Vargas Llosa, Mario (Vol. 9)

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Vargas Llosa, Mario 1936–

Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian novelist now living in Spain whose works generally revolve around satirical assessments of life's institutions. The military, church, and brothel, for example, are, as Vargas Llosa views them, potentially dangerous institutions because they force pure human instincts into ritualistic expressions. Critically acclaimed for his masterly use of juxtapositions, time sequences, and naturalistic devices, Vargas Llosa has received many awards and prizes. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Conversation in the Cathedral is not only cinematic in the sense defined by Eisenstein [in Film Form] but a masterpiece of montage as well, a massive assault on simultaneity that properly calls to mind not only the works of master directors but of those authors whom Eisenstein himself mentions: Flaubert, Dickens, Joyce.

Now I am not suggesting that Conversation is the only cinematic novel to come from Latin America; rather, I am saying that Conversation is the most fully cinematic in the sense understood by the early Eisenstein. (pp. 31-2)

[The] narrative method of Conversation is the book's meaning and there is no better way of getting at that method than by selectively linking the elements in Eisenstein's description of montage with passages from the novel. (Note that this expository method, however, is one of linking, not collision. We have yet to achieve criticism that is cinematic.)

"Primo: photo-fragments of nature are recorded." Whether you are considering the complexly multiple points of view which fragment Parts I and III or the fragments complexly multiplying the points of view in Parts II and IV, the basic unit of Conversation is a "brick" of relatively flat prose describing or narrating, through dialogue, the political, social or personal events that might be found in any contemporary naturalistic novel. In fact, for Vargas Llosa, Nature is Naturalism. His photo-fragments are all naturalistic. So certain readers, considering the book with the text very close to their noses, only see that he is writing a political novel of what happened during the Odría regime, a novel that tells it like it was according to the deterministic laws of heredity and environment established by Zola. These readers are not wrong. No more wrong, say, than readers who argue that the fair scene in Madame Bovary is about the courting of a married lady and the awarding of prizes to farmers. After all, if the matter of Conversation is dreary determinism, the manner of the prose is also about as drab as you can find without resorting to journalism. The conversations themselves are so low-keyed that when they remind you of cinema it is of cinema vérité. The pitch of the book, read in the tradition of Naturalism, is so low that you can lose all sensitivity to it…. (p. 32)

"Secundo: these fragments are combined in various ways." What such a reading completely overlooks is the organization of those nearly flat fragments, large and small, into patterns of juxtaposition—linking and colliding—which properly qualify as montage.

As an example of the first category, look at this passage:

Santiago put his arm around her waist, Popeye put a hand on her knee, and Amalia a slap: none of that, child, no touching her. But Popeye returned to the attack: devil, devil. She probably even knew how to dance and was lying that she couldn't, come on, confess: all right, child, she accepted.

Here everything from punctuation to absence of "stage" directions promotes a linking of actions and words, speech and description, image and image, point of view and point of view. With almost no terminal indication, the syntax glides on commas while the dialogue slides in with no quotation marks. Where there is terminal punctuation, as between the last and next-to-last sentence, the period indicates a juxtaposition rather than a break: here of the physical gestures of Popeye concurrent with Amalia's saying "devil, devil" and the thought of Santiago that she is lying. Each unit, phrase, clause or sentence is a "brick" and the montage is of the simplest, descriptive or narrative kind. I say "simplest" meaning cinematographically simple. Almost all readers will recognize the complexity of the passage from a literary point of view. Still, the montage effect, simple as it is, is the main interest in the passage.

By way of contrast, examine the ending of one fragment at the bottom of [one page] with the beginning of the next at the top of [the next]:

Ambrosio and Ludovico were chatting and smoking by the door. They threw away their cigarettes when they saw him: to San Miguel.

"Take the first turn to the right," Santiago said, pointing. "That yellow house, the old one. That's right, here."

