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Critical Essay by Mario Vargas Llosa
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. In fact, it may be that my planning and conscious work were less important than the intervention of my unconscious.
The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta has been read mostly as a political book, and in many cases has been considered an essay about violence and revolution in Latin America—a political statement disguised in novel form, the essence of which is the description of an objective historical reality. That was not my intention. I was, of course, using political ideology and historical facts as raw materials, but my goal was literary, not political. In my opinion, a novel should create an illusion of reality—whatever that may be—and is not a genre suited to political statements.
As is the case with all my books, Mayta began with a personal experience, not an experience I lived myself, but something I nonetheless knew well. During the late Fifties and early Sixties, I was politically committed to extreme leftist causes and ideals. Like many Latin Americans, my enthusiasm for the triumph of the Cuban revolution was very strong. Although I had broken with the Communist Party after just one year, I remained interested in Marxism, despite some disagreements about aesthetics, literature, and art. Until Fidel Castro entered Havana, most Latin intellectuals thought of revolution as a remote, romantic, even academic idea. Che Guevara's conclusion that the objective conditions for a revolution could be created by revolutionaries themselves changed the attitudes of the extreme Left—me included. Nonetheless, I was amazed when I read in Le Monde (I was living in France at the time) that a group of Peruvians had actually attempted to start a revolution in the central Andes. They had taken control of a small city for a few hours, and then escaped into the mountains, where they were hunted down; some were killed, and others arrested.
Until I read this report, I had never really believed that in Peru—my own country, which I thought I knew so well—such events would one day happen. I was impressed, and I kept the details in my memory. Gradually they became a matter for literary speculation, around which my imagination, my fantasy, started to work.
Sometime later, just by chance, I met a man in France who told me the details of the aborted revolution. It was something quite crazy. The revolutionaries consisted of only two adults and some high-school students; a handful of people—maybe ten or 15, I don't remember exactly; there were not twenty of them. It was difficult to imagine how this group could have imagined their insurrection would begin a process that would eventually seize control of the country.
One of the adult leaders was a 23-year-old lieutenant of the Guardia Republicana; the other, a man in his early forties named Mayta, was the only one with a background of political militancy. First he had been in the Soviet faction of the Peruvian Communist Party; then he became a Maoist. When the Maoists expelled him, he became a Trotskyist, and was a militant in a Trotskyist cadre when he met the young lieutenant, who, to Mayta's amazement, started to talk about the possibilities of a revolution in Peru. The lieutenant was a spontaneous revolutionary—with no ideological education—and the older Trotskyist was impressed by his militancy, especially so because at that time the association of a military officer with Marxism was as unthinkable as a priest's sympathy for such doctrines. Things have changed considerably since then.
It was decided in this Trotskyist group that Alejandro Mayta should try to indoctrinate the young lieutenant. In fact, it was the younger man who convinced Mayta that revolution was actually possible; that Peru was a fertile land for an upheaval. He explained that the town where he was based could easily be captured by a group of revolutionaries. They could get weapons from the city guard there, and establish a revolutionary focal point in the mountains, just as the Cubans had.
Mayta was convinced, and together the two men planned the revolution. At first many others agreed to participate, but when the deadline came most had become skeptical and had withdrawn. The only ones left were the two men and some students, whose role, according to the original plan, was supposed to have been marginal.
These were the facts behind the story that I read about in the French newspaper. I knew I wanted to write a political novel of adventure; to tell the story of a handful of people crazy enough—or generous enough or idealistic enough—to start a revolution.
I never start writing immediately after I have an idea. My usual pace is to think about it for months—even years—and to enrich the original concept. Then one day I start making notes and putting anecdotes into place. In this case, the original plan for the novel changed with my own political evolution. Throughout the Sixties, my enthusiasm for revolution slowly diminished, which is to say, I abandoned the belief that only violence could break the status quo and precipitate economic and social reform in Peru. I had seen what Cuba had become, and had seen the reality in other socialist countries.
Then in the early Seventies another idea, probably more important than the original novel of political adventure, took over. Fiction itself as a theme became very important to me: fiction as something larger than literature; fiction as something more important in life than literature or art. I discovered that in fact fiction is indispensable for mankind—even for people without an interest in literature, who never read books at all. Everyone needs to incorporate some fictitious life into real life; some kind of lie that by some mechanism or another is transformed into truth. In many cases literature accomplishes this task. We read novels, and are enriched by the lies they give us. But there are other ways in which it is not so clear that we are incorporating fiction into experience. In some cases religion does it—not just for individuals but for whole societies.
As I became involved in political debates in Latin America, I became even more aware of this human need for fictitious experience, especially as my own vision of social problems changed, as I grew more and more critical of the strategies and ideas of the extreme Left. Being so involved in polemics, I thought about this subject a great deal, and one day I reached a conclusion: ideology was fulfilling this need for lies throughout Latin America. Ideology was the way many people incorporated fiction into their lives, just as some did so with novels or religion. Intellectuals especially were using ideology to identify the laws of history, society, and political evolution, and were, in fact, adding to reality a purely imaginary world.
