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Mario Vargas Llosa 1936–

(Full name Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa) Peruvian novelist, critic, essayist, journalist, short story writer, and playwright.

The following entry focuses on Vargas Llosa's fiction, presenting criticism published between 1986 and 1991. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 3, 6, 9, 10, 15, 31, and 42.

A major figure in contemporary literature, Vargas Llosa is respected for his insightful examination of social themes and for the craftsmanship of his work. Best known for his novels, he often addresses the complexity of existence by combining realism with such experimental techniques as nonlinear plot development, rapidly shifting narrative perspectives, and disparate yet converging story lines. Suzanne Jill Levine commented on the significance of his artistic accomplishment: "With an ambition worthy of such masters of the nineteenth-century novel as Balzac, Dickens, and Galdós, but with a technical skill that brings him closer to the heirs of Flaubert and Henry James, Mario Vargas Llosa has begun a complete inventory of the political, social, economic, and cultural reality of Peru."

Biographical Information

Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 in Arequipa, Peru. He attended schools in Lima, including the Leoncio Prado military school. His early school experiences served as the basis for the novella Los cachorros (1967) and the novel La ciudad y los perros (1963; The Time of the Hero). In 1952 in Piura, while finishing high school, he contributed articles to a local newspaper and wrote a play. In 1953 Vargas Llosa enrolled in law and literature courses at San Marcos University in Lima. He married a distant relative in 1955 and worked several part-time jobs while attempting to begin a writing career; he later depicted this phase of his life in the novel La tía Julia y el escribidor (1977; Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter). In 1957 his short stories began to appear in journals and newspapers; he also became a coeditor of the literary journals Cuadernos de composición and Literatura. The next year, his story "El desafio" received first place in a literary competition sponsored by Revue française, and the prize enabled him to travel to France. Vargas Llosa secured a scholarship to the University of Madrid, where he wrote a doctoral thesis that was later expanded to a book-length study of Gabriel García Márquez's fiction. After finishing his graduate studies, Vargas Llosa worked at a radio and television network in Paris. There he met such prominent Latin American writers as Miguel Angel Asturias, Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes. Vargas Llosa received international recognition in 1962 with the publication of The Time of the Hero, which established him as a prominent young author. In 1967, while in Caracas, Venezuela, accepting an award for La casa verde (1966; The Green House), he met García Márquez, with whom he collaborated in public discussions on fiction writing; the record of their conversations was published as La novela en América Latina (1968). In addition to fiction, he has published dramas, most notably the highly acclaimed La señorita de Tacna (1981), and several highly respected volumes of literary criticism. As a journalist, Vargas Llosa has commented extensively on the politics and social conditions of Peru, championing cultural and intellectual freedom. He was offered the post of Prime Minister by Peruvian President Fernando Belaunde Terry in the early 1980s, but declined, preferring to concentrate on writing. In 1987 he protested a proposal by the Peruvian government to nationalize the country's banks. His actions quickly led to a mass movement in opposition to the plan, and the government was forced to back down. Vargas Llosa's supporters went on to create Fredemo, a political party calling for democracy, a free market, and individual liberty. Together with two other political parties, Fredemo established a coalition group that nominated Vargas Llosa in an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in the 1990 Peruvian elections.

Major Works

Vargas Llosa often addresses the nature of Peruvian life in his writings. For example, Conversacíon en la catedral (1969; Conversation in the Cathedral) is set in Lima and depicts a society torn by corruption and political strife. Also taking place in Peru, the events of The Time of the Hero depict the experiences of boys at a military academy and serve to illustrate the nature of violence, moral decay, and social conformity. Another story, The Green House, portrays numerous characters from both the jungles and the settled areas of Peru who share modest ambitions for their lives. In addition to examining social themes, Vargas Llosa commonly experiments with complex narrative designs. For example, in The Green House he employs a montage-like arrangement of rapidly shifting settings and points of view, while the complicated circumstances of Conversation in the Cathedral are related during the course of a single, lengthy conversation between two acquaintances. In Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, half of the chapters portray a young man, who aspires to be a great fiction writer, coming of age in a romantic relationship; interspersed with these episodes are soap opera stories ostensibly composed by a radio scriptwriter. Less concerned with formal experimentation, La guerra del fin del mundo (1981; The War of the End of the World) focuses on a series of battles fought between a group of social outcasts and forces representing a newly established republic; the novel is based on Os sertões (1903), an epic account of a Brazilian war by eyewitness Euclides da Cunha. In Historia de Mayta (1984; The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta) the fictional narrator conducts a journalistic investigation of the life of the title character, a Trotskyite who led a failed rebellion against the Peruvian government in the late 1950s.

Critical Reception

Vargas Llosa's works, along with those of García Márquez, Fuentes, and others, are largely responsible for the international recognition of Latin American contributions to modern literature. In addition to the attention garnered by his first two novels, Vargas Llosa was also widely praised for his ambitious two-volume novel, Conversation in the Cathedral, though some reviewers found its labyrinthine structure difficult to comprehend. Although most critics have lauded Vargas Llosa's technical skill, a few have objected that in his early novels he pursued style and narrative complexity to the detriment of character development. Nevertheless, these early works are esteemed as astutely constructed microcosms of South American society, consistent with Vargas Llosa's concern with the dynamics and shortcomings of Latin American politics and culture. Perhaps most importantly, commentators agree that in all of his fiction Vargas Llosa successfully provides social commentary without subordinating his artistry to didacticism.

Principal Works

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Los jefes (short stories) 1959
La ciudad y los perros [The Time of the Hero] (novel) 1963
La casa verde [The Green House] (novel) 1966
La novela (essay) 1966
Los cachorros: Pichula Cuéllar (novella) 1967
"La literatura es fuego" ["Literature Is Fire"] (speech) 1967
La novela en América Latina: Diálogo [with Gabriel García Márquez] (essays) 1968
Conversación en la catedral. 2 vols. [Conversation in the Cathedral] (novel) 1969
García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio (criticism) 1971
Historia secreta de una novela (essay) 1971
García Márquez y la problemática de la novela [with Ángel Rama] (criticism) 1973
Pantaleón y las visitadoras [Captain Pantoja and the Special Service] (novel) 1973
La orgía perpétua: Flaubert y "Madame Bovary" [The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and "Madame Bovary"] (criticism) 1975
La tía Julia y el escribidor [Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter] (novel) 1977
José María Arguedas: Entre sapos y halcones (criticism) 1978
La guerra del fin del mundo [The War of the End of the World] (novel) 1981
La señorita de Tacna: Pieza en dos actos (drama) 1981
Entre Sartre y Camus (essays) 1982
Kathie y el hipopótamo: Comedia en dos actos (drama) 1983
Historia de Mayta [The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta] (novel) 1984
La chunga (drama) 1986
¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (novel) 1986
El hablador [The Storyteller] (novel) 1987
Elogio de la madrastra [In Praise of the Stepmother] (novel) 1988
A Writer's Reality (essays) 1990
El loco de los balcones: Teatro (drama) 1993
Pez en el agua [A Fish in the Water: A Memoir] (autobiography) 1994

∗These works were translated and published as The Cubs, and Other Stories in 1979.

†This work was adapted by Vargas Llosa as the 1976 screenplay Pantaleón y las visitadoras.

‡These works were translated and published as Three Plays in 1990.

Mario Vargas Llosa (essay date 1967)

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SOURCE: "Epilogue: Literature Is Fire," translated by Maureen Ahern De Maurer, in Doors and Mirrors: Fiction and Poetry from Spanish America, 1920–1970, edited by Hortense Carpentier and Janet Brof, Grossman Publishers, 1972, pp. 430-35.

[Vargas Llosa delivered the famous speech "Literature Is Fire" in Caracas, Venezuela, upon acceptance of the 1967 Rómulo Gallegos Prize, which he was awarded for The Green House. In the following excerpt from that speech, he expounds on the writer's vocation as the critic and conscience of society.]

In general, the Latin American writer has lived and written under exceptionally difficult circumstances because our societies assembled a cold and almost perfect machinery to discourage and kill in him his vocation. That vocation, in addition to being beautiful, is absorbing and tyrannical and demands of its skilled total involvement. How could they make of literature an exclusive calling, a militant cause, if they lived surrounded by people who in their majority did not know how to read or could not buy books, or who in their minority had no inclination to read? Without publishers, without readers, without a cultural environment that stimulated and pushed him, the Latin American writer has been a man who fought battles knowing full well from the very beginning that he would lose them. His vocation was not recognized by society, it was barely tolerated; he couldn't live on it, and it made of him a minor, ad honorem producer. The writer in our countries has had to split himself, separate his vocation from his daily action, multiply himself in a thousand jobs that deprived him of the time so necessary for writing, jobs that often revolted his conscience and his convictions. For in addition to not admitting literature into its midst, our societies have encouraged a constant mistrust toward this marginal being, a bit anomalous, who, against all reason, set himself to practice an art that in the Latin American circumstance was virtually unreal. This is why our writers have failed by the dozens, deserted their vocation or betrayed it by practicing it in a half-hearted and hidden fashion, with neither diligence nor discipline.

However, it is true that in the last few years things have begun to change. Gradually one senses a more hospitable climate for literature in our countries. The circle of readers begins to grow, the bourgeoisie discover that books matter, that writers are something more than harmless madmen, that they have a function to fulfill among humanity. But then, at the same rate that the Latin American writer begins to be treated justly, or rather, at the same rate that this injustice which has weighted him down begins to be rectified, a threat may emerge, a devilishly subtle danger. These same societies that exiled and rejected the writer may now think it convenient to assimilate him, integrate him, confer on him some kind of official status. Therefore, it is necessary to remind our societies what awaits them. To warn them that literature is fire, that it signifies non-conformism and rebellion, that the writer's very reason for being is protest, contradiction and criticism. To explain to them that there are no half-measures, that societies always suppress that human faculty which is artistic creation and eliminate once and for all that social agitator who is the writer, or that they admit literature into their midst, and in this case, they have no choice but to accept a perpetual torrent of aggression, irony, satire that will range from the descriptive to the essential, from the temporary to the permanent, from the tip to the base of the social pyramid. That's the way things are and there is no way out: the writer has been, is, and will continue to be a non-conformist. No one who is satisfied is capable of writing, no one who agrees with and is reconciled to reality would commit the ambitious folly of inventing verbal realities. The literary vocation is born of a man's disagreement with the world, of his intuition of the deficiencies, vacuums and filth around him. Literature is a form of permanent insurrection and recognizes no straitjackets. Every attempt destined to change its angry, ungovernable nature will fail. Literature may perish but it will never conform.

Only if this condition is fulfilled is literature useful to society. It contributes to the process of attaining human perfection by impeding spiritual swamps of self-satisfaction, immobility, human paralysis, moral and intellectual softening. Its mission is to agitate, disturb, alarm, keep men constantly dissatisfied with themselves: its function is to unconditionally stimulate the will to change and improve, even though in order to achieve this the most deadly and poisonous weapons must be employed. It must be understood once and for all that the more terrible and cruel an author's writings against his country, the more intense the passion that binds him to it. For in the realm of literature, violence is the test of love.

Of course the American reality offers the writer a virtual orgy of motives for being a rebel and living dissatisfied. Societies where injustice is law, these paradises of ignorance, of exploitation, of blinding inequalities, of poverty, with economic, cultural and moral alienation, our tumultuous countries provide sumptuous material, examples galore to demonstrate in fiction, either directly or indirectly, through deeds, dreams, testimonies, allegories, nightmares or visions, that reality is distorted, that life must change. But in ten, twenty, fifty years all of our countries will have reached, as Cuba has today, the time of social justice and all Latin America will have freed itself from the empire that sacks her, from the castes that exploit her, from the forces that today offend and repress her. I want this time to arrive as soon as possible and for Latin America once and for all to reach dignity and modern life; for socialism to free us from our anachronism and our horror. But when social injustices disappear, in no way will the writer have reached the time of consent, subordination or official complicity. His mission will continue; it must continue to be the same one; any compromise in this realm constitutes on the part of the writer a betrayal. Within the new society and along the way that our personal devils and ghosts drive us, we will have to continue as we did before, as we do now, saying no, rebelling, demanding that our right to disagree be recognized, demonstrating in a living magical way as only literature can do, that dogma, censure, abuse are also the mortal enemies of progress and human dignity, affirming that life is not simple nor does it fit into neat schemes, that the way to truth is never smooth nor straight, but often tortuous and brief, demonstrating with our books again and again the essential complexity and diversity of the world, the contradictory ambiguity of human acts. As yesterday, as today, if we love our vocation, we must continue fighting the thirty-two wars of Coronel Aureliano Buendía [a character in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude] even though, as he was, we are defeated in them all.

Our vocation has made of us the writers, the professional malcontents, the conscious or unconscious disturbers of society, the rebels with a cause, the world's unredeemed insurrectionists, the intolerable devil's advocates. I don't know if this is good or bad, I only know that it is so. This is the writer's condition and we must claim it for what it is. Now that literature is beginning to be discovered, accepted and patronized, Latin America must also know the menace that hangs over her, the high price that she will have to pay for culture. Our societies must be alerted; for rejected or accepted, persecuted or rewarded, the writer who deserves the name will continue throwing into men's faces the often unpleasant spectacle of their miseries and their torments.

Michael Wood (review date 27 March 1986)

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SOURCE: "Broken Blossoms," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIII, No. 5, March 27, 1986, pp. 34-8.

[Wood is an English-born educator, critic, and screenwriter. In the following excerpt, he praises the narrative technique of The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta while finding that Vargas Llosa fails to communicate his intended philosophical themes.]

Until recently Latin American fiction was preoccupied with forms of helplessness. History was seen as farce or fable, an endless parade of ogres and thieves. Decent people could watch it, run from it, hide in it, subject it to mockery, ravel it in fantasy. What they couldn't do was change it. The Cuban revolution suggested that the helplessness was willed rather than fated, a victory of irony and schism and despair over action, but this lesson only deepened the problem. The parade continued in most places, and a lack of historical necessity never made anyone's plight less real. Indeed, much of the energy of the so-called boom in Latin American writing, chiefly associated with the work of García Márquez, Fuentes, Donoso, and Vargas Llosa, seems to have come from a new awareness of how much style and imagination had been devoted to life in an impasse: a cultural triumph, no less, the preservation of wit, even gaiety, through a hundred years of turpitude.

The preoccupation of Latin American writers now, it appears, is not with helplessness but with failure—another animal entirely. To have failed you must have tried, have had chances to miss or spoil. Your emblem is not impotence but ruin. The boom images of carnival and circus give way to obsessive recalls of spreading garbage and a corpse washed up by the sea….

On the first page of Vargas Llosa's big novel Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) a character wonders bitterly; "At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?" Vargas Llosa's last novel, the admirable War of the End of the World (1981), studied a strange rebellion in the Brazilian backlands, the resistance and destruction of a raggle-taggle band of religious fanatics whose only crime was to have refused modernity. What forbidding prophecy was to be found in this event? Now in [The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta], published in Spanish in 1984, Vargas Llosa places the question in Peru again, but with a wider angle, and a curiosity obviously shaped by his recent historical researches. In many ways this book is an appendix to The War of the End of the World, a defense of its method, an attempt to take it home.

The story is simple. In 1958, just before Castro topples Batista in Cuba, a lonely (and I take it, imaginary) Peruvian Trotskyite joins forces with an ardent army lieutenant to start the revolution in the high Andes, "a land of condors, snow, clear sky, jagged ocher peaks," as Vargas Llosa puts it. Their plans are precarious, uncoordinated, amateurish. Along with two hesitant peasant leaders and a handful of very young cadets they take over a provincial prison and civil-guard post, cut off communications (but not thoroughly enough), rob a bank, and set off in two trucks for the remoter villages, where they hope to build support and establish a base. They are caught before they get very far; some are beaten and killed, others jailed; the boys are held for a while then sent to their homes. For the government of the day they are just bandits. For a young writer in Paris, reading a tiny news item, they are a first glimmer of political talk put into practice. The novel recounts this writer's investigation into and reconstruction of the sparse, sorry story.

The English title The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta expands and alters the more laconic Spanish Historia de Mayta, but works well enough if we catch the ironies clinging to the phrase "real life."…

Mayta is the Trotskyite, a dedicated revolutionary, about forty, a man who has hitherto known nothing but failure and small-time conspiracy, a figure whose "secret, intact integrity" attracts the writer who becomes his historian. Mayta is described as a political orphan, as an amateur suicide. He believes that even Stalinists may have a role to play in a real revolution; he is seen as an adventurer, even as an informer. But the dominant impression is of a man who believes in "the true, the integral revolution, the one that would abolish all injustices without inflicting new ones."

Is this romantic dream his "real life"? This is one of the two chief questions the novel wishes to ask. The other is, What does this life, real or not, mean for later generations, what lessons or warnings or promises lurk in it? Is Mayta Castro's unlucky twin, the miss that mirrors the hit? Is he a trial run, a precursor? Or is he a model of failure, an explanation, among others, for the fucked-up condition of Peru? The writer in the book hesitates. He doesn't know why he is looking into Mayta's life.

Because his case was the first in a series that would typify the period? Because he was the most absurd? Because he was the most tragic? Because his person and his story hold something ineffably moving, something that, over and beyond its political and moral implications, is like an X-ray of Peruvian misfortune?

This writer is nameless, but bears more than a passing resemblance to Vargas Llosa. He is well known in Peru, and in the course of the book has a prison library named after him. He seeks out and interviews everyone he can find who knows anything about Mayta's sad and distant adventure: Mayta's aunt, the sister of the enthusiastic lieutenant, old political comrades and enemies, locals who were present at the uprising, the cadets now grown old and respectable, and ultimately Mayta himself, who after years in jail has put politics behind him. "It's not that I gave up politics," he says mildly. "You might say that politics gave me up."

The technique of the novel is quite dazzling, and reveals its true subject: not Mayta but the story of Mayta; not the old adventure but its digging up and dusting off. Questions asked in the present are answered in the past, and vice versa, as if there were no break, as if then and now were a single time. Mayta says hello to his aunt in 1958, for example, and she says "Come in" to the writer in 1983. This method is followed throughout the book, and is not as confusing as it sounds—not confusing at all, in fact. The weaving of histories is tight, but the tenses are clear—even when the writer, in moments of strong identification with Mayta, says "he" and "I" indiscriminately.

What the writer—the writer in the book and the writer of the book—makes heavy weather of is not his ineffable involvement in the inquiry, but the philosophical status of what he is doing. He keeps stumbling into terrible banalities and offering them as discoveries—I think because his starting points are too easy and too broad. What is he doing? Well, writing a novel, a story, not history—the Spanish word nicely takes both meanings. Then why does he need the facts, the witnesses? "Because I'm a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it…. That's how I work." The writer/narrator repeats this explanation several times in the book, as if it explained something. "I didn't do it so I could relate what really happened … but so I could lie and know what I'm lying about."

Somewhere buried in here is the traditional defense of fiction as truer than history, but the notion is blurred by too many concessions and not enough irony—and a conception of truth rather alarming in a novelist. If the lies of fiction don't touch some order of truth, they are pointless: just lies. In any case most of the lame conclusions this writer comes to have to do with the difficulties of history, not fiction:

One thing you learn, when you try to reconstruct an event from eyewitness accounts, is that each version is just someone's story, and that all stories mix truth and lies.

But the more I investigate, the less I feel I know what really happened.

Yet another proof of how mysterious and unforeseeable the ramifications of events are, that unbelievably complex web of causes and effects, reverberations and accidents that make up human history.

As Hamlet's friend Horatio almost said, there needs no ghost come from the jail to tell us this.

Vargas Llosa confronts these issues rather more satisfactorily in the setting he describes and in his conclusion. The contemporary scene, the point from which 1958 is viewed, is not "the Peru of the near future," as the blurb suggests, but a dark dream-Peru of 1983—twenty-five years on from 1958, as the writer keeps saying. There is rationing, there is a curfew. The (doubtless real enough) garbage of Lima assumes hallucinatory proportions; the slums seem to come from A Clockwork Orange. Rebel armies have taken over entire areas of the countryside, Russian-backed Cuban regiments have invaded across the Bolivian border. The ruling military junta has asked for (and will presumably get) the aid of US troops and supplies. Che Guevara's plea is being met: another Vietnam, one of a chain, perhaps. "Here we go. The war is no longer a Peruvian affair." Here is a fiction that reflects the truth of our danger, and the violence of our talk.

At the end of the novel the writer meets the "real" Mayta, and explains that he is working on a book about him. He has changed a few things, he says, in the past character as in the present place. "I've pretended … that we were schoolmates, that we were the same age, and lifelong friends." The writer hopes, of course, in spite of his talk of lying, to have kept the essentials. Mayta embarks on his crazy project because he is tired of committee-room revolution: "The possibility of taking concrete action … electrifies him." He is an "obstinate optimist," a "man of faith who loves life despite the horror and misery in it." Does the flesh and blood Mayta recognize himself in this portrait? No, and we don't recognize the writer's Mayta in this sad and ruined figure, "a man destroyed by suffering and resentment, who has even lost his memories." And so the shabby fact and the noble fiction stare at each other. Is the fiction what Mayta could have been, once was, but can no longer remember being? Or is it only a figment of the writer's wishing, the revolutionary ancestor he longs for, a stick to beat the present day? More the second, probably, but then this is the novel's deepest theme: not the past but our need of the past, the memory and the measurement of failure.

The Mayta we meet at the end of the book is bothered by one particular change the writer has made in his character, one florid fiction. Mayta in the novel is homosexual. Why? The writer improvises an answer, a little too plausibly and too ideologically.

To accentuate his marginality, his being a man full of contradictions. Also to show the prejudices that exist with regard to this subject among those who supposedly want to liberate society from its defects. Well, I don't really know exactly why.

I'm afraid the reason is just this one, in spite of the writer's hedging. He wants to make an abstract point, not realizing that his formulation embodies the very prejudices he wants to deny—what is the contradiction between homosexuality and revolution?—and he has a foible for the lurid contrast which makes Mayta "by day, a clandestine militant totally given over to the task of changing the world, and, by night, a pervert on the prowl for faggots."

Mayta himself, in this last confrontation, says,

I was never prejudiced about anything. But, about fags, I think I am prejudiced…. How can you not be sick to your stomach? It's unbelievable that a human being can sink so low.

That sure sounds prejudiced, and the ugliness of Vargas Llosa's writing about the imagined Mayta's homosexuality rather confirms the prejudice than denies it.

Raymond Leslie Williams (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: "The History of a Passion: Introduction to Mario Vargas Llosa," in Mario Vargas Llosa, Ungar, 1986, 202 p.

[In the following excerpt, Williams provides an overview of Vargas Llosa's career and the literary, social, and political contexts that influenced his writing.]

Mario Vargas Llosa is the prodigy of the writers associated with the "boom" of Latin American literature. With the possible exception of Carlos Fuentes, he has also been the most prolific. By the mid-1970s, this disciplined Peruvian—at that time still not forty years old—had published enough for three respectable lifetime careers. First, he was the renowned creator of five novels; second, he was an academic scholar, author of two critical studies and numerous articles; and third, he was a journalist widely read throughout the Hispanic world.

By 1966, at the age of thirty, Vargas Llosa was already one of the most prominent writers in Latin America. That year he was awarded the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in Caracas, the most prestigious honor a novelist can receive in Latin America. Since then, his international reputation has grown remarkably. Most of his fiction has been translated into English and there have been numerous studies of his work; in the late 1970s he was named President of the International PEN Club; by the 1980s his name has been included in the list of potential candidates for the Nobel Prize.

His story is one of passion and it is a passion for literature. This passion has revealed itself in terms of the intimate relationships with books that have influenced him, such as Madame Bovary; in the remarkable discipline he has exercised in his writing; and in the rigor he regularly demonstrates in defending the author's right to freedom of expression. Vargas Llosa has quoted Flaubert to explain how writing is "almost a physical function, a way of being which includes the entire individual."

A personal insight into this passion for life and literature came to me in the autumn of 1983, when Vargas Llosa appeared in St. Louis to deliver a lecture. The highlight of this visit was the trip we took to Hannibal, Missouri, to visit the home of Mark Twain. As might be expected from a Latin American writer nourished in his youth on American writing, Vargas Llosa was interested in the original editions of Twain's books that were on display at the Twain Museum, he was also fascinated by other nineteenth-century objects from Twain's life. Upon returning to St. Louis, we met with a colleague in English, a Twain specialist. Some of Vargas Llosa's questions about Mark Twain were the standard queries concerning the American's fiction. Apparently dissatisfied with what he had learned about the writer from Hannibal, Vargas Llosa probed further: "What were Twain's passions? Did he have a lover?" Such issues are quintessentially those of Vargas Llosa. The inquiry about Twain's personal life emanated from Vargas Llosa's conviction that all writers function as a consequence of passion. The question of lovers responds to Vargas Llosa's admitted interest in the side of life that some intellectuals might consider embarrassingly mundane: the lovers and "affairs" that provide the material for soap operas rather than for classic novels.

A love affair—and soap operas, in fact—provide the anecdotal material for Vargas Llosa's sixth novel, Aunt Julia and the Script Writer. The novel develops two story lines in alternating chapters. The odd-numbered chapters relate the somewhat autobiographical story of a love affair between an adolescent writer-to-be and his aunt, several years his senior; the even-numbered chapters are soap operas produced for Peruvian radio by one of the adolescent's colleagues at a radio station. The writer of the soap operas becomes a Latin American celebrity, and Vargas Llosa fully exploits the humorous potential of the situation. His previous novel, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, was also in a humorous vein, satirizing the Peruvian military. Set in the jungle in northeastern Peru, it tells the story of a fanatic military officer who, when given orders to placate soldiers who are molesting the local girls, organizes institutional prostitution that proves embarrassingly successful.

Aunt Julia and the Script Writer and Captain Pantoja and the Special Service are the product of a mature writer confident of his craft. They are also Vargas Llosa's most entertaining books. His more substantive novels are The Time of the Hero, The Green House, Conversation in The Cathedral, and The War of the End of the World. In addition, he has published a short novel, The Cubs, and, more recently, Historia de Mayta (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta).

The first novel, The Time of the Hero, is set in a military school in Lima. The main characters, who are adolescents, represent a cross-section of Peruvian society. They simultaneously propagate and suffer the cruel violence and rituals of daily life in the school. Many of the boys' adventures seem trivial, merely the antics of schoolboys. The actions of the cadets, however, expand to involve them in the broader Peruvian society. The result is a moral novel.

The use of narrative segments, flashbacks, and several narrators make The Time of the Hero an adventure in technique. In his next novel, The Green House, Vargas Llosa further develops narrative techniques initially explored in the first. The two basic stories of The Time of the Hero (the one in the school and the one in the city) actually evolved into five identifiable story lines. The Green House expands in physical setting: its panoramic vision covers two general areas, the Amazon jungle and the northern coastal area of Peru. Its five stories are woven into the two settings.

The panoramic vision, various narrative techniques, and story lines become even more complex in Vargas Llosa's most ambitious novel, Conversation in The Cathedral. Set during the period from approximately the late 1940s to the early 1960s, it encompasses many aspects of social and political life in Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel Odría, which lasted from 1948 to 1956. The protagonist, who belongs to Vargas Llosa's generation—those who experienced the Odría regime during adolescence and early adulthood—spends four hours talking with a friend in a bar named "La Catedral." Waves of dialogue spread out to cover the entire time span and the broad physical setting of the novel, which includes Lima and several provinces of Peru. This challenging work of fiction, which was originally published in two volumes, involves some sixty characters, a subtle montage of dialogue, and a complex manipulation of structure and point of view….

Each of these first three novels is an adventure in reader participation, requiring one to master Vargas Llosa's techniques. Obviously, the reading of a novel such as Conversation in The Cathedral cannot be taken lightly. (As one critic has quipped, however, the author could respond that he does not undertake the writing lightly.)

Even Vargas Llosa's two humorous novels, which followed this initial cycle of most demanding fiction, are not to be dismissed as light entertainment…. The War of the End of the World contains elements that can be associated with much of the previous fiction, and in this sense may be seen as a synthesis of Vargas Llosa's writing career. Like Conversation in The Cathedral, it is a monumental production. Its 568 pages represent an exhaustive research into the history and region of its setting, northern Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century. Unlike the early novels, however, it is basically a straightforward and chronologically narrated account.

Vargas Llosa had the good fortune of publishing his first novels during the 1960s, precisely at a moment when the international reading public began to take notice of Latin America. He was one of the key figures in the rise of the contemporary novel there. Along with Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, and Gabriel García Márquez, Vargas Llosa gained international acclaim during a period that witnessed the publication of such novels as Fuentes's The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962) and Change of Skin (1968), Cortázar's Hopscotch (1963), and García Márquez's stunning and magnificent One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

Vargas Llosa belongs to a tradition of Spanish-American writing, however, that predates this small selection of fine novels from the 1960s. The "boom" was only, in fact, the international recognition of relatively few novelists belonging to a literary culture that had initiated dramatic changes in Spanish-American fiction by the 1940s.

A key writer in this reaffirmation of the right of invention was Jorge Luis Borges, who published his Ficciones in the 1940s. Other novels that pointed to the new direction of Spanish-American fiction were: El Señor Presidente (1946), by the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias; At the Edge of the Storm (1947), by the Mexican Agustín Yáñez; Adán Buenosayres (1948), by the Argentine Leopoldo Marechal; and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier's The Kingdom of this World (1949). Each of these novelists continued writing through the 1950s. Mexico's Juan Rulfo published his classic novel Pedro Páramo in 1955. By the mid-1950s Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, and Cortázar were publishing their initial stories, and García Márquez demonstrated lessons in narrative technique—learned primarily from Faulkner—with his first novel, Leafstorm (1955).

Writers of the generations preceding Vargas Llosa—Borges, Asturias, and Carpentier, among others—were directly involved with the European avant-grade of the 1920s. All three, in fact, were in Europe during that period. Spanish-American writers even produced a few avantgarde novels themselves during the 1920s and 1930s. Examples are: the Mexicans Arqueles Vela, who wrote El café de nadie (Nobody's Café; 1926), and Jaime Torres Bodet, author of Margarita de niebla (Marguerite of the Mist; 1927), and the Peruvian Martín Adán, who published La casa de cartón (The Cardboard House; 1928). The novels of this period that attracted most readers, however, were the more traditional and tellurian classics: La vorágine (The Vortex; 1924) by the Colombian José Eustacio Rivera, Don Segundo Sombra (1926) by the Argentine Ricardo Guiraldes, and the Venezuelan Rómulo Gallegos's Doña Barbara (1929). Simple and at times even simplistic novels, they have been rejected by the contemporary novelists. Vargas Llosa has described them as primitive efforts at novelization.

"All Peruvian writers, in the long run, are defeated persons." This is how Vargas Llosa has characterized the vocation of writing in one of his numerous statements about the formidable difficulties of surviving as a professional writer in Peru. With rare exceptions, the Peruvian potentially interested in literature has become a lawyer or politician by profession, and a writer on weekends.

A tradition of fiction writing in Peru nonetheless exists. The outstanding writers in nineteenth-century Peru were Ricardo Palma (1833–1919), one of Latin America's best traditional storytellers and recreators of local customs, and Clorinda Matto de Turner, a novelist who dedicated her life and writing to denouncing the injustices suffered by the Indians in Peru. Her Aves sin nido (Birds without a Nest; 1899) is generally considered a landmark novel in Spanish-American Indianist literature.