In this case, the "bricks" or shots are longer and the juxtaposition, still of an apparently linking kind, is more daring: Cayo Bermúdez gets into his car and orders Ambrosio to drive him to San Miguel and the very next thing we "see" is Santiago ordering Sparky to turn right. The linking is accomplished by the automobile motif; but in fact, the linking is far more of a collision between opposites, for who could, apparently, be more polar than Cayo and Santiago? Here, in this synthetic montage, Vargas Llosa is speaking to us directly…. (pp. 32-3)

These two purposefully chosen examples—purposeful in their relative neutrality and minor import—of course do not exhaust the ways in which Vargas Llosa juxtaposes the elements of his combination but they do suggest the order or hierarchy of those juxtapositions, ranging from the predominantly functional on to the markedly expressive….

[In other examples] there is no real collision nor is there any temporal or spatial or spatial simultaneity to warrant the juxtaposition. Rather the simultaneity exists in the text alone and while the braiding of [several] speeches might seem merely an idiosyncracy of the narrative it is in fact expressive…. (p. 33)

Both montage through polysyndeton and parataxis frequently result in synesthesia or sensory simultaneity in Conversation…. Not the verbal figure of synesthesia customarily associated with a decadent sensibility, but collective images appealing to all or almost all of the senses as they evoke a simultaneous reality—that is the kind of synesthesia we encounter in Conversation.

Throughout the book, phrases and images appear which accumulate thematic significance before they acquire significant reference for us…. Neither colliding nor linking, such intrusions are disruptive reminders of another, simultaneous reality, another simultaneous side to the "question" and as such they recall the most daring cinematic constructions…. (p. 34)

[A] careful reading of the novel depends on scrupulous attention to the various ways in which fragments of the narrative—sections, parts, paragraphs, phrases—are juxtaposed so as to create a synthesis of those elements in the reader's mind. In other words, having read the novel, you must also read the novel of the novel.

"The results fluctuate from exact naturalistic combinations of visual, interrelated experiences to complete alterations, arrangements unforeseen by nature, and even to abstract formalism, with remnants of reality…." In the photo-fragment or shot there is an almost one-to-one correspondence between the esthetic presentation and what it refers to as there is in the "bricks" of Vargas Llosa's novel; however, in montage, the presentation assumes an altered aspect verging on the abstract and unnatural and such is the case with the complicated sequences (literally non sequitors, but metaphorically justifiable sequences) which comprise the novel's statement. That is, in Joyce's or Flaubert's simultaneity—in Dickens' and Balzac's for that matter too—the literary technique attempts to copy or recreate a simultaneity that exists in nature, which is what Vargas Llosa does [in some instances]…. But beyond that, he creates a simultaneity in the text that has no correspondence to the relationship between the subjects he describes. Things coexist because he puts them together, not because they are thus related in Nature…. In this novel nearly without suspense, events are frequently suspended; similarly, coincidence means, quite literally, co-incidence in the text. Negatively stated this condition is unnatural, arbitrary, unreal; positively, it is abstract, formal, esthetic. Foregoing, for the most part, simultaneity and coexistence as they existed before his text—in Peru's history or in his fable—Vargas Llosa has created a simultaneity in his book. This created, artful simultaneity is the esthetic concept of Conversation, an esthetic concept which perfectly matches the book's moral, psychological and political concept.

"The final order is determined by the social premises." Because of its nature, the synthesis cannot properly be stated, it cannot even be shown as such in many cases; instead, it is developed in the perception of the readers: the synthesis exists in their perception and response as controlled by the author…. Like so many others, Vargas Llosa has been trying to get the story out of fiction and he has been blamed for his efforts as others have been; but in Conversation in trying to present the collective which is Peru, he critically avoids "collective and mass action" precisely in order to show the political decadence he is attacking. Or, to put it another way, he shows the collective not as hero, but as a meaninglessly simultaneous group where no one is and no ones are heroic. No one is a villain in the group either; but that is because they are all, in their varying ways, responsible for the society's failure. Even when the novel takes us to the scene of mass action, such as a political rally, we are only permitted to view that action from isolated, individual points of view while the potential collective is seen more as a crowd or a horde. Thus Conversation as a whole is a mass action, but because that action is presented as decadent and destructive we are forced to see, by the nature of the narrative itself, individuals who work, live, plot, love, die, murder and survive simultaneously, but not collectively, not heroically. (pp. 34-5)

