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(Jorge) Mario (Pedro) Vargas Llosa 1936–
Peruvian novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, and journalist.
Vargas Llosa is one of the younger writers associated with "El Boom," the flowering of Latin American literature that occurred in the 1960s. During this time, such authors as Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar reached international prominence, and several other Latin American authors enjoyed immediate acclaim with their initial works of fiction, Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes in particular. This almost simultaneous production of major works by a number of authors led to sudden critical and popular recognition of the important contributions to modern literature being made by contemporary Latin American authors.
Like most of the writers linked with El Boom, Vargas Llosa freely experiments with the form and structure of the novel and short story in order to attain a distinctive method that can reflect the more colorful qualities of life in Latin America. He has been particularly praised for his successful experiments with narrative structure. Specifically, Vargas Llosa employs disordered chronological development, rapidly shifting narrative perspectives, and complex structures to mirror the political, social, and personal chaos of his settings and characters.
Vargas Llosa first gained critical attention with La ciudad y los perros (1963; The Time of the Hero), which satirizes the way of life in a Peruvian military academy. This partly autobiographical novel explores the cultural concept of machismo and its effects on individuals and society. Some readers viewed the military academy as a microcosm for Latin America, and many were impressed with Vargas Llosa's observations on how machismo contributes to the violent political and social realities of Peru and Latin America. La casa verde (1966; The Green House), his next novel, won wide critical acclaim and established Vargas Llosa as an important literary figure. In this novel, seemingly disparate stories are interwoven in a narrative structure that mixes objective and subjective perspectives and gradually becomes a unified whole. The Green House is set, in part, in the jungles of Peru, and draws upon myths and legends of both past and modern Peruvian culture. While some critics attacked the multitude of characters in this novel as undeveloped, most praised Vargas Llosa's technical procedures which convey an ambiguous view of reality through the fragile and mysterious identities of the characters.
Conversación en la catedral (1969; Conversation in the Cathedral) was also favorably received. In this novel, as in earlier works, Vargas Llosa subordinates cohesive plot development in favor of a structurally complex narrative. In his presentation of a world torn by corruption and social friction, Vargas Llosa uses a montage-like structure with rapidly shifting points of view and quick changes of setting. Critics were impressed with his ability to employ such techniques which are more often associated with cinema than with literature. However, some readers and reviewers found the novel's labyrinthine structure difficult to penetrate.
With Pantaleón y las visitadoras (1973; Captain Pantoja and the Special Service) Vargas Llosa's satirical fiction became more humorous. While some critics claimed that this novel lacked the intensity and social significance of his earlier works, many praised his deft use of irony to achieve comedic effects. La tía Julia y el escribador (1977; Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter) furthers Vargas Llosa's use of humor. While this novel is structurally less complicated than his earlier works, Vargas Llosa's manipulation of point of view is of primary importance. Half of the chapters are overtly autobiographical, relating events in Vargas Llosa's life as a young man. The alternate chapters are works by a soap opera scriptwriter whose elaborately complex plots and dedication to his art are fantastic, yet they mirror the real life situation of Vargas Llosa's persona. As with Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, Vargas Llosa uses comedy to satirize those people and institutions whom he had previously disparaged. Critics noted that Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter contained a thematic richness and density not found in Captain Pantoja and the Special Service.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 9, 10, 15 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
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With frustrated soldiers going sexually amok in Amazon outposts, and civilian fathers and husbands up in arms about this lewd misconduct, the Peruvian top brass appoint loyal career administrator Capt. Pantaleón Pantoja to solve the problem. And solve it he does [in Captain Pantoja and the Special Service]—too well and none too wisely. In the heat of the tropical rainforest, covert in mufti, with his mother, wife and new-born daughter housed away in civilian secrecy, a diligent Pantoja quietly launches the "Special Service for Garrisons, Frontier and Related Installations (SSGFRI)." This mouthful of officialese denotes what will become a vast network of mobile brothels, staffed by experienced dames who gladly trade in the rigors of night life for regimentation, steady pay, Sundays off and other such perks, while the Special Service, armed with surveys, accountants, a river boat, a hydroplane, a colorful flag and even a bouncy hymn (sung to the "Mexican Hat Dance"), soars to dizzying success, becomes the Peruvian military's most efficient single organism….
Seem raunchy? And yet, with his masterful technique and his fascinating protagonist, Vargas Llosa pulls it off with high artistry. Capt. Pantoja is your classic organization man—loyal to the team and to authority, obsessed with order and work, zealous to a fault. Acclaimed by all as an administrative genius, he falls as a result of his own bland innocence, his incapacity to distinguish between what might or might not be deemed legitimate administrative material. Strangely naive, even saintly (his pre-Special Service record was absolutely perfect), the Captain duly stands up for his subordinates—hookers included. (p. 346)
Though easy and amusing from page to page, Captain Pantoja is no pop-realist puff job—no "straight" third- or first-person narratives here. The entire story is told through an artful combination of dry military dispatches, juicy personal letters, verbose radio rhetoric, and lurid sensationalist news reports (with campy headlines about "BLOOD, PASSION AND BASE INSTINCTS"). For those doomsayers who proclaim the death of the Novel, Vargas Llosa further develops his own third-person device—the intermixing of dialogue from totally different situations, times and places, with action and description placed not around the talking but rather fitted into those old cracks, the "he said-she said" portions…. Some of those in-between descriptions eventually become full-length paragraphs that summarize entire scenes—Vargas Llosa thereby turning novelistic procedure literally inside-out….
