The Time of the Hero

by Mario Vargas Llosa

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Historical Context

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Colonial Literature and Independence Although the conquistadors destroyed the libraries of the Inca, intellectuals of Indian and Spanish descent tried to recover as much as possible of pre-Conquest Peruvian literature. The most formidable of such efforts was undertaken by Garcilaso de la Vega—known as El Inca Garcilaso. By his mother's side he was of royal Inca heritage and Spanish by his father. He put together several volumes of Incan legends in Spanish.

When the Spanish finally left Latin America in 1830, writers dabbled with the techniques of Romanticism before adopting the form of the realist novel as the best vehicle for national literatures. These Spanish American novels, the ''novelas de la tierra'' or Regionalist novels, describe Latin American landscapes and rural life in exhaustive detail. Examples of such novels include Dona Barbara by Romul Gallegos or The Vortex by Jose Eustasio Rivera. Once this literature began to mix with indigenous myths and Latin American writers learned about the European avant-garde, a uniquely Latin American literature was born. The first generation of modernist Latin American writers created their techniques in Europe and then returned home. While Latin American modernism was forming, the nationalists were winning the culture wars. Nationalists promoted the regionalist style arguing that modernism was inappropriate.

Modernism In Europe, the first generation of modernists made contact with each other, the European modernists and the avant-garde. Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias, and Cuban Alejo Carpentier studied the Mayan collections at the Sorbonne in Paris and the British Museum in London. In the former, they met the leading surrealists, Andre Breton and Paul Eluard, and in the latter made contact with the Bloomsbury Group. Other Latin American writers would join this nexus until, finally, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and the young Mario Vargas Llosa arrived. As a group, they praised William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, John Dos Passos, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

The heritage of the modern Latin American novel, therefore, sees its origins in the realists and not in the varied forms of the Enlightenment or the Romantics. The primitive novel, whether written by Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo, concerned itself with capturing the events of life. Eventually, the modernists—James Joyce and Virginia Woolf—revealed a way out. However, it took Flaubert and Faulkner to make use of the pathway and they inspired the generation of writers known as ‘‘El Boom,’’ the greatest period of Spanish-language literature since Spain's seventeenth-century Golden Age.

The Boom Throughout the 1940s Borges announced to Latin America that, contrary to the belief of the nationalists, literary invention is good. This enabled an awakening of creativity. García Márquez wrote under the influence of Borges and Faulkner. In the 1950s, Vargas Llosa had concluded that writing in the primitive, regionalist manner kept the Latin American novel Latin American. Following Borges and García Márquez, Vargas Llosa decided that the novel could be freed of this confinement when it ceased to be Latin American and began to be a literary world independent of the reader's possession of a Latin American experience. The key was to use the narrator and, through narrative techniques, to realize that authors do not record, but create.

Two forces assisted the new energy in Latin American fiction. First, the tough literary agent Carmen Balcells was on the lookout for Latin American fiction. Seix Barral, the most prestigious Spanish-language publishing firm, listened to Balcell. The American publishing house Harper and Row wanted to cash in on the buzz surrounding Latin American modernism and they were helped by a superb translator, Gregory Rabassa. The economic forces combined with the creative...

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juices so that by the late 1950s, the boom began and everyone was reading fiction by Latin American authors.


Colonialism and Independence During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Lima, known to the Spanish as the City of Kings, served as the transition center for silver mined in the Andes and destined for Spain. With the fall of the Spanish Empire and the expiration of easily extractable silver, Lima declined. In the backcountry, the Indians were locked in a cycle of poverty that began with Spanish rule. Even in the 1990s, Indians form the peasant class of Peruvian society and Vargas Llosa notes a few of them in his book of 1962. The Indians are poor, malnourished, and during the 1990s wracked by cholera. Lima was renewed in the late nineteenth century when guano—bird droppings—were in demand due to their high concentrations of nitrogen, which is used in gunpowder. Peru had a huge supply of guano that it mined for the West. Chile, however, took the guano during the War of the Pacific (1879-1884) and Peru had to find other sources of economic sustenance.

