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."
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.
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.
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.