As in the author's earlier books. Captain Pantoja sniffs out corruption in high places, but it also presents something of a break, Vargas Llosa here shedding his high seriousness and adopting a humorous, ribald tone. The plot is funny enough, but the real laughs come from Vargas Llosa's variegated linguistic registers—ranging from the earthily colloquial to the deadpan-bureaucratic. (p. 347)
Gene Bell-Villada, "From the Ribald to the Bureaucratic," in Commonweal, Vol. 106, No. 11, June 8, 1979, pp. 346-47.
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A pox on translations! We long for a writer's natural line, and we usually get a voice that sounds broken and silly. It may not even be the translator's fault. How do you render the "music" of one language into another and still manage to hold on to the meaning of a word? And what if the prose has an unconventional "music," a rhythm that depends heavily on the exact placement of words? Such is the predicament of "The Cubs" ("Los Cachorros"), the title piece of Mario Vargas Llosa's first collection of stories in English ["The Cubs and Other Stories"]….
Vargas Llosa himself has said that "The Cubs" is "a story more sung than told and, therefore, each syllable was chosen as much for musical as for narrative reasons. I don't know why, but I felt in this case that the verisimilitude depended on the reader's having the impression of listening, not reading, that the story should get to him through his ears."
This is the sadness of it: the story's special song is lost in translation. There are only a few moments in which the "liturgy" of the prose survives. The story has a collective narrator, a "choral voice" that is composed of the Cubs themselves, teen-agers from Miraflores, a suburb of Lima. Here are the Cubs, telling about their friend, P. P. Cuéllar, who has been emasculated by a dog and is afraid to ask the girl he loves to go steady with him: "… and anyway you can't go on like this, growing bitter, getting thinner, wasting away: he should ask her right away. And Lalo [said] how could he doubt it? He'd ask her, he'd have a girlfriend and [P. P. said] what would I do? and Choto [said] he'd make out and Manny [said] he'd hold her hand and Chingolo [said] he'd kiss her and Lalo [said] he'd fool around with her a little." This sort of choral music isn't sustained throughout the text as the narrative seems to sputter along and spill out its words.
The story is remarkable nonetheless. Even through the translation, it gives us the skin and bones of a particular time and place: Miraflores in the 1950's and its barrio of friendship and puppy love…. Into this tribe comes Cuéllar, the bookworm, with his terrible wound, which leaves him without "a scratch on his face or hands," but unable to cope with Miraflores. He can't pursue any of the rituals of courtship, and the Cubs fear that "he'll end up a drunk, outlaw, madman." He dies in a car crash, and his friends mourn him with the recognition of their own deteriorating lives….
The other six stories, written while Vargas Llosa was a student in Lima, are more conventional and easier to read, but they lack the nervous power of "The Cubs." The best of these stories, "The Challenge," describes a knife fight between two local toughs, and here again some of Vargas Llosa's music snakes through the text. The fight itself becomes a sexual dance, with one of the combatants "offering his body and whisking it away, slippery, agile, tempting and rejecting his opponent like a woman in heat."
"The Cubs and Other Stories" provides a good counterpoint to Vargas Llosa's novels, which create his own private barrio of friendship, betrayal and loss in a universe that has gotten ugly and gone a little mad.
Jerome Charyn, "In Vargas Llosa's Peru," in The New York Times Book Review, September 23, 1979, p. 12.
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People go to the movies in Vargas Llosa's The Cubs and Other Stories, but the book itself evokes other books rather than films. Not because it makes allusions or seems derivative, but because it aspires so transparently to literature, conjures up so clearly the decorous company of sensitive, intelligent, well-written texts it wishes to join. Vargas Llosa himself, in an engaging and modest preface written for this translation, says the book is derivative, attributes one story to the influence of Paul Bowles, and calls another "an out-of-tune echo of Malraux's novel Man's Hope." (p. 45)
The Cubs and Other Stories is an early work, a young man's book. The title piece, a novella, was written when Vargas Llosa was twenty-nine, but the other six stories were written when he was between seventeen and twenty-one. It is a young man's book in another sense. It is about youth; about the fights and hesitations and prejudices that go with growing up in the closed world of a school or a neighborhood or a farm or a familiar city. Only the young have such moments, as Conrad said. There is a story, called "The Leaders," about a failed school strike which is really a personal battle between the strike's competing organizers. Another story depicts a rivalry for a girl which sends two boys out to ride the Pacific surf in a wintry mist, where they almost drown in cold and terror; another shows a boy coming home to a harsh and bigoted country life, and learning how to assert himself against his older brother. These scenes and quarrels are rendered sharply and economically, with impressive professional skill….
The novella in the collection, "The Cubs," is more ambitious. A boy is savaged and emasculated by an angry dog, and Vargas Llosa became interested, he says, in that "strange wound that, in contrast to others, time would open rather than close." The boy grows up, passes through adolescence into adult life, getting more and more unhappy, desperate when his pals have girlfriends, miserable when he himself falls briefly in love. He leaves Lima, loses touch with his old chums, who hardly speak to him when he returns to visit…. His friends meanwhile have settled down, have wives and children, are getting fat, wearing glasses, worrying about age spots and wrinkles.
