious. Along with Joyce and Proust, we have to include Kafka as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

Nineteenth-century writers can seem very boring to us today because back then there wasn't any television and they had to describe everything in their books. Now we've opted for the other extreme: the market makes it impossible for a book to be successful these days unless it's written with the express purpose of being made into a film. How have inventions like film changed literature?

One effect has been in the elaboration of time. The big difference between classical literature and modern works is that, in the latter, time passes quickly, jumps back and forth, and has no place for useless interludes. The influence of a culture based upon the image has been fundamental in this. Film taught us to look at time in a way that before had been inconceivable. We live at a faster pace and therefore construct novels in which time blurs and the plot flows as it would within a concrete space: going backward, going forward, coming and going. Things didn't happen like this in the past, because life itself didn't occur in this way. Nor had there been a revolution in the representation of images which changed how time was used in literature. But it would be naïve to think that the technical and artistic advances of modern literature have done away with the classics. Unlike in the industrial world, where a new product comes along and annihilates the memory of the older one, or in science, where chemistry sounded the death knell of alchemy, the arrival of Proust in no way eliminated Montaigne, and Joyce didn't cause the demise of Cervantes. That is the great thing about literature.

Dostoevsky was one of the most flawed literary models of the nineteenth century in terms of his technique, but ironically he was also one of that era's greatest and most enduring authors. Who are some of the twentieth century's authors whose greatness has not been lessened by the technical flaws of their writing?

Pio Baroja is perhaps the most notable example of this in the Spanish language. He is the author of a huge corpus of work that manifests striking examples of technical imperfection, a pronounced laxness in terms of the formal aspects of writing. The same thing happened to Balzac, who was accused of writing too quickly and without much attention to form. Nevertheless, Balzac's strength has been that his work has endured. Certainly, if one takes indifference to form to an extreme, that destroys the work. But there are works that manifest such a compelling narrative prowess in terms of the elaboration of the humanity of the characters, the settings, and the stories, allowing them to be totally coherent in and of themselves, that they seem to compensate for the shortcomings of the formal prose. Thomas Wolfe is an interesting case in point; so is an effusive writer like Balzac.

Would you include Céline in this category?

Céline is an interesting example of how artistic talent can make us tolerate certain things that, when one sees them from a distance, make one sick: e.g., the most disgusting bigotry, Nazism, anti-Semitism. But no one could ever deny that Céline was a great writer. His world (as we see in Journey to the End of the Night) is primitive, wretched, vile, but it's exquisitely represented by an equally wretched and vile prose. Any other type of narrative would make that world unbearable on account of its very wretchedness and pettiness, and the prejudices that they engender.

The “Boom” in Latin American literature has been dismissed by some as having been contrived by a market dominated by publishing houses. What has been the real contribution to contemporary literature of this trend in the writing of novels?

I don't believe that its significance has been sociological, historical, or geographic. Authors like Borges, García Márquez, and Cortázar were well known because they were great writers who produced works that were both compelling and truly vital at a time when European literature was seeking refuge in formalism and experimentalism. Up to that time, Latin American literature had been for the most part picturesque and had never gained an audience outside the region. Moreover, with the new Latin American literature there was a renewed interest in Latin America itself. However, this fiction was renowned in the wider world because it was creative and original. I don't believe that authors are manufactured. In our time there's been a bifurcation between quality work that has a limited number of readers and the literature of mass consumerism that for the most part is of poor quality, is manufactured in assembly-line fashion in accordance with certain prototypes, and is targeted to a wide audience. It was a tragedy that this happened to fiction. One of the best things about nineteenth-century literature is that this dichotomy didn't exist and the great fiction writers like Dickens were also widely read and popular authors. Great literature and popular, consumer-oriented literature were the same thing. The same people who nowadays read Grisham would have been reading Victor Hugo back in the nineteenth century. What happened afterward was that fiction kept refining itself and became experimental in form, constantly searching for even more complex ways to express itself. That's what distanced it from a buying public which previously had embraced it with open arms.

Did the writers of the “Boom” really try to get closer to the masses?

Not all of them. Perhaps one of the greatest successes of One Hundred Years of Solitude is that, being an example of high-quality literature, it's managed to gain wide acceptance among the public as a whole. It says something fundamental to the layman and at the same time contains all the technical brilliance demanded by the most refined reader. But you can't say the same thing about Rayuela (Eng. Hopscotch) or Paradiso, where the fiction demands a lot of the reader, to the point that the average reader will never be able to appreciate the work. There are other novels that, while displaying a marked refinement in formalistic terms, managed to create a fiction within the reach of the masses. It's possible to read Rulfo while being refined, intellectual, and demanding, or one can choose to be a complete layman and pay attention only to his anecdotes.

In your opinion, what are some of the most outrageous faux pas ever committed by literary critics?

The most glaring occurred with Proust. Gide condemned the first volume of Remembrance of Times Past, even though he was the most perceptive reader ever of French literature. In his defense, this condemnation wasn't based on any prejudice against Proust; it was simply a case of literary myopia. What happened to El Gatopardo (Eng. The Leopard) by Tomasi de Lampedusa was another disgrace. Italian publishing houses, almost without exception, rejected the manuscript of a consummate masterpiece, one of the greatest, most original, most satisfying, and most relevant books of the twentieth century. And those who rejected it weren't mediocre readers, but included such great writers as Elio Vittorini, the Italian Sartre of his day. He dismissed Lampedusa's novel because he felt that it violated the laws of history, since it didn't represent an adequate, correct, and just vision of society. The individual who salvaged the honor of Italian literature was Giorgio Bassani, who said that The Leopard was a masterpiece, but did so only after poor Lampedusa was already dead. The author never got to see his work published, and died convinced that he had failed as a writer.

Seymour Menton (review date summer 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Menton, Seymour. Review of La fiesta del chivo, by Mario Vargas Llosa. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 676.

[In the following review, Menton offers praise for Vargas Llosa's La fiesta del chivo, ranking it among the author's four best novels.]

The publication of still another high-quality novel in the postrevolutionary era (1989-) may encourage some cultural-studies devotees to reconsider their hostility toward “elite literature.” Along with Carlos Fuentes, Abel Posse, Sergio Ramírez, Julio Escoto, and many others who have published outstanding works in the past decade, Mario Vargas Llosa has, with his latest effort, written a fascinating, well-documented novel based on Latin American history. Unlike Carpentier's Recurso del método, García Márquez's Otofio del patriarca, and several other novels that create a multinational synthesis of the archetypal dictator, La fiesta del chivo deals specifically and realistically with perhaps the most tyrannical of all Latin American dictators, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo of the Dominican Republic (r. 1930-61).

The novel's three alternating series of chapters are anchored in 1961, the year of Trujillo's assassination. However, in keeping with the modernist and Boom tradition, the entire regime of the dictator, including its international relations, is captured with both a wide-angle and a zoom lens. The Trujillo-centered chapters emphasize El Jefe's personal traits; his indebtedness to U.S. Marine Sergeant Simon Gittleman for having taught him discipline and punctuality; President John F. Kennedy's opposition to him for his attempts to assassinate Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt, plus the fear that an anti-Trujillo movement might follow the Fidel Castro model; Argentine Juan Perón's 1955 warning to Trujillo to beware of antagonizing the Church (the Church's campaign against him started in January 1960); his most egregious crimes, including the 1937 border massacre of thousands of Haitians, the disappearance in New York City of Columbia professor Jesús Galíndez, and the death of the Mirabal sisters; his contempt for his immediate family (brothers, sons, and wife), except for his mother, the ninety-six-year-old Julia Molina; and his closest sycophantic collaborators, whom he maintains on a tight leash. El Jefe is extremely adroit at anticipating the slightest hint of disloyalty, but at age seventy he is deeply troubled by his inability to control his incipient incontinence and impotence, which blemish his obsessive cleanliness and virility.

The conspirators-focused chapters are filled with suspense. As they wait in their car for Trujillo's 1957 Chevrolet to pass by on the way to the Casa de Caoba in San Cristóbal, his favorite place for seducing adolescents, their individual motives for wanting to assassinate El Chivo are revealed. The actual assassination takes place in chapter 12, the midpoint of the novel, but this series of chapters continues through chapter 23, reporting the pursuit, capture, torture, and death of almost all the conspirators at the hands of Secret Service Chief Johnny Abbes García and Trujillo's son Ramfís and his brothers. The carefully planned plot to establish a transitional military-civilian junta fails because of the indecisiveness of General José René “Pupo” Román.

The third series of chapters follows Dr. Urania Cabral, who has returned to Santo Domingo in 1996 for the first time since leaving precipitously at age fourteen in 1961. The daughter of Senator Agustín “Cerebrito” Cabral, one of Trujillo's most trusted collaborators, Urania has unexpectedly come home to visit her invalid father, whom she hates passionately. Although the reader suspects early on in the novel the reason for her hatred, the tension is maintained until the final chapter, when Urania reveals to her aunt and cousins the gruesome details of the “fiesta del Chivo,” her private encounter with the seventy-year-old, impotent Jefe in his infamous Casa de Caoba. For some undefined reason, Senator Cabral had fallen out of favor with El Jefe, and he reluctantly allowed himself to be inveigled into abjectly offering up his truly beloved daughter as a token of his loyalty.