Foreign investment helped Peru become a mercantile economy in the first half of the twentieth century. Peru exported copper, sugar, cotton, fishmeal, oil (until that too ran out), and wool. But as an export economy, Peru could not attract investors or create an industrial base. Therefore, much of its natural resources remained untapped; recovering from centuries of colonial exploitation proved impossible. This changed when the Cold War began and the West became interested in Peru. Still, foreign investment and deforestation (a.k.a. economic growth) did not accelerate until the last quarter of the twentieth century.

General Odriá During World War II, Peru, on the side of the Allies, only declared war against Japan and Germany in 1945 (in order to be a charter member of the United Nations). Peru's willingness to participate in world affairs and the onset of the Cold War brought Peru neo-imperialist attention from the U.S. In 1945, José Luis Bustamante y Rivero won the presidency of Peru representing a coalition of leftist parties including the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA). Part of their program included land reform for the Indians. This legitimately elected democratic government was not defended by the United Nations or the U.S. when General Manuel Odriá, supported by the oligarchy and military, overthrew them. For eight years, the corrupt and brutal regime of Odriá, who became president in 1950 though his opponent did not appear on the ballot, marginalized the socialist elements and increased defense spending rather than resolve Peru's long-standing problems. During Odriá's reign, university campuses were full of military spies and social mobility was tied to patriotic military service. Odriá's defense spending included an extension of its territorial waters. This move angered the U.S., whose fishing fleet regularly used those waters, but Peru exercised this extension in concert with Chile and Ecuador. The U.S. did little but protest. Peru, under Odriá, also initiated several cooperative pacts with Brazil. It is in this milieu that Vargas Llosa places his novel The Time of the Hero.

In 1956, Odriá allowed elections and lost to Manuel Prado y Ugarteche who had been president during World War II. Ostensible democratic rule continued; real power remained the domain of the forty families who formed the oligarchy with the support of the Catholic Church. During the next open elections, Victor Andres Belaunde won by promising economic reforms. In the meantime, the socialist left had been invigorated by the success of Fidel Castro's communist revolution in Cuba in 1959. It seemed possible to repeat Castro's success throughout Latin America. In 1965, tired of waiting for land reform, 300,000 Indians revolted. In response, the military, no longer willing to stand quietly behind the oligarchy, took over the government. By 1968, a military junta under General Juan Velasco Alvarado created a distinct pattern of Peruvian socialism. The military instituted land reforms. By 1975, the landowning elite had been destroyed and 40% of the land had been transferred to cooperative or peasant use. Economic downturns discredited the junta and Belaunde returned as president in 1980. His attempts to reverse the junta's programs led to widespread protests and the rise of the Shining Path.

Peru's Population As the heartland of the ancient Inca Empire, it is not surprising to find that the most numerous segment of the approximately 25 million Peruvians is Native American (45 percent). Mestizos, those of mixed European (mostly Spanish) and Indian heritage, make up the next 37 percent. Those who consider themselves white make up 15 percent of the population, and the rest is split mostly between those of African and Japanese heritage. Because of historical circumstances, 90 percent of the people are Catholic, and Spanish remained the official language until 1975, when Quechua joined Spanish as the official languages of Peru.

Economically, heritage means a great deal in Peru. Those who happen to have more European heritage also happen to claim more academic credentials and occupy the highest-paying jobs. These people make up the cream of Peruvian society and speak Spanish as well as another European language. By contrast, the Indians, who often do not speak Spanish let alone another European language, are relegated to peasant status, which borders on serfdom. They labor in agricultural industries or as sweatshop labor.

Just prior to embarking on his life in Europe, Vargas Llosa went on an anthropological expedition, visiting a tribe in the deep jungles of Peru. He was shocked, according to Rossman: "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." He reflected on this disparity in his widely celebrated second novel, The Green House.

Shining Path The plight of the Indian peasants and their unanswered plea for reform found a new champion in the 1980s in the form of a militant Maoist organization, the Shining Path. They laid siege to the government and in the ensuing conflict, some 15,000 people were "disappeared." Meanwhile, Peru's highland during the 1990s became the number-one production source for cocaine destined for the U.S. Alberto Fujimori, who defeated Vargas Llosa in the 1990 elections, used his popularity to assume emergency powers. Using ruthless military tactics in the face of terrorist acts and reprisals, Fujimori's military—with U.S. aid through the War on Drugs program—routed the forces of Shining Path. By 1992, the leader of Shining Path, Abimael Guzman, was in prison and Fujimori continued to pursue free-market economics.