There is a certain shallowness in the work, a failure to find the depths the subject seemed to promise. The boy's difficulty never acquires a psychological face, seems to remain a problem of engineering. We don't see who he is or how he feels, we see what he has lost: a manhood that is, oddly, both too particular and too abstract. But then this is perhaps a reason for the success of the novella's remarkable collective narrative …, alternating between tenses and idioms, and between first and third person ("They were wearing long pants by then, we slicked our hair with tonic, and they had grown …"). The gang can't really imagine a man without a member, so the story can't either. The boy parades the unthinkable through their lives, a ruined monster, and their lives thus become the true subject of the fiction: normality, the proper sequence of aging, doing what others do.
The technical bravura of the piece—"I wanted 'The Cubs' to be a story more sung than told," Vargas Llosa says, "and, therefore, each syllable was chosen as much for musical as for narrative reasons"—serves to create a community, a universe of shared hopes and assumptions and styles, the happiest time of a life. It is not the happiest time of the wounded boy's life, but his exclusion is what convinces us of the happiness of the others: that is why we feel so sorry for him, and for them when they turn into dreary men. What the boy has missed is not adult sexuality, but the long magical moment of passage toward it, youth itself. Only the young have such moments; and some of them have no moments at all.
Captain Pantoja and the Special Service is a lighter, later work first published in Spanish in 1973. Both the Spanish and the English blurbs describe it as a farce….
The central joke is rather laborious, and returns us, in a disturbing way, to the title story of "The Cubs." Instead of a monstrous absence of virility we have here an exuberant masculine rampage, but the subject is still sexual power. Captain Pantoja recalls Gabriel Chevallier's Clochemerle, or any one of a dozen other French fantasies about rural paradises of the libido; and I wonder, hesitating about being a damp old spoilsport, whether grievous sexual worries do not regularly hide behind such emphatic jollity on the subject of sex.
Nevertheless, the technical high jinks of Captain Pantoja are very appealing. Vargas Llosa uses a quickfire, unlikely dialogue which seems to come from Queneau, amasses piles of mock reports and requests supposedly passed between various branches of the army; he imitates newspapers, letters, and generally conjures up a universe of documents which resembles that of Manuel Puig. But for Puig the space between death and a coroner's report, say, is usually a space of pain and pathos, while for Vargas Llosa, at least in this book, the gaps between reality and language are comic—indeed they provide the fun that the plot of the novel can't quite deliver. (p. 46)
Michael Wood, "The Claims of Mischief," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXVI, Nos. 21 & 22, January 24, 1980, pp. 43-7.∗
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And now for something entirely different from Latin America: a comic novel that is genuinely funny. This screwball fantasy ["Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter"]—interwoven with a realistic tale of an improbable romance—is the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa's homage to two people who gave shape to his artistic and personal life during his adolescence: an ascetic Bolivian who all day, every day, wrote scripts for radio soap operas, and the author's Aunt Julia.
The two become marvelous fictional creations in a novel that was originally conceived as half-autobiographical, and elements of autobiography still cling to it. The narrator is a young man named Mario, sometimes called Varguitas, which is a diminutive of the author's surname. The narrator precociously courts and marries his delectable Aunt Julia, as did Vargas Llosa, whose first wife was an aunt (but not a blood relative) named Julia. This book is dedicated to her. Also, Vargas Llosa, as a young radio newsman in Lima in 1953, worked with a singular Bolivian named Raúl Salmón, and he has said that he based his fictional scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho, on Salmón.
The fictional characters do not need this authentication, but the matter deserves at least a mention since the roman à clef element has generated talk of Vargas Llosa's indiscretion. Also, it is nifty gossip for Vargas Llosa fans, whose numbers are increasing. For he is one of the most widely known Latin American writers of this age, a scholar, a critic, a playwright, a novelist ("The Green House" "Conversation in the Cathedral") whose work has made him a progenitor of the so-called Boom in modern Latin American literature. (p. 1)
He creates his Aunt Julia as a lovely, intelligent coquette, a 32-year-old divorcée with a splendid lack of common sense about love. When Mario, 18, steals a kiss from her on the dance floor, she is stunned and resists: "Me, seducing a kid? Never!" He persists, opening his heart, telling her his dream of going off to France and living in a garret, dedicating his heart and soul to literature. Julia's taste in literature runs to Frank Yerby, but she listens, and a romance blooms. (pp. 1, 14)
All this is narrated in the first person by Mario, in an amiable and sometimes suspenseful style; but lovely as Julia is when she's on the page, Mario's telling of her tale is overlong in its reconstruction of the ordinary. The story of Mario's working life at the radio station is also a bit tedious but is saved by Pedro Camacho, the heroic writer of soap-opera scripts….
Camacho is little more than a cartoon at first, but as the story progresses Mario views him with increasing awe. And as we are exposed to his soaps—which are related at length—the man becomes a cartoon of substance, a brain worth scanning. The problems that beset Camacho—his fear of aging, his niggling comic hatred of Argentines (he has his reasons), his constipation, his championing of masturbation for actors and priests—turn into the stuff of his scripts, their mundane reality carried to dramatic extremes. And so the soaps become the blueprints of Camacho's imagination, and what we are given is a privileged view of the arcane and volcanic reaches of a writer's psyche.