One of the novel's most interesting developments is the emergence of Joaquín Balaguer after Trujillo's assassination. He is the only Trujillo collaborator who is unfathomable, and therefore not vulnerable, to the dictator. A diminutive intellectual, poet, and bachelor, the unctuous and chaste Balaguer does not drink, smoke, or eat. Because of his apparent lack of ambition, Trujillo named him president in 1957. However, after the assassination, Balaguer cleverly outwits El Jefe's other collaborators as well as the latter's son Ramfís and his brothers in a series of tense confrontations in the presidential office. Balaguer was subsequently elected president on three different occasions, and three months after the novel was published, the Los Angeles Times reported that Balaguer, at age ninety-three, legally blind and virtually deaf, might win the 2000 presidential election. Although he did not win the election, he is clearly the leading candidate for the Oscar as best supporting actor in this blockbuster work, which has already received well-deserved acclaim as one of Vargas Llosa's four best novels, along with La casa verde,Conpersación en la Catedral, and La guerra del fin del mundo.

Gene H. Bell-Villada (review date 9 November 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Bell-Villada, Gene H. “Thirty-One Years of Solitude.” Commonweal 128, no. 19 (9 November 2001): 20-1.

[In the following review, Bell-Villada asserts that The Feast of the Goat, Vargas Llosa's chronicle of the tyrannical reign of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo as leader of the Dominican Republic, “will most surely become the book about the long Trujillo nightmare and the ongoing, sordid aftermath.”]

“The Goat” was one of the popular, clandestine nicknames of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, the grotesque generalissimo who skillfully combined humiliation and terror, bribery and blood in tyrannizing the Dominican Republic from 1930 until 1961, when he was finally assassinated by a cadre of young army officers (with some U.S. help).

The Feast of the Goat will most surely become the book about the long Trujillo nightmare and the ongoing, sordid aftermath. It joins the ranks of other now-classic novels—such as Gabriel García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, or Tomás Eloy Martínez's diptych dealing with the Perón pair—that famously capture the oddities, myths, and ordinary horrors of life under a Latin military despot.

On a different note, the book miraculously restores Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to literary-master status. Over the last couple of decades Vargas Llosa seemed in decline as he misdirected his talents toward an ill-fated campaign for the Peruvian presidency in 1990, and generally morphed into a cranky, libertarian publicist and right-wing scold. Meanwhile his novels lost their rigor and scope, and some, like The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984) and The Storyteller (1990), were downright sketchy. With this grand canvas, however, he recaptures the early greatness of Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) and The War of the End of the World (1981). It has been Vargas Llosa came up with a novel this vivid and thrilling.

No review can do justice to the abundant details and intrigues, the relentless pace yet utter translucency of The Feast of the Goat, much of which is historically true. Four stories interconnect, flashing back and forward, Faulkner-style. Chief focus is on the seventy-year-old phenomenon Trujillo, his rituals, manias, and wiles. At his desk by 6 A.M., he works twenty hours a day, seven days a week. His attire is always impeccable (he's most bothered by Hitler's sartorial sloppiness). He doesn't sweat, he hardly sleeps. His fabled gaze can impale the proudest and most hardened of fighters. An evil genius at manipulation, he smooth-talks his enemies into serving him “for the good of the country” even as he ridicules them in public. An amoral gangster, he keeps thousands of thugs on the government payroll, patrolling the streets in black VW Beetles. His sole diversion is sex—bedding down young virgins, cuckolding his close subordinates, and then boasting of the exploits in banquet speeches. Trujillo and his loutish henchmen represent sadism elevated to ordinary social custom and system. The novel re-imagines “The Goat” in his final two weeks of life.

Waiting for Trujillo one night by the capital city's sea wall are a handful of aggrieved army men who've plotted his death. In these suspense-filled scenes we become acquainted with each of the dissidents, and learn of their personal histories and their bitterness at the Benefactor for his having thoroughly degraded their, and the citizenry's, lives.

The Goat is gunned down halfway through the book; what follows, however, is horrific beyond measure. Plans for a post-assassination coup go awry, precisely as a result of the knee-jerk loyalties and demonic efficiency of the dictatorial machine. Readers should be warned of the wrenching, though never gratuitous, accounts of dehumanization and torture that take up some of these pages.

Equally sinister are the rise and triumph of Trujillo's figurehead president, Dr. Joaquín Balaguer, a creature so strange he could have been dreamt up by García Márquez. Short, round-faced, with tiny hands, he is the phrase-maker and flatterer extraordinaire, a master of protocol and composure. Asexual, indifferent to wealth, and lacking in any military experience whatsoever, this cunningly mellifluous courtier nonetheless takes control, outwitting his most brutish rivals via a mix of honeyed words and shrewd alliances. In the end the regime doesn't die, it gets “civilized.” (In real life, Balaguer would remain in power until the 1990s, completely blind yet as foxy as ever. Now, through Vargas Llosa's pen, he becomes a memorable character in literature.)

Framing the entire novel is its only presumably fictive matter, the personal odyssey of Urania Cabral, an attractive, forty-nine-year-old Manhattan lawyer-spinster who, at age fourteen, was hastily sent off for study in the United States, far from the Goat's mad whims. Now, in 1997, she returns for a visit to her relatives and her paralyzed, mute father, an erstwhile, earnest Trujillo ally and senator. These homey chapters provide the book's few glimpses of family warmth and humane feeling. Yet here too Trujillo's destructive whims had once intruded, and Urania's macabre reminiscences (which obviously one shouldn't divulge here) will build up to a chilling surprise, a flashback ending followed by a complex and equally surprising coda.

Vargas Llosa, a master of counterpoint, weaves these diverse voices into a narrative fugue that moves full speed ahead through crescendo and climax. As befits a historical thriller, the book is replete with period information. Readers will learn truckloads about what Trujillo did to his own people, about the terrible traumas that didn't heal—and in the bargain they will be gripped by a superb page-turner. Moreover, like many novels about tyranny, the insights gleaned from The Feast of the Goat apply to everyday “politics” in the widest sense. Some of the palace intrigues depicted here are perfectly conceivable in our corporate or academic corridors. Balaguer's florid pat phrases, smiling threats, and faux-pious grieving will ring familiar to anyone who has endured manipulative kin, colleague, or boss.

The book is nicely translated by Edith Grossman, although the dialogue portions could be more oral and colloquial, more “I've got” than “I have.” At times her rendering of military dirty-talk misses the mark (“You have a lot of balls”—instead of simply “You've got balls”). Also, the Spanish adjective genial is not our English “genial,” but rather indicates a work or action that is “of genius.” Still, Grossman has done a remarkable job, and American readers have every reason to feel grateful for her monumental labors.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz (essay date November-December 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. “Sensationalism and Sensibility.” New Leader 84, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 30-1.

[In the following essay, Schwartz takes issue with the recurring “scenes of mayhem, murder, rape, and mutilation” in Vargas Llosa's novels, particularly The Feast of the Goat.]

For several decades Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has been outspoken on behalf of free speech and against tyranny, which he knew as a young man in his homeland. In 1990 he ran for the presidency of Peru on a liberal platform, unsuccessfully. He has served as president of PEN International, the writers' organization. He loves to write about rebels and revolutions. So far so good. Even more, however, he loves to write about the brutality that incites rebellion. His novels abound with scenes of mayhem, murder, rape, and mutilation. They verge on the gratuitously lurid, often placing the reader in the unsought role of voyeur. This is not so good.

Many of Vargas Llosa's works intertwine or alternate passages of fact and fiction. His new novel, The Feast of the Goat, opens with the fiction, set in 1996. After 35 years, Urania Cabral, a prominent lawyer in New York, returns to her native Dominican Republic, which she left at the age of 14. We find out why at the very end, as well as why she hates her aged, infirm father, a disgraced former senator. The novel's factual subject is the 1961 assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo; it unfolds on his last day, with numerous flashbacks and wide-ranging narrative excursions.

Trujillo, a figure cut from the same cloth as Caligula, is the eponymous goat and has deservedly been called much worse. His reign of terror lasted slightly more than 30 years, and he prided himself on transforming the country from backward chaos to a state of efficient, functioning modernity. His means were extreme repression, torture, imprisonment, appropriation of property, bribery, and corruption of every imaginable kind. He was aided by an Army and secret police made up of relatives and like-minded thugs and sadists. A small group of dissidents killed him in his car on a dark road, but the planners numbered several dozen more, many of them high-ranking military officers, abetted by the CIA, whose earlier tolerance of Trujillo had finally run out. In the aftermath, all but two of the conspirators were dispatched outright or tortured to death; with excessive relish, the novel will tell you precisely how.