Literary Style

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Narrative Excepting a few geniuses—like Joanot Martorell and Victor Hugo whose Les Miserables Vargas Llosa read while attending the Leoncio Prado Academy—the novel before Flaubert and Faulkner, according to Vargas Llosa, is primitive. The novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth century carried out the project of realism and naturalism too well. They made the novel serve the function of documentation. Conversely, and Vargas Llosa has written on this many times, the modern novelist uses what the primitive novel documents—feelings, events, facts, etc.—to make art. As he says in The Perpetual Orgy ''everything depends essentially on form, the deciding factor in determining whether a subject is beautiful or ugly, true false ... the novelist must be above all else an artist, a tireless and incorruptible craftsman of style.’’ The primitive novelist depended on plot and character to create mystery and suspense. The modernist uses narrative techniques like multiple viewpoints, vagueness, and non-linear weavings of viewpoints to create a literary world.

In The Time of the Hero, Vargas Llosa successfully demonstrated his theory by weaving together four narrators into one plotline. By integrating the voices of Boa, Jaguar, Poet, and Slave, a truer representation of life in the academy forms. By complicating the narrative technique, Vargas Llosa enables the structure of the story to bolster the plot. For example, by failing to identify Jaguar as one of the four, the judging of Jaguar remains impossible until he reveals himself to Lt. Gamboa. In other words, the narrative technique contains the power of the narration in the novel instead of giving it to the reader.

The technique of multiple perspectives utilizes the Faulknerian mode of non-linear presentation. From the beginning, while the drama of the final two months at the academy unfolds, various flashbacks provide depth to the main characters as well as explanation to the importance of The Circle and the theft of an exam. The Slave has a flashback of moving; the Poet has a similar experience. Then there is a third flashback by an unidentified character which tricks the reader into believing it is either Slave or Poet. This confusion is not cleared up until the end. The confusion disallows an easy judgment of Jaguar. Instead, Jaguar, like Poet and Slave, reflects the environment of his upbringing. Using this technique bolsters the theme of secrecy as well as the confusing labyrinth of information each cadet masters according to the stature they have in their year. Jaguar, as undisputed master, even masters the narrative due to this secrecy as well as the lack of belief about the murder which accompanies his confession. Since the Poet has been favored as nearly a hero throughout the novel, the revelation that the Jaguar is the hero is not believable.

Plundering and Borrowing In Temptation of the World, Efrain Kristal characterizes Vargas Llosa's literary technique ‘‘as a kind of amalgam of his own experience, literary works, other genres including cinema, and the research he has done around the world.’’ It is no accident, therefore, that The Time of the Hero is rife with allusions and borrowings from other works. For example, a major influence on literature after World War II is existentialism and one novel in particular, The Stranger by Albert Camus, had a tremendous impact. Camus' novel concerns a murder committed by a man who found himself in a tense situation, bothered by the sunlight. Similarly, no one who has read Camus can miss the allusion to that famous Algerian murder scene when Jaguar beats a boy up for courting Teresa: ''the sun broke into my head.’’ There are obvious differences but the allusion is intentional.

Less recondite, the novel as a whole takes advantage, inexactly, of Vargas Llosa's own life experience. He was actually a student at the same military school. But that is where the resemblance ends. Instead, Vargas Llosa taps into an entire genre of boarding-school literature. Robert Musil’s Young Törless also has a gang that tortures the weak and ends ambiguously. Another example of borrowing that looms over the entire work is the almost Oedipal family dynamic. Each character succeeds to the extent that he is able to overcome the emasculation his father performs on him. Jaguar's victory depends, in part, on the death of his parents. The Poet has enough personal vitality to negotiate survival in the world outside his mother. The Slave never transitions from the world of the mother to that of the father. This is the source of his slave nature.