Until the 1940s Peruvian writers produced relatively few noteworthy novels compared to the remainder of the Hispanic world. Those published fall squarely within the realist-naturalist tradition: their primary function was denunciation, particularly with respect to the social injustices perpetrated against the native Indian population. The two novelists who dominated the Peruvian literary scene entirely during the 1940s and 1950s were Ciro Alegría (1909–67) and José María Arguedas (1911–69). Both writers were concerned primarily with indigenous themes. Vargas Llosa has delivered lectures and written extensively about Arguedas and has demonstrated a particular empathy for Sebastián Salazar Bondy (1924–65). He has used Salazar Bondy as the example, par excellence, of the devastating effects of attempting to be a professional writer in Peru.

The Peruvian historical context is perhaps even more important for Vargas Llosa's work than the literary tradition. The historical setting of his work stretches over much of the twentieth century. As one critic has aptly pointed out, Vargas Llosa's novels are profoundly discontented visions of Peru. The novelist has explained his vision of his task as a writer in Peru as follows: "Literature in general and the novel in particular are expressions of discontent. Their social usefulness lies principally in the fact that they remind people that the world is always wrong, that life should always change."

Recent Peruvian history, indeed, provides the novelist with many sources of discontent. Twentieth-century Peru has been characterized by occasional periods of social and economic progress, but instability has been the general rule.

Several types of governments and leaders since World War I have accompanied Peru in its limping journey through recent decades. Throughout the 1920s a U.S.-supported President, Leguía, served primarily the interests of the local oligarchy and foreign investors. Poor economic conditions for the working classes and inflation resulted in the formation of two powerful populist movements. The leftist APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria) was founded in 1924 by Raúl Haya de la Torre as a response to postwar inflation. Another populist leader, Sánchez Cerro, founded the Unión Revolucionaria, right-wing and nationalistic party which, like the APRA, found its main support among the working class. According to Vargas Llosa, in Piura in every home in the working-class neighborhood called La Mangachería (an important setting of The Green House) had a picture of its hero, Sánchez Cerro. This hero took power in 1931 only to be assassinated in 1933—quite likely by a supporter of the APRA. Neither political stability nor economic conditions improved in the 1930s or 1940s.

The government of José Luis Bustamente, a moderate liberal elected in 1945, gave power to Haya de la Torre and the apristas, but General Manuel Odría took over the government in 1948 with the backing of the oligarchy, which had become alarmed over the leftist tendencies within the Bustamente government. "With Odría, barbarism reigned once more in Peru," Vargas Llosa has explained. Not only brutal and oppressive, Odría's eight-year regime was corrupt and stultifying. Odría permitted elections in 1956, which resulted in the presidency of Manuel Prado, who was elected with the support of his former enemies, the apristas. Near the end of Prado's second term in 1962, elections were held. The three candidates were Odría, Haya de la Torre, and Belaúnde. After a period of political and military maneuvering following the elections, and a brief military junta, Belaúnde was elected. Belaúnde received 39 percent of the vote, Haya de la Torre 34 percent and Odría 26 percent. The setting for Conversation in The Cathedral is the regime of Odría and the beginning of the government of Belaúnde. Peruvian novelist Julio Ramón Ribeyro also published a novel on this period, Cambio de guardia (Change of the Guard; 1976), a work that had been written several years before it was finally published….

The apogee of Vargas Llosa's prominence in the Hispanic world came in 1967 in the form of his receiving its most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Rómulo Gallegos. At the ceremony for this prize in Caracas, he delivered his much-quoted statement on literature and revolution: "La literatura es fuego" ("Literature Is Fire"). Seen in retrospect, however, it is possible to trace a consistent line of thought, from the mid-1960s to 1971, which demonstrates his change of position from strict adherence to, and support of, socialist principles and regimes, to dissociation from all dogmatic and authoritarian governments, including Marxist.

Such a stance has been considered heresy by many Latin American intellectuals. But, as early as 1966 Vargas Llosa published articles that began to clarify his eventual political position. In an article entitled "Una insurección permanente" ("A Permanent Insurrection"), published in March 1966, Vargas Llosa supports the idea of socialism but defends the right to criticize within socialist systems. Here he begins defining his own type of socialism. The following year he penned articles that were vigorously opposed to censorship on both sides of the East-West block. One piece criticized censorship in the Soviet Union and the other was a polemic against censorship in Great Britain. This questioning of Soviet policies in 1967 probably made a split with Castro's Cuba inevitable.

By 1970, lines of direct confrontation between pro-Cuban Hispanic intellectuals and Vargas Llosa were clearly defined. In April 1970 he defended the fiction of the "boom" writers [in "Luzbel y otras conspiraciones"], responding to an ideologically pro-Cuban attack directed at him by the young Colombian intellectual Oscar Collazos. Vargas Llosa openly criticized Fidel Castro by name four months later (August 1970). The definitive rift between the writer and Soviet-Cuban bloc occurred in 1971. As a result of the case of the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla (a celebrated issue in Latin America), Vargas Llosa wrote two open letters to Cuba. The first, addressed to Haydée Santamaría of the Cuban government, expressed Vargas Llosa's unwillingness to make a promised visit to Cuba because of censorship and repression (April 5, 1971). The second was a letter directed to Fidel Castro, signed by numerous Latin American writers, asking Castro to reconsider his most recent actions with respect to intellectuals and indeed make Cuba the "model of socialism" that the leftist intelligentsia had expected. Vargas Llosa still considered himself a supporter of the Cuban Revolution; some distance has nevertheless remained between him and other Latin American writers who unequivocally defend all the policies of Castro and other nations aligned with the Soviet Union.

In addition to the heated political debate, the late 1960s and early 1970s were years that highlighted Vargas Llosa's extraordinary artistic and scholarly discipline. He wrote two of his most lengthy texts, Conversation in The Cathedral and the study of García Márquez's fiction, Gabriel García Márquez: historia de un deicidio. The original Spanish edition of the novel was published in two volumes. Although this work contributed to his prestige as a novelist, it probably did little to broaden his readership. His study of García Márquez—an exhaustive 667-page analysis of the Colombian's complete fiction—is still one of the best source books on that writer; it is almost as interesting for its revelations on Vargas Llosa as for those on its subject.

After the publication of the novel Captain Pantoja and the Special Service and more essays during the year 1973, Vargas Llosa returned to Peru in 1974. He noticed those changes that had occurred since he left at the age of twenty-two, and another of his passions came forth in his description of the return:

I left Europe and didn't live in my country again for any length of time until 1974. I was 22 years old when I left and 38 when I returned. In many ways, I was a totally different person when I came back. But as far as my relationship to my country is concerned, I think it has not changed since my adolescence. It is a relationship that can be defined with the help of metaphors rather than concepts. Peru is for me a kind of incurable disease, and my feeling for her is intense, bitter, and full of the violence that characterizes passion.

Despite the mixed feelings, Vargas Llosa has basically remained in Peru, with his second wife, Patricia, since 1974. During this period he has dedicated himself to the type of activity and writing that had characterized his previous career. He wrote three more novels, Aunt Julia and the Script Writer, The War of the End of the World, and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta; his essays have appeared regularly throughout the Hispanic world—including a book-length study of Flaubert's Madame Bovary titled La orgía perpetua: Flaubert y "Madame Bovary." His newspaper pieces on political issues have been consistent with his earlier writing: he regularly speaks out against any type of censorship or repression of rights of the artist. Being named President of PEN Club International in the late 1970s gave him an international forum in which to discuss such issues. By the mid-1980s, Vargas Llosa was established as one of the world's major writers. His novels, which are translated into numerous languages (as are his scholarly essays and incisive political writings) have made him one of the most respected writers of the twentieth century.

Charles Rossman (essay date Winter 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7336

SOURCE: "Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral: Power Politics in a Corrupt Society," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 493-509.

[An American educator and critic who specializes in the study of Modernist literature, Rossman is the author and the editor of several books about D. H. Lawrence. In the following essay, he focuses on characterization in his examination of the themes and ideas presented in Conversation in the Cathedral.]

Conversation in The Cathedral is Mario Vargas Llosa's most overtly political novel. To be sure, all his books reverberate with political implications, given their depiction of political corruption, the abuse of power, the exploitation of the weak, and the coerciveness of the socioeconomic hierarchy. But Conversation in The Cathedral addresses such themes directly and explores them within an explicitly political setting in modern Peru. The novel centers on those rich and powerful Peruvians who jockey for position during the dictatorship of Manuel Odria, who seized power in 1948 but yielded it to an elected president, Manuel Prado, in 1956. [In a footnote the critic adds: "Conversation in The Cathedral covers the years 1948 to 1963, roughly speaking, with some brief flashbacks to much earlier times than 1948. The entire Odría era is therefore embraced by the novel."] Conversation focuses on Peru's recent history as the occasion for a fictive meditation on the sources, nature, and consequences of power.

Conversation is doubly concerned with how the quest for power transforms one's life, and with how that quest affects the lives of others not themselves immediately caught up in the struggle. Conversation therefore depicts in detail the lives of two distinct groups of people: on the one hand, the politicians and wealthy businessmen who vie for power; on the other hand, several people who are peripheral to the political drama itself, yet intimately involved with its chief actors. The first group includes Cayo Bermúdez, Odría's most powerful minister; Fermín Zavala, a wealthy businessman who eventually plots against the Odría government; and a cluster of generals and senators. The second group includes Santiago Zavala, Fermín's son; Ambrosio, a black chauffeur who works at different times for both Bermúdez and Zavala; Hortensia, a lesbian nightclub singer known as the Muse, who is Bermúdez's mistress; and a number of civil servants, mistresses, prostitutes, newspapermen, and political thugs.

Although Conversation in The Cathedral is overtly political, it is not narrowly so. For in fact, Conversation demonstrates that political reality is quintessential reality. The self-seeking, exploitative use of power that characterizes Peruvian political life in the novel equally permeates Peru's economic, social, and even domestic life. Political and economic goals tend to authenticate one another, and both define social and familial attitudes.

As Santiago Zavala says of his father, the well-heeled in Peru have no "'political ideas,'" they have only "'political interests.'" That is, such men automatically embrace the political attitudes that further their economic ends. They are burdened with no qualms about principles, no detached speculation about ideals or social justice. All that matters is one's self-interest. Cayo Bermúdez, who becomes Odría's Minister of Public Order, puts the matter with succinct honesty. When a military officer observes that Fermín Zavala supports the government only to "'do business,'" Bermúdez replies that "'we're all with the government out of convenience…. I'm not paid to believe, I'm paid to do my job.'" His job is to entrench Odría's power, and his own, at whatever cost.

Like the numerous prostitutes in Conversation, politicians and businessmen routinely sell themselves for cash or privilege. But such venality is hardly confined to the rich and powerful; it is endemic throughout the social order depicted in the novel. At the bottom of the social ladder, moreover, the political prostitution is especially mindless and brutal. Without a trace of conscience, hired thugs engineer strikes, control crowds, rig elections, and imprison or even kill the opposition.

Conversation in The Cathedral opens with Santiago Zavala emerging from the offices of La Crónica, the Lima newspaper for which he writes editorials, on his way home for lunch. He takes a shuttle taxi to his cramped apartment in the affluent suburb Miraflores. There he finds his wife, Ana, distraught because their dog has been captured by overzealous dogcatchers. Santiago rushes to the pound, where he recognizes one of the pound's black employees—whose job is to beat dogs to death with a club—as his father's former chauffeur, Ambrosio Pardo.

It has been at least a decade since Santiago last saw Ambrosio (the chronology is difficult to determine, and may even be consciously confused by Vargas Llosa). It is Ambrosio's lunch hour, and the two go off together, with the rescued dog, to a nearby working-class restaurant and brothel, The Cathedral, They drink beer and converse for some four hours. As they leave The Cathedral, Santiago's head is spinning, partly from the beer but mainly from the swirl of thoughts and memories provoked by their conversation. They part with an odd blend of friendliness and estrangement. Santiago returns home, delivers the dog to Ana, and falls into bed for an afternoon nap. There the chapter ends.

The book's opening chapter occurs in the narrative present, which appears to be 1963. Santiago's collapse into bed to sleep it off is, in terms of the novel's chronology, the latest event in the novel. The thirty subsequent chapters recount earlier events that unfold toward the present. It is not true, as some commentators assert, that the initial conversation between Santiago and Ambrosio somehow contains all the events and conversations that follow, that the entire novel quotes and disposes only what has been uttered or thought during that four-hour "conversation in The Cathedral." Much of what happens in the nearly six hundred remaining pages occurs outside the awareness of either Santiago or Ambrosio. We should therefore regard the rest of the book as suggested by and growing out of that first conversation, as antecedents and associations that, paradoxically, echo and elaborate a conversation that they precede chronologically.

The conversation in The Cathedral is just one of the novel's several pivotal conversations, notably those between Ambrosio and Don Fermín, between Santiago and his fellow journalist Carlitos, and between Ambrosio and the prostitute Queta. Phrases from various conversations recur intermittently throughout the book as brief, puzzling fragments—a single intruded sentence here, an exchange of two sentences there—that disrupt the histories of the five major characters: Fermín Zavala, his son Santiago, Cayo Bermúdez, the Zavala's household servant, Amalia, and Ambrosio, who has been Bermúdez's childhood friend, who is Amalia's lover, and who therefore serves to link the stories of several characters together.

Vargas Llosa organizes the personal histories in Conversation much as he had the interwoven narrative strands of The Green House, his immediately preceding novel. That is, he arranges the lives of interacting characters into discrete narratives told from the limited perspective of a single character; fragments from each such history alternate with fragments from the others, often in a consistently recurring pattern; and the various histories occur in different time-planes. (Chapter one is the only sustained sequence of any length that is narrated in conventionally linear fashion.) The various narratives intertwine and overlap to yield a whole that is disclosed only as a result of the reader's alert and active involvement. The disjunctions of chronology, the abrupt shifts in perspective, and the temporal circularity of the novel (by which the reader is led from the opening chapter through prior history back to events that occur just before those of the opening chapter), coupled with the gradually disclosed but indispensable conversations, all mean that the reader is prepared to understand the mood and circumstances of Santiago Zavala in chapter one only after the entire novel has been read.

Because my concern in this essay is with the political elements of Conversation, what follows will largely ignore the novel's dazzling complexities of form. Instead, I concentrate on four characters—Santiago, Fermín, Bermúdez, and Ambrosio—with a mind to inferring from these characters and their actions the political vision embodied by Conversation in The Cathedral. I reconstruct the stories of these characters in their chronological order, exposing causality and consequence in their interrelated lives. We begin with Santiago Zavala.

Stepping out of the office of La Crónica in the novel's opening paragraph, Santiago asks himself: "At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?" Immediately, Santiago links the state of the country with the state of individuals, starting with himself: "He was like Peru, Zavalita was, he'd fucked himself up somewhere along the line. He thinks: when?" He quickly adds: "there's no solution." His story during the rest of the book is a search for the answer to "when" he, like Peru, had "fucked himself up," and to why there is "no solution." Throughout the book, Santiago regularly poses the questions to himself: "was it then?" or "had it been at that time?"

Santiago has already become a free-thinker as a high school student, during the earliest episodes in his life that the reader experiences. As such, he is an anomaly in his family and, indeed, in his social class. His father is a conservative businessman making a fortune because of his judicious support of the Odría regime, particularly his carefully nourished relationship with Cayo Bermúdez. Members of his family harbor the conventional prejudices of their class: a smug belief in their social superiority; exaggerated respect for money and business activity; contempt for Indians and half-breeds; pride in their children's minds so long as the children get good grades but do not have fresh ideas; fear that anything suggesting social change is the work of communists. Members of his family expect him to share their values, exploit his "contacts," and devote his energy to making money. His father's advice about the purpose of a university is typical: "'Study hard, get your law degree and you can dip your spoon into politics.'"

Santiago stands in opposition to the whole cluster of values and purposes represented by his family, especially his father. He opposes the military and Odría because they came to power by force. He chooses San Marcos over Catholic University both because he dislikes priests and because San Marcos is where "the people" go. He gets excellent grades in high school, but he also reads a lot (which is, ironically, something of a subversive activity), writes poetry in secret, and has "ideas"—all of which provoke the mockery of his brother and sister, who jeeringly call him "Superbrain." (In contrast, friends at the fashionable Terrazas Club have nicknamed his brother "Tarzan.") Santiago does not articulate many of his "ideas" in these early scenes, but we infer from what he and others say that Santiago affirms abstract principles of social justice and economic equality—ideas anathema to his father, his family, his social class, and the Odría regime.

Neither his family nor his friend Popeye regards Santiago's political ideas as pure, high-minded principles. Rather, they dismiss his ideas as merely the product of a supercilious and negative temperament. His brother and sister call him a "'know-it-all'" who opposes "'everything [that Don Fermín] says.'" Even easygoing Popeye believes that Santiago is "'always against everything,'" that he gives his life "'a bitter taste just for the hell of it.'" Don Fermín, who suffers the most from Santiago's disaffection, puts the general feeling with greatest poignancy: "'Nobody can get along with you…. Even if we treat you with love, you always give us a kick in the pants.'"

Not surprisingly, Santiago at first sees himself as a person of untainted motives, as simply a good man defending his principles against a corrupt, hostile world. "'I don't play the know-it-all,'" he says, "'I attack when I'm attacked.'" By the time that he reaches the university, however, he can be more truthful with himself. Issues and solutions both seem more complicated to him then, and he cannot share his friend's ardent confidence in their own opinions. For instance, Santiago laments the gap between himself and his girlfriend Aída, whose complete and uncomplicated dedication to her political ideals strikes Santiago as a "purity" unattainable by him. When Aída and Jacobo eagerly join the university's tiny cell of communists, Santiago is crippled by ideological doubts and remains officially only a "sympathizer" rather than a full-fledged "member" of the group. Santiago agrees with Aída that doubts are fatal, that they paralyze the will to action, and that society cannot be changed unless people of strong will act decisively. He earnestly wants to share Aída's pure commitment to a political cause. Nevertheless, he holds a part of himself back, involuntarily checked by doubts despite his eagerness to believe.

Santiago's doubts, his inability to believe unquestioningly and to act on that affirmation, become a major theme in Conversation. An interior voice nags him about his failure to believe: "What had probably fucked you up was that lack of faith, Zavalita." He confesses to Ambrosio, years after the failure to follow Aída into communism and social action, that he has spent his "'whole life … wanting to believe in something…. And my whole life [is] a lie, I don't believe in anything.'" Clearly, Santiago here has in mind doubts more profound than quibbles over a particular ideology, and faith more embracing than a fashionable political or economic theory. As Santiago insists to Ambrosio in The Cathedral: "'It's the best thing that can happen to someone…. Believing in what he says, liking what he does.'"

Faith; belief in something, one's life as a lie—these are probing ideas and grand phrases that point to a fundamental existential crisis, the words of someone whose every action has been emptied of meaning. Without religion, without political conviction, without a father to admire or a woman to love deeply, Santiago feels isolated and adrift. He does not, of course, wish for a particular religion or social philosophy to compel his mindless consent. He just wants to experience his actions, however contingent, as purposive and significant. But he cannot attain such simple purity of conviction, either as a student at San Marcos or as, in the narrative present, a thirty-year-old journalist. Rather, he holds his nose as he writes his editorials, reads novels and watches movies that fail to grip him, endures a bland marriage that seems almost an accident, and puts on weight from drinking too much.

Santiago can sleep off the afternoon's drink, but he cannot escape the persistent malaise that undermines his sense of direction. At age thirty, Santiago has come to the conclusion that political, economic, and social circumstances in Peru require a person either to "'fuck himself up'" or "'[fuck] up other people.'" given so harshly restricted a choice, Santiago, as a man of intelligence and conscience, prefers to "fuck himself up." Implicitly, then, Santiago blames the malaise on the time and place of his birth, on the fact that he was born in a country hopelessly gone wrong. His only recourse, as he sees it, is to withdraw from both the success-orientation of his family and the alternative of radical politics. He chooses to "fuck himself up" in a job without meaning.

Conversation in The Cathedral charts Santiago's life to the age of thirty. We witness the evolution of his sense of social justice, his pain at discovering that he is a member of a privileged social class, his guilty repudiation of his father for being the source of that privilege, and finally his repudiation of most of Peru's social reality. But after a brief flirtation with direct social action, he withdraws completely into a life of ineffectuality and futility at La Crónica. He has recoiled—honorably—from privilege, bigotry, and self-serving ideology. But he has discovered nothing to affirm in the place of what he rejects. At book's end, he remains little more than the spirit of negation. He is as unformed and directionless at age thirty as he was the night of his arrest. He knows what he does not want from life—to be like his father or his brother: well-dressed, proper, smug, and materialistic. But he has no real answer to his brother's perplexed question, "'I'll never understand you, Superbrain…. What the devil do you want out of life?'"

Like Lieutenant Gamboa in Vargas Llosa's first novel, The Time of the Hero, Santiago cannot survive the loss of moral innocence. Santiago's disillusionment is more complex than the mere discovery that his world is not receptive to youthful idealism, or than the more brutal lesson that some people act with intentional malice. What Santiago cannot accept is that good people sometimes commit bad deeds, that good intentions often backfire, and that human motives—including one's own—are mixed and elusive of understanding. Santiago cannot, that is, learn these painful lessons and continue to act positively toward the implementation of his principles.

But we should not conclude that Santiago's situation can be adequately assessed merely by describing his psychological straits, as though he represents a conventional adolescent rebellion soured into negation and cynicism. Rather, Vargas Llosa has given us a portrait—almost a case study—of what can happen to youthful idealism in political circumstances that seek to defeat it.

After the story of Santiago Zavala, the fullest and most important personal history in Conversation is that of Cayo Bermúdez. Santiago and Cayo cross paths only once, the night that Santiago is arrested by Cayo for his political activity and released into his father's custody. But Santiago has learned long before to despise Cayo as the symbol of the oppressive Odría government. During the six years or so that Cayo Bermúdez holds power, he is the regime's public face of authority, the most obvious perpetrator of a repressive power whose only aim is to perpetuate itself.

Cayo has a temperament perfectly suited to his political tasks. He is a coldly detached manipulator of people and events, who often deals with people in an openly disdainful or ironic manner. For example, when Santiago recounts the night of his arrest to his friend Carlitos, he describes Cayo's indifferent, bored expression as a "dry, parchment-like, insipid face." Cayo speaks "as if he gave a damn about what he was saying," as if "he was mouthing nonsense at a social gathering." Santiago describes how Cayo informs Don Fermín about his subversive political activities in a bored tone, without either "listening to me or looking at me, Carlitos, smiling at my old man as if he was telling him a joke."

The reader first learns of Cayo in chapter three, when a lieutenant transports him from his village, Chincha, to begin his career in the Ministry of Public Order. Like Santiago, the lieutenant finds Cayo a man "with a dry and acidy face" that "didn't change … expression" and "didn't smile," a face with "dull" eyes that "weren't surprised or alarmed or happy," but remained simply "uninterested and bored." When Cayo finally smiles, the lieutenant feels that he "was making fun" of him. Some four hundred pages later, the prostitute Queta responds to Cayo similarly. Queta notes "his thin and bony face, his bored mouth, his tiny eyes." When Cayo speaks, Queta hears a "voice devoid of emotion, dry, somewhat despotic," a voice that "vehemently and yet glacially" orders her about. Queta sums him up as "an impotent man full of hate … a masturbator full of hate."

Cayo is anything but impotent in the realm of politics, yet when Queta spontaneously links his authoritarian manner with tormented sexuality and hatred, she has a genuine insight. Cayo bristles with sexual frustration and may actually be impotent. He is driven by a profound social resentment that provokes him both to hate and to be jealous of his social superiors. A fragmented conversation between Don Fermín and Ambrosio suggests that Cayo's aberrant sexuality and his social resentment are jointly rooted in his estrangement from his father, a loan shark known as the Vulture.

Cayo's split with his father occurred twenty or more years before he leaves Chincha with the lieutenant. It began when Cayo was infatuated with an Indian girl named Rosa, the daughter of the village milkwoman. With the aid of Ambrosio, a childhood friend, and another friend, Espina, Cayo had abducted Rosa and married her. The scant facts suggest that Rosa engineered a coup, that by playing on Cayo's sexual desires she first enticed him and then converted what he had planned as a rape into a marriage. Cayo's sudden marriage to the daughter of an Indian who rode through the village on a donkey, selling milk by the gourd from house to house, outraged his father. The Vulture repudiated the marriage and disinherited his son.

Although Rosa grows fatter and uglier each year, Cayo stays with her through the decades, until the lieutenant arrives to enlist him in Odría's new regime. Why Cayo remains so long with Rosa, whom he finally leaves forever with only a vague wave of the hand, is a mystery. In Lima, Cayo's old friend Espina wonders aloud about the marriage. "'You fucked yourself up with that crazy marriage,'" he says. "'It was the great mistake of your life.'" But Cayo does not respond, and he remains pointedly silent about Rosa throughout the book, which reports neither a word said by Cayo to Rosa, nor a thought that he has about her. Don Fermín's explanation for the marriage, however, is probably accurate: Cayo stays with Rosa, living just above the poverty level, in order "to kill his father with disappointment."

Ironically, Cayo's act of spite wounds him at least as much as it does his father. It is Cayo who endures the painful details of his marriage and the daily humiliation of his poverty. The reader, then, will likely concur with Espina that the marriage was "the great mistake" of Cayo's life. Eventually, the years of hostile domesticity, we surmise, embitter Cayo and twist his sexual desires into impulses toward revenge. He does not crave "normal" heterosexual, genital relationships. Rather, he prefers to watch lesbians making love to one another, or to have fantasies about whipping the naked wives of wealthy, white oligarchs. Thus, when Cayo takes a mistress, the Muse, she is a lesbian who willingly performs before him with her female lover. Similarly, when Cayo goes to a brothel, it is to coerce two prostitutes to have sex with each other as he watches. He enjoys both the prospect and the fact of humiliating women by treating them like objects to manipulate and observe.

Sexuality, the exercise of power, and vengeance—against his father first, then against women, then against the white ruling class, which possesses what Cayo has been denied for so long—become symbolically intertwined in Cayo's mind. For instance, as Cayo sits in the Cajamarca Club listening to a speech by Senator Heridia, he imagines that he is watching the senator's lily-white wife having sexual relations with her dark-skinned maid. The fantasy achieves several symbolic effects. It allows him to vent his animosity towards women and whites, while also symbolically mastering the pompous senator through appropriating his wife. In another instance, as Cayo intimidates a newsman into cooperation with government censorship, he fantasizes that he is soliciting a lover for a homosexual acquaintance, Robertito. "I've got him just right for you, Robertito," Cayo thinks. "Your jar of vaseline and forward."

Behavior like Cayo's, in which sexuality mingles with the relief of frustration, the impulse toward vengeance, or the will to power, abounds throughout Conversation. The most important illustration is Don Fermín's homosexual activity with Ambrosio. Fermín occasionally lapses into homosexual desire as an act of desperation when, in Ambrosio's words, "something's gone wrong for him." Fermín takes Ambrosio to his home in Ancón, for instance, on the night that Cayo arrests Santiago. Another example of aberrant sexuality is the behavior of the hired thug Hipólito. Severely beating people gives him a sexual thrill, and as a victim grows weaker and loses consciousness, Hipólito gets an erection. Ambrosio's murder of the Muse also has its sexual overtones. He claims to have killed her only because she was blackmailing Don Fermín. But it is no routine murder, and its excesses suggest a more complex or ambiguous motivation. Ambrosio's surcharge of passion leads him to mutilate her body savagely, particularly her navel and vagina.

These and other instances of symbolic, often violent, sexual behavior contribute to the accumulating implications of the apparently casual obscenity that Santiago uses on the novel's first page, as he broods about precisely when he and Peru had "fucked themselves up." It is the same obscene phrase that Espina uses to comment on Cayo's marriage, and it recurs frequently, along with several variations. The phrase becomes, through its repetition, the expression of one of the novel's key ideas. That idea is articulated in its most elaborate form by Santiago in his conversation with Ambrosio. Santiago is glad, he says, that he went to San Marcos University "'because, thanks to San Marcos, I fucked myself up…. And in this country a person who doesn't fuck himself up fucks up other people.'"

Taken literally, Santiago's words aptly describe much of the sexual behavior just discussed above. Taken as metaphor, they express Santiago's belief that a Peruvian has only two choices, given an economic and political system in which power is acquired by bribery, duplicity, and force. He must, if he remains within the system, strive to victimize others in the pursuit of money and power. "Success" means to deceive and plunder; failure is to become the victim of someone else. The only alternative, in Santiago's view, is to opt out of the system altogether, and hence to become another kind of failure or victim. As he sees it, his society functions at the level of animal appetites, hostile to ideals and to principles, and offering "no solution."

It is revealing to compare Santiago and Cayo with the sexual metaphor in mind. Vargas Llosa has established many parallels between the two, and although they meet only once, their lives illuminate one another, while also illustrating the individual's possibilities in Peruvian society, as depicted in Conversation.

Santiago and Cayo both compile superior records as secondary students. Both anticipate, as adolescents, careers in law, yet neither finishes at the university. Both have successful fathers who are self-made men, and both provoke deep rifts with their fathers. They both suffer from youthful love gone wrong, and both alienate their families by marrying women who are their social inferiors. At some point in his life, each has hated his father, perhaps enough to injure himself just to make his father suffer. All of which is to say that, in terms of Santiago's sexual metaphor, they both "fuck themselves up" as youths because each forfeits the kind of future that his father expects of him and that his social position has prepared him for.

These purposeful similarities between Cayo and Santiago provide the reader an interpretive context for several significant differences between them. Perhaps most obvious is the difference between their fathers, and between their motives for the self-injurious acts which so disappoint the fathers. The Vulture treats Cayo with the ruthlessness that earned him his nickname. He literally throws Cayo through the front door when he learns of his marriage, refusing ever to see Cayo again. Cayo's motive for staying with Rosa, then, as Fermín intuits, appears simply to be vengeance against the Vulture.

The division between Santiago and Don Fermín, on the other hand, has little to do with Fermín's behavior toward his son. In contrast to the Vulture, Don Fermín loves Santiago to the point that he openly favors him over his other children. Fermín repeatedly begs Santiago to accept his help, and he tries earnestly to understand why his son has repudiated him. Santiago hates his father as an abstraction, as the symbol of a rejected social class, in spite of his warm and gentle personal manner. As a result, some of the most poignant scenes in the novel are those in which Don Fermín vainly tries to reach his son across the ideological gulf that separates them. These scenes complicate moral issues in the novel in two ways. On the one hand, by depicting Don Fermín's love for his son and his yearning for reconciliation, Vargas Llosa has made it impossible for the reader to dismiss Fermín as just one more money-hungry political conniver. Fermín seems to us too humanly complex for easy judgement. On the other hand, Santiago's occasional hatred of his father—"I hate you, papa!" is a recurring phrase—and his refusal to find a common ground between them, despite their ideological differences, seem too uncompromising, too much like mere stubborn immaturity.

The most significant difference between Cayo and Santiago is found in their social trajectories following their initial acts of self-injury. After the prolonged misery of his stultifying marriage, Cayo seizes the opportunity to escape when it is offered by Espina. He succeeds brilliantly as Odría's Director of Public Order, amassing the fortune and gaining the position that he might have had as the Vulture's dutiful son. Cayo suddenly moves in Lima's highest social circles—the world of senators like Heridia and businessmen like Fermín Zavala, a man whom Cayo both resents and envies. But Cayo is never fully integrated into the elite enclave. He can leave his village and his self-destructive marriage behind, but he cannot elude the consequences of his lower-class origins and his race. Cayo is, as the Peruvian racial epithet puts it, a "cholo." As a man of mixed blood, he can never gain the social acceptance of the white oligarchs whom he alternately intimidates and fawns over, no matter how much power or wealth he accumulates. People like Fermín Zavala mix with Cayo socially only because they can make money through cultivating his favor.