These facts are readily available in histories of the era, and Vargas Llosa follows them closely in able reportorial fashion (he worked as a journalist in Paris in his youth). What he wishes to accomplish beyond a vivid and thorough depiction of a vile regime, succeeded by one slightly less vile, is not clear. And yet the historical novel is a genre he has used throughout a distinguished career, notably in The War of the End of the World (1981) and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984), a work that played with facts in formally innovative ways. His most ambitious and esteemed book, Conversations in the Cathedral (1989), offered a grim view of Peruvian life under the eight-year dictatorship of Colonel Manuel Odría, beginning in 1948.

In a 1987 essay, Vargas Llosa wrote: “Literary truth is one thing, historical truth another. But, although it may be full of fabrications … literature presents us with a side of history that cannot be found in history books. For literature does not lie gratuitously. Its deceits, devices and hyperbole all serve to express those deep-seated and disturbing truths which only come to light in this oblique way.” True enough, as those of us who were introduced to the Yorks and Lancasters by way of Shakespeare can attest. But Vargas Llosa does not begin to do for Trujillo what Shakespeare did for the Richards and Henrys. The unalloyed cruelty shown here is neither complex nor interesting, and lingering on its details yields easily to sensationalism. Rather than pity or terror, the monstrous Trujillo as protagonist provokes simple disgust and outrage.

Vargas Llosa appears not to have used many “deceits” in presenting historical truth, though he does invent pages of believable if repetitive dialogue and rumination for the jittery conspirators—brave and noble in varying degrees, motivated by idealism or revulsion or personal revenge. As for “hyperbole,” in the case of Trujillo that is hardly necessary. Except for two characters handled with psychological depth, the “deep-seated and disturbing truths” about the assassination are not revealed in a particularly “oblique way”; moreover, they came to light years ago.

The first exception is General José René Román, secretary of the Armed Forces, who had agreed to support the conspirators and assume power upon Trujillo's death, but plans go awry, and at the crucial moment the conspirators cannot find him. Instead, Román learns the news from General Arturo Espaillat; a Trujillo henchman known aptly as Razor, and caves in, overwhelmed by an inexplicable passivity. “From that moment on, and in all the minutes and hours that followed, when his fate was decided, and the fate of his family, the conspirators, and, in the long run, the Dominican Republic, General José René Román always knew with absolute lucidity what he should do. Why did he do exactly the opposite?” Why indeed? Trujillo is dead, yet his quasi-mystical power endures: “Like so many officers, so many Dominicans, before Trujillo his valor and sense of honor disappeared, and he was overcome by a paralysis of his reason and his muscles, by servile obedience and reverence. He often had asked himself why the mere presence of the Chief—his high-pitched voice and the fixity of his gaze—annihilated him morally.” Vargas Llosa might have examined that curious paralysis more closely; as it stands, it is pure melodrama.

The only character immune to the fixity of Trujillo's gaze is Joaquin Balaguer, the puppet president (also poet and belletrist) who quite unexpectedly assumes genuine power after the assassination. Balaguer's personal mantra is “never, for any reason, lose your composure.” The chapters describing his consummate political shrewdness, slyness and daring beneath a modest guise are the best in the book. Vargas Llosa shifts from fast-paced-thriller mode to give a subtle, finely imagined account of Balaguer deftly balancing volatile factions. Besides manipulating public opinion, he declaws the military by threats of exposure, panders to the Catholic Church, placates the CIA, accommodates Trujillo's family, and to ensure his own rule abandons the assassins to their gruesome fate. The wily Balaguer is a far cry from Trujillo. He looks the other way when his schemes require violence: “Do not give me any details, I beg you. It is easier to deal with the criticisms I receive from all around the world if I am not aware that the excesses they denounce are true.” Later, if possible and expedient, he will try to establish a minimally decent government. Vargas Llosa's steely cynicism serves our understanding of events better than his brutal details.

As for Urania Cabral, she remains a prop. In the hours prior to his death, Trujillo, a voracious sexual predator (in Vargas Llosa's world, sex, power and rage are close kin), recalls his most recent prey, a “skinny girl” who witnessed his humiliation in bed. The girl turns out to be Urania, a virginal 14, whose father offered her to Trujillo to buy his way back into the Chief's good graces. She has been unable to let a man near her since his manual rape of her; he can't do it the usual way because of prostate cancer, whether real or invented I don't know. (With everything else on his mind, he has to worry about unsightly stains on his crisp uniform.) This grotesque piece of exploitative banality, intended to illustrate the long reach of evil, is superfluous.

Enrique Krauze (essay date 11 February 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Krauze, Enrique. “Exorcisms.” New Republic 226, no. 5 (11 February 2002): 28-34.

[In the following essay, Krauze remarks on the political climate of Peru circa 1990 and Vargas Llosa's influence in Peruvian politics.]

“There are no limits to deterioration: it can always be worse.” This observation by Alejandro Mayta, the disenchanted guerrilla fighter of Mario Vargas Llosa's novel The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, who returns to his birthplace after many years, freed of ghosts but devoid of hope, came to mind in March, 1990. I was in Lima to participate in a conference on “The Culture of Freedom,” a meeting of writers and intellectuals that marked the beginning of the final phase of Vargas Llosa's presidential campaign. I had last been in the city a little more than a decade earlier, when Lima still seemed grand and dignified; but this time I was struck by the army of child beggars on every street corner, and I learned the horrifying statistics of the populist legacy in Peru: reserves almost non-existent, the country virtually bankrupt, a decline of fifteen percent in the GDP, inflation in four figures. Blackouts, sabotage, kidnappings, and murders had become daily news. Above all, there was the terrifying, ubiquitous presence of the Shining Path, a guerrilla group so relentlessly nihilist that it made Dostoevsky's possessed seem like soap opera characters.

And yet the prevailing sentiment of the times was hope. The annus mirabilis of 1989 had just ended, presaging, as Vargas Llosa would say, “a humanity without wars, without blocs,” united by “the common denominator of democracy and freedom.” Seemingly more modest but no less significant were the recent changes in Latin America: the end of the civil war in El Salvador, the free elections in Nicaragua, the general discrediting of militarism, the flowering of democracy across almost the entire continent—except in Cuba, Haiti, and of course Mexico, which was governed by a regime that months later Vargas Llosa notoriously and lethally characterized as “the perfect dictatorship.”

In an after-dinner discussion Vargas Llosa spoke animatedly about his plans for governing Peru: “Now, for the first time, all countries are free to choose wealth. … We have the example of the export economies of the East that three decades ago were poorer than Peru. … We must privatize the telephone companies, the airlines, the banks, the farming cooperatives, support the informales [small, unofficial businesses] in the city economy and the parceleros [poor peasants who rent land to survive] in the country. … We must organize civil society in units of self-defense. … We must clean out the huge garbage pit of populist rhetoric.” Vargas Llosa proposed that the state scale back its unproductive and corrupt policies of economic intervention and that it concentrate instead on basic endeavors such as education, security, health, justice, and cultural development, all within a framework of tolerance for political liberties. He planned, in sum, to govern as a modernizer. It was a plastic hour in Peru's history, when anything seemed possible. And he was not alone in his enthusiasm for the “Great Change” that his posters on the streets and his television ads proclaimed. “He's our last hope,” I heard people say. “He's our salvation.”

There was, in fact, a faintly missionary tone to Vargas Llosa's actions and speeches. Having lost his religious faith in his early youth, he seems to have required a remnant of that faith to embark on a historical adventure that would put his life, and the lives of his family, at risk. He missed the writing life, the novels that he had to postpone, the peace of the libraries. But he was enjoying the adventure because it brought him closer to the example of Malraux, to the creative alliance of thought and action.

In Vargas Llosa's case, action followed a particular plan. Accustomed (as he has repeatedly written) to summoning his ghosts in order to exorcise them, to mold them to the shape of his fantasies, he now proposed to exorcise the demons of Peru not in the pages of his work but in the arenas of history. He hoped to banish the time-honored evils of power from the seat of power. It was an extraordinary ambition, this hope of deposing the past. When people seek to depose the past, other people usually get hurt. I left Lima pondering Max Weber's famous warning: “He who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics, for the quite different tasks of politics can only be solved by violence.” I comforted myself with the thought that Vargas Llosa was himself one of the great skeptics about revolutionary ambition.

Being a writer in Latin America has always meant accepting the burden of political consciousness. For Latin American intellectuals to ignore the pull of politics is to admit to a kind of frivolity or solipsism. Their predicament, and their responsibility, is rather like the predicament and the responsibility of Russian intellectuals in the nineteenth century, or dissident Poles and Czechs in the twentieth century. That is why the figure of Sartre and his belief in the “engagement” of the intellectual caught on in Latin America. In time, Sartre and his imitators in Europe and America exchanged that commitment for the sorry substitute of a rigid ideology, but the model left its mark.

When Vargas Llosa renounced his Marxist beliefs—it was a gradual process of disenchantment that culminated in the mid-1970s—he did not renounce his “engaged” stance. Instead he gave it a new foundation, basing it on a genuine liberalism that preferred the struggle for the individual's liberation to the struggle for the society's liberation. That is why he reconsidered and came to admire the work of Camus and its wise anti-utopianism, and discovered—late, but not too late—the classics of modern liberal thought. The apostate Marxist kindled particularly to the ideas of Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper. Octavio Paz once remarked that in his liberalism Vargas Llosa had the passion of the convert. (It was a passion shared by Paz, who in his youth had also been a fervent socialist and who completed his own ordeal of self-criticism in 1974, when he read Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam.)

