Mario Vargas Llosa | Critical Essay by Raymond Leslie Williams

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Mario Vargas Llosa.
This section contains 3,292 words
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Critical Essay by Raymond Leslie Williams

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 was an academic scholar, author of two critical studies and numerous articles; and third, he was a journalist widely read throughout the Hispanic world.

By 1966, at the age of thirty, Vargas Llosa was already one of the most prominent writers in Latin America. That year he was awarded the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in Caracas, the most prestigious honor a novelist can receive in Latin America. Since then, his international reputation has grown remarkably. Most of his fiction has been translated into English and there have been numerous studies of his work; in the late 1970s he was named President of the International PEN Club; by the 1980s his name has been included in the list of potential candidates for the Nobel Prize.

His story is one of passion and it is a passion for literature. This passion has revealed itself in terms of the intimate relationships with books that have influenced him, such as Madame Bovary; in the remarkable discipline he has exercised in his writing; and in the rigor he regularly demonstrates in defending the author's right to freedom of expression. Vargas Llosa has quoted Flaubert to explain how writing is "almost a physical function, a way of being which includes the entire individual."

A personal insight into this passion for life and literature came to me in the autumn of 1983, when Vargas Llosa appeared in St. Louis to deliver a lecture. The highlight of this visit was the trip we took to Hannibal, Missouri, to visit the home of Mark Twain. As might be expected from a Latin American writer nourished in his youth on American writing, Vargas Llosa was interested in the original editions of Twain's books that were on display at the Twain Museum, he was also fascinated by other nineteenth-century objects from Twain's life. Upon returning to St. Louis, we met with a colleague in English, a Twain specialist. Some of Vargas Llosa's questions about Mark Twain were the standard queries concerning the American's fiction. Apparently dissatisfied with what he had learned about the writer from Hannibal, Vargas Llosa probed further: "What were Twain's passions? Did he have a lover?" Such issues are quintessentially those of Vargas Llosa. The inquiry about Twain's personal life emanated from Vargas Llosa's conviction that all writers function as a consequence of passion. The question of lovers responds to Vargas Llosa's admitted interest in the side of life that some intellectuals might consider embarrassingly mundane: the lovers and "affairs" that provide the material for soap operas rather than for classic novels.

A love affair—and soap operas, in fact—provide the anecdotal material for Vargas Llosa's sixth novel, Aunt Julia and the Script Writer. The novel develops two story lines in alternating chapters. The odd-numbered chapters relate the somewhat autobiographical story of a love affair between an adolescent writer-to-be and his aunt, several years his senior; the even-numbered chapters are soap operas produced for Peruvian radio by one of the adolescent's colleagues at a radio station. The writer of the soap operas becomes a Latin American celebrity, and Vargas Llosa fully exploits the humorous potential of the situation. His previous novel, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, was also in a humorous vein, satirizing the Peruvian military. Set in the jungle in northeastern Peru, it tells the story of a fanatic military officer who, when given orders to placate soldiers who are molesting the local girls, organizes institutional prostitution that proves embarrassingly successful.

Aunt Julia and the Script Writer and Captain Pantoja and the Special Service are the product of a mature writer confident of his craft. They are also Vargas Llosa's most entertaining books. His more substantive novels are The Time of the Hero, The Green House, Conversation in The Cathedral, and The War of the End of the World. In addition, he has published a short novel, The Cubs, and, more recently, Historia de Mayta (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta).

The first novel, The Time of the Hero, is set in a military school in Lima. The main characters, who are adolescents, represent a cross-section of Peruvian society. They simultaneously propagate and suffer the cruel violence and rituals of daily life in the school. Many of the boys' adventures seem trivial, merely the antics of schoolboys. The actions of the cadets, however, expand to involve them in the broader Peruvian society. The result is a moral novel.

The use of narrative segments, flashbacks, and several narrators make The Time of the Hero an adventure in technique. In his next novel, The Green House, Vargas Llosa further develops narrative techniques initially explored in the first. The two basic stories of The Time of the Hero (the one in the school and the one in the city) actually evolved into five identifiable story lines. The Green House expands in physical setting: its panoramic vision covers two general areas, the Amazon jungle and the northern coastal area of Peru. Its five stories are woven into the two settings.