As Cayo ascends the social ladder, Santiago chooses to fall. Acting on the maxim that one must either "fuck himself up" or "fuck up other people," Santiago elects the former course, whereas Cayo aggressively pursues the latter. Santiago's descent is depicted in language and imagery that simultaneously reflect his family's perspective and illuminate the contrast between him and Cayo.

When, for example, Santiago decides to go to San Marcos rather than Catholic University, his friends and family describe his choice as a preference for the school of "'Indians'" and "'half-breeds'" over the one attended by "'boys from good families.'" Later, his father regards Santiago's position as a journalist as lower-class work earning a "'paltry little salary.'" Don Fermín bursts out that Santiago wants so badly to make him suffer that he has himself willingly become "trash." When Santiago encounters his brother in the street one day, he thinks to himself, "You weren't like them any more, Zavalita, you were a peasant now." (The Spanish word rendered here as "peasant" is "cholo.") Santiago's marriage to Ana marks his social nadir, so far as his family is concerned. Ana is the dark-skinned daughter of a mulatto woman, and is therefore unthinkable as the wife of Santiago. His mother makes the point with shameless candor: "'how can I see my son married to someone who could be his servant?'" Santiago has become, from the point of view of his family and social class, a cholo.

Fermín Zavala and Cayo Bermúdez are the chief protagonists in the political struggle played out in Conversation in The Cathedral, The rest of the major figures in the novel, apart from Santiago, are what Dostoevsky called "submerged people." Servants, hired toughs, and prostitutes, their lives intertwine with those of the elite and the powerful, but they themselves are negligible underlings. The most important of these, the black chauffeur Ambrosio Pardo, figures intimately in the lives of Don Fermín, Cayo, and Santiago, and thus binds together the strands of their individual narratives.

[In La invención de una realidad, 1977] José Miguel Oviedo points out that Ambrosio is what many people would call a "good man." He is frequently warm toward Santiago, for example, during the extended conversation in The Cathedral that initiates the narrative. In later chapters, he returns to his lover, Amalia, despite her pregnancy by another man. When Amalia gets pregnant again with Ambrosio's own child, he lives with her as a faithful husband until she dies from yet a third pregnancy. Perhaps most significantly, Ambrosio is fiercely loyal to Don Fermín. He defends Fermín in conversation against the scorn of the prostitute, Queta, and against Santiago's darkest fears and most searing charges. Finally, he kills the Muse to protect Fermín, according to Ambrosio's own account of his motives, from her escalating demands as a blackmailer.

Ambrosio's startling gesture of loyalty—the murder of the Muse—exposes his apparent responsibility and loyalty as only dull, mechanical instinct. Ambrosio's loyalty to Don Fermín is like that of a watchdog. He obeys without thought, fawns when it promises advantage, and leaps for the throat of anyone threatening the master. Ambrosio's connection with Amalia is equally instinctual, even fatalistic. Once he discovers Amalia, he feels that he owns her. She is "his woman," and they are bound together forever. Despite their sexual passion, neither is deeply moved by feeling for the other, and their union is largely a utilitarian mating. When Amalia finally dies, Ambrosio leaves their daughter behind with the kindest neighbor that he knows, and heads for Lima.

Ambrosio is, then, something of an animal. He drifts without qualms, for instance, from chauffeuring for Cayo to strong-arm work with the special police. He actually seems happier bullying reluctant partisans of Odría than sitting through the slow nights in Cayo's car. Indeed, Ambrosio does whatever his latest master requests of him, whether abducting Rosa, intimidating uncooperative local politicians, having sexual relations with his employer, or beating dogs to death. Nothing really bothers Ambrosio. He is like the dogs that he destroys, mindlessly loyal toward some people, and mindlessly vicious toward others.

The link between Ambrosio and dogs is more than a useful critical tactic that underscores Ambrosio's simple, instinctual nature. Vargas Llosa himself suggests the parallel between Ambrosio and dogs in his early chapters. In chapter three, for instance, Ambrosio describes his childhood play with Cayo in Chincha (the earliest scenes in the narrative's chronology) with the Spanish words "el y Ambrosio se la pasaban mataperreando." The colloquial expression might be translated "he and Ambrosio spent their time screwing around" (or "fooling around"). "Mataperreando" is especially apt. It combines two words, "matar" ("to kill") and "perro" ("dog"), to form a compound that literally means "killing dogs" or "dog killing." The English reader misses altogether that Ambrosio describes his childhood with a phrase whose literal meaning implies his future as well. Our first glimpse of Ambrosio in chapter one—the latest episode concerning him in the narrative's chronology—fulfills the ironic prophecy concealed in the word "mataperreando."

Vargas Llosa depicts the scene vividly and at some length. Santiago has just rescued his own dog from the pound's kennels, when the manager of the pound invites him to come and "look at the conditions we work under." Santiago looks around him:

a dark silhouette stands next to a sack and is struggling with a dachshund who protests in a voice too fierce for his minimal body as he twists hysterically…. The short half-breed runs, opens the sack, the other slips the dachshund inside. They close the sack with a cord, put it on the ground…. The men already have the clubs in their hands, are already beginning, one-two, to beat and grunt, and the sack dances, leaps, howls madly.

Before the reader knows anything further about Ambrosio, the "dark silhouette" of this passage, he stands revealed in all his forlorn and mindless brutality, doing what he gets paid for. As he says to Santiago, who turns his eyes away in horror: "'One sol for each animal, mister…. Only one sol, mister.'"

The scene reveals not only Ambrosio, but also something essential about the novel's version of Peruvian society. There is little ethical difference between Ambrosio clubbing dogs to death in a bag, Hipólito beating Trinidad López because of his political beliefs, and Trifulcio fomenting a riot during an antigovernment assembly in Arequipa. In each case the participants are as insensate and thoughtless as birds of prey, and the struggle is one between beast and beast. (The chapter introducing Trifulcio contains a symbolic episode in which a bird of prey that has just killed and eaten an iguana is itself eaten by Trifulcio.)

Nor do the activities of Ambrosio, Hipólito, and Trifulcio, viewed from an ethical perspective, differ fundamentally from those of Cayo Bermúdez, Fermín Zavala, and others who wield power. Cayo plans strategy and pays the salaries, while Ambrosio and his colleagues do the dirty work. Cayo and Ambrosio are natural complements at opposite ends of the power spectrum, each serving the other's need and therefore morally implicated in the other's activity. Don Fermín also plays his part in this bizarre symbiosis. Despite his tenderness toward Santiago and his kindness toward servants like Amalia, he is a political schemer. At the outset of the Odría regime, Fermín gives his verbal and financial support to Odría and Cayo Bermúdez, and hence to people like Hipólito. Unlike Hipólito, whose hands sometimes get bloody, and Bermúdez, who knows the details of the operations of the Ministry of Public Order, Fermín keeps his distance from such particulars. He conducts his business with Cayo in posh homes and over the tables of elegant restaurants. Still, his payoffs to Cayo represent his tacit endorsement of Cayo's policies and methods. Fermín, too, is a "dog killer," figuratively speaking, regardless of his distinguished gray hair, his fine suit, and his noble manner.

Even Santiago is drawn into the self-perpetuating dynamics of the system that he despises and has consciously repudiated. After his flurry of political activism years before, Santiago attempts to survive without convictions, as he puts it, at La Crónica. But his discovery of Ambrosio at the pound makes it clear to him—and to the reader, eventually, as the passing chapters clarify events—that even a life aggressively designed as amoral and apolitical has unforeseen political consequences. Santiago writes, "without convictions," the editorials assailing rabies. It seems safe enough to do: trivial pap intended to boost circulation by concocting a rabies epidemic. But the media hype backfires, first, when the dogcatchers steal his own dog—they get one sol per dog, after all, and therefore do not cavil at taking dogs out of the hands of their owners.

Then, more significantly, Santiago learns that his casual editorials contribute to the circumstances of Ambrosio at the pound, to the "'conditions that we work under,'" in the manager's words. Or, as the manager also says, "'In Peru we're still living in the stone age, friend.'" However reluctantly, Santiago helps to create the modern stone age of Peru, helps to weave the web of mindlessness and animality that entangles so many. Ironically, the pound manager urges Santiago to "'write something for your paper … make a protest.'" The ironic point is not lost on Santiago. Four hours later, riding home in a taxi after having left Ambrosio, Santiago thinks: "he kills them with a club and you with editorials." Santiago is yet another "dog killer."

Santiago will not, of course, "make a protest." This episode occurs in the novel's opening chapter, but it is the end of the narrative's chronology and well past the end of Santiago's will to protest fundamental conditions in Peru. In terms of narrative development, the book is over, so to speak, just as it begins. Like a Greek tragedy whose outcome the audience knows in advance, there is a fatalism about Conversation owing to its inverted chronology. The novel evolves like pieces of a mosaic being dropped into position. Gradually, background detail is filled in, implications are explored, allusions become clear, and the book's disjointed chronology establishes itself in linear order. The reader learns over the ensuing thirty chapters, for example, that Santiago will not protest simply because protests in Peru are ineffectual, even when someone musters the will to lodge them. The press has no wish to criticize the status quo. La Crónica, for instance, belongs to the president's own family, and devotes itself to selling papers by featuring popular articles about such matters as lottery winners or the danger of rabid dogs. Organized opponents of the system, like students and workers, are disbanded, arrested, and perhaps exiled. Ultimately, everyone is drawn into the general morass of Peruvian society, or silenced.

Conversation in The Cathedral depicts a society founded on greed and special privilege, and maintained by coercion and duplicity. It is a world of profound prejudices and inequities, divided by social class, wealth, education, skin color, and geography. In the Peru of Conversation ideals inevitably wither in the face of reality, convictions decay into cynicism, love is thwarted, and everything tends toward the mediocrity that Don Fermín despises. The most thoughtful and selfless people collapse into drunken solipsism, like Carlitos, or withdraw into the torments of masochism, like Santiago.

On the other hand, the worst people only too readily prosper. Vargas Llosa resists the sentimentality of even a hint of poetic justice. The Zavala family, after some rough times during the reign of Cayo Bermúdez, continues to get richer. Cayo himself returns to Lima at the end of the novel. He lives permanently in the United States, now, but also has a plush estate in Chaclacayo, complete with swimming pool and vast gardens. Queta registers the orthodox outrage: "'He'll pay for it someday,'" she says. "'You can't be such a shit and live so happily.'" But Queta is wrong. You can; and that is precisely the point of the novel. There is, as Santiago says, "no solution."

Mary E. Davis (essay date Winter 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4001

SOURCE: "Mario Vargas Llosa: The Case of the Vanishing Hero," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 510-19.

[In the following excerpt, Davis asserts that The War of the End of the World. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and Who Killed Palomino Molero? feature antiheroes.]

During the course of a career that now spans more than twenty years, Mario Vargas Llosa has imagined an entire narrative universe, a cosmos whose atomic structure is made up of characters of several clearly recognizable types. Although he has been criticized for a shift in intensity since the publication of Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service) (1973), Vargas Llosa has continued the steady fabrication of his own history of Peru. The actual history of Peru forms a parallel motif in these complex novels, and, particularly in the later ones, the disillusionment of the author with the political process now evident in the twentieth century approximates that slow fall from idealism into gritty reality that commonly is the destiny of his characters.

The three novels published to date in the eighties, La guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World) (1981), La historia de Mayta (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta) (1984), and ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (Who Killed Palomino Molero?) (1986), all immerse the reader in the gray atmosphere that permeated Vargas Llosa's earliest work. After The War of the End of the World, there is a steady narrowing of the field of action in this trio, but the murals of characters, the deliberately uneasy combinations of types from chivalric, historical, and modern sources, the writer-as-character, the interior narrator or a combination of them, and the reappearance of the signature character—all are stylistic constants.

In a review of The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, Robert Coover captures the characteristics of this section of Vargas Llosa's canon:

"Deicide," as Mr. Vargas Llosa calls it, has largely given way to reflection and subtlety, smaller narrative enclosures, cohabitation with a less demonic muse. The subject may even be, as in … The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, the failure of the enterprise itself—though, even here, echoes of the "total novel" resound still. ["The Writer as God and Saboteur," New York Times Book Review, 2 February 1986]

The Tolstoyan immensity of The War of the End of the World shrinks into the fractured Peru of Mayta, and, still more, into the small stage of the detective novel that explores the murder of Palomino Molero. Each of these novels reduces history to the perceptions of characters lost in its whirlwind. The customarily broad canvas allows Vargas Llosa to present an enmeshed chain of characters, and he does not allow a protagonist to overshadow other characters. The emphasis falls upon the combination of events and personalities, in a manner quite similar to that described by Italo Calvino in the case of Balzac:

To make a novel out of a city, to represent the streets and the various districts as dramatis personae, each one with a character in conflict with every other; to give life to human figures and situations as if they were spontaneous growths from the cobbles of the streets, or else protagonists in such dramatic contrast with them as to cause a whole string of disasters; to work in such a way that at every changing moment the true protagonist was the living city, its biological continuity, the monster that was Paris—this is what Balzac felt impelled to do when he began to write Ferragus. [The Uses of Literature]

As always, Vargas Llosa demands that his reader imagine yet a third history, one that arises in the interstices between the great events and the characters who must endure catastrophes both great and small.

Through the amazing diversity of the characters that people the three novels, Vargas Llosa's attention consistently returns to those who do not succeed, those who may actually elect failure. In La orgía perpetua: Flaubert y Madame Bovary (The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary), Vargas Llosa describes the focus of Flaubert's narrative:

It is not only the bourgeois world, but a wider one that cuts transversely across social classes that Madame Bovary converts into the central subject of the novel: the kingdom of mediocrity, the grey universe of the man without quality. For this alone Flaubert's novel would merit consideration as the foundation of the modern novel, erected almost entirely around the elusive silhouette of the antihero.

The kaleidoscope of characters within The War of the End of the World provides a complex illustration of that transverse slice of social classes that Vargas Llosa admires in Flaubert. Although he would seem to be retelling the events already narrated by Euclides da Cunha in Os sertões, Vargas Llosa is actually refocusing the history of the nineteenth-century massacre at Canudos, and in doing so, he includes time frames considerably beyond and before the century in which the disaster occurred. Whereas Euclides da Cunha presented the disaster at Canudos as a Darwinian battle between ancients and moderns, Vargas Llosa uses the series of battles to reiterate his philosophy of history in Latin America: each stage of man's anthropological development may be represented by living characters at any moment. Sara Castro Klarén describes the different organization of action in the two interpretations of the same events:

Euclides neatly divides his text into the background and the action of the war at Canudos. What governs this arrangement is a sense of seriality and cause and effect relationship. For Mario Vargas Llosa, organization of action has always been a more complicated attempt to conquer a sense of simultaneity in action. ["Santos and Cangaceiros: Inscription without Discourse in Os Sertões and La guerra del fin del mundo," Modern Language Notes 101, No. 2 (March 1986)]

As always, Vargas Llosa uses both stylistic technique and his characters to create the simultaneity necessary to his concept of history.

In The War of the End of the World, the characters who are most important historically fade within the narration and are replaced by the characters who endure cataclysmic events rather than control them. The mysterious Counselor whose fervor attracts followers from the most violent and poverty-stricken segments of Brazilian society is a character from the Middle Ages or early Renaissance. The remote past that he symbolizes stands in direct contrast to the modern vision of civilization that the politicians from Bahía would impose on their society. The Counselor's amazing success in forming an alternative mode for the dispossessed can be assumed from his initial appearance:

The man was tall and so thin he seemed to be always in profile. He was dark-skinned and rawboned, and his eyes burned with perpetual fire. He wore shepherd's sandals and the dark purple tunic draped over his body called to mind the cassocks of those missionaries who every so often visited the villages of the backlands…. It was impossible to learn what his age, his background, his life story were, but there was something about his quiet manner, his frugal habits, his imperturbable gravity that attracted people even before he offered counsel.

The followers of the Counselor are primarily bandits and murderers who could have escaped from medieval ballad cycles. His ability to weld them into citizens of the beautiful city of Canudos makes him a powerful threat to the delicate stability of nineteenth-century Brazil. Two of the figures who fall within the Counselor's powerful field of force are characters from the eighteenth century. One, the Barón de Cañabrava, is the wealthy owner of the land appropriated by the Counselor's followers. Although he exercises considerable political power among the conservatives of Bahía, he prefers the retired life of his country estate, a refuge ultimately destroyed by the fanaticism of Canudos. His wife becomes mentally deranged as the result of the burning of their house, and the Barón is left only with memories and a strongly aesthetic appreciation of reality. The Barón is the most astute of the political powers in the novel, and as a result of the painful disaster of his private life, he realizes that the eighteenth century gives no access to the nineteenth. In a conversation with his former enemy, he muses:

"I believe that we've seen the end of a style, of a certain way of conducting politics…. I admit that I've become obsolete. I functioned better in the old system, when it was a question of getting people to follow established customs and practices, of negotiating, persuading, using diplomacy and politesse. That's all over and done with today, of course. The hour has come for action, daring, violence, even crimes. What is needed now is a total dissociation of politics from morality."

Equally a man of the eighteenth century is the phrenologist from Scotland, Galileo Gall, who comes to the New World to observe the society of Brazil. His confidence in logic and science lead him into the maelstrom of Canudos, and he is destroyed by the force of his love for another man's wife.

Vargas Llosa's demythification of the eighteenth-century figures pales in comparison with that worked upon Colonel Moreira César, the invincible leader sent to command the huge army whose mission is to destroy Canudos. Colonel César begins his campaign as an epic hero, but the events of the Canudos campaign destroy him as surely as they do the Barón de Cañabrava and Galileo Gall, who once termed the Colonel "'an idealist of the same stamp as Robespierre.'"

As is his custom, Vargas Llosa abandons the characters who represent different approaches to power in order to concentrate the narrative focus within the vision of an interior narrator, in this case, a nameless, near-sighted journalist who is attracted to Canudos because of the fascination of the powerful Moreira César. For the journalist, "'Seeing a flesh-and-blood hero, being close to someone very famous is a very tempting prospect. It would be like seeing and touching a character in a novel.'" We see many of the characters and events of the campaign against Canudos through the journalist's myopic eyes, and, perhaps because he will write one of the historical accounts of the ferocious battle, he is allowed to escape the destruction that befalls the more heroic characters. His hopes of becoming "the Oscar Wilde of Brazil" are destroyed by the results of Canudos, but the journalist does achieve the clearest understanding of the meaning of the holocaust. Vargas Llosa continually ridicules his writer-within-the-tale, calling him a "clown," a "scarecrow," "a human puzzle." But this improbable narrator lives through the massacre of Canudos, and his stubborn meditation on what the carnage means is the focus of the last half of the immense novel.

In a long conversation with the Barón many years after the destruction of Canudos, the journalist reveals that between twenty-five and thirty thousand inhabitants of Canudos were killed in the massacre, as well as 823 members of the army. He forces the Barón to confront the enormity of the national disaster. When the Barón pretends that Canudos no longer concerns him,

"It does matter to you, Baron," the vibrant voice of the near-sighted journalist interjected. "For the same reason it matters to me: because Canudos changed your life. Because of Canudos your wife lost her mind, because of Canudos you lost a large part of your fortune and your power. Of course it matters to you."

Vargas Llosa rewards the obstinate efforts of the journalist to understand the tumultuous events that he has witnessed by giving him Jurema, the enchanted female who can be released from that condition only by the journalist, although Galileo Gall, her husband Rufino, and the reformed bandit Pajeú all contend for her attention.

The reader, of course, understands more than the journalist, for he is aware of the extent of the disaster, for example, in the Barón's life, as well as of the details of the other histories unknown to the journalist. Vargas Llosa allows his reader to see what Cervantes called the pattern on the back of the carpet. Although he has been criticized for his refusal of a transcendent heroism and for the creation of a reality in which heroes constantly disappear, his depiction of a mural of diverse characters conforms to Vargas Llosa's Sartrean view of history: the individual may decide upon his own identity, but hell is still other people.

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta recalls earlier stages of Vargas Llosa's narrative style. Like The Time of the Hero, it begins in fog, as the narrator jogs through the garbage-laden streets of Lima. Like Conversation in The Cathedral, it is constructed upon what is in effect a long conversation. And, like The Time of the Hero, it deals with treason, those betrayals both petty and grandiose that form the plot of secret societies. The writer-within-the-story is unnamed, but his efforts to construct an acceptable image of a Peruvian revolutionary give Vargas Llosa the opportunity to comment reflexively on the craft of creating fictional personalities.

There has been disagreement among critics as to the subject of Mayta. Is it Mayta's shadowy life? Or revolution itself? Or the act of writing another life? For Robert Coover,

There are in fact two stories in "Mayta"—that of the title character and his abortive guerrilla uprising, and that of the unnamed narrator-investigator and his frustrated fictional exploration of this particular but elusive moment in past time that was once hard and now is as embrace-able as smoke.

Vargas Llosa uses both Mayta's absurd act and the narrator's recreation of two separate epochs in Peru's history to create another, fictional history, one that exists only in the reader's mind. The narrator explains his method early on:

"Because I'm a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it," I explain. "That's how I work. And I think the only way to write stories is to start with History—with a capital H."

As the novel begins, the narrator first presents Mayta as a child, a fellow student at a religious school:

Back then, we knew a lot about religion, very little about politics, and absolutely nothing about revolution. Mayta was a curly-haired, pudgy kid with flat feet and wide spaces between his teeth. He waddled: his feet looked like clock hands permanently set at ten minutes to two.

A less heroic figure would be hard to imagine. Yet this child grows into a confirmed Marxist whose primary goal in life is to overthrow the government of Peru. Vargas Llosa emphasizes the pathetic life that Mayta lives:

Mayta was a revolutionary from the shadowy side. He had spent his life conspiring and fighting in insignificant little groups like the one he was a member of. And suddenly, just when he was reaching the age at which people usually retire from militant activism, someone turned up who opened the doors of action to him for the first time. Could there have been anything as captivating for a man like Mayta than out of the blue having someone stick a submachine gun in his hands?

The real provocateur of Mayta's revolution is his friend Vallejos, the commander of the military garrison in Jauja, the first capital of Peru. Vallejos provides the scene, the occasion, the arms, and the enthusiasm for the event that Mayta envisions as the beginning of the revolution. Since he is an heroic, active figure, Vallejos perforce will be killed on the day that Mayta's revolution begins.

Not so fortunate Mayta. Both his Indian name and the location of Jauja—in Peru's ancient past, a part of the region dominated by the Huancas—remind us of the other Peru, the one so isolated from the government of Lima. Vargas Llosa views the remnants of Indian civilizations with unromantic eyes, but the other Peru remains and forms a separate stratum of the history he is creating. The Indians in Vargas Llosa's novels are eternally betrayed, both by the government and by each other. We know that Mayta will not escape.

Mayta's revolution is over within twelve hours, but the narrator speculates as to its influence upon later attempts at revolution. As he is interviewing Mayta's friends, enemies, and relatives, the narrator moves through a Lima besieged. Amid news of a threatened attack from outside Peru, the narrator visits Mayta in prison. He describes to Mayta himself both his method of assembling Mayta's fictional character and the state of Peru in his novel:

"Naturally, your real name never appears even once," I assure him. "Of course I've changed dates, places, characters, I've created complications, added and taken away thousands of things. Besides, I've invented an apocalyptic Peru, devastated by war, terrorism, and foreign intervention. Of course, no one will recognize anything, and everyone will think it's pure fantasy. I've pretended as well that we were schoolmates, that we were the same age, and lifelong friends."

The image of Mayta gradually evolves from the narrator's research, from transcriptions of his conversations—or of "invented" ones—from the past, and from the narrator's imagination. He is given a long period in the Lurigancho to atone for his crime; he is made to be a homosexual, and he is later given a wife and a family. From a failed first marriage he has a son who later may have become a guerrilla. At the close of the novel, the narrator confronts Mayta with the fictional recreation of his life, and he is appalled. To the narrator's horrified eyes, "he is a man destroyed by suffering and resentment, who has even lost his memories. Someone in essence quite different from the Mayta of my novel, that obstinate optimist, that man of faith who loves life despite the horror and misery in it." As he chauffeurs the sad Mayta to his home, the narrator suddenly realizes that there is still another Mayta: "It's as if the person next to me were different from the one who was just in my study, and different from the Mayta in my story. A third, wounded, lacerated Mayta, whose memory is intact." This realization causes the narrator to suspect that his whole search for Mayta has been a failure.

Vargas Llosa's readers are accustomed to tales of glorious failure. What else could we expect of antiheroes? But we are also accustomed to the imperishable nature of their struggles. Coover describes this aspect of Mayta:

These parallel "failures"—the 1950's "revolution" and the 1980's "novel"—have generated between them a new kind of space, fragile maybe, impalpable, half-illusory, certainly disquieting, yet oddly immovable. Mayta lives there now with all his contradictions more securely than he does in the slums of Lima. As does the narrator with his contradictions, now less the transient jogger of the Barranco district than this new space's pervasive and imperishable voice.

The narrator has been ill at ease with the differences between his Mayta and the actual one, and the bad faith that has heretofore riddled the lives of Vargas Llosa's characters now pervades the modus operandi of the narrator himself, as Coover suggests:

Character, after all, at least in its traditional sense, has, for Mr. Vargas Llosa, long since given way to something more like Sartre's "orchestration of consciousness," a kind of creative interplay between text and reader. Now, in Mayta, the author-deity has been absorbed in the same transaction. The static, "totalized" space of his impenetrably autonomous world has been subverted by process.

The last novel in this series, Quién mató a Palomino Molero?, returns us to a character who has wound his way in and out of Vargas Llosa's entire narrative production. Herein he is a member of the Civil Guard and lives in a town called Talara. In The Green House (1963), he was the Sergeant who married the green-eyed Bonifacia and thereby sealed his doom. Lituma has enjoyed minor roles in many of the subsequent novels. In Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Lituma appears in one of the interpolated tales whose melodramatic narrator is Pedro Camacho:

He was a man in the prime of life, his fifties, whom the entire Civil Guard respected; he had served in commissariats in the roughest districts without complaining, and his body still bore scars of the battles he had waged against crime. The prisons of Peru were full of malefactors whom he had clapped in handcuffs. He had been cited as an exemplary model in orders of the day, praised in official speeches, and twice decorated: but these honors had not altered his modesty, no less great than his courage and his honesty.

Lituma is a member of the force that captures Mayta and his corevolutionaries. In the last novel, he is the central intelligence. He it is who finds the hideously butchered body of the murdered Palomino Molero.

Lituma and Molero are natives of Piura, and his investigation of the murder gives Lituma the opportunity to visit once again the infamous Chunga (a degraded reincarnation of the Green House) and to enjoy a drink with his old friends the Unconquerables. Lituma has changed since the old, macho days of The Green House. Now he is sentimental but bereft of love. He stubbornly pursues the killers of the dead Molero, a recruit at the nearby airbase, who had become locally famous as a singer of boleros. Lituma's foil is the Teniente Silva, a stereotypical Civil Guard who wears his sun glasses night and day and considers himself far superior to the humble Lituma. Vargas Llosa reduces the Teniente to abject misery through his love for the wife of a local fisherman. Lituma himself has been deflated since his glorious days at the port of Callao. Now he is content to be the subordinate, as long as he has regular meals.

Lituma, however, serves a variety of purposes. He is an unreliable narrator who sees but does not understand. His emotions are easily stirred, and he feels haunted by the presence of the dead airman until the crime is solved. His resentment of the gringos who have fine homes near the base and of the military officers gives Vargas Llosa a natural means to reveal those class frictions that have enlivened his prose since The Time of the Hero. Lituma is Vargas Llosa's most complete portrait of the man without qualities. He is the Peruvian's Madame Bovary. The heroic characters within Quién mató a Palomino Molero? fade or are destroyed. Lituma remains. Not only does he persist, but he glories in his own anonymity. As he and the Teniente meet the killer, the base commander himself, Lituma speculates as to why the Commander always addresses his remarks to the Teniente: "'Yo no existo para él,' pensó Lituma. Era mejor: se sentía más seguro, sabiéndose olvidado, abolido, por el Coronel." ["'For him, I don't even exist,' thought Lituma. Better that way; he felt much better, sure of himself now, knowing himself forgotten, abolished by the Colonel."]

As is the case with certain characters of Balzac, Conrad, and Faulkner, the reappearance of Lituma has become Vargas Llosa's signature, and the Peruvian uses Lituma to reiterate his belief in the circular, simultaneous nature of history. He is the signature character, and Vargas Llosa's readers know him well, better than he will ever know himself. In his latest mode, Lituma, who loves to sleep beyond any other human activity, is the antihero par excellence. Gone now are the violence and bravado of his youth. Through grim experience, he has learned to be at home in the world of bad faith that is uniquely Vargas Llosa's. Through Lituma's aimless and animal life, Vargas Llosa illustrates the need for a revolution beyond politics. [In "Emma, Flaubert and the Pleasure Principle," New York Times Book Review 23 November 1986], he maintains: "Literature for Flaubert was this possibility of forever going beyond what life permits." Literature gives access to the only revolution worthy of the name, that of reality itself.

Jorge Guzman (review date January-June 1987)

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SOURCE: "A Reading of Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. XV, No. 29, January-June, 1987, pp. 133-39.

[In the following excerpt, Guzman contends that the political interpretation of The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is key to a full understanding of the novel.]

The Latin American literary "Boom" of the Sixties remains one of the very few triumphant happenings ever to spring from that troubled and unhappy region of the world. In fact, widely different kinds of reading audiences enjoyed the magical quality of the novels produced in those years. Some read them because they were tired of European literary fashions such as the Nouveau Roman and, more generally speaking, because there was a wide-spread desire for reading experiences different from the ones afforded by novels produced in Europe or the United States. These audiences delighted in reading accounts of heroic deeds performed by characters convinced that there was such a thing as good and evil. They also delighted in a set of novels that, unlike the prevailing European trend, were not written primarily to attack the very concept of the novel.

Today we know that the "Boom" was the result of a variety of factors. Among the most important of these was the role played by the business interests of the Catalonian printing houses which were later joined by other European concerns. This enterprising spirit met a magnificent group of Latin American writers (Cortázar, Yáñez, Rulfo, Carpentier, Sabato, Onetti, Guimarães Rosa, J. M. Arguedas, to name only some of the very best) only too happy to see their novels made available to millions of readers either in their original languages or in translation.

Another factor, less easily perceived today, was the political climate created by Fidel Castro's march into Havana. Most Latin American "Boom" writers hailed the Cuban Revolution and its access to power as a major step towards a better future for all the nations in the area. The resulting climate of political expectations certainly played a part in arousing the enthusiasm of European and American intellectuals for the novels produced in the region.

One should not forget also that the 1960s were the years of worldwide unrest in universities as well as the years when Marcuse, Adorno and Althusser were being fervently read by those wishing for a revolutionary change in the developed world and elsewhere.

I believe one needs to take into account all these facts if one is to read The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (hereafter Mayta) and fully grasp its meaning. Nevertheless, it is possible to read Mayta neglecting some of these factors and simply enjoy it for its universal or purely literary components. Any reader, however indifferent he may be to the political aspects of Mayta, can certainly enjoy it for its mastery of novelistic technique that is the mark of Vargas Llosa's work.

Two connected sequences of events are presented in the novel. In one of them, the "author" embarks on a year-long search for the true story of Alejandro Mayta (1983). In the other, Mayta himself embarks on a guerrilla action intended to bring about a socialist revolution in Peru (1958). The book tells us that both of them failed. Mayta was thrown in jail a few hours after his project got underway. The "author" is able to find out neither Mayta's true identity nor the real reasons for his failure.