When I first met Vargas Llosa in 1979, politics seemed rather distant from his mind. The military regime in Lima was giving way to a civil government, but Peru had not yet recovered from the destructive effects that Vargas Llosa chronicled in his first novels (especially The Time of the Hero and Conversation in the Cathedral), Balzacian portraits of a society of vast economic contrasts, oppressed by ancient military and religious practices. Distanced now from the Cuban revolution, which he had enthusiastically supported as the best option for Latin America, and increasingly skeptical that the region's problem was capitalism, he devoted the 1970s to more playful, erotic, and purely literary themes.

But the next decade would be different, and in 1981, as a sign of things to come, Vargas Llosa published The War of the End of the World, a novel of Tolstoyan sweep. Most Latin American intellectuals read it without realizing that it touched on a permanent perplexity in the history of the continent's backward societies: the extremely violent reaction of the masses—usually led by a charismatic savior manipulating atavistic myths—to attempts at modernization. The rebellion of Tupac Amaru against the reforms of the Bourbons in Peru in 1780 was one such case. The beginning of the War of Independence in Mexico in 1810 was another, as was the revolution of Emiliano Zapata (1911-1919) and the Cristeros Rebellion (1926-1929). And still another was the revolt re-created by Vargas Llosa in his novel, in which the poor peasants of Canudos, headed by a messianic leader called the Conselheiro, defended “God's truth” against the “devil” incarnated in the new Brazilian republic at the end of the nineteenth century. Vargas Llosa's book foresaw not only many false-salvific moments in the subsequent history of Latin America (Chiapas most notably), but also a movement that is now the object of worldwide anxiety: the fundamentalist rebellion against the West.

Power and violence have always been central themes in Vargas Llosa's work, central to his exploration of the souls of men and the nature of evil. In the 1960s, power was represented in his writing by generalized abstract entities—the capitalist system, bourgeois society—that created and supported tyrants and their sinister followers. As time went by, however, the novelist began to change his focus and to note the oppressive qualities of the ideologies that claimed to liberate humanity. The various guerrilla movements in Central America that in turn awoke militarist specters in a never-ending cycle of death were prime examples. At the time Peru was suffering the presence of an extreme Maoist-style movement—the Shining Path—that assassinated peasant children so as to instruct them in the ethic of the “new man.” With a few exceptions, the intellectuals of Latin America supported the guerrillas. Vargas Llosa took the unpopular path, condemning the guerrilla oppression as well as the military oppression and championing democracy.

The whirlwind of history had to catch up with Vargas Llosa, and it did. The massacre of Uchuraccay in 1983, according to his own account, was the event that changed the course of his life. A radical sector of the press and public opinion blamed the government of Belaúnde Terry for the strange deaths of eight journalists in the province of Ayacucho, which was the seat of Shining Path operations. In response, the president formed an investigatory commission of three members—one of them was Vargas Llosa—and eight advisers. After thirty days on the crime scene, and after collecting more than a thousand pages of testimony, the commission concluded that “the journalists were killed by the peasants of Uchuraccay, with the probable complicity of peasants from other Iquicha Indian towns, with no government forces present when the killings took place.” Shortly afterward, Vargas Llosa published his essay “Story of a Killing” in the major Western papers, and in it he showed that the peasants had believed that the journalists belonged to the Shining Path. The experience—and the innumerable diatribes that his piece provoked—finally revealed the harsh truth to him: “The reality is that the wars between guerrillas and government troops are score-settlings of privileged sectors of society, in which the peasant masses are cynically and brutally used by those who claim to want to free them. It is the masses that always supply the greatest number of victims.”

In this moment of “astonishment, indignation, and sadness,” Vargas Llosa conceived of The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984). If Uchuraccay was a revelation, the novel was a reckoning with this revelation, with the ideological fanaticisms that had seduced the writer in the 1960s, the movements that, “seeking to create a heaven on earth,” only managed to lock in oppression and poverty. To make things worse, the government of Alan García in Peru threatened to nationalize the country's private banks and to put the economy under state control. In such circumstances, it was no wonder that a sector of Peruvian society should see Vargas Llosa as a man heaven-sent, a sort of political exorcist, the only person in Peru capable of creating rational order out of the spiraling chaos and violence.

All his own precautions against the temptations of power suddenly collided with the duty of political commitment. The third volume of Vargas Llosa's collection of essays called Against Wind and Tide (a combative title inspired by Isaiah Berlin's Against the Current) reflected the writer's new calling. He championed liberal economic theories that were designed not to save Peru but to improve it. What was necessary was not the creation of a heaven on earth. No, heaven had to be left in its place and out of politics, and Peruvians had to fashion a more just home where they actually lived.

For a few months, fortune smiled on Vargas Llosa. Weeks before the elections, the polls gave him a wide lead. But the historical demons of Peru were loose. In A Fish in the Water, a memoir of his adventure in liberal politics that appeared in 1993, Vargas Llosa refers to the “manipulation, intrigue, pacts, betrayals, much calculation, not a little cynicism, and all kinds of trickery” that he endured during and after his presidential campaign, including the “mudslinging” and the “torrents of filth,” all the insults, lies, and slanders that were heaped on him. One scene worthy of Buñuel engraved itself on his memory. It unfolded on a ferociously hot morning in a small town in the Chira Valley, as he was arriving with his entourage:

I was met by a furious horde of men and women armed with sticks and stones and all kinds of blunt objects, their faces twisted by a hate that made them look like beings from the depths of time, a pre-history in which humans and animals were still indistinguishable … roaring and shouting they threw themselves against the convoy like people fighting to save their lives or to sacrifice themselves, with a temerity and savagery that said everything about the almost inconceivable levels of deterioration to which life for millions of Peruvians had descended. What were they defending themselves against? What ghosts were behind those menacing clubs and knives?

The answer was: every ghost, beginning with the first ghost, the ghost of the Conquest. “Spaniards go home,” they were shouting. There it was, intact, that “savage racial nomenclature that decides the fate of many” in Peru, a country where there is no possibility of civic dialogue, where “social structures are based on a kind of total injustice and violence is at the base of all human relations.” Direct political exorcism was not just impossible: it was counterproductive. Vargas Llosa was routed at the polls. Weber had been right all along. Vargas Llosa's personal salvation lay along a different path.

When he was defeated in the elections, Vargas Llosa's friends recalled with trepidation the fate of another famous writer who at the age of thirty-seven fought a splendid electoral battle and was finally crushed by the combined forces of the political-military machine and an inexperienced electorate. José Vasconcelos left Mexico in 1929 for a long exile in Europe and the United States. There he wrote the four volumes of his memoirs, perhaps the greatest autobiography in the Spanish language. It was not just a detailed retelling of the ups and downs of his political career; it was also a confession—in the Augustinian sense—of his passions, errors, blunders, and sins. And rather than granting him serenity, the exercise deepened Vasconcelos's resentment not only of his enemies but also of his country and the West, which according to him was controlled by a Jewish conspiracy that ruled from Wall Street to the Kremlin.

Vasconcelos, the “teacher of America” and the champion of democratic freedoms, became a worshipper of absolute power. He edited Timón, the magazine of the Nazi embassy in Mexico; and he praised all the dictators of his time, from Franco to Trujillo (in fact, he wrote the introduction to a book of poems by Trujillo's wife); and he died, thirty years after his defeat, despising the educational work that he had done in his youth, and indifferent to politics, and in thrall to a mysticism that brought him no peace, but only intensified the flame of his anger.

Vargas Llosa was made in a different mold, of course; but it was not clear what his future after politics would be. He had something secure to which he could return from the frustrations of history: he had literature, which served him not merely as a place of refuge but also as a space for clarity and freedom. Like Vasconcelos, he chose the exorcism of autobiography, but unlike Vasconcelos it was not in order to flagellate himself by exhibiting his “sins of the flesh,” or by airing the ideological obsessions that he had already worked out in his novels. He had already painted the portraits of the dark assassins, the grim soldiers, the conniving priests, the messianic leaders, the guerrillas, and the rest. Now it was the countenance of his own father that he decided to confront: the figure of his own personal dictator, Don Ernesto J. Vargas. He had confronted his father tacitly in his early novels, in which rebellion against the father is a recurrent theme; but now it was time for a direct reckoning.

Believing him dead and cherishing his hallowed memory, the young Vargas Llosa had lived for ten years surrounded by noble paternal figures from his mother's side of the family, until one day, all of a sudden, like a ghost his father reappeared on the scene and unburdened himself to his son about the full weight of his social resentments and his unacknowledged guilt. “He shouted … and he hit my mother,” and “she cried and listened, silent.” The father hurled insults at the son in private and hurled blows at him in public. Terrorized daily by his father's threat to “get out that gun and shoot you, then kill myself,” the boy would kneel like a penitent, “begging for forgiveness.” When Don Ernesto learned that Mario wrote poetry, he took it as a sure sign that he would be a “faggot” and, alarmed, enrolled him in the military school Leoncio Prado, later exorcised by Vargas Llosa in The Time of the Hero. On page after page in his autobiographical work A Fish in the Water, as Vargas Llosa deliberately and meticulously told the story of his father, he faced head-on the “terrible rage” that he had come to harbor for him and his arbitrary, absolute, unpredictable power. In the process, however, his “simmering hatred” dissolved, if not into forgiveness then at least into compassion for a man “unreachable and blind to reason.”