The book's principal achievement is the rendering of this vast comic landscape, with its heroes, victims and villains—all populating a world that grows increasingly complex as the novel progresses but that never ceases to entertain. Camacho's imagination is that of a surreal clown; in person he is as solemn as a totem pole….
Camacho lives monastically, loathes money, snubs the fame his serials give him. When he writes, he assumes roles physically, wearing false mustaches, a fireman's hat, the mask of a fat woman. Mario finds him at his enormous typewriter, writing about the birth of triplets. He is in a white smock, surgeon's skullcap and long, rabbinical black beard. "I'll do a Caesarean on the girl," he tells his visitor, "and then I'll go have … tea with you."
Camacho's soaps are written as narratives in the novel, not as scripts, and they alternate with the realistic story of Mario and Aunt Julia….
A Peruvian critic some years ago asked Vargas Llosa the meaning of this novel, and he said one of his intentions was to prove that his own early world and the world of soap opera were not so very different from each other. His tale of Aunt Julia is low-key, timid soap, but then suddenly violence impends: Mario's father hears of the unholy romance and comes to Lima with murder on his mind….
Vargas Llosa also intends his book as satire of myriad social types and classes, and as in much comic writing, he creates extreme creatures. But Julia and Camacho have also endured in his memory as beings worthy of affection, and he dogs them with small and humanizing detail—Julia's common sense and selfless ways, the squalor of Camacho's lonely life. And by the book's end they both have become unexpectedly real and rise to moments of poignant revelation.
Vargas Llosa once said he didn't like novels with a moral, and he hasn't imposed one here, though any book which is so well wrought, which defines a world with such unarguable accuracy, is moral; and what's more, it made me laugh out loud.
Perhaps it carries an antimoral—that soap opera is good for you. It is a work that celebrates story: story that gives pleasure to a large number of people, story also as a pleasure principle for the writer. Whether it is Vargas Llosa creating a wacko scriptwriter creating a compulsive ear licker, the process is the same: giving shape to beings who never before existed outside dream or daydream. They prove here to be very unlikely citizens, but then again who doesn't? (p. 14)
William Kennedy, "Peruvian Soap Opera," in The New York Times Book Review, August 1, 1982, pp. 1, 14.
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With his last novel, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa surprised many of his admirers by joining the literary carnival. Prior to this dizzyingly playful account of an army officer assigned to supply a party of prostitutes to deprived jungle soldiers, the author had produced a stark short-story collection, translated as The Cubs, and three long, increasingly complex novels, The Time of the Hero, The Green House, and Conversation in the Cathedral, all exploring with a near-savage seriousness and single-mindedness themes of social and political corruption. In the novels, Vargas Llosa employed with great skill a variety of narrative techniques (fractured chronology, interlocking stories, shifts in point of view, cinematiclike cuts, parallel and contrapuntal dialogues) that turned the old social-realist novel upside down and inside out. Though narrative experimentation was still very much in evidence in Captain Pantoja, a new, unexpected element entered Vargas Llosa's work: an unrestrained sense of humor. It was as if the author had decided to join the great big party going on around him.
The fun continues in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, but with some very significant differences. Not only is the new book longer and much broader in scope, but it has a thematic richness and density the other book lacked. The technical fireworks are, surprisingly, kept to a minimum. In fact, this is a relatively restrained performance for the author. Yet he has managed to create a work that is both challenging and absolutely captivating, a multilayered, high-spirited, and in the end terribly affecting text about the interplay of fiction and reality, the transformation of life into art, and life seen and sometimes even lived as fiction. Using as a foundation an actual period in his life during the early 1950s when he was employed as a newswriter for Lima's Radio Panamericana, Vargas Llosa proceeds to work on two distinct narrative planes. On the "real" level he writes in first-person what is, from all reports, a fairly solid autobiographical account of his experiences at the radio station and of his romance with and ultimate marriage to his Aunt Julia, his first wife (to whom the book is dedicated)—an event that created a family scandal as well as a host of problems for the eighteen-year-old Mario and his thirty-two-year-old aunt. On the purely fictive level, he presents what might be described as straight narrative renderings or adaptations of the various soap operas written by Pedro Comacho, an amazingly prolific scriptwriter recently hired by Panamericana's neighboring radio station because of his unique ability and the popular success he enjoyed in Bolivar. The autobiographical chapters alternate with the soap opera chapters, each of which tells a different and ultimately incomplete story (for soap situations are never quite resolved). Most of them are, to say the least, bizarre, even crazy by soap opera standards—from the story of a haunted rodent exterminator whose obsessive mission is to kill every rat in Peru, to the tale of a traveling medical supplies salesman who is persuaded by an unorthodox psychiatrist that he did not run over a child by accident…. (pp. 38-9)
Surprisingly enough, the alternating narrative lines are not as jarring as one might expect. Though the "real" story of Mario and Julia never quite approaches the sheer madness and intensity of Comacho's stories, it too contains the stuff of melodrama: furtive meetings, partings, reconciliations, scandal, family threats, and final flight….