Vargas Llosa's mass is disintegrated and its constituents are failures, even criminals. No simple minded determinist, though, Vargas Llosa does not go the way of so many creators … where, lacking all irony, the creators present the people in political control as thoroughly corrupted, completely distorted, absolutely evil characters who live a political allegory as subtle as contemporary wrestling matches. No, the unremitting purpose, or one of the unremitting purposes, of the montage technique in this book, is to constantly make comparisons of character with character, of performed persona with experienced persona, of past with present autobiography in such a way that we cannot simply dismiss any of the characters as totally twisted, completely innocent or merely evil. The intercutting, the violent juxtapositions demand that we see a complex situation complexly without ever denying that the elements themselves may be very simple indeed. Multiplicity or simultaneity then—a kind of moral cubism—of space as well as time is what counts here. From the rhetoric of synesthesia to the narrative of multiple points of view on through the psychology of good and evil in each character, the novel achieves what Eisenstein calls amplitude—the apotheosis of simultaneity. The characters themselves are aware of the multidimensionality of the world they live in…. Clearly it is part of the novel's purpose to educate the reader into this multidimensionality…. (pp. 35-6)

This multiplicity, this simultaneity, this amplitude is the concept of Conversation. The synthesis of course is negative in that it clearly shows the disparateness and duplicity of the society it presents. And here is the answer to the frequently asked question of why Vargas Llosa (like Fuentes) tells such simple stories with such elaborate technique: the complex synthesis of his technique is required, precisely, because of the simple antithesis in his subject matter. When that society and those lives are integrated and synthesized themselves, then a different form will be required of him. In the meantime, the organization of his novel, far more than the matter it presents, demonstrates the premises of the society he describes in almost perfect inversion of Eisenstein's collective ideal.

Grasped in this way, Conversation traces its lineage back to the novels of multiple, interwoven plots, to the novels of Dickens and Balzac, say; and it owes a good deal to the extraordinary technical achievements of Joyce (particularly to the "Wandering Rocks" chapter of Ulysses) and of Faulkner as well; but in its use of colliding parts to tell a story it marks an advance, a great technical advance, over all these in coming close to achieving what Eisenstein saw as a prime quality of montage….

[Vargas Llosa] has written his own book with its own novel form and its own novel sense. In doing so he has employed narrative technique in such courageous fashion that when you search for comparisons you find neither films nor novels that adequately measure his accomplishment. (p. 36)

Ronald Christ, "Novel Form, Novel Sense," in Review (copyright © 1975 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Spring, 1975, pp. 30-6.

Conversation in the Cathedral, the latest and most brilliant novel of Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa,… [is] one of the most scathing denunciations ever written on the corruption and immorality of Latin America's ruling classes. For anyone who has spent much time in Latin America, in the slums as well as the country clubs, Conversation is a book not easily read or forgotten. Although Vargas Llosa's unusual three-dimensional writing technique is difficult to grasp at first, it is precisely this you-are-there effect that makes the story so bloodcurdlingly real—that and the knowledge that the people and attitudes described still exist in many Latin American countries where human beings, as well as dogs, are beaten to death. (p. 522)

A realist in his political observations as well as his writing, Vargas Llosa unfolds a story of racial discrimination, military repression, torture, murder, corruption, sexual perversion, narcotics, blackmail and betrayal in a desperately sick society that forcibly infects each new generation….

Vargas Llosa writes of "rebellion, melodrama, violence and sex" because those are the stuff of life in Latin America. Frequently accused of lacking a sense of humor, he replies that "reality contradicts humor." Certainly, there is nothing amusing about the military regimes that now rule three-fifths of the continent's population in circumstances very similar to those described in Conversation. (p. 523)

Like other Peruvian writers, Vargas was treated as a pariah because he would not conform or compromise. But then Vargas has always been something of an idealistic loner….