There can be no doubt about Mayta's failure, but the "author's" failure is questionable. It appears rather that the real authorial design was carried through, and that he succeeded in presenting an elusive character who would escape the efforts of all readers to form a clear and distinctive image of his actions and personal characteristics. At first glance the book seems to belong in the family of Rashomon or Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Mayta and his actions are seen through the eyes of other characters who report them to the "author" and draw an impossible picture of him, a picture made of disparate traits that sometimes reinforce but frequently contradict each other. In the last chapter Mayta himself appears and lets the "author" interview him. But the hopes of the reader are frustrated once again. When he finishes reading the last chapter the number and the scope of the mutually contradicting traits have increased. And this is not to be solved by stating, for instance, that reports of different witnesses must contradict each other. The key fact about Mayta is that there are very few things about him that are not contradictory. There is one exception: he was a devout revolutionary. As for the rest, we cannot even be sure that he did have a wife, Adelaida (who gave him a son), in spite of the fact that we read a chapter (Number VII) where she and the "author" hold a long conversation.

Read as pure literature, the book is very entertaining indeed and pleasantly holds the attention of the knowledgeable reader, that is to say, of the kind of reader who has taught himself to enjoy novels in which the author plays with narrative conventions. In Mayta, one of the most amusing games is the continuous shifting of levels. The "author" himself enters the story; this story is set in Peru in 1983, but fiction enters the Peruvian reality in the form of a fictitious international war which never really took place in Peru in 1983. There is someone called Mayta who for nine chapters is never presented "in person" to the reader, but the reader discovers this only in chapter ten. In this chapter, another (and the same) Mayta is interviewed by the "author" and the reader discovers that this last Mayta contradicts the previous one while being equally real or unreal as the other. In short, one is immersed here in the amusing and interesting world where Jorge Luis Borges grounds the possibility of our being as fictitious as the characters in novels. If they can change levels, it is quite possible to conceive of ourselves as mere characters who live in another book read by someone else like God who might also be a character in yet another's book and so on ad infinitum.

Of course there is nothing to object to in this reading of Mayta. But the pleasures of so doing can be enriched if we bring a different set of facts to bear on our experience of the novel. Actually most Latin American writers consider themselves to be realists by which they mean they have a keen interest in their own countries in particular and in Latin America in general. This interest is, needless to say, mainly political.

As soon as we let the political component of Mayta participate in our reading experience our attention shifts from the character Mayta to another character, namely, the one called "I," the "author." This is the character who presents himself as conducting research on Mayta. He is also the character in charge of the rhetoric of the book, that is to say, of telling the reader what meaning he should give the novel. Narrative tricks like the one called "author's metalepsis," that is, the author pretending to produce real effects in the story, are intended, I believe, to give the "author" all due importance in the structure of the book.

Of course, the "author" is nothing but a critical character in Mayta. He has the key to the meaning of the world. He pretends he decides what the characters will do and how they will be. The way he himself voices his preeminence is, at first, puzzling to the reader: "Because I am a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it." Later on, stating his reason for interviewing people who knew Mayta, he says he does it "So I will know what I'm doing when I lie." The paradox implicit in searching for truth so as to be able to lie is solved when he explains: "That is how I work. And I think the only way to write stories is to start with History—with a capital H." If we couple this statement with this belief that all novels are lies, we end up with a clear understanding of his rationale: all novelists are liars, but if one is a realist, the source of his novels has to be History.

And now we can see clearly the "author's" function in Mayta. He represents the link between History (with a capital H) and Mayta. Now we can account for the continuous presence of the "author" in this novel: he embodies the teachings of History. And we can also account for the many contradictions he incurs as he presents his story: by letting glaring contradictions stay in his book he points to himself as the master of facts and meaning.

In addition, this "author" is a very specific character. He is a Boom author. One of those who in their Parisian years (late 50s) acted in such a way that today (1983)—with the perspective and knowledge experience has given him—he is in a position to look back on them and call them "café revolutionaries." Shortly after those days in Paris, came in Latin America the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, "[…] that event which split the left in two" as one of the characters puts it.

The "author" therefore knows what History is. He has been at it, let's say, since 1958. And in the light of the knowledge he has, it appears that his frequent declarations of not knowing the reason for his own profound interest in Mayta cannot be taken seriously. Rather, they should be taken to be incentives intended to move the reader to give Mayta's importance careful consideration.

Mayta is a great many things, but the center of all his different beings, his core, is that he believes in violence as a means of bringing heaven to earth. That is the one and only trait that attracts the "author's" interest. This novel therefore is not, as it seems at first glance, a distant relative to Rashomon with different witnesses given disparate versions of a single event, but rather something like an inverted image of Carpentier's Reasons of State. Just as Carpentier depicts his dictator taking features from various Latin American dictators and using them to compound a paradigmatic portrait, our "author" does the same with the image of the revolutionary. That is the reason why Mayta is so very many mutually contradictory characters impossibly rolled into one. His involvement in violence makes unimportant whatever else he might be at the same time: homosexual, heterosexual, a good husband and father, a very poor family head, a self-sacrificing man who does not care for his own well-being, a man who would leave his own country to have more money. None of these contradictions matters. The only thing that matters about him is the fact that he is a revolutionary and believes in violence as a means of political change.

The real opposite of Mayta in the book is Moises Barbi Leiva. He receives the wholehearted approval of the "author." Barbi was once a member of Mayta's diminutive Trotskyite party, but later evolved away from these youthful involvements. Now (1983) he is a paradigm of good will, cunning, generosity and patriotism. He keeps himself equally distant from the two political poles that dominate the world and skillfully plays the one against the other the better to serve the best interests of Peru and the Peruvian intellectuals. Here, the "author" believes, is a man to be imitated. The organization he so successfully leads (Action for Development) "has helped Peru and certainly contributed more to the nation than twenty years of party militancy. Yes, it also helped the people whose books it published; it got them grants and liberated them from that whorehouse of a university."

As for the "author" himself, his ideology is composed mainly of moral issues; it is mostly on moral grounds, for instance, that he declares his deep distaste for Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan poet and politician. He finds Cardenal to be histrionic and insincere and dislikes these traits so profoundly as to find it difficult to read Cardenal's poetry after detecting his moral flaws.

It is also on moral grounds that he repeats most commonplaces about the Inquisition (in its Lima version) and widens his condemnation to cover all inquisitorial behaviors. On leaving the Lima Museum of the Inquisition he runs into a crowd of beggars and thinks: "Violence behind me and hunger in front of me. Here, on these stairs, my country summarized." After this lurid visit he hurries home, afraid of what could happen if the police found him out in the streets after curfew; he remembers as he runs that the wife of a neighbor was beaten and raped by the police when her car broke down not far from her home. The husband in his impotence and fury wishes the "internationalists" to win the war, because he believes nothing could be worse than the present. Knowing History, the "author" knows better. Restrained by pity he does not tell the man it could "still get worse, that there are not limits to our deterioration." This is the outcome he dreads should the Maytas of Peru persist in their revolutionary ways.

In yet another sense, the "author" is a man for whom health, cleanliness, sanity are dear values. The first time the reader meets him, he is out in the streets of Lima jogging and deploring the accumulation of garbage everywhere.

Furthermore, the "author" proves to be a very important person in Peru. For him all doors, be they those of members of the Peruvian Congress or those of the sordid jail of Lurigancho, open easily. He is influential enough to consider in his mind the possibility of offering Mayta help if the poor fellow wants to stop being the humble attendant of an ice cream shop that he is. The "author" has enough money to pay "a stiff price" to Adelaida, Mayta's ex-wife, for granting him an hour of her time.

In spite of the fact that he is a character in this novel concerned mostly with political issues, the "author" would be considered by most Latin Americans to be a very nonpolitical character. He is deeply concerned with bodies, and he views bodies related to polar structures like health/disease, vigor/decrepitude and also cleanliness/filth. It seems as if poverty, for instance, is important in this book mainly by its incidence in the condition of bodies. He does not give one thought to other political and politically related issues or to what a citizen of the U.S. would call "gracious living." Of course, all this makes the "author" a person very easy to like. He is very seldom concerned with controversial matters and then only when he is sure his most moderate and good mannered readers will agree with him, as is the case with his strongest adverse statement, namely, the one against Cardenal.

The "author" does not explicitly say that in the split of the left brought about by the Cuban Revolution he was one of those who moved away from the violence and dangers that lurk in the purity of the Maytas of Latin America, but there can be no doubt that the book is presented to the eye of the reader, first as a novel, and then, as a novel with a very strong political message. If this message goes unheard, the novel loses most of its intended meaning.

John Updike (review date 24 August 1987)

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SOURCE: "Resisting the Big Guys," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXIII, No. 27, August 24, 1987, pp. 83-6.

[Considered an extraordinary stylist and a perceptive observer of the human condition, Updike is one of America's most distinguished men of letters. Best known for such novels as Rabbit Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990), he is a chronicler of life in Protestant, middle-class America. In the following excerpt, he finds that Who Killed Palomino Molero? is a compelling portrait of racism in Latin America and of virtue amid pervasive corruption.]

The Peruvian man of letters Mario Vargas Llosa is almost too good to be true; cosmopolitan, handsome, and versatile, he puts a pleasant and reasonable face on the Latin-American revolution in the novel, and, in such gracious public performances as his panel appearances in New York last year and in Washington this, makes everybody, even North Americans, feel better about being a writer. Yet his fiction has a gritty side, a mode in which the ugly native truths of poverty and brutality abrasively rub through his urbane inventiveness. His recent The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, while in a sense mocking the unreal aspirations and clammy psyche of its Trotskyite hero, also conveyed the sour taste and decaying texture of modern-day Lima and in some of its incidental episodes penetratingly savored of intimate, as well as political, squalor. Even his farcical love romp, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, has some authentically harsh touches among its antic, patently fabricated episodes, and at the end returns the reader to reality with a bump. Vargas Llosa's newest fictional offering, Who Killed Palomino Molero? is nasty, brutish, and short; its first words are "Sons of bitches," and its first page displays the body of a young man tortured to death:

The boy had been both hung and impaled on the old carob tree. His position was so absurd that he looked more like a scarecrow or a broken marionette than a corpse. Before or after they killed him, they slashed him to ribbons: his nose and mouth were split open; his face was a crazy map of dried blood, bruises, cuts, and cigarette burns.

The time is 1954, in the strongman Presidency of General Manuel Apolinario Odría, an era in which Vargas Llosa has located most of his novels. The place is Talara, in northern Peru; the protagonists are two members of the Guardia Civil, Lieutenant Silva and Officer Lituma, who, with resources so slender they must take the town's one taxi on their investigative journeys, attempt to unravel the murder. The victim, they soon discover, was Palomino Molero, a young recruit at the local Air Force base, who was distinguished chiefly by his lovely voice and his skill at singing boleros. The Air Force is not cooperative, and Lieutenant Silva, who has some of Sherlock Holmes's uncanny gifts, persists in his investigation mainly as a favor to his Watson, Lituma, who has been touched and rendered indignant by the crime. Silva seems to know that the society will ill reward their successful police work and is more interested in his incongruous amorous pursuit of Doña Adriana, the hefty married proprietress—"old enough to be his mother"—of a local restaurant. Yet he and Lituma detect on, through a series of dusty and heated interviews that in sum sketch the meagre, furtive, and faintly menacing life of the Peruvian provinces. The ruling oligarchy of "the big guys" figures as a presiding apathy, an ominous airlessness in which the two policemen gasp for truth.

The Pacific coastal-desert towns are less cheerful in their torpor than Gabriel García Márquez's Caribbean Macondo. In Piura, the victim's home town, the air smells of "carob trees, goats, birdshit, and deep frying." Talara's principal recreational facilities are a whorehouse on the edge of town and an outdoor movie theatre whose screen is a wall of the parish church ("so Father Domingo determined which movies … could show") and whose projector needs to be reloaded after every reel: "The movies, accordingly, were strung out in pieces and were extremely long." The weather is hot, the nearby oil refinery's housing compound with its gringos and swimming pool keeps the locals aware of their lowly status, and an emphatic racism divides the society. Officer Lituma (who figures, at least in name, in one of the soap-opera episodes of Aunt Julia) is a cholo, a half-breed, and as such instinctively subservient to Lieutenant Silva, who is "fair-skinned, young, good-looking, with a little blond mustache." Palomino Molero was also a cholo, and Lituma sympathetically imagines him "in the half light of the streets where Piura's purebreds lived, beneath the wrought-iron bars on the balconies belonging to girls he could never love, captivating them with his pretty voice." When Molero and the daughter of the base commandant, Colonel Mindreau, fall in love, trouble is certain. In Lituma's view, the Air Force men "all thought they were blue bloods" and also thought "the Guardia Civil was a half-breed outfit they could look down on." "These damned whites," Lituma says to himself. Another character complains of being treated "like some damn nigger." Generally we credit our Latin-American neighbors with less racism than northern Europe and the United States. As the historian Allan Nevins put it: "Aside from the small white ruling class, society in the greater part of Spanish America was comparatively level and devoid of racial antipathies … Long before the Moorish conquests, before even Hannibal's invasions, the people of what are now Spain and Portugal had been familiar with their African neighbors, had intermingled with them, and had learned to attach no excessive importance to the color line. The burnished livery of the sun carried little if any stigma." But in Peru, where the viceregal aristocracy lived and ruled and where a mining economy was based upon Indian slavery, distinctions of bloodline are still jealously observed, to judge from Vargas Llosa's fiction. The question of his title implies the answer "the society"—a society, we see in the flurry of idle gossip at the end of this detective novel, willing to believe anything but the truth.

Sherlock Holmes and his myriad successors in American and English mystery fiction had the satisfaction of social approval; the identified criminal was hauled off to justice, and the detective's ingenuity was richly remunerated, sometimes, by a grateful client. At the least a significant clarification was achieved and the rule of law and reason reaffirmed. In the Peru of Who Killed Palomino Molero? the diligent detectives are demoted and their findings dissolved in a babble of xenophobic rumor: "With all these murders there had to be Ecuadoreans in the woodpile." For the book's final words, Lituma again pronounces, "Sons of bitches," and such do seem to be running this corner of the New World as of 1954. What, then, impels our two officers of the Guardia Civil to serve, via rickety taxi and rough encounter, the cause of truth and justice? Claude Lévi-Strauss, in "Tristes Tropiques," asks much the same question in regard to the chiefs of the nearly extinct Nambikwara Indians: Why do men seek power when it offers next to no rewards? He concludes, "It is because there are, in every group of human beings, men who, unlike their companions, love importance for its own sake, take a delight in its responsibilities, and find rewards enough in those very burdens of public life from which their fellows shrink." Just as no society is ideal enough to erase our darker impulses, so our more noble and altruistic tendencies persist, it would seem, even in the worst-managed system.

Charles Rossman (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "Mario Vargas Llosa's The Green House: Modernist Novel from Peru," in The Modernists, Studies in a Literary Phenomenon: Essays in Honor of Harry T. Moore, edited by Lawrence B. Gamache and Ian S. MacNiven, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987, pp. 261-74.

[In the following essay, Rossman studies The Green House as a modernist novel.]

Mario Vargas Llosa spent the first nine years of his life outside his native Peru, in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Then, in 1945, he moved with his family to Piura, a provincial town in the coastal desert some five hundred miles north of Lima and nearly a thousand miles from his birthplace far to the south, Arequipa. The family spent only a year in Piura before moving on to Lima. Nevertheless, Vargas Llosa remembers that year as the most formative period of his life.

In Piura, a startling new world engraved itself on the nine-year-old's imagination. There he had his first glimpse of the ocean and of the dunes of blowing, desert sands. There he was intrigued by the sights and sounds of the Mangachería, a tough neighborhood where many of the people lived in mud huts but where, nevertheless, a vivid nightlife of bars and musicians flourished. Above all, the young Vargas Llosa's imagination was piqued by a mysterious, green house on the sandy outskirts of town, a building that lay strangely silent by day but exploded with music and laughter after dark, when it attracted numerous male visitors.

Seven years later, in 1952, Vargas Llosa returned with his family to Piura for a second year of residence. The Mangachería was still there, of course, as was the mysterious green house. But whereas the house had fascinated the nine-year-old, necessarily a distant observer, with a kind of mythical aura, the same green building revealed itself to the sixteen-year-old, who visited it as a patron, as merely a tawdry brothel. As Vargas Llosa has put it, the "green palace of the dunes" now appeared as "primitive and very poor, the dream-mansion was merely a cheap whorehouse."

A decade later, Vargas Llosa derived the title of his second novel, The Green House, from that Piuran brothel. In addition, both the "green house" and the Mangachería appear as major settings of the novel. The other major locales of The Green House—the jungles and rivers of the Peruvian Amazon region—similarly reflect Vargas Llosa's own experiences.

Vargas Llosa first visited the Peruvian jungle in 1958. He had finished his studies at the University of San Marcos in Lima and was looking forward to graduate work at the University of Madrid when Juan Comas, a Mexican anthropologist, arrived in Lima. Comas had come to organize a four-week expedition to study the Indians living along the Amazon headwaters of Peru. Vargas Llosa became intrigued by the project and joined Comas's small group. Traveling by hydroplane and canoe, the adventurers made their way to the region of the Aguaruna and Huambisa tribes by the Upper Marañon river, and to Santa María de Nieva, a small outpost of civilization amidst the jungle. Both the Upper Marañon and Santa María de Nieva later became settings of The Green House, as did Iquitos, the largest settlement in the Peruvian jungle.

It was unusual, in 1958, for a youth from coastal Lima, with Vargas Llosa's background, to want to visit the jungle. Not surprisingly, the excursion jolted him. "There I discovered a face of my country completely unknown to me…. There I discovered that Peru was not only a country of the twentieth century … but that Peru was also part of the Middle Ages and the Stone Age." As with his visit to Piura at the age of nine, Vargas Llosa's experiences in the jungle abruptly and permanently transformed his consciousness.

According to Vargas Llosa's own account, after completing his first novel, The City and the Dogs (1962) [La ciudad y los perros, published in English as The Time of the Hero] he thought that it might be less exhausting to write two novels simultaneously, rather than undertake another single work. He reasoned that he could avoid the fatiguing concentration required for a single book by alternating between two different projects. The two narratives that he undertook dealt with, respectively, his memories of Piura—the "green house" and the Mangachería—and of the Amazon jungle.

After a time, Vargas Llosa reports, the characters from one narrative began to intrude into the other. The two novels sought to invade one another, with characters, situations, and settings overlapping and intertwining. Eventually, he conceded to the mandates of the two fictional worlds that refused to be kept separate. He decided to blend them, to write a single novel that would draw on both strands of his experience, the desert coast and the jungle.

While forging his newly unified novel, Vargas Llosa read everything in the libraries of Paris, where he was then living, that dealt with the Peruvian jungles. He absorbed everything in print about the Indians, rivers, trees, birds, and animals of the Amazon. He haunted museums and zoological gardens. Nevertheless, when he finished a draft of the novel in 1964, he felt compelled to return to Peru for a second trip to the jungle to verify his impressions. In the tradition of Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, and the Joyce of Ulysses, Vargas Llosa took great pains to render the realistic surface of The Green House with factual accuracy.

Within a year of his return to the jungle, Vargas Llosa finished the fourth and last version of The Green House. The book was published in Barcelona in March 1966 and met with stunning success. The Green House captured three important literary prizes: the Spanish Critics' Award for 1967 (which The City and the Dogs had also won in 1963), Peru's own National Award for the Novel, and grandest of all, the Rómulo Gallegos Award. The Rómulo Gallegos Award was a special prize given by the National Institute of Culture and Fine Arts in Venezuela to "the best novel written in the Spanish language during a five-year period," and it carried with it a cash stipend of twenty-two thousand dollars. When Vargas Llosa accepted the prize in Caracas on the night of 4 August 1967, the thirty-one-year-old author became an instant celebrity.

As his acceptance speech, Vargas Llosa delivered an impassioned manifesto concerning the writer's relationship to society. The speech, published as "Literature is Fire," begins with a moving evocation of an almost forgotten Peruvian poet, Oquendo de Amat, who had died in Spain some thirty years before. What interests Vargas Llosa, in particular, is Oquendo de Amat's neglect by his own countrymen. He regards Oquendo de Amat's fate—the hostility and indifference that he suffered—as typical of the relationship between the Latin-American writer and his culture.

"Literature is Fire" carries the argument a bold step further. Regardless of the responses an artist provokes, says Vargas Llosa, even in an ideal society that has rid itself of injustice and that nourishes the artists in its midst, the writer's necessary task is to be perpetually unsatisfied with reality. By his very nature, the writer is a rebel, a professional malcontent. "The writer's very reason for being is protest, contradiction and criticism."

"Literature is Fire," then, expounds a theory of the social value of literature. As Vargas Llosa sees it, literature exposes human and social imperfections to enable their improvement. By depicting unpleasant realities, literature compels readers to acknowledge what they prefer to ignore, thereby activating their ethical wills. Such was Vargas Llosa's goal with The City and the Dogs, in fact, although that book neither conveys a simple, didactic message nor recommends an explicit course of action. The Green House similarly depicts a corruption that afflicts individuals and institutions alike, and that leads to acute human suffering. The reader not only perceives these events, but necessarily evaluates them: we are forced, owing to the book's disjunctions of time, place, and even character, to discover the causes of actions and to assess their consequences.

Whereas The City and the Dogs involves three narrative strands, a basic time-span of only a few months, and two principal settings, The Green House recounts five separate histories embracing some forty years and set in three far-flung locations: Piura, Santa María de Nieva, and the jungle rivers. The separate histories do not unfold one at a time in chronological sequence. Rather, each is divided into numerous fragments that recur throughout the book in a consistent pattern, first a fragment of story number one, then a fragment of story number two, and so forth, rather like a narrative braid.

Ultimately, the exclusivity of each strand in the braid, of each narrative history, collapses. Characters from one sequence become intertwined in the other personal histories, and characters from one setting also appear in other often remote settings, sometimes with different names. Some narrative sequences are approximately simultaneous, while others reveal widely separated phases of the same lives. Altogether, the five narratives of The Green House are dispersed among seventy-two distinct episodes, many of which are further fragmented by flashbacks, sometimes occurring in mid-sentence.

One of the reader's main tasks in The Green House, then, is merely to discern the five distinct narratives as continuous and unified, a task considerably complicated by the fact that the individual narratives gradually blend and intertwine. Moreover, Vargas Llosa has set perceptual traps, has posed barricades to understanding, such as pairs of characters with the same name, or the same character appearing with different names, or two different bordellos both called the "Green House." The reader must reorder and unify the various events and settings, the different times, the diverse characters from disparate social classes, and the odd, frequently misleading bits of information, in order to discover, ultimately, the complex whole that the five interwoven strands create.

Following are brief summaries, rearranged in chronological sequence, of the five separate histories in the order that they recur throughout the novel:

1. Bonifacia and the Sergeant, in Santa María de Nieva: Bonifacia, an Indian girl, is one of the oldest pupils at a small missionary school in Santa María de Nieva. Bonifacia takes pity on two Aguaruna Indian girls who have been forcibly brought to the mission to receive a "Christian education." She helps all the girls escape. The nuns, shocked by Bonifacia's ungrateful behavior, expel her. Adrift in the village without family or means, Bonifacia is taken in by Nieves the river pilot, his woman, Lalita, and their children. A Sergeant of the civil guard proposes that Bonifacia and he marry upon his return from a jungle trip in search of rubber bandits. Because Nieves has once worked for the bandits, the Sergeant finds it his painful duty to arrest his friend. Nieves goes to prison, and the Sergeant and Bonifacia, newlyweds, leave the jungle to begin married life in his distant hometown, Piura.

2. Fushía, in the Santiago-Marañon river area: Fushía escapes from jail in Brazil and flees to Iquitos in Peru's Amazon basin. There he gains the confidence of Don Fabio and his boss, Julio Reátegui, local governor and wealthy rubber trader. Fushía runs off with some of Reátegui's money and goods, and with Lalita, a fifteen-year-old girl. Fushía and Lalita hide out on an isolated island, which Fushía uses as a base to steal rubber from the Indians who normally sell to Reátegui. Eventually, Lalita runs away with Nieves, a river pilot who works for Fushía, and they establish a home in Santa María de Nieva (which Bonifacia and the Sergeant visit years later, in another narrative strand). Fushía, who has contracted leprosy, is taken to a leper colony by his friend, Aquilino, who continues to visit Fushía until he is too old to make the difficult river journey.

3. Anselmo and the original Green House in Piura: The first scene depicts Piura in the early 1920s as a sandy and quiet place that visitors find too isolated and sleepy. One day, Anselmo rides into town on muleback. At first, Anselmo does little more than drink, eye the women boldly, and gossip about the townspeople. Then Anselmo suddenly builds a brothel called the Green House, on the sand dunes outside of town. Customers flock to it, but Father García excoriates it as the work of the devil. Anselmo cannot contain his passion for Antonia, a sixteen-year-old blind waif, and he carries her off to become his lover and the mother of his child. Antonia dies in childbirth, provoking the wrath of Father García and a group of citizens who burn the Green House. After a long decline and a terrible drunkenness, Anselmo ends up as a peaceful harp player in the chica bars of Mangachería. Years pass, and Anselmo, nearly blind, becomes a beloved member of a popular musical group that performs in the Green House, a brothel owned by Anselmo's daughter, Chunguita. Over the years, the reality of the original Green House becomes shrouded in legend. People wonder if it really existed.

4. Jum, in numerous jungle settings: Corporal Delgado goes on a furlough, taking the new recruit, Nieves, as his river pilot. They plunder an Indian village, Urakusa, and when the Indians attack in defense, Nieves escapes (he shows up as a refugee on Fushía's island, in another narrative strand). Delgado, his captain, and Reátegui set out to punish the Indians, both for the attack and for attempting to form a rubber cooperative, rather than sell to Reátegui at exploitative prices. They whip the men, rape the women, beat the Indian's leader, Jum, and steal Jum's young daughter. The daughter is left at the nuns' school in Santa María de Nieva—it is Bonifacia. Jum is left hanging by his wrists—alive, but whipped and with his head shaved—near the dock in Santa María de Nieva to serve as a warning to other Indians who might get ideas about cooperatives.

5. The Unconquerables and the second Green House: Lituma returns to Piura after ten years in the civil guard, bringing with him the woman, Bonifacia, whom he married in Santa María de Nieva. He falls in with his old gang of toughs, called the Unconquerables, and lands a job as a sergeant in the Piuran police force. One of the Unconquerables, Josefino, vows to seduce Lituma's wife. One night while drinking at the Green House, Lituma challenges a braggart to Russian roulette. The braggart kills himself, Lituma goes to prison in Lima, and Bonifacia is left behind, pregnant. Josefino succeeds with her. They live together a while, and Bonifacia has an abortion. Josefino eventually abandons her, and she becomes a prostitute in the Green House, where she is called "Wildflower" because of her jungle origin, and where she is working when Lituma returns from prison. Lituma gets his revenge by beating up Josefino and scorning Bonifacia.

Each of these five narratives has its unique perspective, tone, and style. The most conventional sequence is the first, that of Bonifacia and the Sergeant in Santa María de Nieva, which is told from an orthodox, third-person perspective. The narrator clearly identifies setting and speakers, uses quotation marks to indicate speech, describes a speaker's manner and appearance, but rigorously confines himself to objective presentation of what can be observed and heard. Here are the opening words of the first sequence:

A door slammed, the Mother Superior raised her face from her desk, Sister Angélica burst into the office like a meteor, her livid hands fell onto the back of a chair.

"What's wrong, Sister Angélica? Why do you look that way?"

"They've run away, Mother!" Sister Angélica stammered. "There isn't a single one of them left, God save us."

This is the stuff of the traditional novel, and the reader, on familiar ground, quickly becomes oriented. Even in this sequence, however, the mode soon becomes more elaborate. In the first fragment of the sequence, a paragraph of commentary, inserted without warning or transition into an intensely dramatic moment, calmly describes the geographical setting of Santa María de Nieva in a style reminiscent of a travel guide, after which the dramatic scene, taking no notice of the intrusion, continues. In successive fragments of this sequence, more and more of these descriptions intrude, until they develop into a contrapuntal narrative. While Bonifacia is being questioned by the nuns about the escape of the pupils in the main narrative, the contrapuntal insertions dramatize that very escape.

The fifth sequence treats the Unconquerables and the second Green House in a variation of this technique. We again have an objective, third-person narrator who presents the scene in a traditional fashion, again limiting his own knowledge to what any observer might note. The variation consists of frequent cutaways, in cinematic style, to simultaneous events relevant to the main scene, or to past events that respond to allusions in the main scene. For example, when Chunguita and the band describe the fatal game of Russian roulette to Wildflower, the narrative rapidly shuttles from the present in the Green House, to the night of the killing, and back. All scenes from any time or setting are narrated in the present, as though they are occurring for the first time. The effect of simultaneity is something like the literary equivalent of a musical chord.

The second sequence, recounting the history of Fushía, elaborates the techniques of cutaway and flashback. As before, a typical fragment will begin in the conventional third person. But two specific variations intrude. First, a narrator speaks in summary fashion, blending commentary, narrative, and quotation, without bothering to identify speakers or use quotation marks. For example:

He had gone to school and that was why the Turk had given him a job in his warehouse. He kept accounts, Aquilino, in some big books called debits and credits. And even though he was honest in those days, he was already dreaming about getting rich. How he used to save, old man, he ate only one meal a day, no cigarettes, no drinking. He wanted a little capital to set up a business.

The voice here is nearly that of Fushía himself, except that Fushía is referred to in the third person: "How he used to save, old man." A conventional narrative would recast these words as: "How I used to save, old man,' said Fushía," using quotation marks to indicate a specific speaker. Vargas Llosa has blended narrator and character, using the voice of the character but the perspective of a third-person narrator.

The second narrative variation in Fushía's otherwise orthodox third-person sequence is the abrupt flashback in mid-conversation. For example:

"But you already told me about that when we left the island, Fushía," Aquilino said. "I want to hear how you escaped."

"With this picklock," Chango said. "Iricuo made it from the wire on his cot. We tried it out and it can open the door without any noise…."

Here Aquilino is quizzing Fushía about his past as the two navigate the Marañon en route to the leper's island. The first paragraph poses Aquilino's question about how Fushía escaped the Brazilian jail. The second paragraph replies by taking us directly back to the jail and to the words of one of Fushía's cellmates, Chango. Chango is presumably answering a similar question posed years before by Fushía himself.

The most innovative sequence, and the most demanding of the reader, is the fourth, the history of Jum and the soldiers in the jungle. This sequence employs an elaborate version of the blended narrator-character that often appears in the Fushía narrative. Here is a typical instance: "Julio Reátegui wipes his forehead, looks at his interpreter; he had gone against the authorities, that was not right and he would pay for it: translate it for him. The clearing at Urakusa is small and triangular…." Description, commentary, and dialogue are here blended, undistinguished by quotation marks or discriminating pronouns. "He had gone against the authorities," one finally understands, is Reátegui's remark to an interpreter, but directed to an Indian being whipped.

Speeches by individual characters are even more difficult to distinguish in passages like this: "The officer turns to the Sergeant, was that business about the girl true? and Jum, girl!, very violently, shit! and Fats sh-h-h, the Lieutenant was speaking, and the Sergeant shush, who could tell, they stole girls every day here, it could be true." Here the Lieutenant asks the Sergeant whether Jum's complaint that the soldiers have stolen his daughter is true. Jum angrily butts in to reiterate the word "girl" and utter the epithet "shit." Fats and the Sergeant both attempt to calm Jum (read, for example: "And the Sergeant also urged Jum, 'Shush'"). The sergeant then replies to the Lieutenant's question: "who could tell, they stole girls every day." At their most elusive, the voices in such passages mingle nearly indistinguishably, a chorus of human voices seemingly detached from explicit human sources.