So what demon still remained for this writer to summon and to exorcise and to vanquish? There remained the dictator, the Latin American archetype of power, the figure principally responsible for Latin America's impoverishment, who in many different forms has so often reduced the history of the region's countries to a mere biography of power.

But another novel about dictators? Vargas Llosa was preceded in his endeavor by a long and admirable line of forebears, from Valle Inclán to García Márquez, from Asturias to Carpentier, from Roa Bastos to Uslar Pietri. Almost all the writers of the so-called boom in Latin American fiction had produced fictional accounts of the tyrants, their own local versions of Conrad's Nostromo, the strongman, the cacique or caudillo, lord of the gallows and the knife, who infiltrates the lives, the homes, and the minds of his people. Vargas Llosa had been interested in the figure of Trujillo since 1975, but the fates deferred this particular assignment until the writer had personally experienced the hell of politics, and endured not just individual hardship but also collective torment, born out of the fanaticism of racial, ideological, national, social, and religious identity. Then, the better to understand and to capture the nature of evil, he entered the twisted universe of Rafael Trujillo, the astounding feast of the goat. (In his heyday Trujillo was known as “the goat” for his insatiable sexual appetites.)

Besides the fictional character of Urania, who at the end of The Feast of the Goat reveals the traumatic event that caused her to forsake her country, the novel is centered around the days immediately leading up to and following the assassination of Trujillo on a Dominican highway in 1961. From this vantage point, Vargas Llosa employs his customary Faulknerian technique of mixing times and voices to re-create the whole story of Trujillo's dictatorship: the tyrant's chambers of power, his family, his court, his methods of domination. He re-creates, too, the history of the grievances of the plotters against him. After the assassination, the regime survives for a brief period (Trujillismo without Trujillo), which leads to a terrible hunt for the conspirators, who are almost all slaughtered. This hunt is the most horrifying part of the book. In time (and thanks to the political machinations of the poet Joaquín Balaguer, Trujillo's court intellectual), the republic would achieve a kind of democracy. But it would take the Dominicans decades to free themselves internally from the specter of Trujillo.

Rafael leónidas trujillo, a soldier trained by the U.S. Marines during the American occupation of the island between 1916 and 1924, came to power in February, 1930 in a coup d'état. Born in 1891, of mixed ethnic origin (Spanish, Creole, and Haitian), he joined the national police, which in 1927 became the national army. Over his more than three decades of absolute power, Trujillo served formally as president four times, and the rest of the time he ruled through family members or servile associates. As well as maintaining absolute dominion over the only political party, he controlled the radio, television, and press either directly or by family proxy.

It was an innovation of Trujillo's rule, in Latin American history, that he turned his country into his own personal patrimony. He created and controlled (as the principal stockholder) monopolies in tobacco, rice, and sugar, and he had full control of the national bank and the electric company. By the end of his life, he controlled eighty percent of the industrial infrastructure and employed forty-five percent of the population. Although some of his measures promoted industrial development, urban and demographic growth, and education, Trujillo consolidated his position by the systematic repression of his adversaries, and committed at least one act of ethnic cleansing, against a defenseless group stranded on the Dominican border and hailing from Haiti, the other half of the island. The massacre took place in early October, 1937 and left eighteen thousand dead.

By the 1940s, Trujillo's dictatorship was brazen, absolute, and brimming with the grotesqueries that Vargas Llosa recalls in clinical detail. It was also utterly un-ideological. In this respect it was unlike the dictatorships that Latin America would come to know in the 1970s and 1980s at both ends of the ideological spectrum, from Pinochet and the Argentine generals to Castro—dictatorships that were frankly totalitarian.

Two mysteries intertwine and clash in the novel with the precision of Greek drama: power and freedom. In the character of Trujillo, Vargas Llosa dissects with clinical skill the anatomy as well as the psychology of power. Here are all the physical attributes of domination: the paralyzing gaze of the tyrant, the myth of the man who does not sweat, the mania for uniforms and military decorations, and above all the irrepressible sexual posturing that—in an almost Taliban-like extreme of the culture of machismo—Trujillo used to impose his control.

Subjection though sex was at the center of the Trujillo phenomenon. Reconceiving the ancient droit du seigneur, he slept with the wives of his ministers, with their knowledge or at least their vague complicity, not just to test the unconditional nature of their servitude, but also to set himself up as the head of every family, a man with patrimonial rights over his own personal island. This obsessive process of humiliation, this enslavement of woman by man, touches a nerve in Vargas Llosa's imagination. That is why the protagonist of The Feast of the Goat is Urania, the prodigal daughter of one of Trujillo's acolytes. Urania—the voice of a melancholy historical conscience, clear-eyed, sealed off from any possibility of happiness—drives the novel. She returns to Santo Domingo decades after the collapse of the regime in order to confront her own terrifying ghosts and those of her native land.

The Feast of the Goat wanders among the collection of bizarre and appalling courtier types that all dictatorial regimes produce: some real, with first and last names; others fictitious, assembled from a variety of real-life prototypes. Present and rendered in lavish detail are Trujillo's assassin or personal policeman (the terrifying Johnny Abbés García, ex-socialist, specialist in espionage, torture artist), his economic administrator (the cynical and corrupt Henry Chirinos), his political adviser, his legal affairs man (“Cerebrito” Cabral, Urania's father), his style adviser and pimp (Manuel Antonio), and strangest of all, the court poet and intellectual Joaquín Balaguer, who, blind and almost paralyzed at the age of ninety-five, is still today a mythical figure in the Dominican Republic. (“While Balaguer lives and breathes, no one else will succeed,” one of his party slogans recently proclaimed).

Vargas Llosa captures Balaguer's extreme subservience in a speech that the poète de chambre but shrewd politician delivers on the theme of the providential role of the dictator. The Dominican Republic had survived more than four centuries of countless adversities, including pirates, Haitian invasions, attempts at annexation, the massacre and the flight of whites—all of this by the grace of God's protection. Until 1930, that is, when Rafael Leónidas Trujillo had relieved God of this arduous mission: “A bold, energetic will that supports, in the march of the Republic toward the fulfillment of its destiny, the protective benevolence of supernatural forces … God and Trujillo: here, in synthesis, is the explanation, first, of the survival of the nation, and second, of the present-day flourishing of Dominican life.”

The dictator believed unswervingly in this version of events. But did Balaguer? “I practiced the kind of politics that could be practiced,” he once confessed to Vargas Llosa. “I avoided women and corruption.” Machiavelli would have admired the cunning of Balaguer—a small and seemingly frail man, a bachelor and a loner, a fine writer of modernist verse, a cultivated man—during his decades under Trujillo, but he would have been even more impressed by the political clockwork that Balaguer set in motion after the assassination of the dictator. In that truly Shakespearean drama, he did not flinch from allowing Trujillo's heirs to take action against the conspirators, but he later took advantage of the trail of blood to dissociate himself from the Trujillo dynasty, and to ingratiate himself with the international community and the Vatican, which in the last years of Trujillo's reign had withdrawn its support of the regime. At the same time, it was Balaguer who honored the conspirators in death, making them heroes of the realm. Plenty of people suspected that Balaguer knew about the conspiracy and even encouraged it. Today he is old and blind, and his health is failing him, but he is still influential, still a sorcerer of political brinkmanship. “That's politics,” the unruffled Balaguer has remarked, “making your way among the corpses.”

In this masterful novel, splendidly translated, as always, by Edith Grossman, Vargas Llosa describes in detail the procedures of manipulation, the varieties of censorship, and the subtle gradations in the exercise of power, from the subtle insinuation that an individual has fallen out of favor to the most brutal tortures and killings. In the end, the greatest mystery lies in the voluntary, hypnotic collaboration of the masses with a single man: “Trujillo drew up from the depths of their souls a masochistic inclination, making it so that only when they were spat upon, mistreated, and utterly abject were they satisfied.” There was “something more subtle and indefinable than fear” in the paralysis of the will not just of common citizens but also of brave characters such as General José René Román, who, having played a central role in the conspiracy against Trujillo, falls into a state of paralysis upon its successful completion, and acquiesces in his own horrifying and unnecessary martyrdom. Trujillo is still inside his men, Vargas Llosa seems to suggest, he still dominates them, he still enslaves them.

The lingering effects of Trujillo's machinations are what inspired Vargas Llosa to embark on this novel. Such a subject, he decided, could not be presented in the easy form of a mocking, farcical, extravagant, or theatrical narrative, as has been the case with other novels about dictators, most notably The Autumn of the Patriarch. García Márquez's novel is certainly a masterpiece, but in it an almost orgiastic atmosphere prevails, an interminable orgasm of power, not devoid of desperation and a profound melancholy, that seizes the immortal and inviolate patriarch in his “vast kingdom of sorrow.”