The panoramic vision, various narrative techniques, and story lines become even more complex in Vargas Llosa's most ambitious novel, Conversation in The Cathedral. Set during the period from approximately the late 1940s to the early 1960s, it encompasses many aspects of social and political life in Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel Odría, which lasted from 1948 to 1956. The protagonist, who belongs to Vargas Llosa's generation—those who experienced the Odría regime during adolescence and early adulthood—spends four hours talking with a friend in a bar named "La Catedral." Waves of dialogue spread out to cover the entire time span and the broad physical setting of the novel, which includes Lima and several provinces of Peru. This challenging work of fiction, which was originally published in two volumes, involves some sixty characters, a subtle montage of dialogue, and a complex manipulation of structure and point of view….

Each of these first three novels is an adventure in reader participation, requiring one to master Vargas Llosa's techniques. Obviously, the reading of a novel such as Conversation in The Cathedral cannot be taken lightly. (As one critic has quipped, however, the author could respond that he does not undertake the writing lightly.)

Even Vargas Llosa's two humorous novels, which followed this initial cycle of most demanding fiction, are not to be dismissed as light entertainment…. The War of the End of the World contains elements that can be associated with much of the previous fiction, and in this sense may be seen as a synthesis of Vargas Llosa's writing career. Like Conversation in The Cathedral, it is a monumental production. Its 568 pages represent an exhaustive research into the history and region of its setting, northern Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century. Unlike the early novels, however, it is basically a straightforward and chronologically narrated account.

Vargas Llosa had the good fortune of publishing his first novels during the 1960s, precisely at a moment when the international reading public began to take notice of Latin America. He was one of the key figures in the rise of the contemporary novel there. Along with Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, and Gabriel García Márquez, Vargas Llosa gained international acclaim during a period that witnessed the publication of such novels as Fuentes's The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962) and Change of Skin (1968), Cortázar's Hopscotch (1963), and García Márquez's stunning and magnificent One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

Vargas Llosa belongs to a tradition of Spanish-American writing, however, that predates this small selection of fine novels from the 1960s. The "boom" was only, in fact, the international recognition of relatively few novelists belonging to a literary culture that had initiated dramatic changes in Spanish-American fiction by the 1940s.

A key writer in this reaffirmation of the right of invention was Jorge Luis Borges, who published his Ficciones in the 1940s. Other novels that pointed to the new direction of Spanish-American fiction were: El Señor Presidente (1946), by the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias; At the Edge of the Storm (1947), by the Mexican Agustín Yáñez; Adán Buenosayres (1948), by the Argentine Leopoldo Marechal; and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier's The Kingdom of this World (1949). Each of these novelists continued writing through the 1950s. Mexico's Juan Rulfo published his classic novel Pedro Páramo in 1955. By the mid-1950s Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, and Cortázar were publishing their initial stories, and García Márquez demonstrated lessons in narrative technique—learned primarily from Faulkner—with his first novel, Leafstorm (1955).

Writers of the generations preceding Vargas Llosa—Borges, Asturias, and Carpentier, among others—were directly involved with the European avant-grade of the 1920s. All three, in fact, were in Europe during that period. Spanish-American writers even produced a few avantgarde novels themselves during the 1920s and 1930s. Examples are: the Mexicans Arqueles Vela, who wrote El café de nadie (Nobody's Café; 1926), and Jaime Torres Bodet, author of Margarita de niebla (Marguerite of the Mist; 1927), and the Peruvian Martín Adán, who published La casa de cartón (The Cardboard House; 1928). The novels of this period that attracted most readers, however, were the more traditional and tellurian classics: La vorágine (The Vortex; 1924) by the Colombian José Eustacio Rivera, Don Segundo Sombra (1926) by the Argentine Ricardo Guiraldes, and the Venezuelan Rómulo Gallegos's Doña Barbara (1929). Simple and at times even simplistic novels, they have been rejected by the contemporary novelists. Vargas Llosa has described them as primitive efforts at novelization.

"All Peruvian writers, in the long run, are defeated persons." This is how Vargas Llosa has characterized the vocation of writing in one of his numerous statements about the formidable difficulties of surviving as a professional writer in Peru. With rare exceptions, the Peruvian potentially interested in literature has become a lawyer or politician by profession, and a writer on weekends.

A tradition of fiction writing in Peru nonetheless exists. The outstanding writers in nineteenth-century Peru were Ricardo Palma (1833–1919), one of Latin America's best traditional storytellers and recreators of local customs, and Clorinda Matto de Turner, a novelist who dedicated her life and writing to denouncing the injustices suffered by the Indians in Peru. Her Aves sin nido (Birds without a Nest; 1899) is generally considered a landmark novel in Spanish-American Indianist literature.

Until the 1940s Peruvian writers produced relatively few noteworthy novels compared to the remainder of the Hispanic world. Those published fall squarely within the realist-naturalist tradition: their primary function was denunciation, particularly with respect to the social injustices perpetrated against the native Indian population. The two novelists who dominated the Peruvian literary scene entirely during the 1940s and 1950s were Ciro Alegría (1909–67) and José María Arguedas (1911–69). Both writers were concerned primarily with indigenous themes. Vargas Llosa has delivered lectures and written extensively about Arguedas and has demonstrated a particular empathy for Sebastián Salazar Bondy (1924–65). He has used Salazar Bondy as the example, par excellence, of the devastating effects of attempting to be a professional writer in Peru.

The Peruvian historical context is perhaps even more important for Vargas Llosa's work than the literary tradition. The historical setting of his work stretches over much of the twentieth century. As one critic has aptly pointed out, Vargas Llosa's novels are profoundly discontented visions of Peru. The novelist has explained his vision of his task as a writer in Peru as follows: "Literature in general and the novel in particular are expressions of discontent. Their social usefulness lies principally in the fact that they remind people that the world is always wrong, that life should always change."

Recent Peruvian history, indeed, provides the novelist with many sources of discontent. Twentieth-century Peru has been characterized by occasional periods of social and economic progress, but instability has been the general rule.

Several types of governments and leaders since World War I have accompanied Peru in its limping journey through recent decades. Throughout the 1920s a U.S.-supported President, Leguía, served primarily the interests of the local oligarchy and foreign investors. Poor economic conditions for the working classes and inflation resulted in the formation of two powerful populist movements. The leftist APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria) was founded in 1924 by Raúl Haya de la Torre as a response to postwar inflation. Another populist leader, Sánchez Cerro, founded the Unión Revolucionaria, right-wing and nationalistic party which, like the APRA, found its main support among the working class. According to Vargas Llosa, in Piura in every home in the working-class neighborhood called La Mangachería (an important setting of The Green House) had a picture of its hero, Sánchez Cerro. This hero took power in 1931 only to be assassinated in 1933—quite likely by a supporter of the APRA. Neither political stability nor economic conditions improved in the 1930s or 1940s.

The government of José Luis Bustamente, a moderate liberal elected in 1945, gave power to Haya de la Torre and the apristas, but General Manuel Odría took over the government in 1948 with the backing of the oligarchy, which had become alarmed over the leftist tendencies within the Bustamente government. "With Odría, barbarism reigned once more in Peru," Vargas Llosa has explained. Not only brutal and oppressive, Odría's eight-year regime was corrupt and stultifying. Odría permitted elections in 1956, which resulted in the presidency of Manuel Prado, who was elected with the support of his former enemies, the apristas. Near the end of Prado's second term in 1962, elections were held. The three candidates were Odría, Haya de la Torre, and Belaúnde. After a period of political and military maneuvering following the elections, and a brief military junta, Belaúnde was elected. Belaúnde received 39 percent of the vote, Haya de la Torre 34 percent and Odría 26 percent. The setting for Conversation in The Cathedral is the regime of Odría and the beginning of the government of Belaúnde. Peruvian novelist Julio Ramón Ribeyro also published a novel on this period, Cambio de guardia (Change of the Guard; 1976), a work that had been written several years before it was finally published….

The apogee of Vargas Llosa's prominence in the Hispanic world came in 1967 in the form of his receiving its most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Rómulo Gallegos. At the ceremony for this prize in Caracas, he delivered his much-quoted statement on literature and revolution: "La literatura es fuego" ("Literature Is Fire"). Seen in retrospect, however, it is possible to trace a consistent line of thought, from the mid-1960s to 1971, which demonstrates his change of position from strict adherence to, and support of, socialist principles and regimes, to dissociation from all dogmatic and authoritarian governments, including Marxist.