It is worth mentioning that Comacho's stories, though admittedly superficial and fantastic and hardly the stuff of your typical soaps, are quite gripping. So taken are we by these fictions that when Comacho begins to go mad and starts populating one soap opera with characters from another, arbitrarily changing their professions, histories, and relationships, killing them off and resurrecting them at will, we are disturbed by the shattering of the illusion, by, as Comacho's boss so wonderfully puts it, "these modernist gimmicks." After all, the reader takes pleasure in the unreal as well.
At times the reader wishes that aunt Julia were a more substantial creation, and at times he can't quite believe that an unsophisticated hack like Comacho could produce such ingeniously cockeyed scripts or that their physical qualities could have been realized on radio. These, however, are minor qualms. The novel may sometimes recall Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, Stanley Elkin's radio novel The Dick Gibson Show, and Puig's campy treatments of characters living B-movie lives. But it is such a clever, complex, and enjoyable work that it very much makes its own special mark. If with his last novel Vargas Llosa joined the Latin American literary party, with Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter he becomes, along with his friend García Márquez, the life of that party. (p. 39)
Ronald De Feo, "Life As Fiction, Fiction As Life," in The New Republic, Vol. 187, Nos. 7 & 8, August 16 & 23, 1982, pp. 38-9.
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Here, fresh off the boat from Peru, is the exception to prove the rule that all autobiographical novels about growing up to be a writer are alike, noisy with the clacking of John-Boy's typewriter and the howl of the Wolfe. As far as the Andes are from Walton's Mountain is Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter from most efforts to shake literary pay dirt from the author's roots. The story, set in Lima in the fifties, traces the eighteen-year-old narrator's pristine secret courtship of his Aunt Julia, a sensuous but pragmatic Bolivian divorcée, and his simultaneous fascination with the squirrelly Pedro Camacho, a consummate artist-cum-one-man industry dedicated to the cranking out of radio serials. This is a curious yet seductive book that layers truth, in the guise of the author's own story, with fiction, in the form of Camacho's modern gothic soapers….
Underneath it all, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a treatise on the art of writing, on the relationship of stimulus to imagination. Varguitas—as young Mario is known to his intimates—is in love for the first time with something other than his fantasies of authorship….
As the young newshound—increasingly smitten with Aunt Julia and determined to marry her if he has to travel to Las Vegas by Ilama to pull it off—watches his own heretofore art-oriented existence lather up, he becomes captivated by the grotesque Pedro Camacho, who is both a successful hack and a martyr to his art….
There can be no question that Camacho is committed; in fact, when his characters start juggling professions and perversions and leaping serials, he is packed off to an institution (proving once again, ho hum, that the line between creativity and madness is a thin one)….
What makes the book bizarre—and as maddening as a channel flipper—is that every other chapter is an episode of one of Camacho's serials: In re-creating them, Vargas Llosa engages in a kind of narrative teasing in that we never find out how any of the weird tales turn out. But then neither do Camacho's listeners, since in an effort to save his sanity he resorts to killing everyone off in apocalyptic fashion….
The notion of characters controlling their creator is a tradition in Spanish literature going back to Cervantes. Vargas Llosa plays with it, but he himself is no puppet. Sure, there are times when he seems to have turned his typewriter over to Pedro Camacho (how will this May-December matrimonial melodrama of Miraflores end?), but there is irony in surrender. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter develops into both a parodic tour de force and a tender tale of youth brandishing its way to maturity. Putting it all together to form a meditation on art is a game for the reader amused enough to be patient.
And Varguitas's story, unlike those of Camacho, has an ending—less grisly than what the scriptwriter might have devised but sad in the way that real life, its passions muted, so often is. The narrator—older, expatriated, and published—returns to Lima with his second wife and runs into just about everybody he used to know, including the artistically emasculated "Balzac of Peru." Though little is said, it is achingly clear that Varguitas, the writer now, is as grown up as Camacho is burned out—and that the two states are much the same.
Carolyn Clay, "South American Soap," in New York Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 33, August 23, 1982, p. 90.
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A writer's coming of age is at once ridiculous and sublime. Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru's best-known modern author, provides a good dose of both emotions in his newly translated semi-autobiographical novel [Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter]. With this work we have the story of a writer's transformation and emergence in contemporary South America….
The tone, pace and coloring of his language are at times reminiscent of adult fairy tales, of stories told to symbolically prepare children for the harsh realities of grownup life. Mario, a passionate 18-year-old Peruvian law student and would-be writer, certainly needs to be initiated into adulthood….
Mario might have passed his life trifling with short stories and eventually scratching out a law degree and a living. But he comes upon two individuals who change him from a mere product of his surroundings into its keen observer and wry commentator.
The first is Aunt Julia, whom Mario bumps into at one of many lunches with his extended family…. Julia is a 32-year-old divorcée, a forerunner of the liberated woman who flouts decorum by reckless dating. She represents the perfect conquest for young Mario. From their first meeting the competition is set.
Much of the novel is devoted to their sometimes funny, sometimes ironic, always clandestine courting…. In time they elope…. [The] couple embarks on a trek to the primitive villages and jungles of Peru to find a justice of the peace who will illegally marry a minor and a divorcée from Bolivia.