How strange that this fiction was a major cause of violence and brutality in Latin America; that these sometimes elaborate and complex ideological constructions, which criticized existing society in terms of another ideal society to be reached through revolution, were, in fact, the mechanism that was destroying our societies, and creating major obstacles to real progress against the very problems that gave rise to the ideologies in the first place—social injustice, economic inequality, disharmony among different cultures. How interesting that fiction can be both beneficial and damaging. In one way, the civilization's great literary achievements have enriched mankind psychologically and ethically, and have encouraged progress in many ways. But at the same time fiction has been a major instrument of suffering, because it is behind all the dogmatic doctrines that have justified repression, censorship, massacres, and genocide.
Why not, therefore, write a novel about the two faces of fiction, obverse and reverse? When I decided to do so, Mayta and his handful of revolutionaries came immediately to mind. It was, in fact, ideal raw material for the invention of a novel that would develop this night-and-day story of fiction.
I had, of course, some information about what had happened, but I began to do additional research—not in order to be totally faithful to what had occurred, to be exact or objective, but, as the narrator of Mayta's story says, "Para mentir con conocimiento de causa." I don't like the translation of this phrase into English as it appears in the novel. What it really means is that one distorts knowing one is distorting. The novelist's responsibility is not to exactness but to persuasiveness; and to persuade, in most cases, is to lie.
I did a great deal of research. I read everything that had been written, in newspapers and magazines, and interviewed some of the participants. By now, these events had taken place 25 years before, and yet I found that many people were reluctant to say exactly what they knew. It was very interesting to discover how people used memory to justify both past and present—who they had been, and what they had become. Some were obviously lying to change the past, and I was able to test in a practical way how fiction was operating, because their fictions were so visible. For a writer, unlike an anthropologist or historian, lies are as important as truth, are equally useful. In this, the novelist is superior to the scholar.
My idea was to have the novel flow on two levels. First there was the story of the narrator, someone who would have my name (but only in order to misguide the reader), collecting material to write a novel about Mayta. This would be the so-called fake objective level. Then there would be an imaginary level, in which the reader would follow the process of building a fiction. The reader would see this writer using what he knows in objective reality as material out of which his fantasy and imagination construct a fiction, something that is not a reflection, not a totally separate reality (because this new reality always uses objective facts), but something that little by little becomes very different, essentially so, from those objective sources. So the whole novel would be a continuous confrontation between these two dimensions, warring in the mind of the protagonist, who is the writer. The narrator, who when I began writing was supposed to be invisible, became, more in an unconscious than in a deliberate way, at least as important as Mayta, because it is he who manipulates what happens, so that in the end what is important is not what actually happened but the way in which reality—the characters and events—are manipulated by him.
The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is a novel about two kinds of fiction, ideological fiction and literary fiction. Ideological fiction is what Mayta and his comrades live. Mayta is an ideologue, a man totally convinced that reality can be captured by the mechanisms of reason, as defined by Marx and enriched and improved upon by Lenin and Trotsky. Revolutionary doctrine provides all the instruments necessary to understand exactly what society is, what forces are involved in history, and how, knowing this, a revolutionary can act to produce qualitative changes in reality. In the novel, the reader can perceive that this ideology is, in fact, a fiction—constantly rejected and falsified by objective reality—and how, in spite of it, Mayta possesses a mechanism that acts immediately whenever the falsification of reality becomes obvious, and finds a theoretical justification to move forward in yet another illusory way. And the reader perceives how all this leads Mayta and his followers into something that produces exactly the opposite of the intended consequence.
The literary fiction, however, does not have these catastrophic results. In fact, it has positive consequences, because in a world going to pieces, practically disappearing in an orgy of violence, the writer finds a reason to resist, to live. When one witness asks how he can stupidly write a novel at a time when the country is vanishing, when there is civil war and terrorism, and people are dying of hunger, the narrator replies: "No, it's not stupid. At least to write a novel is something that can create a way in which I can defend myself against all this catastrophe that surrounds me." Fantasy and imagination provide psychological means to survive despite the fact that objectively there is no longer any hope.
Through the destinies of characters in a novel or short story, I can make evident something I believe: fiction is negative, has negative results for society and history when it is not perceived to be fiction but is disguised as objective knowledge, as an objective description of reality; and, on the contrary, fiction is positive and useful to society and history—and the individual—when it is perceived as such; when, reading a novel, one relishes the experience of an illusion. I want a novel to make evident this paradox: when fiction is understood to be an illusion it becomes an objective reality. When thus understood and incorporated into our real experiences, fiction gives us a better understanding of ourselves and society.
This was what I wanted to write about, and what I thought I had written when I finished the novel. But the reviews, essays, and even oral commentaries about the book have not brought out any of this. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, as I wrote above, has been taken as a novel against revolution, as an indictment of Marxism in Latin America. I do not know. Again, the writer does not have the last word.
This section contains 2,333 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)