Such a stance has been considered heresy by many Latin American intellectuals. But, as early as 1966 Vargas Llosa published articles that began to clarify his eventual political position. In an article entitled "Una insurección permanente" ("A Permanent Insurrection"), published in March 1966, Vargas Llosa supports the idea of socialism but defends the right to criticize within socialist systems. Here he begins defining his own type of socialism. The following year he penned articles that were vigorously opposed to censorship on both sides of the East-West block. One piece criticized censorship in the Soviet Union and the other was a polemic against censorship in Great Britain. This questioning of Soviet policies in 1967 probably made a split with Castro's Cuba inevitable.

By 1970, lines of direct confrontation between pro-Cuban Hispanic intellectuals and Vargas Llosa were clearly defined. In April 1970 he defended the fiction of the "boom" writers [in "Luzbel y otras conspiraciones"], responding to an ideologically pro-Cuban attack directed at him by the young Colombian intellectual Oscar Collazos. Vargas Llosa openly criticized Fidel Castro by name four months later (August 1970). The definitive rift between the writer and Soviet-Cuban bloc occurred in 1971. As a result of the case of the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla (a celebrated issue in Latin America), Vargas Llosa wrote two open letters to Cuba. The first, addressed to Haydée Santamaría of the Cuban government, expressed Vargas Llosa's unwillingness to make a promised visit to Cuba because of censorship and repression (April 5, 1971). The second was a letter directed to Fidel Castro, signed by numerous Latin American writers, asking Castro to reconsider his most recent actions with respect to intellectuals and indeed make Cuba the "model of socialism" that the leftist intelligentsia had expected. Vargas Llosa still considered himself a supporter of the Cuban Revolution; some distance has nevertheless remained between him and other Latin American writers who unequivocally defend all the policies of Castro and other nations aligned with the Soviet Union.

In addition to the heated political debate, the late 1960s and early 1970s were years that highlighted Vargas Llosa's extraordinary artistic and scholarly discipline. He wrote two of his most lengthy texts, Conversation in The Cathedral and the study of García Márquez's fiction, Gabriel García Márquez: historia de un deicidio. The original Spanish edition of the novel was published in two volumes. Although this work contributed to his prestige as a novelist, it probably did little to broaden his readership. His study of García Márquez—an exhaustive 667-page analysis of the Colombian's complete fiction—is still one of the best source books on that writer; it is almost as interesting for its revelations on Vargas Llosa as for those on its subject.

After the publication of the novel Captain Pantoja and the Special Service and more essays during the year 1973, Vargas Llosa returned to Peru in 1974. He noticed those changes that had occurred since he left at the age of twenty-two, and another of his passions came forth in his description of the return:

I left Europe and didn't live in my country again for any length of time until 1974. I was 22 years old when I left and 38 when I returned. In many ways, I was a totally different person when I came back. But as far as my relationship to my country is concerned, I think it has not changed since my adolescence. It is a relationship that can be defined with the help of metaphors rather than concepts. Peru is for me a kind of incurable disease, and my feeling for her is intense, bitter, and full of the violence that characterizes passion.

Despite the mixed feelings, Vargas Llosa has basically remained in Peru, with his second wife, Patricia, since 1974. During this period he has dedicated himself to the type of activity and writing that had characterized his previous career. He wrote three more novels, Aunt Julia and the Script Writer, The War of the End of the World, and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta; his essays have appeared regularly throughout the Hispanic world—including a book-length study of Flaubert's Madame Bovary titled La orgía perpetua: Flaubert y "Madame Bovary." His newspaper pieces on political issues have been consistent with his earlier writing: he regularly speaks out against any type of censorship or repression of rights of the artist. Being named President of PEN Club International in the late 1970s gave him an international forum in which to discuss such issues. By the mid-1980s, Vargas Llosa was established as one of the world's major writers. His novels, which are translated into numerous languages (as are his scholarly essays and incisive political writings) have made him one of the most respected writers of the twentieth century.

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