This hilarious adventure is one of the high points of the novel. We get a comprehensive portrait-in-passing of mid-20th century Peru, from its urban grandeur and squalor through its villages tenuously linked by the remnants of a transit system, to its outposts and jungles where natives fish, drink, spawn, and seriocomically attempt to conform to a bureaucracy that makes no sense to them yet is respected and feared. Unwittingly, we come to know the intricate and contradictory South American landscape.
Julia meanwhile enables Mario to sexually and romantically mature. This is not really a matter of love and we are more fascinated with their doings than with their personalities. But what is missing in them is more than compensated for in the scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho.
With this character the novel becomes special. Pedro Camacho is one of those creations who is fascinating and incisive because of his sufferings and deformity….
Part Ahab, part Joycean expatriate, part buffoon, Pedro Camacho is also the obsessed writer, the megalomaniac pitting his ego against the cosmos….
Camacho enables Llosa to give his novel a fascinating structure. Alternating chapters are Camacho's short stories, where we glimpse the inner workings of a person wholly dedicated to expressing his version of truth, no matter what the personal consequences. (p. 16)
Each of Camacho's increasingly decadent stories destroys the surface respectability of some social institution—religion, family, legal system, business—to expose the horrors underneath. As Nietzsche observed, though, one who experiences the annihilation of nature experiences inner annihilation: In the course of revealing the decay of his culture, Camacho's personality fragments. Like so many artists in the modern age, he becomes a victim of the processes he scrutinizes….
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is successful on many levels, but it has the weaknesses of the soap operas it emulates. We are, at times, too close to the banalities, to the details of family dinners and petty intrigues. We long for the relief of deterioration, much as many people long for the six o'clock news to excite them with another important crisis.
The weaknesses are purposeful, however. By the end of the book, we know the people in it intimately. We know how young Marito grew up to be Mario Vargas Llosa. We have observed both the tedium and the fantasies of the mind in obsessed love and creative turmoil. We have seen how love and creativity grow and how they die. Most important, we have, along with Mario, answered some of the questions he struggles with. (p. 17)
Edward Tick, "A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Peruvian," in The New Leader, Vol. LXV, No. 21, November 15, 1982, pp. 16-17.
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From the beginning Vargas Llosa was accused by the friendliest of his critics of "the bad habit of withholding vital information." In his impressive first novel, La Ciudad y los Perros, what the dog-eat-dog violence of a military school is intended to symbolize depends on a series of interior monologues in the mind of a character whose identity is not revealed until the end of the book. The young novelist idolized Faulkner and may have copied from him this lack of respect for the reader, but he had rejected Faulkner's subjectivity from the outset. In his next novel, La Casa Verde, Vargas Llosa commits even graver sins of obfuscation, telling simultaneously five stories about essentially anonymous characters and providing no clues to place or time.
In comparison with those predecessors, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a model of straightforwardness. The plots of Pedro Camacho's radio soap operas … are simply and dramatically unfolded—at least until the scriptwriter goes completely wacky and confuses new characters with old ones. But the unfolding love affair of the young novelist with his middleaged Bolivian aunt-by-marriage, which develops in alternating chapters until their clandestine marriage is consummated at the end, is told with high spirits, gusto, humor, and tenderness—and with no attempt to conceal what apparently happened in real life. The chapter in which the lovers drive all over central Peru trying to circumvent the author's horrified parents, and the couple's lack of funds to bribe officialdom, is a comic masterpiece.
It is only toward the end of the novel that things get unnecessarily mixed up. When he first appears Pedro Camacho is a brilliant evocation of the obsessive artist….
Perhaps this is where the novel should have ended. Or with the marriage to lovely, laughing, uncomplicated Aunt Julia that follows. But the final disintegration of the soap operas—how different these bizarre tales are from our soaps with their suave middle-class motivations of money and adultery!—into hopeless confusions foreclosing continuations, serves only to bring the author back into sync with his existentialist colleagues; and make of Peru, hitherto described with so much affection and understanding, another neo-Marxist parable of Third World hopelessness. To see Pedro Camacho lugged off to the insane asylum and then return to the radio station as a fawning lackey doing odd jobs, is sad. Maybe that's the way it was in "real life," but it brings a great comic novel, and a promising new beginning for a very talented writer, to a tame conclusion. (p. 1560)
Selden Rodman, "Writing on Air," in National Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 24, December 10, 1982, pp. 1559-60.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
The belief that the craft of narrative fiction is alive, well, and putting on flesh in South America seemed for many pages verified by Mario Vargas Llosa's novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, originally published in Peru in 1977. Not only is Llosa immediately acceptable as a proper storyteller: his stories are set in, to us, exotic Lima, and they are clearly going to be fashionably fickle and freckled, peppering the promising narration by 18-year-old Mario of the mutual love that unfolds between him and his 32-year-old aunt-by-marriage Julia, a divorcée from Bolivia….
Well presented, then, a good scene, and not only Mario's: interspersed are what seem to be poised to develop into nourishing subplots—the episode of the incestuously pregnant bride, of the Kaspar-Hauser of a naked nigger, doomed literally for the trash-heap, of the dubiously unchaste Jehovah's Witness—and so right is the pitch of the telling, so exotically unknown the settings, that it is only about half-way through, at what would, in one of today's more usual single-stranded novels, be the climactical point, that quaintness rather than originality seems to be the mode and encroaching boredom the response, with some impatience forcing the question of where we are being taken.