García Márquez does not so much describe the sorrow of the dictator as share it. The prose of his novel, with its verbal torrents and its arabesques of imagery, is itself an onomatopoeia of power. In this regard Vargas Llosa could not be more different, technically and philosophically, from García Márquez: indeed, The Feast of the Goat may be read as a brilliant retort to The Autumn of the Patriarch. Vargas Llosa does not identify with the dictator. Instead he documents the dictator with an almost lawyerly thoroughness, using as his fictional materials first-hand sources, reports, testimonies, and historical works. His prose is much more precise and disciplined, controlled by a critical eye intent on recreating the chambers of power critically and from within.

The distinction between Vargas Llosa's and García Márquez's treatments of tyranny is not only literary, it is also moral. Some writers are attracted by the erotics of power, in their works and in their lives. That fascination is the condition of their imaginings: the two-hundred-year-old patriarch of García Márquez, with five thousand children, who inspires laughter and disgust—sometimes even pity—is the ideal of the man of power rendered in a kind of prose poetry, in a lush jungle of words, an organic, zoological, telluric idea. If he sleeps with many women, it is because he has not found true love. He is a victim many times over: of himself, of fickle women, of the miracle-working reputation that he has acquired, of the dozens of Yankee ambassadors, of the Catholic Church, of the implacable conspirators who assassinated his wife and son, of the courtiers who trick him and manipulate him, and, above all, of time. In his novel, García Márquez surrenders to the pious and almost tender fascination for that “merciless and brutal authority” that once was “a feverish torrent that we saw gush out of its spring before our very eyes,” but that in “the shoreless bog of the fullness of his autumn … was so lonely in his glory that he didn't even have enemies anymore.” Reading The Autumn of the Patriarch, one understands his tender friendship with Fidel Castro.

Vargas Llosa is something else. His fascination with his characters, even with the cruelest of them (such as Johnny Abbés), is of a different nature. He does not revel in their reality for even a single moment. Instead he embarks upon a vivisection, manifesting an immense desire to exorcise all these characters once and for all. He understands so as not to forgive. In his novel and in reality, Vargas Llosa is moved not by an attraction to power but rather by an urge to criticize it, and even to abolish it in those realms of human life where it has no value and should have no value.

So The Feast of the Goat is unlike other dictator novels, and also in another respect: it has likable characters (almost all of them martyrs) who represent the call of freedom. Vargas Llosa's novel includes the perfect antithesis to absolute power in the figure of Estrella Sadhalá, a Christian Arab of firm beliefs, who learns from his spiritual counselor and the island's papal nuncio that in the Catholic tradition, specifically in Thomas Aquinas, tyrannicide is justifiable as a final recourse against the powerful who have forgotten, abandoned, or betrayed the original sovereignty of a people, the search for the “common good.”

“If there is anything I hate,” Vargas Llosa has remarked, “anything that profoundly disgusts me and enrages me, it is dictatorship. It is not just a political conviction or a moral principle: it is a twisting inside me, a visceral reaction, maybe because I have endured many dictatorships in my own country, maybe because as a child I experienced in my own flesh the brutal imposition of authority.” In biographical terms, and in the history of literature in Spanish, The Feast of the Goat is a passionate and incontrovertible defense of the opposite allegiance, the allegiance to freedom. Vargas Llosa has made liberalism into a motive for great fiction. And his novel arrives just as the liberal dream is slowly becoming a reality in Latin America, after two hundred years of dictatorships and anarchy, revolt and rebellion, guerrillas and revolutions. Power, I mean its living representatives and its demons, will not lose its hunger to possess and to rule all of life. Literature will not be able to prevent the appearance of still more dictators and assassins, still more fanatical and oppressive regimes. Still, as Orwell once observed, literature is our natural defense against dictatorship. For tyrants in their “vast kingdoms of sorrow,” literature represents, in its radical freedom, something truly fearsome: the last word.

Sebastian Shakespeare (review date 25 March 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Shakespeare, Sebastian. Review of The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa. New Statesman 131, no. 4550 (25 March 2002): 57.

[In the following review, Shakespeare offers a mixed assessment of The Feast of the Goat, noting that “even if this is not a great novel, Vargas Llosa is still a great storyteller.”]

Mario Vargas Llosa's new novel [The Feast of the Goat] concerns the last days of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo before he was assassinated in 1961. Mixing fiction and fact, the book offers a masterly portrayal of this most emblematic of tyrants, who ruled his country for 31 years. It is a miracle that this emperor wore any clothes at all, because he spent most of his time fornicating in bed. A serial philanderer, he sent his ministers on missions abroad in order to seduce their wives. Known as the Goat, the Benefactor, the Father of the New Nation. Trujillo thought he ruled by divine authority and became godfather to hundreds of babies a week. If his followers fell out of favour, they were fed to the sharks—or his closest associates would read about their resignations and disgrace in the press.

Against this menacing backdrop unfold three overlapping stories told from the perspective of Trujillo, the seven assassins and Urania Cabral, the daughter of one of Trujillo's inner circle. The novel opens in 1996, as Urania returns to her homeland after a life of self-imposed exile. She left the country aged 14 and has come back to confront her ageing father about his past links with the regime. As the novel progresses, the narrative moves back and forth in time, culminating in the chilling denouement, where the teenage Urania comes face to face with the Goat.

This is an impressively crafted novel, teeming with characters and Vargas Llosa's trademark style, but the switches between present and past, sometimes in alternate sentences, can be confusing. The scenes of degradation have a voyeuristic appeal. If the Urania story is less successful and the least convincing strand, there is more than enough incident and drama to keep you hooked. The set pieces are magnificent—the stake-out, the shoot-out and the showdown—but it's the small details that you recall: the smell of cheap perfume sprayed on to electric chairs to conceal the stench of urine, excrement and charred flesh. Or the scent of almond blossom that accompanies the acts of abasement at Mahogany House, where Trujillo deflowers young virgins.

One of the rich ironies of the novel is how the assassins are ardent Trujillistas themselves. Trujillo is transformed into a monster by the adulation and acquiescence of the masses. But in the end, Trujillo himself is as oppressed as his own people—oppressed, that is, by his own humanity. He is vain (he would never permit himself to sweat in public), obsessed with punctuality (he never rises a minute before or after 4 am), in poor health (increasingly impotent and incontinent) and paranoid. As the head of his secret service says: “I can't have friends—it would compromise my work.”

So where does this stand in the Vargas Llosa canon? Some say it is his best novel yet, but I am not so sure. It is certainly his best novel for many years, but it cannot match Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter for spectacular exuberance and inventiveness, nor The War of the End of the World for epic sweep. In fact, the language of the book is strangely flat and the imagery muted. It is hard to know whether these are faults of the translation or whether they are a deliberate ploy to tone down the more excessive violence. I'm not complaining too much. Even if this is not a great novel, Vargas Llosa is still a great storyteller.

Philip Hensher (review date 30 March 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “Anatomy of a Tyrant.” Spectator 288, no. 9060 (30 March 2002): 38-9.

[In the following review, Hensher praises The Feast of the Goat as a “ugly, mesmerising, masterly novel” and comments that Vargas Llosa should be nominated for a Nobel Prize.]

This ugly, mesmerising, masterly novel [The Feast of the Goat] is as steeped in facts as Macbeth was in blood. Nothing could be further from the popular idea of the South American novel, and nothing could be a more remarkable demonstration of its strengths, obsessions and direction. It is the story of a terrible crisis in a small country's history, and, telling that terrible story, has no time to beguile foreign readers with exotica; this is not one of those South American narratives about sitting in the sun, minding the flower stall, stuffed with characters who grow wings and mate with tigers (you know the sort of thing). It is about oil, money, international relations and corruption; it has an appalling, irresistible reality.

The central episode of the novel is the assassination of Trujillo, the leader of the Dominican Republic, in 1961. Trujillo had led the country since 1930, and was a cast-iron Latin American dictator of the worst dye. Like many such men, his rule was propped up by the support of the United States. President Roosevelt once stated, ‘Trujillo is an SOB, but at least he's our SOB.’ By his last years, that support had been ebbing away, and it was only the prospect of the country going the way of Cuba which kept him in place. Kennedy openly said that the fear of a new Castro arising there was the only thing worse than Trujillo's regime, and until the Americans could be certain of a democratic administration taking his place, they would continue to support him. (You may interpret this ambition as cynically as you choose.)

The citizens, in the event, took matters into their own hands, and Trujillo was killed in 1961. As it happened, years of uncertainty followed, and political instability; but things did not quite follow any of the paths which had been predicted, and no one, surely, has ever seriously regretted Trujillo's death. He was a bad man.