The question naturally arises: Why has Vargas Llosa fragmented his narrative sequences, violated chronological order, exploded personalities and events throughout dozens of brief episodes, and narrated the whole in a variety of difficult styles? That is, why has he made it difficult for the reader to apprehend even the surface facts of his novel, and what relationship does that difficulty have to the meaning of those facts?

One explanation for the intricacies of form and technique in The Green House is historical. The 1960s were a time in Latin-American fiction when writers consciously sought to forge a new novel. Writers in the movement known as the "boom" in Latin-American fiction—such men as Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, José Lezama Lima, and Vargas Llosa himself—were impressed by the technical innovations that had transformed European and North-American fiction into a high art form. The "boom" novelists repudiated the naïve realism, pious moralizing, and flowery style that characterized many of their Latin-American predecessors. They turned instead toward such models as Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, André Gide, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and William Faulkner. Hence, the major "boom" novels of the 1960s are all consciously experimental: Cortázar's Hopscotch, Fuentes's The Death of Artemio Cruz, Vargas Llosa's The Green House, García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Lezama Lima's Paradise, to cite only the most obvious examples.

But aside from whatever literary movements and historical precedents nourished the technical innovations of The Green House, the reader must evaluate the effectiveness of the novel's particular and unique formal qualities. At times, a reader may in fact experience the elaboration of technique in The Green House as an exuberant self-indulgence on the author's part, as verbal pyrotechnics for their own sake. But on closer examination, The Green House proves vastly more successful than most experimental fiction. Vargas Llosa possesses the necessary combination of skills—his compelling vision and his power with language—that enables technical virtuosity to achieve thematic significance.

For example, Vargas Llosa's techniques both express and evoke a particular attitude toward his characters. The five sequences, seventy-two episodes, transmuting styles, and elusive voices do not recount the histories of discrete "personalities," in the tradition of the nineteenth-century novel. Unlike the classical Bildungsroman, for instance, which traces the evolution of a unique self responding to its environment, The Green House deals with clusters of people who simultaneously shape one another while forming a transcendent, supra-personal whole. Vargas Llosa has explained: "What I've done is almost totally suppress individual personalities, and tried to present collective personalities, that is to say, groups of people who belong to, and embody, various different realities." By dividing his story into dozens of achronological and nonsequential episodes set in scattered locales, Vargas Llosa has rendered human beings as less a matter of "selves," of unique psychological entities, than of aspects and functions of a social milieu. His characters are living intersections in a complex network of the intersecting paths of human beings and cultural forces. The effect of impersonality is heightened by Vargas Llosa's presentation of character from the outside. He rarely registers the thoughts or feelings of a character. Rather, he confines the reader to external appearances, to what a character says and does. As Vargas Llosa himself has put it, his novel is "basically a description of acts."

As a corollary to his conception of character as more impersonal function than subjective self, another effect of Vargas Llosa's disjointed chronologies is their exposure of the ironies of the will and its fate. For example, Fushía recites the story of his youthful escape from prison and his subsequent schemes to become rich and powerful as, ironically, he floats downstream under cover of darkness, a crippled fugitive who will spend the rest of his days in dependence and poverty in a leper colony. As another example, we see Bonifacia as a prostitute in the Green House before we experience either the Sergeant's love for her, their joyous wedding, or their hopes for the future as they leave for Piura from the jungle. Similarly, we learn that Antonia has died even before we discover that Anselmo has captured her out of irresistible love.

Such inversions of chronology poignantly underscore the gulf between human designs and ultimate consequences. Because we know the end of a process before learning of its antecedents, we rarely build up expectations about the future of a character or the repercussions of an action. Instead, we ponder the reversals of fortune that plague all but the powerful and the lucky. In particular, the poor, the powerless, and the primitive—that is, half-breeds, children, women, and Indians—can rarely implement their desires. Indeed, their hopes and expectations often seem pathetically irrelevant both to the causal forces at work and to the final results. A reader observes the unfolding destinies of these submerged people as arbitrary conclusions to incidental desires.

Perhaps the chief effect of the technical variety of The Green House is the reader's detachment from the characters. To be sure, Vargas Llosa's narrative methods compel the reader's energetic and alert participation in the novel. Yet the fractured narratives and shifting perspectives prevent deep emotional involvement with the characters. The point becomes clearer if we compare The Green House, once more, to the classical novel of the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth-century novel typically immersed the reader in the evolving subjective life of the hero or heroine. One result was that the distance between character and reader often became very slight. One thinks, above all, of how Charles Dickens's characters routinely provoked sympathetic laughter and tears. The Green House extends a counter tradition that also springs from the nineteenth century, chiefly in the work of Gustave Flaubert, in which characters are treated more objectively, increasing the distance between a character and reader. Vargas Llosa severely limits the reader's emotional involvement with the characters. We are curious, sometimes shocked and touched, occasionally outraged at cruelty and injustice. But our reactions are to circumstances, events, and forces rather than to individuals with whom we have learned to empathize. Vargas Llosa's techniques make reading The Green House more an intellectual than an emotional experience. We watch, experience a surge of feeling, then interpret and judge.

Among those things that we perceive and judge is the impact of the unequal distribution of power. Individuals and groups exploit one another in ascending order of power, from children, women, and Indians on up through the military and the Church to the civil government and the wealthy (often, of course, the same people). One sustained illustration is the Catholic Church, as exemplified by the nuns at the mission school in Santa María de Nieva. The mission school also vividly demonstrates the distinction between human intentions and eventual consequences. From the nuns' point of view, the school is an outpost of civilization and Christian virtues amidst heathen savages. They bring religion and education to a lucky group of Indian girls. From the reader's perspective, the nuns form an unconscious alliance with the military and the governing class to eradicate Indian culture and provide Peruvian society with sufficient washerwomen, household servants, and prostitutes.

As the novel opens, a river launch with five civil guards and two nuns arrives at the Indian village of Chicais. They find the village deserted, but they wait. A group of Aguarunas soon arrives: two men, an old woman with sagging breasts, two little girls and a small boy, all three naked. Although the nuns fastidiously insist that the soldiers should not steal a loose chicken, it becomes clear that they plan to take the girls, even if they must steal them with armed force. A violent scene develops. The Indian men are held at gun point while the nuns recite the rosary and the soldiers kidnap the kicking, clawing girls. The old woman goes into a frenzy, twisting and moaning. The last we see of her, she is prostrate in the sand, her head slumped forward in defeat, weeping with shock and grief.

Later, two of the guards, Shorty and the Sergeant, disapprove of their own actions. But the rest of the soldiers are offended by their companions' doubts. They justify the nuns' behavior with a variety of prejudices about the Indians, ranging from their diets to their religious beliefs. When that doesn't convince Shorty, the soldiers threaten him with physical violence. The nuns, of course, believe that they are improving the Indians, helping to "incorporate those girls into the civilized world," while they also "gain a few souls for God."

The reader sees more than do the soldiers or the nuns. We are struck by the moral blindness of invoking God's commandment against stealing a chicken, in the very act of stealing a mother's two daughters. And we soon learn what it really means to "incorporate those girls into the civilized world." This is made quite clear in the opening section of book two, when Julio Reátegui visits the school in search of servants for his wife and a friend. The nuns momentarily balk, but eventually they concede to power and patronage. After all, Reátegui is the governor and his wife is a strong financial supporter of the school. Therefore, Reátegui leaves with one servant girl and has the nuns' permission to take Bonifacia, as well. He leaves her behind out of mercy for her fearful reluctance.

The opening scene incorporates many themes developed throughout the book; the violation of motherhood and family, often in the name of Christian principles; the smug ethnocentricism that enables such violations simply by regarding Indians as subhumans with no familial bonds; the use of "legitimate" force (the government, the Church) to coerce people without recourse; the overt abduction of humans to fulfill purposes not their own. Abduction, in particular, is a commonplace in The Green House. Nieves is abducted to serve in the army. Jum is abducted to teach all Indians a lesson. Bonifacia and the other girls are brought to the school for a Christian education. Indian women by the score are stolen to serve the sexual pleasures of Fushía and his band. Antonia is carried off by Anselmo. Repeatedly, people with power simply capture those without who might be of use to them.

The fate of lower-class women aptly symbolizes much of the social order in The Green House. Fushía comments early in the book that a poor woman will usually end up "a washerwoman, a whore, or a servant." But we discover as the book proceeds that Fushía has been too generous in describing a woman's options. Even if she escapes whoredom and becomes a washerwoman or a servant, she is unlikely to escape sexual exploitation. To illustrate:

There … drunken soldiers station themselves at dawn and dusk. Washerwomen coming back from the river, servant girls from the Buenos Aires district on their way to market are caught by groups of soldiers and thrown down on the sand, their skirts are lifted over their heads, their legs are opened, and one after another the soldiers have them and run away.

Although women suffer special abuse, their abstract circumstances are similar to those of all people at the bottom of the social pyramid. All are exploited by someone with greater power, all are treated unfeelingly like utilitarian objects. Even the soldier-rapists described above may have been forcibly "recruited" into the army to serve the interests of the rich and powerful.

Reátegui, at the top of the pyramid, is vastly different from the soldier-rapists. Except where Indians are concerned, his methods of exploitation have been refined well beyond the crudity of overt rape. With a smile, smooth talk, and assurances of respect and future favors, Reátegui can extract a servant from the nuns, obedience from the military officers, and loyalty from Don Fabio, his hand-picked successor as governor. His victims often conspire in their own exploitation, in hopes of some profit of their own. If rape is a fundamental metaphor for social relationships in The Green House, so is prostitution. The selling of self and the accommodation of principles to power are endemic. It is entirely appropriate that a pair of brothels should give the novel its name, and that a prostitute should be its heroine.

The most pathetic victims of institutionalized exploitation in The Green House are those who, like the Poet and Lieutenant Gamboa in The City and the Dogs, expect social justice. They must painfully learn that power over others is the reality, that suffering and brutality are the price of power, and that injustice is the rule.

For example, Jum continues to demand justice, even though he hardly understands the white man's system of government. He knows, spontaneously, that he has been wronged by the soldiers who laid waste his village, raped the Indian wives before the eyes of their anguished husbands, themselves beaten into submission, stole his daughter, and left him, whipped and tortured, hanging above a river dock. Time after time, Jum lodges complaints with the officials. But government officials regard him as a mere nuisance. One even cynically suggests that he file a written protest with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Lima. Finally, Jum simply disappears, without authorial explanation.

Nieves the pilot believes most innocently in the justice of the "system" and is the one most injured by his faith. He is abducted into the army, escapes, and joins Fushía as his pilot. Later, Nieves abandons Fushía, taking Lalita and her child with him. They make their way to Santa María de Nieva, where they establish a home. That home is disrupted when the soldiers go into the jungle after Fushía and discover that Nieves has worked with the rubber bandits. Nieves refuses to escape arrest, even though the Sergeant and Lalita beg him to flee.

Nieves has twice fled previous situations that threatened him—the army and Fushía. But he loves his family too much to spend the rest of his life running. Instead, he decides to rely on the justice, honesty, and good will of the authorities, of "the sisters, the Lieutenant, the governor, too," as he puts it. He reasons that he has been a mere pilot, rather than a major member of the outlaw group. He will serve his time—which he expects to be only a few months—and return to his family. As it happens, the authorities throw the book at him (just as the nuns showed Bonifacia no mercy), seizing on him as scapegoat. He spends years in prison, and he never sees Lalita or his children again. After his release from prison, which the reader learns about casually through a conversation, Nieves quietly disappears from the novel, like Jum, without explanatory comment.

These examples reveal that justice in The Green House is a sentimental trick of consciousness, an idea incidental to events. Individual acts of kindness offer the only hint of redemption in a world given over, for the most part, to rapacity. Bonifacia, for instance, is spared from rape in the jungle and, later, from life as an unwilling servant by the sympathy of Reátegui. When she is expelled from the mission school for helping the pupils escape, Lalita and Nieves take her into their home. Bonifacia's own effort to free the pupils, however inept or misguided, is itself an act of kindness. So is Aquilino's gift of yellow cloth to Bonifacia, from which she makes her wedding dress, as is the month that he devotes to transporting Fushía down-river to the leper colony. Most charitable of all is Juana Baura, the sick and impoverished washerwoman who first provides a home for the orphan, Antonia, then for Antonia's own daughter, Chunguita. Such acts of kindness, spontaneous and unrewarded, underscore the pervasive heartlessness of the social world of The Green House. Yet they also demonstrate that individual human beings can be more than predators.

The Green House, like The City and the Dogs, portrays a bleak vision of social reality. Also like The City and the Dogs, that vision is morally complex. We see the rife corruption, the abuse of powerless individuals, and the needlessness of much human suffering. But we cannot easily point fingers of blame at specific individuals. Guilt seems oddly impersonal and collective, something that transcends individuals and accrues to the whole network of human activities. Caught up in the quest for money and power, like Fushía, or in the urge to impose a deeply inconsistent morality, like the nuns, or in the throes of uncontainable passion, like Anselmo or even the soldier-rapists, most of the people in The Green House are so elemental and unreflective that all moral considerations, not just the idea of justice, strike us as largely incidental to human activity that is essentially amoral. Individuals do not entirely escape responsibility, of course, especially Julio Reátegui, who is at the pinnacle of wealth and power and therefore is subject to the least social coercion. Still, The Green House indicts the entire social and economic system, rather than individuals. That system, The Green House makes clear, offers little more than the law of the jungle or the ethics of the brothel as standards of behavior.

Ursula K. Le Guin (review date 29 October 1989)

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SOURCE: "Feeling the Hot Breath of Civilization," in The New York Times Book Review, October 29, 1989, pp. 1, 49-50.

[An American novelist and critic, Le Guin is considered one of the most important authors in contemporary science fiction and fantasy literature. Her works have been especially praised for their style, rich inventiveness, and deep humanism. In the following excerpt, she praises The Storyteller, contending that Vargas Llosa's imaginative rendering of a preserved ancient culture provokes much-needed self-examination by modern society.]

We human beings long to get the world under our control and to make other people act just like us. In the last few centuries, some of us—variously described as the White Man, the West, the Colonial Powers, Industrial Civilization, the March of Progress—found out how to do it. The result is that now many of us all over the world are eating hamburgers at McDonald's. Since other results include forests destroyed for pasture for the cattle to make the hamburgers, and oceans suffocated by the waste products of making plastic boxes for the hamburgers, the success of the White Man's control of the world is debatable; but his success in making other people act just like him is not. No culture that has come in contact with Western industrial culture has been unchanged by it, and most have been assimilated or annihilated, surviving only as vestigial variations in dress, cooking or ethics.

To make this tremendous process of acculturation the central subject of a novel is a tremendous undertaking. Mario Vargas Llosa is not a tremendous novelist, but he is a wise and canny one, and very skilled. His fascinating new book opens this subject, the impact of "civilization" on the "primitive," to intellectual consideration in the novelistic mode of passionate emotional and moral involvement….

The Storyteller is science fiction at its best. Accurately following the investigations of a science—anthropology, in this case—as far as they have gone, it then asks: what if? What if there were (and indeed there is) a remote Amazonian tribe that had kept itself unacculturated, so far, by moving away from the Incas, the conquistadors, the Jesuits, the evangelists, the rubber planters, the tree cutters and the anthropologists, by keeping on the move, not running but walking? "The men who walk," the Machiguenga call themselves. And what if a young Jew at the University of Lima became intrigued by these people and began to follow them farther and farther into the jungle and into the spirit, until he became himself a man who walks?

More than one voice tells this story. The first is that of a thoughtful, amiably cynical Peruvian, in Florence "to forget Peru and the Peruvians for a while," who sees in a gallery the photograph of a storyteller of the eastern Peruvian Amazon amid a circle of women and men: "They were absolutely still. All the faces were turned, like radii of a circumference, toward the central point: the silhouette of a man at the heart of that circle of Machiguengas drawn to him as to a magnet, standing there speaking."

The narrator recognizes in that silhouette his old college friend Saúl Zuratas. And so he begins to tell the story of the storyteller, for this is a book of and about stories, the stories that history silences, the stories of the obscure, the private, the prehistoric; and it all centers on that point, the person at the heart of a circle of people, speaking.

So, circling back to college days, he tells us about Saúl, Mascarita, "Mask Face"—the student with a terrible purple birthmark over half his face, the bright, funny, gentle, half-Jewish ethnologist with a pet parrot called Gregor Samsa. And with him we begin to circle around that question of acculturation, of the fatal impact of the industrial West on the wilderness and the so-called savage. Saúl asks his friend: "Do our cars, guns, planes, and Coca-Colas give us the right to exterminate them because they don't have such things? Or do you believe in 'civilizing the savages,' pal? How? By making soldiers of them? By putting them to work on the farms as slaves?… By forcing them to change their language, their religion, and their customs, the way the missionaries are trying to do? What's to be gained by that? Being able to exploit them more easily, that's all."

But Saúl does not fall into the Noble Savage trap. Finding many customs of the Machiguengas self-destructive, unjust and cruel, he sees them as no more superior to us than we are to them, though their practices, following the patterns and needs of the world more closely than ours, do far less violence. But women are worse used among them even than among us, and they kill babies born with the least blemish, in superstitious fear. Why then does he passionately defend them? Because he is "half Jewish and half monster" and so identifies with the outcast and the underdog? But had he been born among them he would have been killed at birth, and he knows it.

This is a tale of a researcher gone native. The term is used derogatively by anthropologists, for to go native is to lose the perspective, the observer status that is essential to the practice of any science. But scientific detachment is itself in question when it reduces human beings to objects, pretending that the trained mind can understand human behavior without bias, without participation, without imagination and without moral concern. No novelist is likely to let such a pretense go unchallenged.

Certainly the concerns of The Storyteller are intellectual, ethical and artistic, all at once and brilliantly so. To me this is Mr. Vargas Llosa's most engaging and accessible book, for the urgency of its subject purifies and illuminates the writing. I was spellbound, as if by the voice of that storyteller in the circle of listeners; his voice is many voices, his voice is the tribal voice: "After, the men of earth started walking, straight toward the sun that was falling. Before, they too stayed in the same place without moving. The sun, their eye of the sky, was fixed…. There was no war. The rivers were full of fish, the forests of animals…. The men of earth were strong, wise, serene and united. They were peaceable and without anger. Before the time afterwards."

We live, and our story is told, in "the time afterwards"—after the Fall, after the Exodus, after the Dreamtime. The author, in a masterly interweaving of actual myth and novelistic imagination, takes us directly and immediately into the Machiguenga world, yet never presumes to speak as one of them. There is no observer and observed here, only participation—which is what storytelling is all about. To hear the Machiguenga stories, to participate in that life, is an experience of horror, exhilaration, beauty, great strangeness and deep concern. Encircled by their fierce cosmogony and the fearful legends of their past, we begin to walk with them; we begin to understand why they must walk, must never cease moving on: so that the sun will rise, so that the world will be in order, so that the obligation will be fulfilled.

For these too are a chosen people:

For a family and for a people too, the worst evil would be not knowing their obligation…. If an evil occurs on the earth, it's because people have stopped paying attention to the earth, because they don't look after it the way it ought to be looked after…. How do we help the sun, the rivers? How do we help this world, everything that's alive? By walking. I've fulfilled the obligation, I believe.

But if the missionaries and linguists and ethnologists respectfully let this tiny group of people walk away from them, what protection will they have against the worst of our civilization? There is nowhere left for them to walk to. They are defenseless against helicopter, bullet, bulldozer, exploitation, enslavement and genocide. The question that could be put off, walked away from, has become unavoidable. And here Mr. Vargas Llosa, who is running for President of Peru, speaks with an authority almost unique to the novelists and poets of Latin America, whose responsibility is wider and more public than that of our writers, and more overtly political. He names the new evils of our day:

"First came the oil wells…. Later on, or at the same time, the drug traffic began and, like a biblical plague, spread its network of coca plantations, laboratories, and secret landing strips, with—as a logical consequence—periodic killings and vendettas between rival gangs of Colombians and Peruvians; the burning of coca crops, the police searches and wholesale roundups. And finally—or perhaps at the same time, closing the triangle of horror—terrorism and counterterrorism. Detachments of the revolutionary Sendero Luminoso movement, severely repressed in the Andes, have come down to the jungle and operate in this part of Amazonia, now periodically reconnoitered by the Army and even, it is said, bombarded by the Air Force.

The Inca and Spanish invasions, the enslavements, the missionaries' efforts to corrupt culture, the exploitations by profiteers of rubber and wood and gold and land, and now this. "For the Machiguengas, history marches neither forward nor backward: it goes around and around in circles, repeats itself." And now we are in that circle with them. The horrible triangle of environmental rape, drug traffic and political terrorism is the trap we too are caught in. What are we to do? Shall we, like them, "start walking"—shall we remember our obligation to one another and the earth?

Although in the Machiguenga language "now" means both the present and the past, leaving only the future clearly defined, the storyteller does not presume to foretell, to say what will happen next. In the gallery in Florence one of the storytellers watches another of them go into the shadows, like a shadow, with "the men who walk." All we know is that as he goes he is telling a story.

Mario Vargas Llosa with Ricardo A. Setti (interview date Fall 1990)

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SOURCE: An interview, translated by Susannah Hunnewell, in The Paris Review, Vol. 32, No. 116, Fall, 1990, pp. 46-72.

[In the following interview, Vargas Llosa speaks on several subjects, including authors and literature that have influenced him, the creative process, and the significance of writing in his life.]

[Setti]: You are a well-known writer and your readers are familiar with what you've written. Will you tell us what you read?

[Vargas Llosa]: In the last few years, something curious has happened. I've noticed that I'm reading less and less by my contemporaries and more and more by writers of the past. I read much more from the nineteenth century than from the twentieth. These days, I lean perhaps less toward literary works than toward essays and history. I haven't given much thought to why I read what I read…. Sometimes it's professional reasons. My literary projects are related to the nineteenth century: an essay about Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, or a novel inspired by the life of Flora Tristan, a Franco-Peruvian social reformer and "feminist" avant-la-lettre. But then I also think it's because at fifteen or eighteen, you feel as if you have all the time in the world ahead of you. When you turn fifty, you become aware that your days are numbered and that you have to be selective. That's probably why I don't read my contemporaries as much.

But among your contemporaries that you do read, whom do you particularly admire?

When I was young, I was a passionate reader of Sartre. I've read the American novelists, in particular the lost generation—Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos—especially Faulkner. Of the authors I read when I was young, he is one of the few who still means a lot to me. I have never been disappointed when I reread him, the way I have been occasionally with, say, Hemingway. I wouldn't reread Sartre today. Compared to everything I've read since, his fiction seems dated and has lost much of its value. As for his essays, I find most of them to be less important, with one exception perhaps: "Saint Genet: Comedian or Martyr," which I still like. They are full of contradictions, ambiguities, inaccuracies and ramblings, something that never happened with Faulkner. Faulkner was the first novelist I read with pen and paper in hand, because his technique stunned me. He was the first novelist whose work I consciously tried to reconstruct by attempting to trace, for example, the organization of time, the intersection of time and place, the breaks in the narrative, and that ability he has of telling a story from different points of view in order to create a certain ambiguity, to give it added depth. As a Latin American, I think it was very useful for me to read his books when I did because they are a precious source of descriptive techniques that are applicable to a world which, in a sense, is not so unlike the one Faulkner described. Later, of course, I read the nineteenth-century novelists with a consuming passion: Flaubert, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Hawthorne, Dickens, Melville. I'm still an avid reader of nineteenth-century writers.

As for Latin American literature, strangely enough, it wasn't until I lived in Europe that I really discovered it and began to read it with great enthusiasm. I had to teach it at the university in London, which was a very enriching experience because it forced me to think about Latin American literature as a whole. From then on I read Borges, whom I was somewhat familiar with, Carpentíer, Cortázar, Guimaraes Rosa, Lezama Lima—that whole generation except for García Márquez. I discovered him later and even wrote a book about him: García Márquez: Historia de un Deicidio. I also began reading nineteenth-century Latin American literature because I had to teach it. I realized then that we have extremely interesting writers—the novelists perhaps less so than the essayists or poets. Sarmiento, for example, who never wrote a novel, is in my opinion one of the greatest storytellers Latin America has produced; his Facundo is a masterwork. But if I were forced to choose one name, I would have to say Borges, because the world he creates seems to me to be absolutely original. Aside from his enormous originality, he is also endowed with a tremendous imagination and culture that are expressly his own. And then of course there is the language of Borges, which in a sense broke with our tradition and opened a new one. Spanish is a language that tends toward exuberance, proliferation, profusion. Our great writers have all been prolix, from Cervantes to Ortega y Gasset, Valle-Inclán or Alfonso Reyes. Borges is the opposite—all concision, economy and precision. He is the only writer in the Spanish language who has almost as many ideas as he has words. He's one of the great writers of our time.

What was your relationship to Borges?

I saw him for the first time in Paris where I lived in the early sixties. He was there giving seminars on the literature of the fantastic and gauchesca literature. Later I interviewed him for the Office de Radio Television Française where I was working at the time. I still remember it with emotion. After that, we saw each other several times in different parts of the world, even in Lima, where I gave a dinner for him. At the end he asked me to take him to the toilet. When he was peeing he suddenly said: "The Catholics, do you think they are serious? Probably not."

The last time I saw him was at his house in Buenos Aires; I interviewed him for a television show I had in Peru and I got the impression he resented some of the questions I asked him. Strangely, he got mad because, after the interview—during which, of course, I was extremely attentive, not only because of the admiration I felt for him but also because of the great affection I had for the charming and fragile man that he was—I said I was surprised by the modesty of his house, which had peeling walls and leaks in the roof. This apparently deeply offended him. I saw him once more after that and he was extremely distant. Octavio Paz told me that he really resented that particular remark about his house. The only thing that might have hurt him is what I have just related, because otherwise I have never done anything but praise him. I don't think he read my books. According to him, he never read a single living writer after he turned forty, just read and reread the same books…. But he's a writer I very much admire. He's not the only one, of course. Pablo Neruda is an extraordinary poet. And Octavio Paz—not only a great poet, but a great essayist, a man who is articulate about politics, art and literature. His curiosity is universal. I still read him with great pleasure. Also, his political ideas are quite similar to mine.

You mention Neruda among the writers you admire. You were his friend. What was he like?

Neruda adored life. He was wild about everything—painting, art in general, books, rare editions, food, drink. Eating and drinking were almost a mystical experience for him. A wonderfully likeable man, full of vitality—if you forget his poems in praise of Stalin, of course. He lived in a near-feudal world, where everything led to his rejoicing, his sweet-toothed exuberance for life. I had the good fortune to spend a weekend on Isla Negra. It was wonderful! A kind of social machinery worked around him: hordes of people who cooked and worked—and always quantities of guests. It was a very funny society, extraordinarily alive, without the slightest trace of intellectualism. Neruda was exactly the opposite of Borges, the man who appeared never to drink, smoke or eat, who one would have said had never made love, for whom all these things seemed completely secondary, and if he had done them it was out of politeness and nothing more. That's because ideas, reading, reflection, and creation were his life, the purely cerebral life. Neruda comes out of the Jorge Amado and Rafael Alberti tradition that says literature is generated by a sensual experience of life.

I remember the day we celebrated Neruda's birthday in London. He wanted to have the party on a boat on the Thames. Fortunately, one of his admirers, the English poet Alastair Reid, happened to live on a boat on the Thames, so we were able to organize a party for him. The moment came and he announced that he was going to make a cocktail. It was the most expensive drink in the world with I don't know how many bottles of Dom Perignon, fruit juices and God knows what else. The result, of course, was wonderful, but one glass of it was enough to make you drunk. So there we were, drunk every one of us, without exception. Even so, I still remember what he told me then; something that has proven to be a great truth over the years. An article at the time—I can't remember what it was about—had upset and irritated me because it insulted me and told lies about me. I showed it to Neruda. In the middle of the party, he prophesied: "You are becoming famous. I want you to know what awaits you: the more famous you are, the more you will be attacked like this. For every praise, there will be two or three insults. I myself have a chest full of all the insults, villainies, and infamies a man is capable of withstanding. I wasn't spared a single one: thief, pervert, traitor, thug, cuckold … everything! If you become famous, you will have to go through that."

Neruda told the truth; his prognosis came absolutely true. I not only have a chest, but several suitcases full of articles that contain every insult known to man.

What about García Márquez?

We were friends; we were neighbors for two years in Barcelona, we lived on the same street. Later, we drifted apart for personal as well as political reasons. But the original cause for the separation was a personal problem that had no relation whatsoever to his ideological beliefs—which I don't approve of either. In my opinion, his writing and his politics are not of the same quality. Let's just say that I greatly admire his work as a writer. As I've already said, I wrote a six-hundred-page book on his work. But I don't have much respect for him personally, nor for his political beliefs which don't seem serious to me. I think they're opportunistic and publicity-oriented.

Is the personal problem you mentioned related to an incident at a movie theater in Mexico where you allegedly fought?

There was an incident in Mexico. But this is a subject that I don't care to discuss; it has given rise to so much speculation that I don't want to supply more material for commentators. If I write my memoirs, maybe I'll tell the true story.

Do you choose the subjects of your books or do they choose you?

As far as I'm concerned, I believe the subject chooses the writer. I've always had the feeling that certain stories imposed themselves on me: I couldn't ignore them, because in some obscure way, they related to some kind of fundamental experience—I can't really say how. For example, the time I spent at the Leoncio Prado Military School in Lima when I was still a young boy gave me a real need, an obsessive desire to write. It was an extremely traumatic experience which in many ways marked the end of my childhood—the rediscovery of my country as a violent society, filled with bitterness, made up of social, cultural and racial factions in complete opposition and caught up in sometimes ferocious battle. I suppose the experience had an influence on me, one thing I'm sure of is that it gave rise to the great need in me to create, to invent.

Up until now, it's been pretty much the same for all my books. I never get the feeling that I've decided rationally, cold-bloodedly to write a story. On the contrary, certain events or people, sometimes dreams or readings, impose themselves suddenly and demand attention. That's why I talk so much about the importance of the purely irrational elements of literary creation. This irrationality must also, I believe, come through to the reader. I would like my novels to be read the way I read the novels I love. The novels that have fascinated me most are the ones that have reached me less through the channels of the intellect or reason than bewitched me. These are stories capable of completely annihilating all my critical faculties so that I'm left there, in suspense. That's the kind of novel I like to read and the kind of novel I'd like to write. I think it's very important that the intellectual element, whose presence is inevitable in a novel, dissolves into the action, into the stories that must seduce the reader not by their ideas but by their color, by the emotions they inspire, by their element of surprise, and by all the suspense and mystery they're capable of generating. In my opinion, a novel's technique exists essentially to produce that effect: to diminish and if possible abolish the distance between the story and the reader. In that sense, I am a writer of the nineteenth century. The novel for me is still the novel of adventures, which is read in the particular way I have described.

What's become of the humor in your novels? Your most recent novels seem far from the humor of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Is it hard to practice humor today?

It's never occurred to me to ask myself whether today I will write a funny book or a serious one. The subjects of the books I've written in the last few years just didn't lend themselves to humor. I don't think War of the End of the World and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta or the plays I've written are based on themes that can be treated humorously. And what about In Praise of the Stepmother? There's plenty of humor there, isn't there?

I used to be "allergic" to humor because I thought, very naively, that serious literature never smiled; that humor could be very dangerous if I wanted to broach serious social, political, or cultural problems in my novels. I thought it would make my stories seem superficial and give my reader the impression that they were nothing more than light entertainment. That's why I had renounced humor, probably under the influence of Sartre who was always very hostile to humor, at least in his writing. But one day, I discovered that in order to effect a certain experience of life in literature, humor could be a very precious tool. That happened with Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. From then on, I was very conscious of humor as a great treasure, a basic element of life and therefore of literature. And I don't exclude the possibility that it will play a prominent role again in my novels. As a matter of fact it has. This is also true of my plays, particularly Kathie and the Hippopotamus.

