Mario Vargas Llosa Vargas Llosa, (Jorge) Mario (Pedro) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

(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.)

Gene Bell-Villada

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jerome Charyn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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William Kennedy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 989 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carolyn Clay

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edward Tick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Selden Rodman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Marghanita Laski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Richard Locke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Salman Rushdie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1123 words.)