It is only then (tardily, if you so decide, but pardonably because always ready to be a sucker for a story) that one realises that the interposed stories are never going to thicken the novel up, are no more to do with the novel proper than by being the soap operas churned out by the compulsively creative, self-styled artist, the scriptwriter, whom the station has brought in from Bolivia. 'I learned that everything, without exception, could be turned into the subject of a short story,' says young Mario, who is forever trying to write one, but not everything can be turned into a good short story, and not every short story, we come sadly to decide, can fit into a would-be novel or, indeed, pass as the stuff of soap. Certainly these stories, even before they deliberately disintegrate, could never have been such enrapturing soaps to the women of Lima that the station could even afford to disregard their deliberate insults to the Argentines.
It is by intention that the internal stories degenerate into confusion as the soap operas degenerate with the disintegration of the scriptwriter's brain. But the presentation of mental degeneration needs genius, which this has not, if we are not to be as bemused, and then as restless, as the story-starved women of Lima. But if … we place our expectations on the principal narrative thread, we are baulked again, for nothing much ever happens, apart from a set-piece, over-drawn-out search for a mayor who will marry underage Mario to divorced Julia; while the attendant characters play their stock roles…. They are rather in a zoetrope than in life, and it is delightful to watch them twitching for the first few twirls, but soon too far distanced to be lifesize as they are, it finally seems, distanced by time from the apparently autobiographical author, now living in Paris with a new young wife and an annual trip home to replenish the roots.
Llosa has, the blurb tells us, written plays, and these we should be greatly interested to see, for the undoubted talents of this long prose narrative (or, rather, this narrative device for threading short stories) augurs well for drama….
Marghanita Laski, "Stories Galore," in The Spectator, Vol. 250, No. 8079, May 14, 1983, p. 22.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 694
The work of the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa … has established him as a major figure in contemporary Latin American letters. His new book [The War of the End of the World] should confirm this: even in translation it overshadows the majority of novels published here in the past few years. Indeed, it makes most recent American fiction seem very small, very private, very gray, and very timid.
The War of the End of the World is based on a true incident that occurred in Brazil in the final years of the 19th century. Slavery had been abolished in 1888, and a republic succeeded the monarchy in 1889. Four years later, in a desolate part of the northern state of Bahia, a charismatic religious leader established a peasant community that shared his belief in the imminent end of the world and his radical rejection of the secular state. This community was seen as a violent, atavistic threat to the progressive ideals and political stability of the new republic. The story of this community and its destruction is the plot of the novel. It explores a series of interactive delusions: apocalyptic religion, revolutionary idealism, military absolutism, and peasant machismo. Its historical and political vision is closer to that of Conrad or Orwell than either Che Guevara or Ronald Reagan.
The story is not told chronologically; there are flashbacks and crosscuts, frequent shifts between the past and present tenses, and, as we follow the lives of more than 50 characters, more than a dozen different points of view. But this is never obscure, or surrealistic, or arty; each of the chapters and sub-sections is dense with clear, realistic narrative and concrete detail. The difficulty of the book arises from the sheer mass of unfamiliar historical incidents and personalities that are gradually animated before our eyes. (pp. 1, 11)
Vargas Llosa is so saturated with his subject, so grasping in his imagination of it, that he brings it to urgent life. We not only see the development of the Counselor's band of true believers, and the complex growth and organization of his holy village of Canudos, but we follow the intricate political maneuvering back in the state capital and the progress of the four military campaigns. We are close to the lives of some two dozen major characters…. We observe many varieties of religious experience and witness the social, political, and moral transformations such belief can effect. But Vargas Llosa rarely sentimentalizes; he is both sympathetic and unsparing of these religious and political fanatics, of the peasants, soldiers, and landowners alike.
A great deal of time is spent on the picaresque adventures of various bandits who join the company of the elect and on the fortunes of a demented Scottish anarchist (and phrenologist), a devotee of Proudhon and Bakunin, a veteran of the Paris Commune, who desperately tries to get to Canudos [the peasant community] to cast his lot with its primitive socialist revolution. There is much to do with a terrified, nearsighted journalist who is caught between the lines and gets closer to the war story than he ever imagined he could. And there is an enormous amount of military detail—transportation, skirmishes, battles, hand-to-hand combat—and a large number of rapes, mutilations, and atrocities: cinematic Goya.
The novel concludes with a return to the brutal status quo ante and a curious burst of sexual narrative: in the depths of this degradation the journalist discovers true love in the arms of a stoic peasant girl, and the Baron is inspired by this to rape his mad wife's maid. This is portrayed as a triumph of life over death, but it's most unconvincing. In general, Vargas Llosa does poorly with the women in this book.
