Mario Vargas Llosa Vargas Llosa, Mario (Vol. 85) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1310 words.)

Michael Wood (review date 27 March 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Raymond Leslie Williams (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charles Rossman (essay date Winter 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.]

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Mary E. Davis (essay date Winter 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jorge Guzman (review date January-June 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2600 words.)

John Updike (review date 24 August 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charles Rossman (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 6391 words.)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8229 words.)

John Updike (review date 1 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2273 words.)

Mario Vargas Llosa (essay date 15 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Sara Castro-Klarén (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Standish (essay date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.]

(The entire section is 2988 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.



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