Mario Vargas Llosa is a man who knows all about power and its temptations, and, although he is Peruvian, has written a brilliant, crowded and deeply thoughtful novel about the specific course of the history of the Dominican Republic. It is divided between an astonishingly persuasive account of Trujillo's last days, expressed with an intimacy and sympathy which are constantly suppressing rage, the motives of his killers, and a stranger, more familial story. Urania Cabral, years later, is returning to the Dominican Republic to nurse the last illness of her father, one of Trujillo's inner circle. Urania has been gone for 35 years, and is now a smart New York administrator. Her story is marginal to Trujillo's, but slowly comes to seem its whole point.

If Urania's story, seismically moving as it is, is the ordinary accomplishment of a very skilful novelist, the story of Trujillo and the psychic anxieties which shape and direct his last years are the work of a true and profound visionary. Trujillo, as he first appears, is a man almost tormented by two things; the first is the ambitions of his neighbours, and his thoughts are filled with Venezuelan oil, Castro's revolution, and the faithless Americans. That is what politicians are supposed to think about, but Llosa adds a second, odder torment to his meditations. Trujillo is seen as dwelling endlessly on the rebellion of art, and spends great amounts of energy bringing it under his control. Poetry is recited in the streets, and floats upwards to his revolted ears; a writer has been required to draft the publications of the ‘Bountiful First Lady’, Maria Martinez, before her books are imposed on every citizen—

wasn't Moral Meditations, with a prologue by the Mexican Jose Vasconcelos, required reading in the schools, and wasn't it reprinted every two months? Hadn't False Amity been the greatest stage hit in the 31 years of the Trujillo era?

His sons embarrass him by their ridiculous names out of Verdi's Aïda, and if he has ever read a novel, he has deliberately forgotten it, with the exception of Quo Vadis?, and that is really about how to be a successful dictator. Trujillo hates and fears art; and here is a novelist writing a novel about him.

In a sense, the chief subject here is that very Latin subject, the intimate relations between sex and power. Violence, the exercise of power and sexual nature are connected here in a way which does not seem inevitable.

It had never occurred to him that a woman could dedicate herself to things as manly as planning a revolution, obtaining and hiding weapons, dynamite, Molotov cocktails, knives, bayonets, talking about assassination attempts, strategy and tactics, and dispassionately discussing whether, in the event they fell into the hands of the SIM [secret service], activists ought to swallow poison to avoid the risk of betraying their comrades under torture.

The Freudian overtones here hardly need elucidation, but what is interesting is that the Urania subplot, which mostly consists of nothing more than a middle-aged woman nursing her sick father, readily assumes the air of an ingenious and well-planned revenge. The men in the novel devote themselves to weaponry, and their power all seems erected for the purpose of seducing women, like Trujillo's appalling rapist son.

It is all about sex, and the assertion of masculinity; Porfirio Rubirosa, the Dominican playboy whose penis was of such legendarily prodigious dimensions that Italian waiters still refer to the largest of their pepper-grinders as the Rubirosa, plays rather a crucial symbolic role in the plot. Against that, the women wage an effective and successful counter-attack—effective within the terms of the novel, that is. Against the increasingly horrifying tales of the emphatic and exaggerated masculinity of Trujillo and his terrifying sons, the society of women and feminine values starts to seem like a more permanent and abiding humanity, which will be there long after the posturing of Trujillo and his kind has passed away into nightmare. Trujillo hardly seems human; it is part of his mythology and his self-belief that he is a man who ‘did not sweat, did not sleep, never had a wrinkle on his uniform, his tuxedo, or his street clothes’. The women sleep, nurse, engage in acts of small friendship, and their intimate humanity starts to seem like a direct challenge to the pretensions of dictators.

It is a splendid novel, imbued with a passionately driving commitment. South America has, in the last half-century, produced a remarkable number of great novelists, who have often been misread in Europe. Even a novelist like Gabriel Garcia Marquez is much more directly engaged in questions of politics than is generally supposed; 100 Years of Solitude is not the fairy tale that many of his European readers thought it. In many ways, the turmoil of the times has meant that politics has a knack of forcing its way into everything; it often seems as if there is no other subject for the South American novelist to address. When a novelist as gifted, intelligent and perceptive as Mario Vargas Llosa takes on the subject of tyranny and the fantasies of tyrants, the results are spectacular and incontrovertibly plausible. There is nobody comparable in the English-language novel, and no novelist who could conceivably produce so detailed and so convincing a portrait of a dictator as the one contained in The Feast of the Goat. The Nobel Prize, surely, cannot be long coming.

Gregory Howard (review date spring 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Howard, Gregory. Review of The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Review of Contemporary Fiction 22, no. 1 (spring 2002): 120-21.

[In the following review, Howard describes The Feast of the Goat as “a visceral lesson in the complex synergy of political intrigue, sex, machismo, and history.”]

According to Mario Vargas Llosa, good fiction makes people uneasy. By that standard, his Feast of the Goat is a masterpiece, both to the degree it is sure to make readers squirm and for the multitude of reasons it gives them to do so. Set in the Dominican Republic, this triple-plotted novel is at once a fictionalized character study of Rafael “The Goat” Trujillo, the dictator who once ruled that island; of the cell of men who ended his reign by assassination; and of one individual, Urania Cabral, the daughter of a senator who proves his loyalty to the regime by handing over the fourteen-year-old to be deflowered by the seventy-year-old dictator. The novel has already sold 400,000 copies in Spanish, and it's easy to see why: it is a visceral lesson in the complex synergy of political intrigue, sex, machismo, and history, doing a lot to explain the cycle of revolutions and economic dreams unfulfilled that seems to characterize much of Latin America, not just the Dominican Republic. That is—and this is the reason the book deserves an equally wide English readership—without being didactic or absolving Dominicans of responsibility, the novel convincingly demonstrates how all of us in the Americas are Americans, whether or not those readers in the U.S. are aware of the price paid by individuals like Urania for the policies of their own country. Llosa, a former Peruvian presidential candidate, writes as one who knows his political and historical material intimately. The author of novels (e.g., The Green House) that explore the nature of narrative, he also writes as one who knows intimately how stories are constructed, be they in the form of literature or the narrative of fear and mythology created by a dictator to stay in power.

Rafael Torch (review date spring 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Torch, Rafael. Review of The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Antioch Review 60, no. 2 (spring 2002): 342-43.

[In the following review, Torch identifies The Feast of the Goat as “a reminder of the struggle that still exists in and out of the Latin American Hemisphere.”]

Full of the tremendous power of the Latin American epic, Vargas Llosa once again delivers a sweeping statement about the turbulent history of Latin America [in The Feast of the Goat]. Here he explores the final days, in 1961, of the dictator Rafael Trujillo's 31-year regime in the Dominican Republic, and the people he had deceived most, his citizens, who regarded him with the eyes of worshippers. “It was God and then Trujillo.”

The ruler, seventy in the beginning of the book, is a man terrified of old age, more prone to prove his twisted sense of manhood than ever before. Trujillo's complex web of politics, built on a Machiavellian deceit that includes torture, murder, intrigue, and charm, forces a feeling of urgency throughout the book that doesn't stop until the dictator is dead.

With Urania, the character who opens the book, returning to her home after thirty-five years, we get a look at how the past, and Trujillo's ghost, still haunts the Caribbean island. She comes back to face her father, who was a senator in the regime but fell out of the close circle whose loyalty Trujillo continually tested. In her story we find the heartbreak, recklessness, and shame of the Dominican past. With Urania we explore the cruelty of the 60s in Latin American, which often bowed to the United States government. We also find the people of the Dominican Republic mending the wounds of the past.

Historical account and fiction blend in the themes Vargas Llosa expresses through his characters. These universal ideas run throughout the histories of all Latin American countries. This is more than a story of the Dominican Republic. It is a reminder of the struggle that still exists in and out of the Latin American Hemisphere. With terrific characters and a well-woven, complex story line, Vargas Llosa beings what could be the impossible: the beginning of an exorcism to rid a people of their demons.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 March 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Review of The Language of Passion: Selected Commentary, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 5 (1 March 2003): 371.

[In the following review, the critic commends Vargas Llosa's skill with the journalistic form in The Language of Passion.]

“Novelist” just begins to cover the ground, for like many other Latin American writers of his generation—he was born in Lima in 1937 and began to write professionally in Spain in the late '50s—Vargas Llosa cut his teeth writing for daily papers and magazines. He continues to contribute to such periodicals; most of the pieces gathered in this exemplary volume, [The Language of Passion: Selected Commentary,] covering the '90s, first saw print in his occasional column in the Madrid daily El País. Less afraid of big ideas and big words than most American papers, the post-Franco Spanish press proves an ideal testing ground for Vargas Llosa's contrarian musings on such matters as Third World development, free markets, and modern literature. A longtime anticommunist liberal, for instance. Vargas Llosa disputes the notion that the developing world is poor because of some inherent defect in its peoples' wealth-making capabilities: the people are poor, to be sure, he writes, but only because the rich loot them “to enjoy an Arabian Nights—style opulence,” and to the tune of billions of dollars. Throughout, he comes down more on the side of Milton Friedman than Frederick Engels, but, much as he dislikes Fidel Castro, Vargas Llosa is no reactionary. One of the best pieces here is an unexpected homage to the Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley, under whose influence Vargas Llosa's son became a Rastafarian, and whom Vargas Llosa belatedly praises for his political universalism and tasteful tunes. Elsewhere, Vargas Llosa profiles the many great writers of the Barcelona of his youth—“In those days,” he writes, “Barcelona was down-at-the-heels, cosmopolitan, and international; now it is extremely rich, provincial, and nationalist”—and takes well-aimed potshots at superstar authors, current leaders, and world events, an array of targets that he takes evident pleasure in addressing.