Can you tell us about your work habits? How do you work? How does a novel originate?

First of all, it's a daydream, a kind of rumination about a person, a situation, something that occurs only in the mind. Then I start to take notes, summaries of narrative sequences: somebody enters the scene here, leaves there, does this or that. When I start working on the novel itself, I draw up a general outline of the plot—which I never hold to, changing it completely as I go along, but which allows me to get started. Then I start putting it together, without the slightest preoccupation with style, writing and rewriting the same scenes, making up completely contradictory situations….

The raw material helps me, reassures me. But it's the part of writing I have the hardest time with. When I'm at that stage, I proceed very warily, always unsure of the result. The first version is written in a real state of anxiety. Then once I've finished that draft—which can sometimes take a long time: for The War of the End of the World, the first stage lasted almost two years—everything changes. I know then that the story is there, buried in what I call my "magma." It's absolute chaos but the novel is in there, lost in a mass of dead elements, superflucus scenes that will disappear or scenes that are repeated several times from different perspectives, with different characters. It's very chaotic and makes sense only to me. But the story is born under there. You have to separate it from the rest, clean it up, and that's the most pleasant part of the work. From then on I am able to work much longer hours without the anxiety and tension that accompanies the writing of that first draft. I think what I love is not the writing itself, but the rewriting, the editing, the correcting … I think it's the most creative part of writing. I never know when I'm going to finish a story. A piece I thought would only take a few months has sometimes taken me several years to finish. A novel seems finished to me when I start feeling that if I don't end it soon, it will get the better of me. When I've reached saturation, when I've had enough, when I just can't take it anymore, then the story is finished.

Do you write by hand, on the typewriter, or do you alternate?

First, I write by hand. I always work in the morning, and in the early hours of the day, I always write by hand. Those are the most creative hours. I never work more than two hours like this—my hand gets cramped. Then I start typing what I've written, making changes as I go along; this is perhaps the first stage of rewriting. But I always leave a few lines untyped so that the next day, I can start by typing the end of what I'd written the day before. Starting up the typewriter creates a certain dynamic—it's like a warm-up exercise.

Hemingway used that same technique of always leaving a sentence half-written so he could pick up the thread the next day….

Yes, he thought he should never write out all he had in mind so that he could start up more easily the next day. The hardest part, it always seems to me, is starting. In the morning, making contact again, the anxiety of it … But if you have something mechanical to do, the work has already begun. The machine starts to work. Anyway, I have a very rigorous work schedule. Every morning until two in the afternoon, I stay in my office. These hours are sacred to me. That doesn't mean I'm always writing; sometimes I'm revising or taking notes. But I remain systematically at work. There are, of course, the good days for creation and the bad ones. But I work every day because even if I don't have any new ideas, I can spend the time making corrections, revising, taking notes, et cetera…. Sometimes I decide to rewrite a finished piece, if only to change the punctuation.

Monday through Saturday, I work on the novel in progress, and I devote Sunday mornings to journalistic work—articles and essays. I try to keep this kind of work within the allotted time of Sunday so that it doesn't infringe on the creative work of the rest of the week. Sometimes I listen to classical music when I take notes, as long as there's no singing. It's something I started doing when I lived in a very noisy house. In the mornings, I work alone, nobody comes up to my office. I don't even take phone calls. If I did, my life would be a living hell. You cannot imagine how many phone calls and visitors I get. Everyone knows this house. My address unfortunately fell into the public domain.

You never let go of this spartan routine?

I can't seem to, I don't know how to work otherwise. If I started to wait for moments of inspiration, I would never finish a book. Inspiration for me comes from a regular effort. This routine allows me to work, with great exultation or without, depending on the days.

Victor Hugo, among other writers, believed in the magical force of inspiration. Gabriel García Márquez said that after years of struggling with One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novel wrote itself in his head during a trip to Acapulco in a car. You have just stated that inspiration is for you a product of discipline, but have you never known the famous "illumination?"

It's never happened to me. It's a much slower process. In the beginning there's something very nebulous, a state of alert, a wariness, a curiosity. Something I perceive in the fog and vagueness which arouses my interest, curiosity, and excitement and then translates itself into work, note cards, the summary of the plot. Then when I have the outline and start to put things in order, something very diffuse, very nebulous still persists. The "illumination" only occurs during the work. It's the hard work that, at any given time, can unleash that … heightened perception, that excitement capable of bringing about revelation, solution, and light. When I reach the heart of a story I've been working on for some time, then, yes, something does happen. The story ceases to be cold, unrelated to me. On the contrary, it becomes so alive, so important that everything I experience exists only in relation to what I'm writing. Everything I hear, see, read seems in one way or another to help my work. I become a kind of cannibal of reality. But to reach this state, I have to go through the catharsis of work. I live a kind of permanent double life. I do a thousand different things but I always have my mind on my work. Obviously, sometimes it becomes obsessive, neurotic. During those times, seeing a movie relaxes me. At the end of a day of intense work, when I find myself in a state of great inner turmoil, a movie does me a great deal of good.

Pedro Nava, the memorialist, went as far as to draw some of his characters—their face, their hair, their clothes. Do you ever do that?

No, but in certain cases, I do make up biographical sheets. It depends on the way I sense the character. Although the characters do sometimes appear to me visually, I also identify them by the way they express themselves or in relation to the facts surrounding them. But it does happen that a character is defined by physical characteristics that I have to get down on paper. But despite all the notes you can take for a novel, I think that in the end what counts is what the memory selects. What remains is the most important. That's why I have never taken a camera with me on my research expeditions.

So, for a certain time, your characters are not related to each other? Each has his or her own personal history?

In the beginning, everything is so cold, so artificial and dead! Little by little, it all begins to come alive, as each character takes on associations and relationships. That's what is wonderful and fascinating: when you begin to discover that lines of force already exist naturally in the story. But before getting to that point, it's nothing but work, work, and more work. In everyday life, there are certain people, certain events, that seem to fill a void or fulfill a need. Suddenly you become aware of exactly what you need to know for the piece you're working on. The representation is never true to the real person, it becomes altered, falsified. But that kind of encounter only occurs when the story has reached an advanced stage, when everything seems to nourish it further. Sometimes, it's a kind of recognition: "Oh, that's the face I was looking for, that intonation, that way of speaking…." On the other hand, you can lose control of your characters which happens to me constantly because mine are never born out of purely rational considerations. They're expressions of more instinctual forces at work. That's why some of them immediately take on more importance or seem to develop by themselves, as it were. Others are relegated to the background, even if they weren't meant to, to begin with. That's the most interesting part of the work, when you realize that certain characters are asking to be given more prominence, when you begin to see that the story is governed by its own laws which you cannot violate. It becomes apparent that the author cannot mold characters as he pleases, that they have a certain autonomy. It's the most exciting moment when you discover life in what you've created, a life you have to respect.

Much of your work was written outside of Peru, in what one might call a voluntary exile. You stated once that the fact Victor Hugo wrote out of his own country contributed to the greatness of a novel like Les Misérables. To find oneself far from "the vertigo of reality" is somehow an advantage for the reconstruction of that same reality. Do you find reality to be a source of vertigo?

Yes, in the sense that I've never been able to write about what's close to me. Proximity is inhibiting in the sense that it doesn't allow me to work freely. It's very important to be able to work with enough freedom to allow you to transform reality, to change people, to make them act differently, or to introduce a personal element into the narrative, some perfectly arbitrary thing. It's absolutely essential. That's what creation is. If you have the reality before you, it seems to me it becomes a constraint. I always need a certain distance, time-wise, or better still, in time and place. In that sense, exile has been very beneficial. Because of it, I discovered discipline. I discovered that writing was work, and for the most part, an obligation. Distance has also been useful because I believe in the great importance of nostalgia for the writer. Generally speaking, the absence of the subject fertilizes the memory. For example, Peru in The Green House is not just a depiction of reality, but the subject of nostalgia for a man who is deprived of it and feels a painful desire for it. At the same time, I think distance creates a useful perspective. It distills reality, that complicated thing which makes us dizzy. It's very hard to select or distinguish between what's important and what is secondary. Distance makes that distinction possible. It establishes the necessary hierarchies between the essential and the transient.

In an essay you published a few years ago, you wrote that literature is a passion, and that passion is exclusive and requires all sacrifices to be made and makes none of its own. "The primary duty is not to live but to write," which reminds me of something Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet, wrote: "To navigate is necessary, to live is unnecessary."

You could say that to write is necessary and to live is unnecessary…. I should probably tell you something about me, so that people will understand me better. Literature has been very important to me ever since I was a child. But even though I read and wrote a lot during my school years, I never imagined that I would one day devote myself exclusively to literature, because at the time it seemed too much of a luxury for a Latin American, especially a Peruvian. I pursued other things: I planned to go into law, to be a professor or a journalist, I had accepted that what was essential to me would be relegated to the background. But when I arrived in Europe with a scholarship after finishing university, I realized that if I continued to think that way, I would never become a writer, that the only way would be to decide officially that literature would be not only my main preoccupation, but my occupation. That's when I decided to devote myself entirely to literature. And since I couldn't support myself on it, I decided I would look for jobs that would leave me time to write and never become priorities. In other words, I would choose jobs in terms of my work as a writer. I think that decision marked a turning point in my life because from then on I had the power to write. There was a psychological change. That's why literature seems more like a passion to me than a profession. Obviously, it is a profession because I make my living off it. But even if I couldn't support myself on it, I would still continue to write. Literature is more than a modus vivendi. I believe the choice a writer makes to give himself entirely to his work, to put everything at the service of literature instead of subsuming it to other considerations is absolutely crucial. Some people think of it as a kind of complementary or decorative activity in a life devoted to other things or even as a way of acquiring prestige and power. In those cases, there's a block, it's literature avenging itself, not allowing you to write with any freedom, audacity, or originality. That's why I think it's so important to make an absolutely total commitment to literature. What's strange is that in my case, when I made that decision, I thought it meant I chose a hard life, because I never imagined that literature could make me enough to live on, not to mention to live well. It seems like a kind of miracle. I still can't get over it. I didn't have to deprive myself of anything essential in order to write. I remember feeling much more frustrated and unhappy with myself when I couldn't write, when I was living in Peru before I left for Europe. I married when I was very young and I had to take any job I could get. I had as many as seven at a time! It was of course practically impossible for me to write. I wrote on Sundays, on holidays, but most of my time was spent on dreary work that had nothing to do with literature and I felt terribly frustrated by it. Today, when I wake up in the morning, I'm often amazed at the thought that I can spend my life doing what gives me the greatest pleasure, and further more, live off it, and well.

Has literature made you rich?

No, I'm not a rich man. If you compare a writer's income to a company president's, or to a man who has made a name for himself in one of the professions, or in Peru, to a toreador's or a top athlete's, you'll find that literature has remained an ill-paid profession.

You once recalled that Hemingway felt empty, sad and happy at the same time after he finished a book. What do you feel in those circumstances?

Exactly the same thing. When I finish a book, I feel an emptiness, a malaise, because the novel has become a part of me. From one day to the next, I see myself deprived of it—like an alcoholic who quits drinking. It's something that isn't simply accessory; life itself is suddenly torn from me. The only cure is to throw myself immediately into some other work, which isn't hard to do since I have a thousand projects to attend to. But I always have to get back to work immediately, without the slightest transition, so that I don't allow the void to dig itself deeper between the previous book and the next one.

We've mentioned some of the writers whose work you admire. Now let's talk about your own work. You've said several times that The War of the End of the World is your best book. Do you still think that?

It's the novel I put the most work into, the one I gave the most of myself for. It took me four years to write it. I had to do enormous research for it, read enormous amounts, and overcome great difficulties because it was the first time I was writing about a different country from my own, in an era that wasn't mine, and working with characters who spoke in a language which wasn't the book's. But never has a story excited me as much as that one did. Everything about the work fascinated me, from the things I read to my trip across the Northeast. That's why I feel a singular tenderness for that book. The subject also allowed me to write the kind of novel I've always wanted to write, an adventure novel, where the adventure is essential—not a purely imaginary adventure but one profoundly linked to historical and social problematics. That's probably why I consider The War of the End of the World my most important book. Of course, these kinds of judgments are always so subjective. An author isn't capable of seeing his work objectively enough to establish these kinds of hierarchies. The novel became a terrifying challenge that I wanted to overcome. In the beginning, I was very apprehensive. The colossal amount of research material made me feel dizzy. My first draft was enormous, certainly twice the size of the novel. I asked myself how I was going to coordinate the whole mass of scenes, the thousands of little stories. For two years, I was filled with anxiety. But then, I made the trip through the Northeast, throughout the Sertao, and that was the turning point. I had already done an outline. I had wanted to imagine the story first, on the basis of the research material, and then do the trip. The trip confirmed a number of things and offered new insights on others. A lot of people also helped me. Originally, the subject was not meant for a book but for a film directed by Ruy Guerra. At the time, Paramount in Paris was run by someone I knew who called me one day and asked me if I wanted to write the screenplay for a movie they were producing for Guerra. I had seen one of his movies, Tender Warriors, that I had liked very much; so I went to Paris and met him. He explained to me what he wanted to do. He told me what he had in mind was a story having to do in one way or another with the war at Canudos. We couldn't make a movie about Canudos, the subject was too broad, but about something that was in some way related to it. I didn't know anything about the war at Canudos, I'd never even heard of it. I started to research it, to read about it, and one of the first things I read in Portuguese was Os Sertões by Euclides da Cunha. It was one of the great revelations in my life as a reader, similar to reading The Three Musketeers as a child, or War and Peace, Madame Bovary, and Moby Dick as an adult. Truly a great book, a fundamental experience. I was absolutely stunned by it; it is one of the greatest works Latin America has produced. It's a great book for many reasons but most of all because it's a manual for "Latin Americanism"—you discover for the first time what Latin America isn't. It isn't the sum of its imports. It's not Europe, Africa, pre-Hispanic America, or indigenous societies—but at the same time, it's a mixture of all these elements which coexist in a harsh and sometimes violent way. All this has produced a world that few works have captured with as much intelligence and literary marvel as Os Sertões. In other words, the man I truly owe for the existence of The War of the End of the World is Euclides da Cunha.

I think I read practically everything ever published about the war at Canudos up until that time. First, I wrote a screenplay for the movie which was never produced because of various problems it ran into, inherent to the film industry. The project reached a very advanced stage, production had already started, but one day Paramount decided the movie wouldn't be made and it wasn't. It was a disappointment for Ruy Guerra, but I was able to continue working on a subject that had kept me fascinated for so long for a measly result—a screenplay isn't much after all. So I started to read again, to do research, and I reached a peak of enthusiasm that few books have inspired in me. I used to work ten to twelve hours a day on it. Still, I was afraid of Brazil's response to it. I worried it would be considered meddling in a private affair … especially since a classic Brazilian writer had already covered the subject. There were some unfavourable reviews of the book, but on the whole, it was received with a generosity and an enthusiasm—by the public as well—that touched me. I felt rewarded for my efforts.

What do you think of the succession of misunderstandings that characterize Canudos: the republican partisans seeing in the rebels the upheaval of the monarchy and British imperialism, while the rebels themselves believed they were fighting the devil. Could one call this a metaphor of sorts for ideology?

Perhaps that's where the value of Canudos lies for a Latin American because the reciprocal blindness produced by a fanatical vision of reality is also the one that prevents us from seeing the contradictions between reality and theoretical visions. The tragedy of Latin America is that, at various points in history, our countries have found themselves divided and in the midst of civil wars, massive repressions, massacres like the one at Canudos because of that same reciprocal blindness. Perhaps one of the reasons I was fascinated by Canudos is that the phenomenon could be observed in miniature, in the laboratory, as it were. But obviously, it's a general phenomenon: fanaticism and intolerance weigh heavily on our history. Whether it's messianic rebellions, socialist or utopian rebellions, or struggles between the conservatives and the liberals. And if it isn't the English at work, it's the Yankee imperialists, or the Freemasons, or the devil. Our history has been marked by our inability to accept differences of opinion.

You wrote once that none of your other works had lent themselves as well to the chimeric ideal of the novel as this book. What did you mean by that?

I think the novel as a genre tends toward excess. It tends towards proliferation, the plot develops like a cancer. If the writer follows a novel's every lead, it becomes a jungle. The ambition to tell the whole story is inherent in the genre. Although I've always felt there comes a moment when you have to kill the story so it won't go on indefinitely, I also believe that storytelling is an attempt to reach that ideal of the "total" novel. The novel I went the farthest with in that respect is The War of the End of the World, without a doubt.

In Mayta and The War of the End of the World, you said you wanted to lie in full knowledge of the truth. Can you explain?

In order to fabricate, I always have to start from a concrete reality. I don't know whether that's true for all novelists, but I always need the trampoline of reality. That's why I do research and visit the places where the action takes place; not that I aim simply to reproduce reality. I know that's impossible. Even if I wanted to, the result wouldn't be any good, it would be something entirely different.

At the end of Mayta, the narrator tells us that the main character, now owner of a bar, has trouble remembering the events that are so important to the narrator. Did that really happen? Did the man really exist?

Yes, he exists, though he isn't exactly what the book made of him. I changed and added a lot. But for the most part, the character corresponds to someone who was once a militant Trotskyite and was imprisoned several times. I got the idea for the last chapter when I spoke to him and was surprised to find that what I considered a crucial time in his life had become secondary to him—an adventure among others in a checkered life. It really struck me when I realized during our conversation that I knew more about the affair than he did. He had already forgotten certain facts and there were things he never even knew about. I think the last chapter is crucial because it changes the whole sense of the book.

Tell us about Pedro Camacho in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter who writes serials for the radio and starts mixing up his own plots.

Pedro Camacho never existed. When I started to work for the radio in the early fifties, I knew a man who wrote radio serials for Radio Central in Lima. He was a real character who functioned as a kind of script machine: He wrote countless episodes with incredible ease, hardly taking the time to reread what he'd written. I was absolutely fascinated by him, maybe because he was the first professional writer I'd ever known. But what really amazed me was the vast world that seemed to escape from him like an exhalation; and I became absolutely captivated by him when he began to do what Pedro Camacho does in the book. One day, the stories he wrote started overlapping and getting mixed up and the radio station received letters from the audience alerting them to certain irregularities like characters traveling from one story to the next. That's what gave me the idea for Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. But obviously, the character in the novel goes through many transformations, he has little to do with his model, who never went crazy. I think he left the station, took a vacation…. The ending was much less dramatic than the novel's.

Isn't there also a kind of meta-language in the novel in the sense that Varguitas, who is modeled after you, lives a life as farcical as the lives of Camacho's serial characters?

That's about right. When I wrote Aunt Julia, I thought I was only going to tell Pedro Camacho's story. I was already well into the novel when I realized it was turning into a kind of mind game and wouldn't be very believable. And, as I've said before, I have a kind of realism mania. So, as a counterpoint to the absurdity of the Pedro Camacho story, I decided to create another more realistic plot that would anchor the novel in reality. And since I was living a kind of soap opera myself at the time—my first marriage—I included that more personal story and combined it with the other, hoping to establish an opposition between a world of fantasy and one that is almost documentary. In the process of trying to achieve this, I realized that it was impossible to do when you write a piece of fiction, a hint of unreality always seeps into it, against the author's will. The personal story became as delirious as the other. Language itself is capable of transforming reality. So Varguitas's story has autobiographical elements in it that were profoundly altered, as it were, by contagion.

In several articles from recent years, you have made certain assertions that seem very pessimistic. In 1982, for example, you wrote: "Literature is more important than politics. Writers should become involved in politics only in the sense of opposing its dangerous schemes and putting them in their place." Isn't that a pessimistic vision of what politics can do to bring about progress?

No. I meant that literature has more to do with what is lasting than politics do, that a writer cannot put literature and politics on an equal footing without failing as a writer and perhaps also as a politician. We must remember that political action is rather ephemeral whereas literature is in for the duration. You don't write a book for the present day; in order for a work to exert influence over the future, time must play its role, which is never or rarely the case for political actions. However, even as I say this, I never stop passing judgments on the political climate or implicating myself by what I write and what I do. I believe that a writer cannot avoid political involvement, especially in countries like mine where the problems are difficult and the economic and social situation often has dramatic aspects. It's very important that writers act in one way or another, by offering criticism, ideas, by using their imagination in order to contribute to the solution of the problems. I think it's crucial that writers show—because like all artists, they sense this more strongly than anyone—the importance of freedom for the society as well as for the individual. Justice, which we all wish to rule, should never become disassociated from freedom; and we must never accept the notion that freedom should at certain times be sacrificed in the name of social justice or national security, as totalitarians from the extreme left and reactionaries from the extreme right would have us do. Writers know this because every day they sense the degree to which freedom is necessary for creation, for life itself. Writers should defend their freedom as a necessity like a fair salary or the right to work.

But I was quoting your statement for its pessimistic view of what politics can do. Should or can writers limit themselves to voicing their opposition?

I think it's important that writers participate, make judgments and intervene, but also that they not let politics invade and destroy the literary sphere, the writer's creative domain. When that happens, it kills the writer, making him nothing more than a propagandist. It is therefore crucial that he put limits on his political activities without renouncing or stripping himself of his duty to voice his opinion.

How is it that a writer who has always shown a great distrust of politics became a candidate for the presidency of Peru in the 1990 elections?

A country can sometimes find itself in a state of emergency, in a war for example, in which case there is no alternative. The situation in Peru today is catastrophic. The economy is foundering. Inflation has reached record highs. Over the first ten months of 1989, the population lost half its buying power. Political violence has become extreme. Paradoxically, in the midst of this enormous crisis, there appears to be the possibility of making great changes toward democracy and economic freedom. We can rethink the collectivist, socialist model for the state which has been used in Peru since 1968. We shouldn't miss this chance to restore what we've been fighting for these last years: liberal reform and the creation of a real market economy. Not to mention the renewal of the political culture in Peru responsible for the crisis that is sweeping the country. All these reasons made me overcome any reservations I had and lead to my involvement in the political struggle—a very naive illusion, after all.

As a writer, what do you think is your greatest quality and your biggest fault?

I think my greatest quality is my perseverance: I'm capable of working extremely hard and getting more out of myself than I thought was possible. My greatest fault, I think, is my lack of confidence, which torments me enormously. It takes me three or four years to write a novel—and I spend a good part of that time doubting myself. It doesn't get any better with time, on the contrary, I think I'm getting more self-critical and less confident. Maybe that's why I'm not vain: my conscience is too strong. But I know that I'll write until the day I die. Writing is in my nature. I live my life according to my work. If I didn't write, I would blow my brains out, without a shadow of a doubt. I want to write many more books and better ones. I want to have more interesting and wonderful adventures than I've already had. I refuse to admit the possibility that my best years are behind me, and would not admit it even if faced with the evidence.

Why do you write?

I write because I'm unhappy. I write because it's a way of fighting unhappiness.

John Updike (review date 1 October 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2273

SOURCE: "A Materialist Look at Eros," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVI, No. 33, October 1, 1990, pp. 107-10.

[Below, Updike describes Vargas Llosa's erotic novel, In Praise of the Stepmother, as a work that vividly and seriously treats the subject of sex and sensuality.]

Literature owes a debt to the Peruvian electorate, for recently declining to elect Mario Vargas Llosa to the thankless position of being their President. So elegant, pessimistic, and Europeanized a literary performer's candidacy for this high office, amid the perils of terrorism and the sludge of daily speechifying, seems, at our distance, even more mysterious than Norman Mailer's campaign for the New York mayoralty or Gore Vidal's gracious offer, some years ago, to serve as a senator from California. Novelists presumably understand the workings of the world, and perhaps would govern no worse than lawyers, movie stars, or retired oilmen, but why anyone with an opportunity to create imperishable texts would want to exhaust his body and fry his brain in the daily sizzle of power brokerage lies quite beyond my own imagining. At any rate, the good people of Peru, with the masses' customarily sound instinct, turned from the novelist, once the odds-on favorite, to a Japanese-Peruvian agronomical engineer, thereby releasing Vargas Llosa to the contemplative solitude and part-time irresponsibility necessary for artistic creation. He has been prolific, producing plays and criticism as well as novels. While he was hiking the mountainous campaign trail, a naughty butterfly of a book by him was flitting from couch to couch in the lamplit dens of Spanish-language readers. Now this book, billed on the jacket as "a classic of eroticism," has been published in English, as In Praise of the Stepmother. It is, in our erotically retrenched nation, a startling document: not only would an American Presidential candidate not have written it but the National Endowment for the Arts wouldn't have given it a grant.

The stepmother is named Doña Lucrecia, and she lives in Lima and has just turned forty. Four months before her birthday, she married a widower, Don Rigoberto—a step taken with some trepidation, since "her first marriage had been a disaster and the divorce a nightmarish torment at the hands of money-grubbing shysters." Don Rigoberto is the prosperous general manager of an insurance company, collects erotic art, and has one son, Alfonso, by his previous marriage. The ages of the two males are never given, but Rigoberto seems at least fifty, or a lusty fifty-five, and his son, insistently described as a "little boy," ten or so. Perhaps eleven or twelve, considering the feats he comes to perform—but there is an artistic fudging here, tiptoeing as the writer is on the edge of the repulsively perverse. A comely black maid, Justiniana, rounds out the household, and devotees of erotica will perceive that this cast of characters allows for enough combinations to be satisfactory. Vargas Llosa, whose male-dominated fiction rarely possesses the heavy aura of sensual saturation present in Gabriel García Márquez or Saul Bellow, has announced, in interviews, a liking for frank eroticism in fiction. In his superb homage to Madame Bovary and Flaubert, The Perpetual Orgy—an extended critical work that also serves Vargas Llosa as a self-description—he states, "If I am left to choose between unrealities, the one closer to the concrete has my preference over the one that is abstract: I prefer pornography, for example, to science fiction, and sentimental stories to horror tales." One of the traits he loves in Emma Bovary and in her novel is concreteness, an unashamed materialism, "something that she and I share intimately: our incurable materialism, our greater predilection for the pleasures of the body than for those of the soul, our respect for the senses and instinct, our preference for this earthly life over any other." He goes on:

The ambitions that lead Emma to sin and death are precisely those that Western religion and morality have most savagely combated throughout history. Emma wants sexual pleasure, she is not resigned to repressing this profound sensual need that Charles is unable to satisfy because he doesn't even know that it exists; she wants to surround her life with pleasing and superfluous things, elegance, refinement, to give concrete form by way of objects to that appetite for beauty that her imagination, her sensibility, and her reading have aroused in her.

One wonders whether Flaubert would have ascribed to his heroine quite such nobility of rebellion; but the passion of his acolyte rings out with clarion effect, calling us all to realism, atheism, sensuality, and consumerism. Later in The Perpetual Orgy, however, Emma's confusion of love and expenditure, which brings her down, is described in phrases that, though still enthusiastic, suggest a process gone awry:

When Emma is in love, she needs to surround herself with beautiful objects, to embellish the physical world, to create a setting for herself as lavish as her sentiments. She is a woman whose enjoyment is not complete unless it takes on material form: she projects her body's pleasure into things, and things in their turn augment and prolong her body's pleasure.

The reification of passion begins to feel like a mistake; so, too, In Praise of the Stepmother, exploring its sexual theme to rigorous, materialist extremes, brings the reader up against the possible limits of his or her own commitment to sensuality.

Don Rigoberto, in his systematic religion of bodily love, flirts with grotesquerie. He has large ears, and his weekly cycle of ritual ablutions includes, on Wednesdays, laboriously cleansing them of wax and stray hairs. Then he utilizes these perfected organs as instruments of bliss:

"Let me hear your breasts," he would murmur, and amorously plugging his wife's nipples, first one and then the other, into the hypersensitive cavern of his two ears—which they fit into as snugly as a foot into a moccasin—he would listen to them with his eyes closed, reverent and ecstatic, his mind worshipfully concentrated as at the Elevation of the Host, till he heard ascending to the earthy roughness of each button, from subterranean carnal depths, certain stifled cadences, the heavy breathing, perhaps, of her pores opening, the boiling, perhaps, of her excited blood.

Anticipating further adventures in aural sex, he imagines his ears "avidly flattened against her soft stomach" and "could already hear the lively burbling of that flatus, the joyous cracking of a fart, the gargle and yawn of her vagina, or the languid stretching of her serpentine intestine." He anticipates, even, his marble tomb being engraved with the epitaph "Here lies Don Rigoberto, who contrived to love the epigastrium of his spouse as much as her vulva or her tongue." Behind this Rabelaisian comedy of organs a serious question is raised: What is love if it stops short at the beloved's digestive tract? Don Rigoberto's methodical and fanatical achievement is "to fall in love with the whole and with each one of the parts of his wife, to love, separately and together, all the components of that cellular universe." It is an achievement at which most mortals consciously or unconsciously balk, yet one that a thoroughly giddy passion, in its fever of cherishing, seems to command. Vargas Llosa's materialism defies us to set bounds to love's rampage of possession, of sensory consumption. Ideal love is an omnivorous monster.

The chapters of narrative development in In Praise of the Stepmother alternate with chapters of pictorial meditation, each incorporating a rather dinky color reproduction of a painting. The author is fond of such layered fictions, which alternate a detached narrative voice with slices of another substance—radio soap operas (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), the hero's consciousness (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta), Amazonian-Indian recitations (The Storyteller). The added liveliness and the doubled perspective are obtained at the price of author-consciousness, a stilting awareness of deliberate experimentation. Here, the tale itself being fanciful and parodic, the art essays almost seamlessly blend into the gauze of quaint artifice. The chapters on paintings of nudes by Jordaens, Boucher, and Titian seem rather arch and mannered, but the one on a reddish abstraction by Fernando de Szyszlo becomes a real poem on sexual merging, and the one on a bizarre head by Francis Bacon reawakens the central theme of erotic monstrosity. Bacon's expressionistically distorted head becomes a full-bodied freak, with stumps instead of arms and legs, a slit of an ear, a hideous mouth, an eye next to his mouth. Yet his sex organ is intact, and he does not lack for lovers: "Women even come to love me, in fact, and youngsters become addicted to my ugliness. In the depths of her soul, Beauty was always fascinated by the Beast." He gives his lovers "advanced instruction in the fine art of combining desire and the horrible so as to give pleasure"; they learn "that everything is and can be erogenous and that, associated with love, the basest organic functions, including those of the lower abdomen, become spiritualized and ennobled." The category of the spirit is a surprising one, especially on the same page as the breezy sentence "It is possible that God exists, but at this point in history, with everything that has happened to us, does it matter?" It matters in that dualism continues to give sex its spice, its sense of movement from one realm to another: sex is, our lovable monster tells us, a "descent into filth," whereby we recognize ourselves.

