Mario Vargas Llosa Vargas Llosa, Mario (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vargas Llosa, Mario 1936–

Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian novelist, critic, journalist, screenwriter, and essayist. His writing is concerned with the hypocrisy and corruption of Peruvian society and politics. Violence is a recurring motif in his work, which Vargas Llosa believes reflects a society "where the social structures are based entirely on a sort of total injustice that extends to all aspects of life." His fictional works are noted for their structural complexity and innovative presentation of both time sequence and narrative structure. Vargas Llosa has collaborated with both José María Gutierrez and Rui Guerra on the screenplay adaptations of their novels. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Wolfgang A. Luchting

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Conversation in the Cathedral] (together with [Vargas Llosa's] earlier novels) is a splendid and admirable proof of how three apparently disparate impulses—moral rage, authorial autoindulgence, and severe discipline—can combine into an harmonic whole of shattering power and icy autonomy. Read anything by Mario Vargas Llosa and you will be amazed by the contrast between the heat of the corruptions or perversions narrated and the formal and linguistic frost glittering over them….

The society described [in Conversation] is one of corruption in virtually all the shapes and spheres you can imagine: products and consequences of a dictatorship and the (human) instruments it employs to perpetuate itself. Yet, the language is—with the exception of a few passages that do not ignite—matter-of-fact, almost flat, without pressures of expression, almost casual—even in the most orgiastic and perverse moments!…

[If] you can name it, Conversation has got it. And pervading it all, pulsating in everything, even in the most perverse parts of the spectrum of Peru's "quality of life," peeping from actions and reflections, there is masochism…. The tone and rhythm of the passages shaping such scenes stay cool. Yet the language never becomes diffuse or imprecise because this technique of a seemingly casual style is the apt expression of the underlying lament in Conversation: horror and terror, evil and hopelessness on the one, even virtue and courage on the other, the mutinous end of the power-stick, become stale in a society that has been "all fucked up."

"At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?" asks the second sentence of the novel. On … the last page, we still do not really know the answer. Ultimately, because there is no definite answer, there is no "precise moment" either. (p. 13)

Similarly, the reader must decide who should be declared the protagonist of the novel…. Black Ambrosio might indeed be seen as the axis-character. If, however, you go by which character affects the greatest number of the other characters in the book, you will want to take Cayo Bermúdez as the center…. Finally, Zavalita himself might be considered the axis, for his is the story of an...

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José Miguel Oviedo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


[The appearance of military characters] is reiterated with insistence [in the novels of Vargas Llosa], almost in a manic way; they operate by means of saturation and concentration in narrative texts which, on the other hand, appear crammed full of characters, filled to the brim with entire human populations. Among that mass, however, the military stand out with an unmistakable brilliance which is not just that of their uniforms: they are there to tell us something, a great deal, about the author, his imaginary world, the key notions to his intellectual conduct. (p. 16)

What can explain this … seduction by the military and their hierarchies? Why do they captivate the author's imagination? What role do they play in the text and context of his works? In the first place, the world of the military appears to be ruled by the principle of rigor: military structure is a closed structure by nature, with its secret and self-sufficient codes, almost a freemasonry founded on symbols, values and purposes which the rest of society does not share or does not completely know. The military system is thus presented with an aura of prestige before the eyes of civilians and their institutions, whose principal weakness is a lack of unity and internal cohesion, a tendency to dissent. In the name of the sacred principle of order, the military society can always make the Spartan harshness of its rules even more severe: that will never destroy it; what can destroy it is, on the contrary, the excessive liberty of its members. Vargas Llosa's creative perception recognized this from the beginning. But in addition, the rigor of the military frequently would go beyond the limits of military statutes and reproduce itself, deformed and monstrous, on the other side of the social body. What allowed the military to survive destroyed the essence of civilian life, asphyxiating it under the hateful norms of imposition and supremacy that many times have been singled out as great regulators in the narrative world of Vargas Llosa.

Vargas Llosa's readers already know how the novelist's characters like to confront each other, disputing something very valuable one time, something contemptible at another, many other times nothing—except the bare fury and intensity of the challenge. Life has them confront each other; it throws them against each other, like dogs who fight over the prey, and it gathers them in perfectly recognizable groups…. Vargas Llosa's imaginary world assumes the form of a pyramid filled with people trying to find the top, ruining others or simply trying not to fall further down, heroically hanging on by their fingernails. The human contacts are casual but intense, more than a relationship, a friction on the vertical plane between those who are ascending and those who unfortunately are descending, perhaps forever. Even those who are not military personnel know in their own hearts that there are levels and ranks which are perfectly established in this life; to ignore them would be foolhardy, and failure to take advantage of them would be a weakness that would only result in more attacks and mistreatment.

The experience of that implacable net of impositions and hierarchies represented by military life leads to another which also exercises a special fascination for the inhabitants of the author's novelistic space: that of absolute power, which succeeds in converting a man into a master who, finally, does not have to submit to anyone else and is self-governing according to a code which makes others into his slaves. To reach the summit of the pyramid is everyone's secret ambition, but rarely does anyone realize it. In fact, reaching the top does not presuppose an escape from the iron rule of the pyramid but rather a confirmation of it; almost no one in Vargas Llosa's novels triumphs alone. That is why there are gangs, clans and violent fraternities: to be the master also implies, in a sense, being the best servant of the rule, feeding the pyramid's hierarchies with the systematic exercise of humiliation, exploitation and degradation. The Circle in The Time of the Hero; the champs, the fiefdom and harem of Fushía, and the rubber mafias in The Green House; Cuéllar's group in Los cachorros (The Puppies); the courtiers, bureaucrats, police and murderers of Odría's regime in Conversation in The Cathedral; and even Pantaleón's visitadoras—all are fraternities conceived and organized so that the pressure from the boss can be felt with equal force down to the lowest rung. (pp. 17-18)

However, in the novels by Vargas Llosa there are always...

(The entire section is 1909 words.)

J. J. Armas Marcelo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Going] beyond the simple boundaries of a superficial reading of the plot [of The Time of the Hero]—in which "the city" and "the school" appear as the central spaces of the narration—other darker, more profound, more functional and more labyrinthine worlds emphasize the ambiguous characteristic of duplicity (personal, temporal, conceptual and functional), so that the same characteristic will be the center of contradiction, the grounds for two opposite poles, for two strata that fuse together and split apart simultaneously and constantly during the narrative process. This gives rise to a dual structure which is bipolar, oppositive and presented in a clear process of diminution that will continue...

(The entire section is 1282 words.)

José Miguel Oviedo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


If writing about himself, exposing himself as in "una ceremonia parecida al strip tease" (Historia secreta de una novela), is what Vargas Llosa has done up to now under various disguises, then [La tía Julia y el escribidor] constitutes an exercise in boldness and brazenness. Half of La tía Julia is the account of an episode from the writer's youth … and the writer does not even hide behind a character: the protagonist is unmistakably named Varguitas o Marito, which introduces a perturbing element in the work of a novelist who has made Flaubertian objectivity a trademark in his writing. The other half of the novel (that which corresponds to the...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Barbara Probst Solomon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mario Vargas Llosa has the ability to work on many different levels. On the one hand, he can produce a complicated study of Flaubert—"The Perpetual Orgy," published in 1975; on the other hand, he can write an uproariously slapstick novel ["Captain Pantoja and the Special Service"] that reads like a Peruvian "Catch-22" or "M∗A∗S∗H." What Mr. Vargas Llosa borrows from Flaubert is his stylistic technique; in this case, the use of several third-person narrators and the device of making a place his central character: Flaubert's Paris becomes Mr. Vargas Llosa's Peru. Like Flaubert, he is fascinated by the shady role of the intermediary in society, the person who carries out commands and never questions why they are given….

Clearly, Mr. Vargas Llosa is laughing at his native Peru [, satirizing its social clichés and sexual mores.] His wacky novel is well aided by the sleight-of-hand vernacular style of the translators, Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ.

In his earlier, more somber works, "The Green House" and "Conversations in the Cathedral," Mr. Vargas Llosa was also obsessed by a cast of characters that included pimps, whores, shady journalists, scandal and a corrupt military. But neither in those novels nor in the present one are his whores tough Brechtian heroines waiting for the black ship to take revenge against the overstuffed bourgeoisie, nor is Captain Pantoja a rebel "outsider" like Joseph Heller's Yossarian….

For North American readers to understand Mr. Vargas Llosa's preoccupation with whores and with intermediaries like Pantoja, they will need to be reminded of certain traumas that Latin American history has left behind. The psychic scar borne by Mexico and by certain parts of Latin America is the strong consciousness of being partially peopled by the illegitimate offspring of Indian mothers who were raped, shamed and converted into whores by the Spanish conquistadors. (p. 11)

Barbara Probst Solomon, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 9, 1978.