Although he is more ambitious than precise in the construction of this large novel—he hasn't the architectonic skill that Garcia Márquez commands, nor his humor—Vargas Llosa has abundant energy, stamina, and intellectual curiosity. His violent realistic narrative enlarges our understanding of political and religious fanaticism and reaffirms the rich variety and strength of contemporary Latin American literature. (p. 11)
Richard Locke, "A Voice Crying in the Wilderness," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 26, 1984, pp. 1, 11.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123
In his loudly acclaimed novel The War of the End of the World … Vargas Llosa sets down with appalling and ferocious clarity his vision of the tragic consequences for ordinary people of millenarianism of whatever kind. He has written before, in his novel Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, about the emergence in remote rural parts of an ascetic figure who becomes a focus of resistance to a militaristic state. That was primarily a comic novel, however, whereas the new book is as dark as spilled blood. And while it is most impressively got up as a historical novel—based, we are told, on a "real" episode in Brazilian history—its value as a text is entirely contemporary. In an age such as ours, plagued by bloodthirsty armies and equally violent gods, an account of a fight to the finish between God and Mammon could be nothing else, even though Vargas has placed his war in one of the most remote corners—the "ends"—of the world, that is, in the northeastern part of Brazil in the nineteenth century….
The Counselor … [a messiah figure] is a thin, awe-inspiring holy man who wanders the backlands of the province of Bahia in the last decade or so of the nineteenth century, advising the peons of their spiritual obligations in clear and comprehensible language, encouraging them to help him repair the region's many dilapidated and priestless churches, slowly gathering about himself an inner circle or band of apostles, and warning eloquently of the fearsome apocalypse that is to arrive with the millennium….
Bahia, in which slavery has not been abolished for very long and which remains in the two-fisted grip of autocratic feudal landowners and in extreme ignorance of the outside world, begins to hear about ominous developments. A Republic has been proclaimed; it intends to make a census, and worse, to levy taxes. These are the last straws for the people of the backlands. Why would the Republic want everyone counted and described, except to re-impose slavery? And, again, "animal instinct, common sense and centuries of experience made the townspeople realize immediately … that the tax collectors would be greedier than the vultures and the bandits." The Counselor gives expression to their worst fears. He announces that "the Antichrist was abroad in the world; his name was Republic." Then he withdraws, with all who wish to follow him, to the fastness of Canudos, part of the lands of the Baron de Canabrava, the largest of the feudal landlords and chief of the Bahian Autonomist Party—which, ironically, is just as hostile to the new Republic, though for wholly profane reasons of self-interest.
In Canudos the Counselor sets about the construction and fortification of "Belo Monte," a city and a church, a new Jerusalem against which the Antichrist must hurl his armies. There will be four fires, the Counselor tells his flock (which numbers, at its peak, more than thirty thousand souls). He will quench three and permit the fourth to consume them. So the four battles of the war of Canudos are prophesied in advance. What follows has the slow, somber inevitability of a Greek tragedy—though one played out in a jungle. Our knowledge of the end serves only to increase our pain.
Vargas Llosa's writing has been working up to this book throughout his remarkable career; the prose has been getting simpler, the forms clearer. It is a long way from the structural complexities and the sometimes willful-seeming obscurity of his very striking early novels, The Time of the Hero and The Green House, via the comic accessibility, even zaniness, of Captain Pantoja and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, to the much more solid, crafted, traditional virtues of the present novel. It must not be supposed, though, that this represents some kind of descent into populism. Rather, Vargas Llosa would appear to have been moving, gradually, from one form of complexity toward another. Or, to be precise, from complexity of form to complexity of ideas. The War of the End of the World does certainly offer many of the conventional satisfactions of the long, meticulous, historical novel—the recreation of a lost world; leisurely, well-paced exposition; a sense of elbowroom, and of being in safe hands. But it also gives us a fictional universe bursting with intellectual argument, one whose inhabitants are perfectly willing and able to dispute matters both political and spiritual at great length and with considerable verve.
But the greatest qualities of this excellent novel are, I believe, neither its inexorable Greek progress toward the slaughter of the innocents with which it climaxes, nor its intellectual rigor. They are, rather, its refusal ever to abandon the human dimension in a story that could so easily have become grandiose; also a sense of ambiguity, which enables Vargas Llosa to keep his characters three-dimensional, and not merely the representatives of Good, or Evil, or some such abstraction; and finally, a profound awareness of the tragic irony that makes tens of thousands of ordinary women and men die fighting against the Republic that was created, in theory, precisely to serve them, and to protect them against the rapacity of their former feudal overlords. (p. 26)
The political vision of The War of the End of the World is bleak, and it would be possible to take issue with such absolute bleakness. But it is hard for a writer in the late years of this savage century not to have a tragic view of life, and Mario Vargas Llosa has written a modern tragedy on the grand scale, though not, mercifully, in the grand manner. At the end of its 550 pages, two images dominate its seething portrait of death, corruption, and faith. One is of the tracker Rufino, and anarchist Galileo Gall, each the somewhat absurd servant of an idea, hacking one another slowly to death; this image would seem to crystallize Vargas Llosa's political vision.
The second image, however, is redemptive. Thirty thousand people die in Canudos, and it would be easy to think that a God who demanded such sacrifices was a God to avoid like the plague. But Vargas Llosa, with the generosity of spirit that informs the entire novel, is willing to allow the last word to someone who accepts that the catastrophe was also a kind of triumph. The victorious soldiers, mopping up after the leveling of Canudos, are anxious to account for the one leader whose body has not been found. And old woman asks Colonel Macedo if he wants to know what happened to Abbot Joao and the Colonel nods eagerly. "Archangels took him up to heaven," she says, clacking her tongue. "I saw them." (p. 27)
Salman Rushdie, "Peruvian Master," in The New Republic, Vol. 191, No. 15, October 8, 1984, pp. 25-7.
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