No two erotic works are quite alike; each author comes to reveal, in the repetition that soon sets in, his or her fetishes and hot spots. Vargas Llosa, through his psychosexual anatomy of the stepmother, brings forth the idea that voyeurism is exciting not only to the seer but to the seen. Knowing that her enraptured young stepson and admirer is viewing her from the bathroom skylight, Doña Lucrecia determinedly displays herself and assumes poses of "indecent abandon," as "a subtle way of punishing the precocious libertine crouched in the darkness up above, with images of an intimacy that would shatter, once and for all, that innocence that served him as an excuse for his boldness." Afterward, in bed, she experiences "hot flashes that, from time to time, electrified her nipples," and dreams a painterly dream of Titian's Diana and her attendant, named Justiniana, making love in the forest while a little goatherd, called Foncín, watches. His silent witness is stimulating: "As I descend through the tunnel of sensation and quiver in delicious little spasms, I divine the presence of Foncín…. His innocent little body, glistening with sweat as he watches me and takes his pleasure by watching me, contributes a note of tenderness that subtly shades and sweetens mine." The notion that being watched is aphrodisiac implies that sexuality has a social dimension. Though closeted, we make love in a crowd—of predecessors, of simultaneous entanglements, of romantic images the culture has provided, of personified superegos. A lot of sex is "showing" others, and not just those who are present. Without a surrounding society to defy, adulterous passion often wilts, and a daring elopement sinks into the ranch-house funk of socially approved marriage. Sixties-style sexuality, with its hot tubs and bustling crash pads, was on to something; promiscuity, at least until it turns into a quasi-religious, obligatory form of exercise, suits our interior multiplicity. Our anfractuous psyches generate complex structures of gratification. Doña Lucrecia, having committed adultery, feels certain that the new involvement, "however obscure and complicated, however difficult to explain, enriched her marital relation, taking it by surprise and thus giving it a fresh start." She has attained, in a happy word choice, "sovereignty":

One morning, on opening her eyes, the phrase "I have won sovereignty" came to her. She felt fortunate and emancipated, but could not have said what it was that she had been freed from.

Of course, like Emma Bovary, she is punished for her overreaching, and so is her unsuspecting husband; our erotic fabulist is a realistic novelist as well, and he does not exclude, as does the true pornographer, the tragic dimension. Yet we feel that Doña Lucrecia, by succumbing to the perverse and the dangerous, is more human than her husband, with his ridiculous, fussy, bowel-loving personal "utopia" of the body. She sins her way to sovereignty; he merely topples from paradise.

In Praise of the Stepmother is, like the author's other books, somewhat nasty. And its dramatization of corrupting innocence is not quite convincing—wicked little Alfonsito doesn't have the undeniable, quirky, heartbreaking sociological reality of Lolita. Vargas Llosa's moral—emphasized by an epigraph, from César Moro's "Amour à Mort"—seems to be that innocence and beauty have something sinister about them. To become human, we must make the descent into filth, into time. God Himself, Christianity claims, descended into Mary's womb. The last painting the author weaves into his text is Fra Angelico's Annunciation; he imagines the young Mary, confronted with a shimmering youth of an angel, asking herself, "Why did he call me queen? Why did I discover a gleam of tears in his eyes when he prophesied that I would suffer?" Love is a labyrinth we must enter even knowing that it holds the Minotaur of destruction. We leave much behind: "altruistic sentiments, metaphysics and history, neutral reasoning, good intentions and charitable deeds, solidarity with the species, civic idealism, sympathy toward one's fellow." It was a rare candidate for President who could put civic idealism in its place, and could hearken so attentively, in this impish and delicate yet fiercely serious work, to the dark complexity of sex, the epigastrium of love.

Mario Vargas Llosa (essay date 15 October 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2370

SOURCE: "Transforming a Lie into Truth: A Metaphor of the Novelist's Task," in National Review, New York, Vol. XLII, October 15, 1990, pp. 68-70.

[In the following essay, which is adapted from his A Writer's Reality, Vargas Llosa explains that he intended The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta to expose the role of fictions in life.]

I am aware that a writer does not have the last word about what he has written; that in many cases a critic or reader can have a better understanding of the writer's work. This was the case with my novel The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. My goals were not what readers imagined, although I'm not saying the readers were wrong. In fact, it may be that my planning and conscious work were less important than the intervention of my unconscious.

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta has been read mostly as a political book, and in many cases has been considered an essay about violence and revolution in Latin America—a political statement disguised in novel form, the essence of which is the description of an objective historical reality. That was not my intention. I was, of course, using political ideology and historical facts as raw materials, but my goal was literary, not political. In my opinion, a novel should create an illusion of reality—whatever that may be—and is not a genre suited to political statements.

As is the case with all my books, Mayta began with a personal experience, not an experience I lived myself, but something I nonetheless knew well. During the late Fifties and early Sixties, I was politically committed to extreme leftist causes and ideals. Like many Latin Americans, my enthusiasm for the triumph of the Cuban revolution was very strong. Although I had broken with the Communist Party after just one year, I remained interested in Marxism, despite some disagreements about aesthetics, literature, and art. Until Fidel Castro entered Havana, most Latin intellectuals thought of revolution as a remote, romantic, even academic idea. Che Guevara's conclusion that the objective conditions for a revolution could be created by revolutionaries themselves changed the attitudes of the extreme Left—me included. Nonetheless, I was amazed when I read in Le Monde (I was living in France at the time) that a group of Peruvians had actually attempted to start a revolution in the central Andes. They had taken control of a small city for a few hours, and then escaped into the mountains, where they were hunted down; some were killed, and others arrested.

Until I read this report, I had never really believed that in Peru—my own country, which I thought I knew so well—such events would one day happen. I was impressed, and I kept the details in my memory. Gradually they became a matter for literary speculation, around which my imagination, my fantasy, started to work.

Sometime later, just by chance, I met a man in France who told me the details of the aborted revolution. It was something quite crazy. The revolutionaries consisted of only two adults and some high-school students; a handful of people—maybe ten or 15, I don't remember exactly; there were not twenty of them. It was difficult to imagine how this group could have imagined their insurrection would begin a process that would eventually seize control of the country.

One of the adult leaders was a 23-year-old lieutenant of the Guardia Republicana; the other, a man in his early forties named Mayta, was the only one with a background of political militancy. First he had been in the Soviet faction of the Peruvian Communist Party; then he became a Maoist. When the Maoists expelled him, he became a Trotskyist, and was a militant in a Trotskyist cadre when he met the young lieutenant, who, to Mayta's amazement, started to talk about the possibilities of a revolution in Peru. The lieutenant was a spontaneous revolutionary—with no ideological education—and the older Trotskyist was impressed by his militancy, especially so because at that time the association of a military officer with Marxism was as unthinkable as a priest's sympathy for such doctrines. Things have changed considerably since then.

It was decided in this Trotskyist group that Alejandro Mayta should try to indoctrinate the young lieutenant. In fact, it was the younger man who convinced Mayta that revolution was actually possible; that Peru was a fertile land for an upheaval. He explained that the town where he was based could easily be captured by a group of revolutionaries. They could get weapons from the city guard there, and establish a revolutionary focal point in the mountains, just as the Cubans had.

Mayta was convinced, and together the two men planned the revolution. At first many others agreed to participate, but when the deadline came most had become skeptical and had withdrawn. The only ones left were the two men and some students, whose role, according to the original plan, was supposed to have been marginal.

These were the facts behind the story that I read about in the French newspaper. I knew I wanted to write a political novel of adventure; to tell the story of a handful of people crazy enough—or generous enough or idealistic enough—to start a revolution.

I never start writing immediately after I have an idea. My usual pace is to think about it for months—even years—and to enrich the original concept. Then one day I start making notes and putting anecdotes into place. In this case, the original plan for the novel changed with my own political evolution. Throughout the Sixties, my enthusiasm for revolution slowly diminished, which is to say, I abandoned the belief that only violence could break the status quo and precipitate economic and social reform in Peru. I had seen what Cuba had become, and had seen the reality in other socialist countries.

Then in the early Seventies another idea, probably more important than the original novel of political adventure, took over. Fiction itself as a theme became very important to me: fiction as something larger than literature; fiction as something more important in life than literature or art. I discovered that in fact fiction is indispensable for mankind—even for people without an interest in literature, who never read books at all. Everyone needs to incorporate some fictitious life into real life; some kind of lie that by some mechanism or another is transformed into truth. In many cases literature accomplishes this task. We read novels, and are enriched by the lies they give us. But there are other ways in which it is not so clear that we are incorporating fiction into experience. In some cases religion does it—not just for individuals but for whole societies.

As I became involved in political debates in Latin America, I became even more aware of this human need for fictitious experience, especially as my own vision of social problems changed, as I grew more and more critical of the strategies and ideas of the extreme Left. Being so involved in polemics, I thought about this subject a great deal, and one day I reached a conclusion: ideology was fulfilling this need for lies throughout Latin America. Ideology was the way many people incorporated fiction into their lives, just as some did so with novels or religion. Intellectuals especially were using ideology to identify the laws of history, society, and political evolution, and were, in fact, adding to reality a purely imaginary world.

How strange that this fiction was a major cause of violence and brutality in Latin America; that these sometimes elaborate and complex ideological constructions, which criticized existing society in terms of another ideal society to be reached through revolution, were, in fact, the mechanism that was destroying our societies, and creating major obstacles to real progress against the very problems that gave rise to the ideologies in the first place—social injustice, economic inequality, disharmony among different cultures. How interesting that fiction can be both beneficial and damaging. In one way, the civilization's great literary achievements have enriched mankind psychologically and ethically, and have encouraged progress in many ways. But at the same time fiction has been a major instrument of suffering, because it is behind all the dogmatic doctrines that have justified repression, censorship, massacres, and genocide.

Why not, therefore, write a novel about the two faces of fiction, obverse and reverse? When I decided to do so, Mayta and his handful of revolutionaries came immediately to mind. It was, in fact, ideal raw material for the invention of a novel that would develop this night-and-day story of fiction.

I had, of course, some information about what had happened, but I began to do additional research—not in order to be totally faithful to what had occurred, to be exact or objective, but, as the narrator of Mayta's story says, "Para mentir con conocimiento de causa." I don't like the translation of this phrase into English as it appears in the novel. What it really means is that one distorts knowing one is distorting. The novelist's responsibility is not to exactness but to persuasiveness; and to persuade, in most cases, is to lie.

I did a great deal of research. I read everything that had been written, in newspapers and magazines, and interviewed some of the participants. By now, these events had taken place 25 years before, and yet I found that many people were reluctant to say exactly what they knew. It was very interesting to discover how people used memory to justify both past and present—who they had been, and what they had become. Some were obviously lying to change the past, and I was able to test in a practical way how fiction was operating, because their fictions were so visible. For a writer, unlike an anthropologist or historian, lies are as important as truth, are equally useful. In this, the novelist is superior to the scholar.

My idea was to have the novel flow on two levels. First there was the story of the narrator, someone who would have my name (but only in order to misguide the reader), collecting material to write a novel about Mayta. This would be the so-called fake objective level. Then there would be an imaginary level, in which the reader would follow the process of building a fiction. The reader would see this writer using what he knows in objective reality as material out of which his fantasy and imagination construct a fiction, something that is not a reflection, not a totally separate reality (because this new reality always uses objective facts), but something that little by little becomes very different, essentially so, from those objective sources. So the whole novel would be a continuous confrontation between these two dimensions, warring in the mind of the protagonist, who is the writer. The narrator, who when I began writing was supposed to be invisible, became, more in an unconscious than in a deliberate way, at least as important as Mayta, because it is he who manipulates what happens, so that in the end what is important is not what actually happened but the way in which reality—the characters and events—are manipulated by him.

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is a novel about two kinds of fiction, ideological fiction and literary fiction. Ideological fiction is what Mayta and his comrades live. Mayta is an ideologue, a man totally convinced that reality can be captured by the mechanisms of reason, as defined by Marx and enriched and improved upon by Lenin and Trotsky. Revolutionary doctrine provides all the instruments necessary to understand exactly what society is, what forces are involved in history, and how, knowing this, a revolutionary can act to produce qualitative changes in reality. In the novel, the reader can perceive that this ideology is, in fact, a fiction—constantly rejected and falsified by objective reality—and how, in spite of it, Mayta possesses a mechanism that acts immediately whenever the falsification of reality becomes obvious, and finds a theoretical justification to move forward in yet another illusory way. And the reader perceives how all this leads Mayta and his followers into something that produces exactly the opposite of the intended consequence.

The literary fiction, however, does not have these catastrophic results. In fact, it has positive consequences, because in a world going to pieces, practically disappearing in an orgy of violence, the writer finds a reason to resist, to live. When one witness asks how he can stupidly write a novel at a time when the country is vanishing, when there is civil war and terrorism, and people are dying of hunger, the narrator replies: "No, it's not stupid. At least to write a novel is something that can create a way in which I can defend myself against all this catastrophe that surrounds me." Fantasy and imagination provide psychological means to survive despite the fact that objectively there is no longer any hope.

Through the destinies of characters in a novel or short story, I can make evident something I believe: fiction is negative, has negative results for society and history when it is not perceived to be fiction but is disguised as objective knowledge, as an objective description of reality; and, on the contrary, fiction is positive and useful to society and history—and the individual—when it is perceived as such; when, reading a novel, one relishes the experience of an illusion. I want a novel to make evident this paradox: when fiction is understood to be an illusion it becomes an objective reality. When thus understood and incorporated into our real experiences, fiction gives us a better understanding of ourselves and society.

This was what I wanted to write about, and what I thought I had written when I finished the novel. But the reviews, essays, and even oral commentaries about the book have not brought out any of this. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, as I wrote above, has been taken as a novel against revolution, as an indictment of Marxism in Latin America. I do not know. Again, the writer does not have the last word.

Sara Castro-Klarén (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: "Cinematography and The War of the End of the World," in Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, 247 p.

[Castro-Klarén is a Peruvian-born educator specializing in Latin American literature. In the following excerpt, she studies the plot of The War of the End of the World, comparing Vargas Llosa's narrative to Euclides da Cunha's Os sertões (1903), on which it is based.]

In many of the interviews given by Mario Vargas Llosa since the publication of his first novel, The Time of the Hero, he has freely spoken of himself as a dedicated and voracious movie fan and of the influence that cinema has had on his narrative strategies. [In "The Green House: Formal Experimentation and Marginal Territories" in my Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa, Luis A. Diez and I have] endeavored to show how many of Vargas Llosa's narrative innovations are closely linked to the speed and montage of cinematographic narrative. His interest in the melodramatic side of Mexican blockbuster movies has also been documented in the truculent and even grotesque configuration of the characters and stories of Captain Pantoja and the Special Service and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

In 1973 the Brazilian movie director Rui Guerra was planning to make a film based on the classical Brazilian essay Os Sertões (1903 [Rebellion in the Backlands, 1944]), by Euclides da Cunha. Rui Guerra asked Mario Vargas Llosa to read the voluminous historical essay on the civil war that plagued northeastern Brazil during the last decade of the nineteenth century and to write a script for a screen version. So, as he had previously done in preparation for writing and creating jungle scenarios for The Green House, Vargas Llosa traveled to the backlands of northeastern Brazil. He read widely about its history, its flora and fauna. In the backlands of Bahia he met the local folk, spoke at length with those who still remembered something about the days of the war, the legends surrounding the Conselheiro, and the fabulous bandits of the sertão. The purpose of this trip was to nourish and set the parameters of the imaginary world that would emerge in his movie script.

Just as in the earlier case of the jungle setting for The Green House, Vargas Llosa must have found out that there was already a vigorous literary tradition about the backlands of Bahia, Ceará, and the other states comprising the Brazilian northeast. Da Cunha's master narrative is perhaps only the most brilliant and best known of a large number of travelogues, novels, essays, and crónicas of the sertão. In spite of Rui Guerra's interest in making the movie and Vargas Llosa's willingness to engage in necessary documentary preparation to write the script, the project failed. The movie was not made….

A few years after Vargas Llosa's first visit to the backlands of the Brazilian northeast, the Peruvian novelist went back to Brazil for further documentation on Euclides da Cunha's work and the rebellion in Canudos. This time he seems to have read the diary that Euclides da Cunha wrote during the months when he, as a correspondent for a major Brazilian newspaper, reported on the war. Vargas Llosa also read newspapers of the period. All of this was in preparation for the writing of his novel on the Conselheiro's messianic movement, La guerra del fin del mundo. The novel was awarded the first annual Ritz Paris Hemingway Prize in 1985.

This huge novel depicts the chilling and fabulous adventures of a large number of characters caught in the deep social upheaval that took place in the backlands of Bahia shortly after Brazil became an independent republic. Without the anticipation of anyone involved in this dispute among the conservative peasant-lumpen masses, Bahia's regional urban political forces, and Rio de Janeiro's weak central government, the conflict quickly evolved into a civil war of apocalyptic contours. The scenes in which the protracted armed struggle for the defense of Canudos is depicted appear taken right out of Hollywood's biblical and Western sagas or pirate movies. Bodies in repose, in agony, and in swift, maddening motion constitute the mainstay of this novel. The opening of the camera lens is almost always wide and in close-up to better capture the body's movement, its extraordinary gymnastic ability, the contortions of a face in pain, the silent gesturing of men and women in the midst of battle. Point of view on the canvas is almost always internal, as if the narrator, like God, managed to be intimately present in all the thousands of locales and scenes where the simultaneous actions take place. For example, the long-awaited first assault of the Brazilian army upon the lumpen assembled in Canudos is depicted from within the midst of the square of the town under siege:

Upon returning, Maria Quadrado managed to get close to João Grande, and when she was about to tell him that the Leon de Natuba was missing, the first cannon blast was heard. The multitude stopped and listened. Many, confused, explored the sky. But another cannon blast thundered, and they saw one of the hovels by the cemetery explode in splinters and red-hot coals…. João Abade gave orders to put out the candles and wick lamps in Canudos. Soon the city became a dark pit.

The story of the war is narrated in a relentless sequence of scenes of violence and dazzling action interrupted only by moments of sheer physical exhaustion. After the battle there is always a moment of rest. The combatants spared from death or mutilation look after the sick, the dying, and the starving, only to start fighting again when they least expect it, for this is a guerrilla war waged principally by the element of surprise. Sometimes the fighters themselves seem surprised by their own determination to risk it all in a moment of despair. Each combatant becomes a veritable war machine interested only in his enemy's annihilation. Death, one's own final physical end, appears meaningless in contrast with the idea of killing the other. In a masterful scene in which one man's physical and mental courage is rendered, we see encapsulated the sanguinary and apocalyptic nature of the "final solution" that razes Canudos to the ground:

He looks, and sees horsemen with lances. Two hundred, many more. They have crossed the Vassa Barris, half a kilometer to his right. They are forming up in platoons so as to attack the lower flank under the bugle's frenetic sound…. In a second, he sees what's going to happen. The lancers … will reach Belo Monte in a few minutes. Once they discover the opening, the soldiers will follow. Neither Pedrão, nor João Grande, nor Pajeú has had time to fall back to the city to reinforce the jagunços hidden behind the roofs and towers of churches…. Then without knowing what he is going to do, guided only by the madness of the moment, he grabs his munition bag, jumps out of the pit, shouting to Honorio: "We've got to stop them, follow me, follow me." He runs, his head low, the Mannlincher on his right side, the revolver to his left side, the bag over one shoulder, feeling like a dream…. At that moment, the fear of death—which sometimes wakes him up in a cold sweat, or freezes his blood in the middle of a trivial conversation—disappears, and what overcomes him is a sovereign contempt for the idea of being wounded or disappearing from the realm of the living.

While captivating the reader with the events and outcome of the story, The War of the End of the World offers and demands a reading beyond and beneath the plot. This conjugation of hundreds of characters caught in moments of critical decisions, conversions, and self-revelations delves into problems that Vargas Llosa has grappled with before: religious fanaticism, political corruption and self-delusion, the unbearable weight of fossilized ideologies or utopias, the absurdity of sensational journalism, sexual excess and experimentation, faith, hunger, and fraternal love. None of the more than forty-three lives chronicled in the novel conclude in marriage, death, or exile from the community in which the drama is set, as they would in a realistic novel. Individuals see their lives brought to end by the war, by an inexorable death that does not leave behind a community in which the consequences of their living and dying can be felt or measured. There are no wills, no heirs, no family left to mourn the dead. Only the scorched earth remains as witness of the blood spilled in Canudos. The ending of The War of the End of the World, unlike Vargas Llosa's previous ambiguous endings, is final and unequivocal for the Conselheiro's followers, for many soldiers, for Galileo Gall, and for General Moreira César. For those who go on, people like the Barão de Canhabrava, the journalist of O Journal de Noticias, and the high echelons of the Brazilian army, life will never be the same after the apocalypse at Canudos. Even though Vargas Llosa has added only a few characters to Euclides da Cunha's rendition of the war, and remains faithful to the main historical events of the last decade of the nineteenth century, one of the chief differences between Os Sertões and The War of the End of the World is the uncompromising apocalyptic tenor of the novel….

Vargas Llosa deploys the events of his story along the lines of two separate geographic and social riverbanks. In the case of The War of the End of the World, only a few characters cross from one side to the other; and even fewer return. Jurema and the journalist cross from the Bahia urban sphere to Canudos. Having been miraculously spared, they return to life in Bahia after the war is over. Galileo Gall, a utopian European, embarks on a spiritual journey to the Conselheiro's first settlement. He reaches Canudos when the plantation still belongs to the Barão. The European anarchist never really makes it to the Canudos of the social experiment and apocalypse. With the exception of the Conselheiro during his very early days, no one from the backlands ever reaches Bahia or returns to Monte Belo, Uãuà, or Canudos. The Brazilian army, of course, makes it to Canudos, destroys it, and, itself tattered and almost defeated, returns to the barracks of the republic.

Each side has its own social logic and history from which characters and events are generated for the story of the war. As the action of the novel progresses, the lives of characters anchored on either side begin to project a shadow and a desire that reaches beyond the chasm that keeps them separated. The body of the novel grows as if a weaver at the loom had begun taking threads from one side in order to mix their colors with the threads from the other side. The chapters and sections that integrate the novel almost mechanically alternate a section set in the backlands with a section set in Bahia, with yet another section focused on either the army's or Galileo Gall's march to Canudos. The War of the End of the World is thus structured in the form of a double spiral: Bahia/sertão, city/countryside, Barão/Conselheiro, jagunços/republican army, messianism/republican civilian ideology.

What happens in the backlands towns of Bahia, the singular and privileged focus in Euclides da Cunha's historical essay, is balanced, or rather flanked, by the political events and discourse set in Bahia. Galileo Gall, the romantic European phrenologist, is perhaps one of the most idiosyncratic and weak characters added to the original story on the side of Bahia. The Barão, an important character in The War of the End of the World, can only be implied in Os Sertões, even though the Barão de Canhabrava is probably based on the historical Barão de Gerembão. Gonçalvez Viana, although a historical participant in the events of Bahia, appears to be a composite of the various self-serving and vain Bahian politicians who saw in the Conselheiro's following the excuse to attack their enemies and consolidate the new republican power.

Critics have been quick to point out that since Euclides da Cunha was the journalist who accompanied the troops and, with reports that he wired to his newspaper, created the furor that this expedition actually caused in Brazil, Vargas Llosa's myopic journalist has a historical referent in Euclides da Cunha. If this is so, then La guerra del fin del mundo parodies not only utopian and idealistic figures such as Gall but also the best and most committed Latin American intellectuals. Because of the great distance in intellectual prowess and quality between da Cunha and the journalist in this novel, I am inclined to think that the latter has no specific historical referent.

Even though the bespectacled, flabby journalist cannot be assigned any specific equivalent in history, his soft physique and stubborn intellectual demeanor seem to place him within a general scheme that Vargas Llosa uses for his journalists, scribblers, or well-intentioned souls such as Mayta in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, Pedro Camacho in Aunt Julia, or even Saúl Zurata in El hablador. These little men are singled out by an unmistakable physical defect: myopia, a birthmark, standing red hair, flat feet, or a big soft belly. As if to compensate for their physical disability, these little men have learned to endure physical pain and humiliation. Moreover, they are indefatigable in their moral and intellectual pursuits, a quality that makes them carriers of a terrible disease: the questioning of established modes of perception, the desire to halt the common contempt for the poor and suffering, along with an intrinsic solidarity with such "marginal" peoples. Thus, in The War of the End of the World, Galileo Gall is not far apart from the myopic journalist, nor is he too far away from the nearly anthropomorphic body of the León de Natuba, or the Dwarf, or even the epileptic body of Moreira César. These monstrous little men stand in sheer contrast with the natural and at the same time studied elegance and perfect physique of the cultivated Barão and the army engineer who reconnoiters and maps the route for the Brazilian troops advancing upon Canudos. The latter is more likely to stand as the fictional version of Euclides da Cunha who before taking up journalism had been a military engineer.

With the exception of Who Killed Palomino Molero? this vast novel can be said to be the most traditional in Vargas Llosa's oeuvre. Each character is presented in a sort of careful block of portrayal. After the initial physical and social presentation of the characters, what evolves is a set of minor traits as the characters respond to the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves. Indirect interior monologue is often used to unveil the individual's mind before he or she faces the possibility of death, the certainty of physical pain, or the shaking doubt and weakness felt before the killing of a fellow human being. But even though this critical moment is subtly scrutinized in the cases of Maria Quadrado, Pedrão, João Grande, Pajeú, Rufino, and many others, the particulars of the case do not seem fundamentally different in each character's crisis. Nor do they seem to stem from the past of each different person in crisis. In fact, each moment of truth in this tale of killing and maiming seems to be more a variation on the same theme than an indepth, sustained examination of a single personality before his or her transgression. There is no Raskolnikov in either the character or the plot dynamics of The War of the End of the World. Death and murder fall upon people with too great a speed. Death and murder are not the subjects of intense and extensive meditation as in Crime and Punishment. In this war death and murder seem inexorable. Characters do not have the time or inclination to consider either at great length. Death, violent death, is simply a given of life. There is only time to feel the shudder of fear and then face up to the inevitable. Maria Quadrado's anguished consciousness in search of an almost unattainable good is often portrayed in the days before the first assault on Canudos. She unfolds the pleats of her fear as a rebuke to her inability to feel happy before the end:

She would have to be happy, because this means that the suffering of the body will come to an end, that she would see the Father and the Holy Trinity, thought Maria Quadrado. But fear permeated her. She begged God to forgive her cowardice, and she tried to pray…. But she could not concentrate her mind on the Credo. João Abade and João Grande no longer insisted in taking him [the Conselheiro] to the refuge. The Commander of Streets tried to persuade him not to visit the trenches: the war could surprise him in the open air, without any protection whatsoever, Father.

Part of the richness of the novel stems from the portrayal of characters during self-examination. Moments of indirect interior monologue dot the telling of the story, offering a contrapuntal relation between the depiction of physical action and the unveiling of consciousness. The Beatito and the León de Natuba, together with Maria Quadrado, are the characters closest to the Conselheiro and to the flow of spiritual energy that emanates from his person and his silence. In search of sainthood and the understanding of their good fortune, the León de Natuba questions his frail faith, weak love, and self-loathing:

He was unfair. Not only did he owe thanks to the Counselor, but also to the others. Did they not carry him when he no longer had the strength [to walk]? Did they not pray, especially the Beatito, so that he could have faith? Was Maria Quadrado not kind and generous toward him? He tried to think with love of the Mother of Men. She had tried her best to get him to like her…. When he had had the fevers, she had cuddled him in her arms to give him warmth…. Why then, did he not love her? No doubt, because [he] had heard her accuse herself and confess her feeling of disgust for the Leon de Natuba and her belief that his ugliness was the work of the Evil One…. I am spiteful, he thought.

In this vast epic the characters enjoy a greater stability than in Aunt Julia or The Green House. No radical changes in identity occur. There are no characters whose life seems to have come to a novelistic end in one story (Bonifacia), only to reappear in another under a different name (Selvática). Even though many of the characters in the backlands side of the story experience a great spiritual crisis before becoming the Conselheiro's followers, once they see the light and make a vow, they are set forever in their new profile. This conversion is seldom portrayed fully; it just seems to happen, as if the poor, the forgotten, the bandits, and the criminals who swell Antonio Conselheiro's ranks had been living their lives in expectation of the one moment of revelation. Such is the picture of Maria Quadrado's appearance in Monte Santo, the Conselheiro's first settlement:

She appeared one rainless dawn, high on the road to Quijingue. She was carrying a cross on her back. She was twenty years old, but she had suffered so much that she looked ancient. She was a broad-faced woman, with bruised feet, a shapeless body, and mouse-colored skin. Her name was Maria Quadrado, and she had walked from Salvador to Monte Santo. She had borne the cross for three months and a day…. Her head was a patchwork of bare skull and stiff locks of hair that reminded people of the lunatics in the Salvador asylum. She had shaved her head after having been raped for the fourth time.

Just as in Os Sertões, the Conselheiro's following in this novel encompasses all kinds of outlaws, fools, disabled, hungry, killers, renegade priests, and even itinerant merchants of the backlands. Buried deeply in their marginal, deprived, and suffering lives, the reason for their conversion vibrates unknown but alive. In contrast to da Cunha's version of the Conselheiro's person and message—"the babblings of a fool or a madman"—Vargas Llosa's rendition of the messianic and charismatic Conselheiro remains enshrouded in mystery and silence. His beliefs, his very early Christian version of the message of Galilee, appears in the novel as part of the Beatito's search for the Conselheiro's word, Maria Quadrado's quest for repentance, and the León de Natuba's quest for humanity in the Conselheiro's loving acceptance of his deformed and repugnant body. The Conselheiro's indirect message appears to be a strange mixture of love and wrath, compassion and vengeance, hope in the Good Jesus and the expectation of the cleansing, final scorching of a corrupt and mean world. His hope is messianic, for the social and material hold only the despair of the same ancient hunger and suffering.

In the fictionalized version of the historical Conselheiro that The War of the End of the World describes, the man who appears for the first time in Monte Santo is a shadowy, unworldly figure. The first scenes that introduce the character project a poor, humble lay brother who moves from one miserable town to another, rebuilding fallen cemetery walls and abandoned churches. Extremely ascetic, the dirty and silent lay brother lives exclusively on the meager alms—food and drink—that the possible parishioners of the abandoned churches bring him. He never asks for anything. He refuses all but the most frugal meal.

After a long time of roaming the desert, the man seems moved to speak. He begins to preach in the atriums of the churches that he and a few volunteers cleaned up and rebuilt. The conselheiro preaches the need for repentance for the great sins that people commit daily. Repentance is necessary immediately, for the end of the world is at hand. To the Conselheiro and the people of the sertão (backlands) who listen to him, the end of the world is the time of great deliverance. At last, deliverance from suffering can be a real hope. The possibility of a great rest for the exhausted land and the equally spent sertanejos now seems to be real. The Conselheiro's preaching holds, as the final reward for repentance, repose and peace. Union with sweet Jesus seems to be their idea of final bliss and eternal reward.

Slowly and imperceptibly the Conselheiro's preaching begins to attract followers. He does not ask people to join him, he does not really instruct them. They simply join him, hang around him at night, share the alms that they are offered. Without a plan the poor, the vagabonds, and other outcasts and pilgrims become a solidarian community. Breaking his habitual silence, perhaps his long meditation, the Conselheiro erupts, from time to time, into fiery sermons about the coming of the end of the world, the end of the reign of all those who have abandoned Christ and his laws, laws that the Conselheiro affirms above any human law.

The Conselheiro's following grows larger almost imperceptibly. One day the authorities of nearby towns and churches awake to realize that the Conselheiro's adherence to Jesus' supreme law represents a challenge to their own worldly interests and power. Many people in the towns feel empowered to challenge the supreme power of the police, the local mayor, or the local priest. The potential conflict between civilian rulers and the Conselheiro's religious preaching soon comes to a head with the proclamation of the republic's new laws. While the empire had ruled the interior of Brazil negligently, the new republic aggressively seeks to stretch its rule and power over the entire territory outlined as the sovereign space for the new nation. Many of the laws proclaimed by the new state do not make any sense in the sertão; what is more, they go against the mores and age-old customs of the backlands people.

