(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Since the publication of his first novel, La ciudad y los perros (1962; The Time of the Hero, 1966), more than forty years ago, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has become one of the modern world’s most important writers. Not only has he written sixteen diverse novels, from political thrillers such as Fiesta del Chivo (2000; The Feast of the Goat, 2001) to a contemporary retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) titled Travesuras de la niña mala (2006; The Bad Girl, 2007), but he has also written critical essays on topics ranging from fellow Latin American novelist Gabriel García Márquez to Flaubert in La orgía perpetua (1975; The Perpetual Orgy, 1986) and the craft of writing in Cartas a un joven novelista (1997; Letters to a Young Novelist, 2002) and A Writer’s Reality (1991).

Like many Latin American novelists, Vargas Llosa has been politically active, running for president of Peru in 1990, and many of his novels and essays focus on the intricate ways that politics often intertwine with everyday life. The essays in Wellsprings range over writers as diverse as Miguel de Cervantes and Jorge Luis Borges, Isaiah Berlin and José Ortega y Gasset, exploring topics as wide-ranging as the dangers of nationalism and the challenges of liberalism. At least two of the essays explore the dangers of totalitarian approaches to political or religious thinking and the challenges to freedom of such approaches. In all of his writings, Vargas Llosa has experimented with different styles, from literary modernism to postmodernism. His novels and essays demonstrate that he is one of the most playful, inventive, and thoughtful contemporary Latin American writers.

At first glance, the essays in Wellsprings seem to be disparate meditations on a variety of unrelated topics. Nevertheless, while each essay can indeed be read as a discrete reflection on a particular topic, the essays do exhibit a thematic unity. Much like Milan Kundera’s essays in Le Rideau (2005; The Curtain, 2007) and L’Art du roman (1986; The Art of the Novel, 1988), Vargas Llosa’s essays in Wellsprings attempt to explain the development of the novel against the backdrop of politics, history, and culture. In the first two essays in the collection, Vargas Llosa cites the two writers, Cervantes and Borges, who have influenced not only his own writing but also Spanish literature, in particular, and world literature, in general. He calls Borges a liberating force for Latin American fiction, and he declares that Borges’s fiction is the most exciting and important event for imaginative writing in the Spanish language in modern times. In canny fashion, Vargas Llosa shifts his gaze from fiction to politics in essays on nationalism, Ortega y Gassett, Berlin, and Karl Popper. The novel, according to Vargas Llosa, acts as an arbitrary organization of human reality that protects individuals against the anxiety unleashed by the political or social disorder that is part of their everyday lives. The greatest novelistsMarcel Proust, Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, William Faulkneringeniously construct orderly fictitious worlds where life flows with order and coherence and which encourage confidence in individuals that they can know themselves, their world, and their hopes.

Wellsprings opens with Vargas Llosa’s reflections on Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615), “Four Centuries of Don Quixote.” In the manner of Dante and William Shakespeare, Cervantes uses his writing to explore the nature of humanity, questioning the extent to which illusion intrudes on reality. Don Quixote is a perfect example of Vargas Llosa’s notion that fiction provides an order that the real world cannot provide. Such an order is not always perfect, though, since Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, not only humorously tilt at imaginary windmills but also destroy villages and injure people in their adventures. At best, Don Quixote enriches the reader by showing that individuals, through artistic creation, can overcome the limitations of their existence and achieve a nobility and an immortality. Thus, just as Hamlet remains forever a model of indecision, Quixote will live eternally as a model of the good-hearted but inept hero, dreaming of a better world. At the same time, however, Cervantes makes writers feel small with his glorious creative accounts of Quixote and Panza. Vargas Llosa...

(The entire section is 1866 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Hispanic 21, no. 11 (November, 2008): 72.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 8 (February 25, 2008): 60-61.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 7, 2008, p. 29.