Vargas Llosa's many admirers will share that pleasure with this fine collection.

Publishers Weekly (review date 3 March 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Review of The Language of Passion: Selected Commentary, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 9 (3 March 2003): 61.

[In the following review, the critic praises The Language of Passion and argues that “these essays should widen Vargas Llosa's appeal considerably, allowing new readers to share his passion.”]

In the United States, Vargas Llosa is best known for his novels (In Praise of the Stepmother, etc.), but in Spanish-speaking countries, he's also noted as a thoughtful, intense newspaper columnist. His essays on the machinations of countries like Argentina and his native Peru have shed light on their politics and provided some material for a previous collection, Making Waves. In this second culling from his newspaper life, [The Language of Passion: Selected Commentary,] Vargas Llosa provides plenty of political meat for a newshound, but also displays his wide range of interest. From the first essay, about a romance writer who left her life savings to found a book award for—what else—romance writers, Vargas Llosa sparkles. He sometimes digresses into minor diatribes about culture and government, but he mostly strikes a balance between fierce passion for a subject and the journalistic objectivity that allows for proper analysis of it Vargas Llosa writes, “I try to comment on some current event that rouses, angers, or disturbs me, subjecting it to the test of reason and in the process weighing my convictions, doubts, and confusions.” He often succeeds in reaching this goal, applying his fascination with humanity to such diverse topics as Bob Marley's shrine, the legacy of Vermeer and daily life in a Palestinian village. Sweeping, intelligent and lively, these essays should widen Vargas Llosa's appeal considerably, allowing new readers to share his passion. The translation (by PW contributing editor Wimmer) is superb, allowing Vargas Llosa's wit and intellect to be delivered in English while retaining its Spanish flavor.

Sebastian Smee (review date 15 November 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Smee, Sebastian. “Gauguin and His Gritty Granny.” Spectator 293, no. 9145 (15 November 2003): 54.

[In the following review, Smee lauds Vargas Llosa's narrative techniques in The Way to Paradise, calling the work “elegant and involving.”]

Sex has always been a stumbling block for Utopian-minded social reformers. They are attracted to the ideal prospect of ‘free love’ but tripped up by a tendency, seemingly inherent, for men to exploit women if their sexual drive is not held in check by so-called ‘bourgeois’ customs.

Mario Vargas Llosa's elegant and involving new novel [The Way to Paradise] is structured thematically around just such a dialectic. Its subject is the contrasting Utopian aspirations of two vivid historical figures who happened to have been related: Paul Gauguin and his grandmother Flora Tristán.

Gauguin most of us know something about (although many may not be aware that 2003 marks the 100th anniversary of his miserable death in the Marquesas Islands). Tristán, the mother of Gauguin's mother, was an author and charismatic campaigner for the rights of workers and women. Both also have a connection to the author's native Peru: Tristán went there to claim an inheritance from a rich uncle in Arequipa (Llosa's home town) while Gauguin was born there.

The novel is divided into chapters devoted alternately to its two leading players. It switches seemingly at random between the third and second person, an experiment which serves the story well: addressing the characters as ‘you’ shapes the book's tone, which is reminiscent of a fond relative recalling recent exploits—sympathetically, but with occasional intrusions of rue or regret.

Tristán's story is told in retrospect as, despite failing health, she tours the major cities of France, trying to form a worker's union. She is formidable: outspoken, intelligent and beautiful to boot. She doesn't hesitate to upbraid pompous dignitaries, or to give as good as she gets (which is a great deal: she is regarded everywhere she goes as subversive, mad or both).

Llosa describes the intolerable situations Flora witnesses on her tour with detailed credibility. One is struck above all by the justice of her cause, its combination of humanity and hard-headed realism. But the really knotty issue for her is sex. She is profoundly uncomfortable with it, and we soon learn why: she was forced into an early marriage with a violent bully who, after she left him, thrice kidnapped their daughter, whom he sexually molested. He ended by putting a bullet in Tristán herself. ‘Copulating, not making love but copulating, like pigs or horses,’ she thinks: ‘that was what men did with women.’ Sexual love, she intuits, is egocentric, and as such could only interfere with her great social project. That is why she cuts off the one passionate affair of her life, with a glamourous bisexual woman called Olympia. ‘What delicious egotism!’ inserts Llosa, at a point where we begin to wonder whether the exclamation applies to physical love or to Flora's own pleasure-renouncing mission.

If sex can only interfere with Flora's Utopia, it is at the very centre of her grandson's escapist fantasies of a future community harking back to ‘primitive’ societies where eroticism, art and religion are all fused into one. But in Tahiti Gauguin merely spreads the syphilis already eating away at him by participating in orgies and taking brides the same age as the pubescent girls Flora was so horrified to see in London, forced into prostitution and exposed to all manner of disease and numbing cruelty.

As if to confirm Flora's suspicions about men and sex, Gauguin is depicted as a veritable monster of egotism (which undoubtedly he was). There is nonetheless an attractive side to him; like Flora, he was in revolt against bourgeois narrow-mindedness. Death hangs heavy over the whole novel. Getting to grips with it is a squalid business for both Gauguin and his grandmother—indeed for all of us—not least because it pulls out the carpet from underneath every Utopia ever dreamed up.

Usually allergic to themes in fiction, I was drawn into Llosa's novel. It drags a little towards the end, but it is fluently told and filled with particulars which animate not only its surfaces but its depths.

Jonathan Heawood (review date 24 November 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Heawood, Jonathan. “Past Master.” New Statesman 132, no. 4665 (24 November 2003): 55.

[In the following review, Heawood criticizes Vargas Llosa's unsure and anxious characterizations in The Way to Paradise.]

The older he gets, the more difficult Mario Vargas Llosa becomes. It's not that his work is more obscure or challenging, but he makes things increasingly hard on himself. He writes about historical figures but seems unsure of his ability to fictionalise them. At every step of The Way to Paradise, he reaches out anxiously towards his characters, Paul Gauguin and Gauguin's grandmother, the social reformer Flora Tristan, and addresses them directly. He veers erratically between the third and the second person: “He laughed, then grew distressed. Why were you remembering your mother now? He hadn't thought of her since 1888, when he painted her portrait.”

All that seems certain is that he and his grandmother spent their lives seeking the way to paradise. Flora believed that she could build utopia on earth. Her vision of a Workers' Union, in which they would own all the means of production and share profits equitably, led her on an endless tour of French factories, preaching to workers who were mostly too exhausted to be converted. Fifty years later, her grandson nurtured dreams of a more private paradise, “where art wouldn't be just another business venture but a sacred, vital and sporting task, and where to eat, an artist would only need to raise his arm and pluck fruit from heavily laden trees, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden”.

Both dreamers' idealism closely relates to narcissism. Flora has rejected the Catholic Church, but her work is infused with a Christian sense of purpose. Gauguin's egomania is more overt, raised to the level of a pseudo-religion. His island paradise is a shrine to his own desires, sexual, alcoholic and artistic. Certainly, his behaviour brings him into conflict with the Church, as did his grandmother's plain speaking, but there is nothing revolutionary about it. He blights his idyll with syphilis, and the negligence with which he treats his pubescent wives.

In real life, neither Paul nor Flora found Eden, but their failed attempts inspired many others to follow their example. Flora's socialism and Paul's sensualism opened the door not to paradise, but to the 20th century; the genetic connection between the two characters inspires Vargas Llosa to find a link between these two facets of modernity. Did Flora's social radicalism lead inexorably to Paul's libertinism? Is there a narcissistic element within even the most selfless of crusades?

Vargas Llosa does not answer these questions, but his sympathy for Gauguin conflates the two very different quests for paradise. When a friend sends Gauguin a new model, it is not long before she is on her back: “That same night, Paul made her his lover.” Gauguin is judged on his own terms as a revolutionary dreamer, not a sexual predator. Flora, meanwhile, is granted the benefit of hindsight whenever her recorded thoughts are not in line with Vargas Llosa's high opinion of her. In her autobiography, Peregrinations of a Pariah, she included phrases such as “the smell of the negro, which defies comparison, making one ill and lingering everywhere”. Vargas Llosa cajoles her for it: “The smell of the negro! How you later lamented that silly, stupid remark, the repetition of a commonplace among Parisian snobs.” Yet the remark is there, in print, while the lamentations are all imaginary.

It is this inability to leave his characters alone that lets the book down. Vargas Llosa combines the most Whiggish kind of history with a novelist's disregard for the truth. This leaves him in a lonely place, somewhere between fact and fiction, where the novel reads like the shadow of a historical account that has been lost.


Mario Vargas Llosa World Literature Analysis


Vargas Llosa, (Jorge) Mario (Pedro)