Seeing that the Conselheiro attracts people to mass, baptism, and even marriage, many of the local priests, who have in turn been forgotten and abandoned by their dioceses, allow him to do his preaching in church atriums. The priests are nervous about his preaching, but happy to collect a few coins for the dispensation of the sacraments. Things begin to change, however, when the Conselheiro, in his parsimonious but irrevocable way, indicates that he wants to preach—to "his" lambs—inside the churches and from the pulpit. A few priests are willing to bend even here, but many others see a tremendous danger in lending the Conselheiro the trappings and symbols of their authority and monopoly over the sacred. This parting of the ways between some local priests and the Conselheiro more or less coincides with the aggressive promulgation of the new laws of the republic. Hostility between the church's hierarchy and the Conselheiro grows. He becomes despondent and loses no time in showing his contempt for the church and its sins. Keeping a watchful eye over the Conselheiro's relations with the church, the guardians of civilian power and authority grow restless and nervous every time the Conselheiro and his large following arrive in the outskirts of a town in the sertão.

The news of his presence in the desert reaches Bahia. Bishop, journalists, lawyers, governor, and landowners think that the man's influence on the "unthinking" lumpen should be contained and watched over carefully. Thus, a detachment of soldiers is ordered to make its way into the sertão to arrest the man. His followers, many of whom suspect the government's ill intentions and, in anticipation, have set up a net of spies, find out about the arrest order long before the soldiers get to the sertão. In their minds this confirms the inimical attitude of the government and the alliance of the republic with the devil himself. The Conselheiro's followers decide to take the initiative.

In Os Sertões, Euclides da Cunha implies that the Conselheiro is the mastermind behind the deeds of his followers. In The War of the End of the World, however, he appears as a vague figure whose desires and orders are more divined by his followers than explicitly given by the mystic himself. It stands to reason that the Conselheiro should wish not to be arrested. But he does not say so at any moment, nor does the text of the novel indicate that he is aware of the government's plans for him. It is his followers who interpret, and take the step that links interpretation of "the Word" to consequent action upon the world. Later, in Canudos, we shall be puzzled once again by the Conselheiro's mystical and silent body, in contrast with his followers' clever determination to build the citadel and defend it and their salvation with all their might and ferocity. How the Conselheiro's silence, or vague references to the Dog/Devil or to sweet Jesus, is translated into such specific historical action remains a mystery and a weak point in the discourse of the novel.

As the soldiers nervously approach one of the lost towns of the sertão where the Conselheiro's guard has laid its trap, the first battle between the Brazilian messianic rabble and the Brazilian armed forces erupts. Because of the darkness, the element of surprise, and their clarity of conviction, the Conselheiro's wretched bunch of men and women score their first victory. Even though they suffer many losses, the Conselheiro's people, accustomed to the idea of battles between the coroneis's private armies and the cangaceiros and other armed groups in the sertão, thank the good Lord Jesus and take their victory in stride. They know, however, that this is only the first battle in a protracted but not really new war between the government's forces and the various resisting forces of the sertão.

In The War of the End of the World the victory of the Conselheiro's rabble over the soldiers is distinctly attributed to the planning strategy and flawless execution of the battle plan conceived by the former bandits or cangaceiros joining the Conselheiro's following. Certainly such a view of the Conselheiro as the head of an army of bandits is the prevailing belief in the thinking minds of Bahia. In the educated circles of that town it is believed that the Conselheiro, posing as a mystic, works in fact as an agent for infamous England in her interest to destabilize the fledgling Brazilian republic. The frightened and self-righteous Bahians tell each other that only England's might, her capacity to finance and arm colonial wars, could account for the Conselheiro's victory over a detachment of Brazilian soldiers. The Conselheiro must be destroyed. He is a threat to the entire nation. The central government in Rio must be made to see the danger and send the Brazilian army to defeat this intolerable rebellion. After all, the Brazilian army, victorious against Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance fought by Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil against Paraguay in 1864, knows exactly how to deal with backlands people. In the minds of the Bahian politicians and the emerging bourgeoisie that they represent the solution seems at hand.

Back in the desert the Conselheiro and his followers keep on roaming in search of a natural castle, a place from which they can organize their defense. The choice is difficult in view of the fact that the number of people who arrive daily to join the Conselheiro's followers grows continually. It is as if all the downtrodden of the huge Brazilian sertão were congregating at the feet of this compassionate but single-minded man who has nothing to offer but love and eternal salvation. Natural leaders, many of them famous and feared bandits, begin to emerge as the Conselheiro's lieutenants. Pedrão, João Abade, João Grande, Pajeú, the Villanova brothers, the Sardelinha sisters, and Maria Quadrado become the founders of a new order in Canudos, the place finally chosen for the Conselheiro's experimental creation of a Christian community.

Canudos is chosen because, in contrast with the rest of the many other possible sites, it has water year round. The former site of the Barão de Canhabrava's plantation, Canudos sits on the banks of the Vassa Barris river. The Canudos abandoned plantation, house, and corrals are burned to the ground, for purification purposes, as Pajeú announces to the Baroness; then the Conselheiro's people begin to settle down. Midwives, itinerant peddlers, exbandits, murderers, carpenters, storytellers, and all the dispossessed and scum of the earth meet in Canudos. They organize a solidarian society where enough food and dignity is the bread of daily life. This society was never described by Euclides da Cunha. Although critical of the way the army and the state eventually disposed of Canudos, and compassionate toward his fellow Brazilians, da Cunha saw absolutely no place for the Conselheiro's followers or their experiment in Brazilian national life. On a rich and detailed canvas Vargas Llosa brings to life the human quest and achievement of the rabble assembled at Canudos. Each group and person is given an unforgettable portrait. The cangaceiros, in their dual role as bandits and saints, form the most exotic and interesting grouping:

They were a strange bunch of emissaries from heaven. Instead of dressing up in tunics, they wore leather shirts and pants. They were the same men: they carried shotguns, knives, and machetes; and yet, they were not the same men, because now, all they could talk about was the Counselor, God, or their place of origin…. Religion satisfied their days now.

Vargas Llosa chronicles the town's birth as simultaneous with the rebirth of the populace:

As they were finished, the tortuous little streets were baptized with the name of a saint in a procession…. Many of the reborn changed their name in order to symbolize the beginning of their new life…. Human diversity coexisted in Canudos without violence, in the midst of a fraternal solidarity and an atmosphere of exaltation that the elect had never known before. They truly felt rich for being poor, children of God, privileged. This they were told every afternoon by the man with the cloak full of holes.

Not unlike the emergence of self-government in the shantytowns of Peru, chronicled by present-day sociologists, spontaneous social organization in Canudos makes its mark in creating a just human order:

In spite of the multiplication of inhabitants, life was not chaotic. The guides and pilgrims brought cattle and provisions; the corrals were full of animals. The warehouses were also brimming. Honorio and Antonio Villanova managed the city: they received offerings brought by the pilgrims, distributed clothing and food, and watched over the House of Health set up for the aging, the sick, and the orphans.

Almost coinciding with the moment when Canudos emerges as a full-fledged community, the Brazilian army, led by the famous general Moreira César, starts marching toward Canudos. Four cut-throat assaults are necessary to bring Canudos down after more than a year and a half of butchery. Thousands of soldiers and civilians suffer the most painful deaths. In the end, after a few old women and children march out of the hovels left in Canudos only to be put to the knife, the citadel is burned down in yet another act of "purification." Both in da Cunha's narrative and in Vargas Llosa's rendition of the war this bloody episode passes from the silent annals of Latin American history to fill the first pages of a catalogue of genocides embedded in the civil wars that have ravaged the continent.

In The War of the End of the World, Vargas Llosa deploys all his narrative powers to produce an engrossing epic. For the reader the emotional charge of the story of the war in Canudos is only comparable to the suspense and identification created by the duels in The Three Musketeers or the battles in War and Peace. Even if the reader has read Os sertões and is familiar with the outcome of Canudos's story, Vargas Llosa's mastery of suspense creates the false illusion that, in the novel at least, the final destiny of the characters one has learned to love might not be death. Paradoxically, the reader of Os Sertões finds himself hoping that in The War of the End of the World Pajeú will emerge alive from his final suicidal mission. The same reader hopes against hope that the Brazilian army might encounter yet another insurmountable obstacle, and thus retreat before leveling Canudos. The force of the reality created in the fictional text is so great as to provoke in the reader the childlike desire that the world brought to life in the act of reading might endure beyond the final page and beyond the last period of the novel.

Once the magic of the first reading is over, one can see clearly that the power of the story set in the sertão overwhelms its counterpart set in Bahia. While the sertão appears to be populated by people sincere and spontaneous, even in their revenge and cruelty, Bahia contains characters fraught with hypocrisy and self-delusion. Some of the Bahian characters, Gonçalvez Viana, and the journalist Galileo Gall, are reminiscent of the world of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. While the Barão has been considered by some to be the central character in the novel, others find in him too many gratuitous contradictions. It is not easy to reconcile a facile retreat from Bahian politics in a man who along with his family has played a major role in the power game of the state. The sober and elegant owner of Canudos is not quite convincing in his ascetic views on the burning of his family plantation, or in the contained depression over his wife's madness. At the same time that he retreats from politics, merely laments his wife's illness, and passes over the loss of his estate, he seems to find an incongruous satisfaction in watching the chameleon that inhabits his indoor garden and raping his wife's chamber-maid in the presence of his "beloved" Baroness. Somehow, the Barão's asceticism does not manage to compete with the physical exploits and the faith that nourishes the acts of Pajeú or the Villanova brothers. The final interpretation of the war and its raison d'être is left in the text to the Barão. Upon his return from Europe, and at the request of the surviving, myopic journalist, the Barão attempts to satisfy the journalist's curious and puzzled reasoning with the idea that there are some things in history that just don't make any sense. The butchery at Canudos is one of those events beyond reason. The Barão proposes that, rather than ponder this war's meaning, it is best to forget. Such final words weaken not only the image of the Barão as a principal and highly educated person in the story, but also the coherence of the discourse emerging from the entire corpus of the novelistic text. The Barão's studied distance from the immediate history of Bahia and Brazil comes as a weak epilogue in light of the novel's historical force:

"Now I remember," said the Baron. "Someone wrote me that you were alive. I found out while in Europe. 'A ghost appeared.' Someone wrote me that. But in spite of that, I continued to believe that you were dead, that you had disappeared."

"I did not die and I did not disappear," a little nasal voice said.

"Canudos?" said the Baron. "Epaminondas is right in wishing that people wouldn't talk about that story any more. Let us forget it. That's best. It is a sad, muddy, confusing episode. It is no use. History must be instructive, exemplary. In that war, no one acted gloriously. And no one understands what happened. People have decided to draw a curtain. That's wise, healthy."

In spite of the puzzles in the novel's discourse, The War of the End of the World not only retells a powerful and tragic story but also opens the vast expanses of the historical novel for Mario Vargas Llosa's work. The author's interest in history, in narrative history to be exact, dates back to his university days when he studied with the Peruvian historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea. Vargas Llosa's interest in history also dwells on the gestation of great social movements, revolutions, mutinies, and civil war, some of which have appeared already in Conversation in The Cathedral (the Arequipa revolt) and Captain Pantoja (the cult of the Brothers of the Arch). The War of the End of the World, however, evinces Vargas Llosa's growing interest in the relation between ideology and action. Any observer of some recent trends in Latin American societies and politics can discern the analogies between the Conselheiro's Christian messianism, his communitarian preaching, and his silent criticism of the established church, and many of the precepts and questions raised by liberation theology.

Finally, it would seem that this obsessive curiosity about history, its causes and movements, was not satiated in the writing of the story of Canudos and its diverse forms of armed struggle and organized violence. On the contrary: Vargas Llosa's interest in ideology and action (revolution and revolt)—that is, in the cultural decomposition of the structure of desire and the many surprising faces in which it can reappear—has only been stimulated with the explorative writing of this story of rebellion in the backlands. In his later novels, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, Who Killed Palomino Molero? and El hablador, Vargas Llosa reexamines the nature of desire, its mysterious mix with ideology, and the dynamics of the body in further episodes dealing directly with recent events in Peruvian and Latin American history.

Peter Standish (essay date Spring 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2988

SOURCE: "Vargas Llosa's Parrot," in Hispanic Review, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 143-51.

[In the following essay, Standish contends that The Storyteller examines storytelling as a sacred vocation in society.]

Titles are hooks set to catch readers. Publishers and authors need to set them, of course, because of the importance of being earners, but also because literature is nothing until the reader is hooked. Broadly, titles can be said to work by reference or enigma: they refer to some key element in the ensuing text or are intriguing in their obscureness. El hablador does both, but it is the very banality of reference that lends it the power of intrigue. Hablador, in ordinary use, is really rather colourless: it is parenthetical, appositive, deictic, in a way which allows us to go on to other more interesting things; what interests us when someone uses this word is not to know that the person so identified is a speaker, so much as what he might be speaking about, or what "else" he is, or is up to. The most that can be said of hablador by itself, in ordinary use, apart from the fact that it identifies a speaker, is that its connotations are pejorative, referring to a gossip or a garrulous or indiscreet person. None of these meanings seems to be very relevant to the context of Vargas Llosa's novel; rather, his use of the word is not ordinary: the whole point is that he is elevating it to a new meaning and a special status. All of which justifies my beginning where so many other critics have done, with a little etymology. The Latin verb, from which hablador derives, fabulari, (itself derived from fari: to speak) was to tell tales, fabulae; hence it also gives us English "fable," and that obsolete word resurrected some years ago by Robert Scholes, "fabulator," which now comes to mean the self-conscious storyteller. [My essay title, "Vargas Llosa's Parrot,"] is chosen to encourage speculation about the relationship between these words and what I will argue is the central meaning of Vargas Llosa's novel. Fabulari also gave us hablar, hence hablador, the person engaged in the act of speaking; except, perhaps, in the sense of chismoso, in normal modern Spanish usage there is little in the meaning of hablador that is fabulative or fabulatory or fabulous, little, so to speak, to write home about. But these are precisely some of the layers of meaning that Vargas Llosa gives to this normally somewhat dull term.

El hablador is a story (fable) told by one self-aware storyteller (fabulator) about another, who is also telling stories including other stories. Broadly, the form of this book can be compared to that of La tía Julia y el escribidor in that there are two narratives which proceed in alternating chapters until their interrelationship is made clear at the end of it all. Armed with knowledge of how that earlier novel worked, the reader is alerted to the probable outcome of El hablador. Not that clues are lacking earlier in El hablador itself; rather, the reverse is true, for as early on as page seventeen Vargas Llosa writes that his friend Saúl "me tuvo toda una tarde … muy entretenido, hablándome … con su lorito en el hombro." The outer narrative of the author-narrator encompasses and frames the other; the reader's contract with fiction 1 has priority over his contract with fiction 2. So it was with the earlier novel: one writer (escribidor) told of his own apprenticeship as a writer of fiction, while working as another kind of writer, in the company of yet another, whose fictions were themselves presented as raw material in alternate chapters. The relationship between Pedro Camacho's stories and Vargas Llosa's autobiography is, however, only one of implication: the farcical nature of the Camacho situations makes us view the Vargas Llosa predicaments with amusement. Characters, names and roles are switched in the various Camacho stories, which become confused, but no such confusion occurs between them and the outer narrative. By contrast, in El hablador, the Saúl of the outer narrative is revealed as the tribal hablador of the inner one; in other words, a character has crossed from one fictional level to the other.

The escribidor of the title of the earlier novel referred to two writers within the outer fiction; the hablador of the more recent title implies an oral fabulator in the inner fiction and a scribal one in the outer. The scribal fabulator is an Hispanic criollo who sees things from the analytical perspective of a man sitting, appropriately, in the renaissance city of Florence, but he longs to penetrate the mentality of the primitive oral fabulator, for whom words are not burdened with the western cultural baggage, a fact which makes them more creative. On a more abstract level, both books deal with what it is to be a storyteller, considered from a personal standpoint and also from a societal one.

Several critics have remarked on the long history of Vargas Llosa contemplating his own art. There were always essays on the subject, and in his fiction perhaps even Alberto, the Leoncio Prado cadet, with his poems and his pornographic stories, was early evidence of this. After La tía Julia it becomes a major element in his fiction, particularly in the theatre and in Historia de Mayta. What is it to be a storyteller? There is what we might call a literary dimension to this question, involving, in particular, the nature of inspiration and the relationship between history, invention, and truth. There is also an existential one, which acquires added weight in El hablador, though it was previously there to be observed, especially in the essays and the criticism; it concerns storytelling as a vocation or as a personal necessity.

Thus, it is stated at an early stage that Saúl is embarked on an inevitable journey; when it ends with him becoming the hablador, he has fulfilled his destiny:

Para entonces, sin la menor duda, ya había descubierto lo que le interesaba en la vida. No de manera relampagueante, ni con la seguridad que después, pero, en todo caso, el extraordinario mecanismo estaba ya en marcha y, pasito a paso, empujándolo un día acá, otro allá, iba trazando ese laberinto en el que Mascarita entraría para no salir jamás.

"No de manera relampagueante." A flash of lightning of sorts, as we shall see, later turns this inevitable role into a conscious vocation, much like the vocación excluyente which Vargas Llosa has argued must guide every writer and which he so admired in Flaubert. Related to this is the admission by the author that he sees a "vínculo sentimental entre los Machiguengas y mi propia profesión" and his talk of the need to write about the habladores turning into a demonio personal, a recurrent obsession which goes with him from his last moment of contact with Saúl, immediately before the author's first trip to Europe.

Finally, there is also what might be called a social dimension to this question of what it is to be a storyteller. The hablador is at the hub of Machiguenga society; in his absence that society turns to diaspora. Habladores are "contadores de cuentos trashumantes [que sirven] de savia circulante" who serve a people who, according to an account by a Spanish missionary, read by Vargas Llosa while in Madrid, "tenían una propensión casi enfermiza a escuchar y contar historias." So important is the institution of the hablador for the Machiguenga that he reserves information about the figure and its function, even when all other aspects of his society have suffered acculturation. The latter-day missionaries from Oklahoma have failed fully to penetrate this part of Machiguenga culture; they explain:

—Para ellos, la diversión es una sola en el mundo. Los habladores no son nada más que eso.

—Nada menos que eso—, lo corregí yo, suavemente.

—¿Sí? —, dijo él, desconcertado. —Bueno, sí. Pero, perdóneme que insista, no creo que haya nada religioso detrás. Por eso Ilama la atención todo ese misterio, el secreto de que los rodean.

The hablador is the incarnation of speech, the word made flesh. He is repository of tribal news and history; he is compared to medieval jongleurs or Irish seannachies; but most important of all:

Sus bocas [son] los vínculos aglutinantes de esa sociedad a la que la lucha por la supervivencia [ha] obligado a resquebrajarse y desperdigarse a los cuatro vientos.

For Vargas Llosa, that the storyteller can fulfil so crucial a social role is, in a sense, in need of no further explanation. That storytelling of itself should be so important is precisely what the author would wish.

In a moment, I shall return to the question of a possible religious significance in the figure of the hablador. For now, however, I wish to consider the obviously symbolic role of the parrot. It is beyond the scope of this [essay] to dwell on the lead-heavy reference to Kafka's Gregor Samsa contained in the bird's name. The first observation to be made is that the parrot is the "speaking" bird, which accompanies Saúl from the outset and symbolically heralds his destiny. That this parrot is primarily symbolic is shown by the fact that all it ever says is its owner's name, alluding not only to his deformity, but also to the role hidden behind his mask. More remotely, but no less importantly, it reminds us of Flaubert's parrot. It is quite possible that Vargas Llosa, consciously or not, had in mind both the bird that sat on Flaubert's desk and the novel by Julian Barnes. So the parrot represents the storyteller, of any sort; it is the "lorito hablador." In general use, hablar como una cotorra is ser hablador. As an example of Amazonian wildlife, the bird, like the fish on which the Machiguenga depend, is under threat; and so Vargas Llosa allies the assault on Nature with the assault on the primitive culture and its key institution.

This assault is motivated by two kinds of zeal, the material and the spiritual: the viracochas are out for money or conversions. Repeatedly, the author mentions his mixture of amazement and fear at the conviction, the certainty verging on fanaticism, that inspires the missionaries:

personas que creen, que están haciendo lo que creen y que saben a la verdad de su parte, que a mí siempre me ha fascinado y asustado.

The Schneils' supposition that there is no religious significance in the figure of the hablador proves to be ironic, given the determination of Vargas Llosa to endow Saúl with precisely that kind of significance. To begin with, Saúl is part Jew by birth, caught between the traditional Jewish customs, as represented by his father, and the dominant Catholic culture of the Lima of the fifties. When he disappears, he is presumed to have returned to Israel, to his cultural and spiritual homeland; in fact (or should I say "in fiction"?), it transpires that Vargas Llosa has decided to send him to a new homeland among the Machiguengas: "la transformación del converso en hablador." An old Vargas Llosa trick covertly announces the identification of the hablador with his friend Saúl, and that right at the start: Chapter 1 concludes with the naming of the first and Chapter 2 opens with the naming of the second. Soon, Vargas Llosa is overtly referring to conversion:

Saúl experimentó una conversión … en un sentido cultural y acaso también religioso … Mascarita fue atrapado en una emboscada espiritual que hizo de el una persona distinta.

In the hablador sections there are numerous assimilations of Jewish and Christian myths to Machiguenga ones, or vice-versa. I have already alluded to diaspora. Also we have (particularly page thirty eight and following) paradise and fall, God and Devil, resurrection, a lost tribe, a promised land, a land of milk and honey, a Messiah, a myth of creation. A chosen people is protected by Tasurinchi-Jehova, a Christ figure is born, and there is a Trinity: "Soy el soplido de Tasurinchi, soy el hijo de Tasurinchi, soy Tasurinchi."

The Christ-figure is hailed as an hablador (prophet?), miracles raise the dead or multiply food, the seripigaris are comparable with the elders of the tribes, the viracochas with the Romans. But one other episode, in particular, deserves closer attention.

The biblical Saul of Tarsus was converted on the road to Damascus, when God appeared to him in a vision. Saúl Zuratas (his surname is almost an anagram of Tarsus) recounts a similar occasion in the last of the hablador sections. He has a thorn in his foot, which has forced him to stop walking; but his suffering is less due to the infected foot than to his being besieged by parrots, "sobre todo cotorras." Seeking to understand where they come from and what they mean, he realises that they, too, are habladores, that they are sent to accompany him in his time of trial, for according to myth every man is accompanied by a guardian creature. Now a further speculation on the Peruvian Saúl's name will connect us back to the man on the road to Damascus: źurita means turtle dove; zuro is an adjective applied to the paloma silvestre. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit, which reveals itself to Saul, transforms his life, and makes him the apostle Paul, is frequently associated with the image of the dove. It is thus this episode with the flock of parrots to which I was alluding when I made an early reference to a "flash of lightening of sorts." Saúl, like Paul, has "seen the light." [In a footnote the critic adds: "It seems that this well-worn English phrase does stem from this same biblical episode, although no such words are used during the accounts of it in the Bible."]

Flaubert, too, used his bird in a similar way at the end of one of his novels, Un coeur simple. His protagonist, appropriately called Félicité, dotes on her parrot, even once dead and stuffed; at the end of the novel she comes to wonder whether this articulate beast, this imitator of human sounds, might not represent the Holy Ghost, and as she dies imagines a huge parrot hovering above her head.

In addition to this, in the New Testament Paul speaks, more than once, of a thorn in his flesh; it is a phrase generally taken to refer to a physical defect, one which left him unsightly. Other elements in Paul's biography seem to tally with El hablador. After his conversion he proved a champion of tolerance and sought to reconcile Jewish orthodoxy with Christianity; in part, his death is attributable to his efforts to cross racial divides. By addressing various groups in his writings he gives identity to them. According to both Acts and Galatians, he seems to have disappeared for some twelve years. Finally, he is, of course, a consummate writer/speaker. So Saúl Zuratas the freak has had a revelation like that of Paul and assumed his new role; he has moved from the margins of one society to the focal point of another. The problematic nature of his deformity has been overcome, as has his cultural dilemma, in a process of synthesis. The parrot on his shoulder is the symbol which heralded his destiny, which was to become hablador and in doing so find peace in his spiritual home.

I began by speculating on the terms "fabulator" and "fable." A fable seeks to convey a moral lesson, and Vargas Llosa's novel is clearly rich in issues, such as the ethical basis for missionary work, acculturation, and the search for authentic roots. These, however, fall outside the scope of this [essay], in which I have tried to establish that the central preoccupation, drawn out from reflections on the novel's title and associations with the symbol of the parrot, concerns the storyteller in society; the hablador is here accorded a status encompassing prophet, leader, guardian of knowledge, and vital link to guarantee society's cohesiveness:

uno más de la vieja estirpe que … recorría los bosques de mi país llevando y trayendo … las fabulaciones … que hacen de ese pueblo de seres dispersos una comunidad.

El hablador begins and ends with the author asserting his own presence; its conclusion is not dramatic but contemplative. Is the writer anything more than a jumped-up parrot, wonders Julian Barnes [in his Flaubert's Parrot, 1984]? Vargas Llosa likes to think he might be.

Further Reading

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Perry, Larry Stephen. "Mario Vargas Llosa: A Checklist, 1952–1984." Bulletin of Bibliography 43, No. 4 (December 1986): 235-47.

An extensive primary bibliography introduced by a brief overview of Vargas Llosa's career and literary concerns.


Marzorati, Gerald. "Can a Novelist Save Peru?" The New York Times Magazine (5 November 1989): 45, 47, 100, 102, 104, 106.

Examines Vargas Llosa's political hopes and intentions apropos his campaign for the presidency of Peru.


Alter, Robert. "The Metamorphosis." The New Republic 202, Nos. 2-3 (8 & 15 January 1990): 41-2.

Finds that, in The Storyteller, the title character shows "how the act of narrative invention gives us a human handle on birth, sex, and death; sky, earth, and water; pain and healing; animal, vegetable, and human—everything that inspires perplexity and wonder and threatens to defy human control."

Castillo, Debra A. "The Uses of History in Vargas Llosa's Historia de Mayta." Inti 24-25 (Fall-Spring 1986–87): 79-98.

Maintains that The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta revolves around "the narrator's constant evocation of the twinned issues of history and fiction, of fact and representation, of a past repeated,… as tragedy and as farce."

Castro-Klarén, Sara. "Santos and Cangaceiros: Inscription without Discourse in Os Sertões and La guerra del fin del mundo." Modern Language Notes 101, No. 2 (March 1986): 366-88.

Analyzes and contrasts Vargas Llosa's and Euclides de Cunha's characterization of social protest in The War of the End of the World and Os sertões, respectively.

Davis, Mary E. "Mario Vargas Llosa and Reality's Revolution: El hablador." In Literature and Revolution, edited by David Bevan, pp. 135-44. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1989.

Finds that The Storyteller reveals that "identity is a fabrication of words, and words are as subject to metamorphosis as any other aspect of the universe."

Diaz, Nancy Gray. "The Experience of Time in Mario Vargas Llosa's La casa verde." Symposium XLIV, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 165-79.

Studies the significance of varied representations of time in The Green House.

Gerdes, Dick. Mario Vargas Llosa. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985, 208 p.

Discusses Vargas Llosa's fiction published through 1981, including the short stories and novella included in The Cubs, and Other Stories. Gerdes emphasizes narrative point of view in his plot synopsis and structural analysis of each work.

Glasgow, Eric. "Mario Vargas Llosa." Contemporary Review 258, No. 1501 (February 1991): 97-100.

Offers an overview of Vargas Llosa's literary career.

Hughes, Glyn. "Revisionary." New Statesman 112, No. 2899 (17 October 1986): 29.

Brief, positive appraisal of The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, which Hughes labels a novel about "political disillusionment."

Huston, Hollis. "Revolutionary Change in One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta." Latin American Literary Review XV, No. 29 (January-June 1987): 105-20.

Asserts that The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude are political novels despite the absence of clear ideological orientations.

Jones, Julie. "Vargas Llosa's Mangachería: The Pleasures of Community." Revista de etudios Híspanicas XX, No. 1 (1986): 77-89.

Focuses on episodes in The Green House set in the neighborhood called La Mangachería. Jones observes parallels between these episodes and scenes in both Alexandre Dumas's musketeer novels and Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris. According to Jones, failure to acknowledge the role of La Mangachería "has resulted in an unbalanced view of [The Green House] that emphasizes the sense of frustration and alienation, while ignoring a certain ebullience and feeling of plenitude."

Kerr, Roy A. "Names, Nicknames, and the Naming Process in Mario Vargas Llosa's Fiction." South Atlantic Review 52, No. 1 (January 1987): 87-101.

According to Kerr, "Vargas Llosa utilizes names, nicknames, and the naming process not only as a fruitful method of developmental characterization, but also as a subtle, recurring thematic and structural device."

Larsen, Mark D. "Religious Figures in Mario Vargas Llosa's Los cachorros." Michigan Academician XVIII, No. 3 (Summer 1986): 375-82.

States that the use of religious symbolism in Los cachorros gives the novel a mythical dimension while offering a new interpretation of Biblical events.

Lewis, Marvin A. From Lima to Letica: The Peruvian Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983, 157 p.

Focuses on The Time of the Hero, The Green House, Conversation in the Cathedral, and Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, analyzing content, meaning, and technique. Lewis identifies heroism, irony, determinism, existentialism, and history as prominent themes in these novels.

Magnarelli, Sharon. "The Diseases of Love and Discourse: La tía Julia y el escribidor and María." Hispanic Review 54, No. 2 (Spring 1986): 195-205.

Contends that a central character in both Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and Jorge Isaac's María attempts to conjure the memory and emotional frisson associated with a former loved one. Furthermore, Magnarelli claims, such an attempt "becomes inextricably linked to the notion of disease."

Penuel, Arnold M. "The Uses of Literary Perspectivism in Vargas Llosa's ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero?" Hispania 73, No. 4 (December 1990): 943-52.

Argues that in Who Killed Palomino Molero? Vargas Llosa artfully reveals complex Peruvian social realities through literary perspectivism, namely by "recourse to subtle intertextualities, exploitation of the disparity between the conscious and unconscious psychology of his characters, irony, paradoxes, the expression of contradictory opinions, and meaningful juxtapositions, resulting in meaningful ambiguities."

Perricone, Catherine R. "Artistic Craftsmanship in Vargas Llosa's ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero?" In La chispa '87 Selected Proceedings, edited by Gilbert Paolini, pp. 231-37. New Orleans: Tulane University, 1987.

Demonstrates that in Who Killed Palomino Molero? Vargas Llosa combines narrative strategies that he used in previous novels.

Rossman, Charles, and Friedman, Alan Warren, eds. Mario Vargas Llosa: A Collection of Critical Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978, 186 p.

Comprises essays that "fall into two general categories: first, a series of critical examinations of individual novels …; second, a group of more general discussions that range across the body of Vargas Llosa's work to explore pervasive themes and concerns." All but one of the essays were originally published in the Winter 1977 special issue of Texas Studies in Literature and Language.

Standish, Peter. "Mario Vargas Llosa: La casa verde." In Landmarks in Modern Latin American Fiction, edited by Philip Swanson, pp. 161-82. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Assesses the narrative of The Green House, asserting that "in using different styles, representing objective and subjective views of reality and in the fragmentation of events such that time and causal order are undermined, Vargas Llosa has sought to produce a 'total' novel."

Updike, John. "Writer-Consciousness." The New Yorker LXV, No. 45 (25 December 1989): 103-08.

Comments on the overtly literary quality of The Storyteller, contending that the novel is "admirably intelligent and humane, but not much, strange to say, of a story."


Williams, Raymond Leslie, et al. "The Boom Twenty Years Later: An Interview with Mario Vargas Llosa." Latin American Literary Review XV, No. 29 (January-June 1987): 201-06.

Vargas Llosa reflects on the evolution of his literary style, the nature of the creative process, the cathartic value of dark literary subjects, and the relationship of politics to his fiction. This transcript is the partial record of a dialogue that occurred in 1986.


Vargas Llosa, Mario (Vol. 6)


Vargas Llosa, Mario (Vol. 9)