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Interview by Mario Vargas Llosa with Ricardo A. Setti
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.
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.
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