By refusing to compromise his art, however, Vargas has gone beyond the bounds of the average Latin American political writer to infuse his novels with a human insight that immediately gives them appeal, no matter what the reader's nationality…. Vargas knows that there are no blacks or whites in Latin America and that people, like causes, comprise varying degrees of good and bad. (p. 525)

Vargas … continues to expand his powers as social observer because he is primarily a novelist. As social documents, his books follow an upward curve from a charming but halting description of growing up rich in Lima to the explosion of Conversation. There is nothing dull in any of these social commentaries. Not even an Agatha Christie or Georges Simenon would have come up with a better surprise than the shock ending of Conversation. The Green House, an earlier literary tour de force on a par with Conversation, is not only superbly written but rates with the best adventure stories of Jack London.

Vargas's characters are drawn from real life—poor abused creatures whose only saving grace is their desire to survive. (If there is a hero in any of Vargas's books, it is the victim.) The Green House, which brings together experiences from Vargas's youth in the arid coastal city of Piura and a trip he later made through the lush, merciless Peruvian Amazon, repeats the circle of brutality and exploitation that is the theme of all his writings, as it is for other Latin Americans concerned with human rights…. (p. 526)

Penny Lernoux, "The Latin American Disease," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 22, 1975, pp. 522-27.

While it is true that La casa verde departs radically from traditional methods of character portrayal, it does not follow that such a departure constitutes a weakness in the novel or negates a "metaphysical dimension" in characterization. Quite the contrary …, the view and modes of characterization developed in the novel are in close relationship with the larger, fictional world which encloses the author's vision of reality. It is the harmony of this relationship which ultimately produces much of the expressive power [that] critics applaud. (p. 11)

Characters emerge in the novel from diverse backgrounds and social classes; their experience of life and their abilities to cope with existential problems are varied. By offering a multiplistic, plural conception of human realities, the novel opens wide vistas onto conditions of ontology as well as time and space. Whether geographic or social in origin, causality is by no means simple or absolute. Historical and social forces do not assume equivalent forms nor do they function with the same intensity in the different human environments so that any single formulation of theme will not fully explain all the complexities and ambiguities that play a role in character motivation. The realities of the novel are too vast, too cryptic, and too problematic to be easily recapitulated in formulae.

Certain issues, however, do lie at the very core of the work and reveal a basic unity of perspective….

With the simultaneous portrayal of [mythification and demystification], the novel sets in motion a dynamic interplay of forces which ultimately yields Vargas Llosa's most fundamental statements about man and reality. The process of demystification steadily shows that the small myths by which men live, their cultural beliefs, assumptions, and value systems, have rarely any ultimate justification and with near inevitability propel them toward personal and collective tragedies. (p. 12)

The characters of the novel are caught in a web of deterministic forces that permit only a limited exercise of personal choice. Each character, in forging his own personality and identity within the limits imposed on him, can create only a fragile image, a profile that slowly dissolves under the active pressure of environment. Rather than representing a failure of imagination or skill, the organizing principles of characterization properly reflect the themes that underlie the author's conception of human reality.

The most obvious and most prevalent experience of entrapment takes the form of physical imprisonment. Reference to people in the novel who undergo incarceration or who are taken prisoner reads nearly like the cast of characters. (p. 13)

For all these characters, motivation and action are closely linked to either one or both facets of an existential cycle of entrapment and escape. For many, entrapment is the crucial situation which activates significant events and determines a framework for behavior and action; for others, it marks an important turning point in life or an end of character portrayal. In terms of concrete and individual experience, no other situation underpins the common experience of so many characters or gives greater impetus to the development of plot.

The scope of each character's world is very limited. No protagonist in the novel has a clear idea of how his own predicament relates to larger issues or how the social structure, in its broadest sense, shapes the quality and trajectory of his existence. The acute demands of personal survival limit the perspective of the individual to the possibilities of response and action imbedded in concrete situations and only on this level do the characters have some degree of freedom to make choices and, in so doing, to define themselves.

The structuring of the various plots makes clear that the author is concerned with each character's response to a few, tightly controlled life situations. Taken separately, the plots do not generate for any one character an extensive inventory of existential problems. But taken together, the plots afford the reader a wide panorama of character activity as well as insight into human complexity. The compression of individual plot lines around points of crisis in the lives of the protagonists draws the reader's attention to significant issues and provides a focal point from which he can evaluate the past and future experiences of the character. (pp. 13-14)

[Questions] of causality are never straight-forward; the deep motivation of the characters, while never completely hidden, remains elusive and tantalizing. In the specific case of Bonifacia, the manner in which her crisis-incident is told—a combination of limited views from other characters, dialogue, and an outside narrator—creates an ambiguous personality whose history and motivation are always questionable. Mystery and contradiction lie at the very heart of her conception as a character and become a part of nearly every factual question which might be used by the reader to fashion a consistent view of Bonifacia's nature, motivations, and role in the novel.

The portrayal of Bonifacia through multiple and always limited points of view collects so many ambiguities that the reader is continually obliged to weigh the information of one unreliable narrator against that of another. (p. 14)

In many important ways the incident at the mission actually reveals much of what Vargas Llosa has to say in his novel about the nature of human conduct and the position of his characters in an alien environment. Seen here and basic to his technique is a kind of portrayal which captures the immediacy of human acts but leaves both reader and character uncertain as to their full meaning. (p. 15)

It is … from a counterpointing of time levels that the author is able to humanize his character and soften the reader's potential for moral repugnance. Fushía's past, with all its violence and ethical cowardice, occurs simultaneously with a portrait of his present desperation and anguish. The immediate contrast between the two views makes it impossible for the reader to take satisfaction in the appropriateness, and perhaps even justice, of Fushía's personal suffering. (p. 17)

[As in Bonifacia's story], the author has chosen a circular or looping pattern to structure the internal disposition of time. With regard to a definition of Fushía's life, the structure has important thematic implications. At the point of looping the portrayal of his past comes to an end and, because his future has already been seen, an air of finality pervades the last episode. The linkage of time dimensions completes the design of a plot structure which has until now been unclear. But more importantly, the structural transition corresponds to the passage of Fushía's self to the state of being of an object.

The technique marks the point at which Fushía's will decisively loses the struggle with circumstance. (p. 18)

Even though the author's opinion of Fushía remains unspoken and the techniques employed never open a direct view of Fushía's mind, he is not nearly so opaque a character as Bonifacia. While it is true that the underlying approach to characterization limits portrayal to revealing Fushía's character rather than developing it, the process achieves sufficient psychological penetration, through externalized representations of his subjective life, to fashion a personality which could be mistaken for no other. The obsessions that drive Fushía are so closely interwoven with his personality structure that when he meets defeat the extent of his suffering evokes primarily an individualized drama of human tragedy. Only later, from a greater distance, can the reader perceive in Fushía's life the outlines of a pattern that gives his story archetypal significance.

The enigmatic quality of Aquilino's point of view is a primary source of the mystery that surrounds his entire relationship with Fushía. As he probes ever deeper into Fushía's past, questioning motives and pronouncing ominous judgments, there is an omniscience about him—arising from the author's handling of point of view—that further emphasizes the mythic quality of Fushía's story. (p. 19)

To see a character like Fushía as a "mere aspect of being" is not to see him whole. It is to mistake what he has been with what he becomes. As a literary character Fushía acquires life because his actions and words reveal a plausible and complex representation of individual experience. Defined by both internal and external conflicts, his obsessions and acts offer a variety of provocative insights into the author's interpretation of human problems and the limitations of the individual to cope with them.

Insofar as functional ambiguity induces moral ambivalence on the part of the reader, there is evidence to suggest that the author is concerned with an ontological rather than ethical treatment of Fushía's life. The fact that clear lines of causality—whether psychological, social, or divine—cannot be rigorously followed ultimately intensifies recognition that existence is itself a trap. In the story of Fushía it is not so important to trace personal responsibility or assign guilt as it is to see that he exists and struggles within a situation that offers no escape. (p. 20)

While Fushía's autonomous qualities as a character add a great deal to the interest and richness of the novel, they do not of themselves fully illuminate Vargas Llosa's goals in characterization. Fushía exemplifies certainly that individualization takes place, but it is his mode of existence that is crucial to interpretation rather than the particularity of his human qualities. Above all, his life represents a steady erosion of personality which passes through stages of agony and pain before reaching oblivion.

The author's view of the precariousness of personal identity—so much in evidence in the portrayal of both Bonifacia and Fushía—also supplies the conceptual underpinning for the presentation of a wide assortment of characters who are defined principally through their identification with a group. The fact that the collective entities often exhibit a stronger and more definable identity than do isolated individuals makes this feature of characterization one of the most distinctive aspects of the novel. Together these diverse segments of humanity add up to a human landscape of interesting and eloquent variety. (pp. 20-1)

Beyond this point, however, humanity becomes entirely faceless. Individuals and groups move across a human background so undifferentiated that descriptions record only vague silhouettes and dark, blurry masses. At this level, identity has reached its lowest denominator, leaving no more than a short distance before it dissolves completely into the dense, amorphous substances of the physical environment.

To focus this way on communal modes of existence, against a hazy and indefinite human background, places primary emphasis on the portrayal of relationships and patterns of human association rather than traditional character analysis. It is also a way, in this novel, of underscoring the insubstantial quality of individual personality. Since characters are so often defined by their external and communal behavior, their personalities tend to break apart into changing profiles. Thus the dynamics of a given situation, more than any other factor, determines the momentary content of an elusive, malleable personality.

Contributing to this view is the author's technique of with holding information about a character's full name or providing him with different names in different contexts. Some readers have found this practice misleading and even annoying but it stems nevertheless from a logical rationale within the novel and is, for many others, a source of intrigue that rewards close reader participation with the excitement of personal discovery…. [Vargas Llosa's] manipulations with the names of his characters ultimately derive from an effort on the part of the author to show that it is the experience of these characters in different environments that gives origin to their multiple identities. (p. 21)

[The] novel's vast panorama of character activity continually underscores the malleability and diversity of human nature. Within a hostile world, there are cases of endurance and survival as well as deterioration and death. But the victories are rare and always relative while the defeats are many and conclusive. (p. 22)

In the treatment of characterization, the novel consistently reflects an existential condition whose distinctive feature is the fragility of personal existence.

Expressing the precarious life of each personality are techniques and recurring structures that blur and divide identities; that make the past uncertain and reality itself ambiguous. The methods used achieve a high degree of dramatization but withhold clarity in motivation. Mystery and enigma are the expressive components of personalities who inhabit a fictional world where past realities are not clearly distinguished from subjective or mythical reconstructions. In a world where both evil and truth are relative and where every act, regardless of its moral quality, engenders disproportionate retribution, the reader encounters the essence of justice in his own ambivalence.

Allusions to biblical characters, Christian symbols, and mythical prototypes do not make La casa verde a coherent allegory. But these features do expand the limits of the novel by offering, through implication and association, deeper and more universal insights into the nature of existence. Generating meaning on many levels through complex modes of characterization, the novel shapes an interpretation of man in reality that shows him eternally condemned to an experience of tragedy and martyrdom. (pp. 22-3)

Michael Moody, "The Web of Defeat: A Thematic View of Characterization in Mario Vargas Llosa's 'La Casa Verde'," in Hispania (© 1976 The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Inc.), March, 1976, pp. 11-23.


Vargas Llosa, Mario (Vol. 85)