Such utilization of other works of art borders on the post-modern. As Vargas Llosa explains in Perpetual Orgy, ‘‘Imitation in literature is not a moral problem but an artistic one: all writers use, to varying degrees, forms that have been used before, but only those incapable of transforming these plagiarisms into something deserve to be called imitators.’’ The success of the modern novel is its ability to stand on its own while also tapping into literature that is already transcendent of place and time. Camus' The Stranger was never confined, as a primitive novel would be, to Algeria and, therefore, allusion to the novel is safe, whereas, allusions to novels read only in Peru would be lost.

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: In response to the Cuban Revolution, a force of U.S. CIA-trained Cuban exiles invade Cuba unsuccessfully in 1961 (an incident known as ‘‘the Bay of Pigs’’). The U.S.S.R., to help defend its communist ally, tries to install missiles in Cuba. The U.S. refuses to allow the placement of missiles so close. The tense standoff in the fall of 1962 ends when the U.S. promises not to invade Cuba.

Today: Although many governments have changed their policies, the U.S. maintains a trade embargo on Cuba. Cuba, meanwhile, has outlived its larger communist ally, the Soviet Union, and has sought trade and reconciliation with anyone, including the Pope.

1960s: Much of Latin America adopts import substitution industrialization (ISI) economic theory after World War I until the 1960s. This protectionist policy encourages domestic production of items otherwise imported. Political instability fostered by the neglect of land reform issues lead to its demise.

Today: Fujimori, having defeated Shining Path and furthered Belaunde's privatization schemes, has made Peru friendly to foreign (especially Japanese and U.S.) investors. The economy has grown and the disparity between the rich and poor has increased.

1960s: To stem the flow of people to the West, East German soldiers ripped up the streets on the night of April 13, 1961, and the Berlin Wall was born.

Today: The Berlin Wall has been down since 1989 but the reunification of Germany has proven costly and painful.

1960s: Renegade priests throughout Latin America switched sides and began preaching 'liberation theology.' No longer supporters of the oligarchy, the priests sermonized against oppression of the poor and spoke favorably of Marxist reforms. Meanwhile, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council to begin a reform of the Catholic Church.

Today: Catholicism is still strong in Latin America although as economic conditions improve for more people, its followers are secularizing. Pope John Paul II has made huge strides in reforming the church and in breaking down barriers between Catholicism, the Eastern Orthodox church, other sects of Christianity, Jews, and Muslims.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Castro-Klaren, Sara, Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa, University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Gallagher, D. P., ''Mario Vargas Llosa,’’ Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 122-43.

Gerdes, Dick, ‘‘The Time of the Hero : Lost Innocence,’’ in Mario Vargas Llosa, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 33-52.

Harss, Luis, and Barbara Dohmann, ‘‘Mario Vargas Llosa, or The Revolving Door,'' in their Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers, Harper, 1967, pp. 342-75.

Kristal, Efrain, Temptation of the Word: The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa, Vanderbilt University Press, 1998.

Marcelo, J. J. Armas, ‘‘Secrecy: A Structural Concept of The Time of the Hero,’’ in World Literature Today, translated by Mary E. Davis, Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 68-70.

Oviedo, Jose Miguel, ‘‘The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero: On Vargas Llosa's Intellectuals and the Military,’’ translated by Richard A. Valdes, in World Literature Today, Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 16-24.

Rossman, Charles, ‘‘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, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987, pp. 261-74.

Sheppard, R. Z., ‘‘Caged Condor,’’ in Time, February 17, 1975, pp. E3, 84.

Vargas Llosa, Mario, ‘‘A Passion for Peru,’’ in New York Times Magazine, November 20, 1983, pp. 106, 108.

Vargas Llosa, Mario, The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, translated by Helen Lane, Farrar, Straus, 1986.

Williams, Raymond Leslie, ‘‘The Beginnings,’’ in Mario Vargas Llosa, Ungar, 1986, pp. 19-38.

Further Reading Allende, Isabel, Of Love and Shadows, Bantam Books, 1988. Allende brings a feminist challenge to both the masculine world of Latin America and the Boom. Of Love and Shadows takes place in a Latin American country gripped by a military dictator. A wealthy woman, Irene Beltran, and a Spanish exile's son, Francisco Leal, fall in love but discover a crime which puts their lives at risk.

Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, Scholastic Paperbacks, 1996. One of the first novels to investigate the struggles of a youth against circumstances is Bronte's Jane Eyre (originally published in 1847). Jane struggles through a boarding-school situation where there is a hint of some of the physical abuses associated with twentieth-century boarding-school stories.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, Henry Holt, 1998. Ehrenreich, who wrote the foreword to the University of Minnesota Press edition of Theweleit's Male Fantasies, has been a leading contributor to American histories of sexuality. In Blood Rites, Ehrenreich argues that humans developed war to deal with the anxieties of self-consciously being a part of the food chain. This argument is then used as a foundation to explain why modern efforts to achieve peace are so difficult.

Fuentes, Carlos, Where the Air Is Clear, Noonday Press, 1971. The first novel of El Boom, Fuentes' 1958 story indicts Mexican society by discussing its post-revolutionary reality. An epic of Mexico City urban history, Fuentes weaves together the biographies of zany characters—including an Aztec god—to unlock the Mexican psyche.

García Márquez, Gabriel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Harper Perennial Library, 1998. Perhaps the most famous novel of the Latin American Boom, García Márquez's 1967 masterpiece perfected the magical realism style. The novel records the history of post-colonial Latin America through the fantastic struggles of the Buendia family.

Gibson, James William, Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America, Hill and Wang, 1994. Gibson goes undercover to visit gun camps and affiliates of militia groups. He finds military and fascist fantasies lurk in the hidden compounds of these far-right groups even in America.

Oviedo, Jose Miguel, ‘‘The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero: On Vargas Llosa's Intellectuals and the Military,’’ translated by Richard A. Valdes, in World Literature Today, Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 16-24. Oviedo discusses the consistency with which Vargas Llosa employs the dichotomy of intellectual and military men in his fiction. The regularity with which this theme occurs leads Oviedo to conclude that this dichotomy is important to Peruvian culture and to Vargas Llosa personally. Somehow, this dichotomy must be resolved peaceably since both are intrinsic to Peru's culture.

Puig, Manuel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, edited by Erroll McDonald, translated by Thomas Colchie, Vintage Books, 1991. Originally published in 1976 as El beso de la mujer arana, Kiss of the Spider Woman remains the most famous novel by Puig—a member of the Boom generation condemned in his home country of Argentina for his overt homosexuality. Two men are holding a conversation in jail: the first is Molina, an apolitical homosexual; the other is Valentin, a young socialist revolutionary outraged by Molina's sexuality. By the end of the novel, they have fallen in love and switched places and perspectives.

Swanson, Philip, The New Novel in Latin America, Manchester University Press, 1995. Swanson analyzes the Boom in Latin American literature by showing how it came about and who the major figures were. This account takes away the surprise of the Boom by showing who influenced Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, and García Márquez.

Theweleit, Klaus, Male Fantasies, Polity Press, 1987. Theweleit examines the papers and libraries of leading Friekorpsmen to expose the sexual tensions which accompanied their warrior ideology. He places their sexual politics in the context of Fascism and its heritage of the European history of sexuality.

Vargas Llosa, Mario, Pez, en el agua (A Fish in the Water: A Memoir), Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994. Vargas Llosa records his experience as a presidential candidate and reflects on his life. He tells of the disgusting nature of back-stabbing that accompanies political campaigning as well as the story of his journey from boy to man.


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Booker, M. Keith. Vargas Llosa Among the Postmodernists. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. A thorough examination of Vargas Llosa’s works from a postmodern point of view. Includes a comparison of modernism and postmodernism, as well as extensive notes.

Castro-Klarén, Sara. “Mario Vargas Llosa.” In Latin American Writers, edited by Carlos A. Solé and Maria I. Abreau. Vol 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989. Offers a comprehensive and critical discussion of Vargas Llosa’s life and works. Provides a selected bibliography for further reading.

Gerdes, Dick. “Mario Vargas Llosa.” In Spanish American Authors: The Twentieth Century, edited by Angel Flores. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1992. Profiles Vargas Llosa and includes an extensive bibliography of works by and about the author.

Kristal, Efrain. Temptation of the Word: The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998. A collection of perceptive essays on Vargas Llosa’s novels written from the 1960s through the 1980s. A helpful bibliography for further reading is also included.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide