Mario Vargas Llosa | Mary E. Davis

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Mario Vargas Llosa.
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Mary E. Davis

SOURCE: "Mario Vargas Llosa: The Case of the Vanishing Hero," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 510-19.

In the following excerpt, Davis asserts that The War of the End of the World. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and Who Killed Palomino Molero? feature antiheroes.

During the course of a career that now spans more than twenty years, Mario Vargas Llosa has imagined an entire narrative universe, a cosmos whose atomic structure is made up of characters of several clearly recognizable types. Although he has been criticized for a shift in intensity since the publication of Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service) (1973), Vargas Llosa has continued the steady fabrication of his own history of Peru. The actual history of Peru forms a parallel motif in these complex novels, and, particularly in the later ones, the disillusionment of the author with the political process now evident in the twentieth century approximates that slow fall from idealism into gritty reality that commonly is the destiny of his characters.

The three novels published to date in the eighties, La guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World) (1981), La historia de Mayta (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta) (1984), and ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (Who Killed Palomino Molero?) (1986), all immerse the reader in the gray atmosphere that permeated Vargas Llosa's earliest work. After The War of the End of the World, there is a steady narrowing of the field of action in this trio, but the murals of characters, the deliberately uneasy combinations of types from chivalric, historical, and modern sources, the writer-as-character, the interior narrator or a combination of them, and the reappearance of the signature character—all are stylistic constants.

In a review of The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, Robert Coover captures the characteristics of this section of Vargas Llosa's canon:

"Deicide," as Mr. Vargas Llosa calls it, has largely given way to reflection and subtlety, smaller narrative enclosures, cohabitation with a less demonic muse. The subject may even be, as in … The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, the failure of the enterprise itself—though, even here, echoes of the "total novel" resound still. ["The Writer as God and Saboteur," New York Times Book Review, 2 February 1986]

The Tolstoyan immensity of The War of the End of the World shrinks into the fractured Peru of Mayta, and, still more, into the small stage of the detective novel that explores the murder of Palomino Molero. Each of these novels reduces history to the perceptions of characters lost in its whirlwind. The customarily broad canvas allows Vargas Llosa to present an enmeshed chain of characters, and he does not allow a protagonist to overshadow other characters. The emphasis falls upon the combination of events and personalities, in a manner quite similar to that described by Italo Calvino in the case of Balzac:

To make a novel out of a city, to represent the streets and the various districts as dramatis personae, each one with a character in conflict with every other; to give life to human figures and situations as if they were spontaneous growths from the cobbles of the streets, or else protagonists in such dramatic contrast with them as to cause a whole string of disasters; to work in such a way that at every changing moment the true protagonist was the living city, its biological continuity, the monster that was Paris—this is what Balzac felt impelled to do when he began to write Ferragus. [The Uses of Literature]

As always, Vargas Llosa demands that his reader imagine yet a third history, one that arises in the interstices between the great events and the characters who must endure catastrophes both great and small.

Through the amazing diversity of the characters that people the three novels, Vargas Llosa's attention consistently returns to those who do not succeed, those who may actually elect failure. In La orgía perpetua: Flaubert y Madame Bovary (The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary), Vargas Llosa describes the focus of Flaubert's narrative:

It is not only the bourgeois world, but a wider one that cuts transversely across social classes that Madame Bovary converts into the central subject of the novel: the kingdom of mediocrity, the grey universe of the man without quality. For this alone Flaubert's novel would merit consideration as the foundation of the modern novel, erected almost entirely around the elusive silhouette of the antihero.

The kaleidoscope of characters within The War of the End of the World provides a complex illustration of that transverse slice of social classes that Vargas Llosa admires in Flaubert. Although he would seem to be retelling the events already narrated by Euclides da Cunha in Os sertões, Vargas Llosa is actually refocusing the history of the nineteenth-century massacre at Canudos, and in doing so, he includes time frames considerably beyond and before the century in which the disaster occurred. Whereas Euclides da Cunha presented the disaster at Canudos as a Darwinian battle between ancients and moderns, Vargas Llosa uses the series of battles to reiterate his philosophy of history in Latin America: each stage of man's anthropological development may be represented by living characters at any moment. Sara Castro Klarén describes the different organization of action in the two interpretations of the same events:

Euclides neatly divides his text into the background and the action of the war at Canudos. What governs this arrangement is a sense of seriality and cause and effect relationship. For Mario Vargas Llosa, organization of action has always been a more complicated attempt to conquer a sense of simultaneity in action. ["Santos and Cangaceiros: Inscription without Discourse in Os Sertões and La guerra del fin del mundo," Modern Language Notes 101, No. 2 (March 1986)]

As always, Vargas Llosa uses both stylistic technique and his characters to create the simultaneity necessary to his concept of history.

In The War of the End of the World, the characters who are most important historically fade within the narration and are replaced by the characters who endure cataclysmic events rather than control them. The mysterious Counselor whose fervor attracts followers from the most violent and poverty-stricken segments of Brazilian society is a character from the Middle Ages or early Renaissance. The remote past that he symbolizes stands in direct contrast to the modern vision of civilization that the politicians from Bahía would impose on their society. The Counselor's amazing success in forming an alternative mode for the dispossessed can be assumed from his initial appearance:

The man was tall and so thin he seemed to be always in profile. He was dark-skinned and rawboned, and his eyes burned with perpetual fire. He wore shepherd's sandals and the dark purple tunic draped over his body called to mind the cassocks of those missionaries who every so often visited the villages of the backlands…. It was impossible to learn what his age, his background, his life story were, but there was something about his quiet manner, his frugal habits, his imperturbable gravity that attracted people even before he offered counsel.

The followers of the Counselor are primarily bandits and murderers who could have escaped from medieval ballad cycles. His ability to weld them into citizens of the beautiful city of Canudos makes him a powerful threat to the delicate stability of nineteenth-century Brazil. Two of the figures who fall within the Counselor's powerful field of force are characters from the eighteenth century. One, the Barón de Cañabrava, is the wealthy owner of the land appropriated by the Counselor's followers. Although he exercises considerable political power among the conservatives of Bahía, he prefers the retired life of his country estate, a refuge ultimately destroyed by the fanaticism of Canudos. His wife becomes mentally deranged as the result of the burning of their house, and the Barón is left only with memories and a strongly aesthetic appreciation of reality. The Barón is the most astute of the political powers in the novel, and as a result of the painful disaster of his private life, he realizes that the eighteenth century gives no access to the nineteenth. In a conversation with his former enemy, he muses:

"I believe that we've seen the end of a style, of a certain way of conducting politics…. I admit that I've become obsolete. I functioned better in the old system, when it was a question of getting people to follow established customs and practices, of negotiating, persuading, using diplomacy and politesse. That's all over and done with today, of course. The hour has come for action, daring, violence, even crimes. What is needed now is a total dissociation of politics from morality."

Equally a man of the eighteenth century is the phrenologist from Scotland, Galileo Gall, who comes to the New World to observe the society of Brazil. His confidence in logic and science lead him into the maelstrom of Canudos, and he is destroyed by the force of his love for another man's wife.

Vargas Llosa's demythification of the eighteenth-century figures pales in comparison with that worked upon Colonel Moreira César, the invincible leader sent to command the huge army whose mission is to destroy Canudos. Colonel César begins his campaign as an epic hero, but the events of the Canudos campaign destroy him as surely as they do the Barón de Cañabrava and Galileo Gall, who once termed the Colonel "'an idealist of the same stamp as Robespierre.'"

As is his custom, Vargas Llosa abandons the characters who represent different approaches to power in order to concentrate the narrative focus within the vision of an interior narrator, in this case, a nameless, near-sighted journalist who is attracted to Canudos because of the fascination of the powerful Moreira César. For the journalist, "'Seeing a flesh-and-blood hero, being close to someone very famous is a very tempting prospect. It would be like seeing and touching a character in a novel.'" We see many of the characters and events of the campaign against Canudos through the journalist's myopic eyes, and, perhaps because he will write one of the historical accounts of the ferocious battle, he is allowed to escape the destruction that befalls the more heroic characters. His hopes of becoming "the Oscar Wilde of Brazil" are destroyed by the results of Canudos, but the journalist does achieve the clearest understanding of the meaning of the holocaust. Vargas Llosa continually ridicules his writer-within-the-tale, calling him a "clown," a "scarecrow," "a human puzzle." But this improbable narrator lives through the massacre of Canudos, and his stubborn meditation on what the carnage means is the focus of the last half of the immense novel.

In a long conversation with the Barón many years after the destruction of Canudos, the journalist reveals that between twenty-five and thirty thousand inhabitants of Canudos were killed in the massacre, as well as 823 members of the army. He forces the Barón to confront the enormity of the national disaster. When the Barón pretends that Canudos no longer concerns him,

"It does matter to you, Baron," the vibrant voice of the near-sighted journalist interjected. "For the same reason it matters to me: because Canudos changed your life. Because of Canudos your wife lost her mind, because of Canudos you lost a large part of your fortune and your power. Of course it matters to you."

Vargas Llosa rewards the obstinate efforts of the journalist to understand the tumultuous events that he has witnessed by giving him Jurema, the enchanted female who can be released from that condition only by the journalist, although Galileo Gall, her husband Rufino, and the reformed bandit Pajeú all contend for her attention.

The reader, of course, understands more than the journalist, for he is aware of the extent of the disaster, for example, in the Barón's life, as well as of the details of the other histories unknown to the journalist. Vargas Llosa allows his reader to see what Cervantes called the pattern on the back of the carpet. Although he has been criticized for his refusal of a transcendent heroism and for the creation of a reality in which heroes constantly disappear, his depiction of a mural of diverse characters conforms to Vargas Llosa's Sartrean view of history: the individual may decide upon his own identity, but hell is still other people.

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta recalls earlier stages of Vargas Llosa's narrative style. Like The Time of the Hero, it begins in fog, as the narrator jogs through the garbage-laden streets of Lima. Like Conversation in The Cathedral, it is constructed upon what is in effect a long conversation. And, like The Time of the Hero, it deals with treason, those betrayals both petty and grandiose that form the plot of secret societies. The writer-within-the-story is unnamed, but his efforts to construct an acceptable image of a Peruvian revolutionary give Vargas Llosa the opportunity to comment reflexively on the craft of creating fictional personalities.

There has been disagreement among critics as to the subject of Mayta. Is it Mayta's shadowy life? Or revolution itself? Or the act of writing another life? For Robert Coover,

There are in fact two stories in "Mayta"—that of the title character and his abortive guerrilla uprising, and that of the unnamed narrator-investigator and his frustrated fictional exploration of this particular but elusive moment in past time that was once hard and now is as embrace-able as smoke.

Vargas Llosa uses both Mayta's absurd act and the narrator's recreation of two separate epochs in Peru's history to create another, fictional history, one that exists only in the reader's mind. The narrator explains his method early on:

"Because I'm a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it," I explain. "That's how I work. And I think the only way to write stories is to start with History—with a capital H."

As the novel begins, the narrator first presents Mayta as a child, a fellow student at a religious school:

Back then, we knew a lot about religion, very little about politics, and absolutely nothing about revolution. Mayta was a curly-haired, pudgy kid with flat feet and wide spaces between his teeth. He waddled: his feet looked like clock hands permanently set at ten minutes to two.

A less heroic figure would be hard to imagine. Yet this child grows into a confirmed Marxist whose primary goal in life is to overthrow the government of Peru. Vargas Llosa emphasizes the pathetic life that Mayta lives:

Mayta was a revolutionary from the shadowy side. He had spent his life conspiring and fighting in insignificant little groups like the one he was a member of. And suddenly, just when he was reaching the age at which people usually retire from militant activism, someone turned up who opened the doors of action to him for the first time. Could there have been anything as captivating for a man like Mayta than out of the blue having someone stick a submachine gun in his hands?

The real provocateur of Mayta's revolution is his friend Vallejos, the commander of the military garrison in Jauja, the first capital of Peru. Vallejos provides the scene, the occasion, the arms, and the enthusiasm for the event that Mayta envisions as the beginning of the revolution. Since he is an heroic, active figure, Vallejos perforce will be killed on the day that Mayta's revolution begins.

Not so fortunate Mayta. Both his Indian name and the location of Jauja—in Peru's ancient past, a part of the region dominated by the Huancas—remind us of the other Peru, the one so isolated from the government of Lima. Vargas Llosa views the remnants of Indian civilizations with unromantic eyes, but the other Peru remains and forms a separate stratum of the history he is creating. The Indians in Vargas Llosa's novels are eternally betrayed, both by the government and by each other. We know that Mayta will not escape.

Mayta's revolution is over within twelve hours, but the narrator speculates as to its influence upon later attempts at revolution. As he is interviewing Mayta's friends, enemies, and relatives, the narrator moves through a Lima besieged. Amid news of a threatened attack from outside Peru, the narrator visits Mayta in prison. He describes to Mayta himself both his method of assembling Mayta's fictional character and the state of Peru in his novel:

"Naturally, your real name never appears even once," I assure him. "Of course I've changed dates, places, characters, I've created complications, added and taken away thousands of things. Besides, I've invented an apocalyptic Peru, devastated by war, terrorism, and foreign intervention. Of course, no one will recognize anything, and everyone will think it's pure fantasy. I've pretended as well that we were schoolmates, that we were the same age, and lifelong friends."

The image of Mayta gradually evolves from the narrator's research, from transcriptions of his conversations—or of "invented" ones—from the past, and from the narrator's imagination. He is given a long period in the Lurigancho to atone for his crime; he is made to be a homosexual, and he is later given a wife and a family. From a failed first marriage he has a son who later may have become a guerrilla. At the close of the novel, the narrator confronts Mayta with the fictional recreation of his life, and he is appalled. To the narrator's horrified eyes, "he is a man destroyed by suffering and resentment, who has even lost his memories. Someone in essence quite different from the Mayta of my novel, that obstinate optimist, that man of faith who loves life despite the horror and misery in it." As he chauffeurs the sad Mayta to his home, the narrator suddenly realizes that there is still another Mayta: "It's as if the person next to me were different from the one who was just in my study, and different from the Mayta in my story. A third, wounded, lacerated Mayta, whose memory is intact." This realization causes the narrator to suspect that his whole search for Mayta has been a failure.

Vargas Llosa's readers are accustomed to tales of glorious failure. What else could we expect of antiheroes? But we are also accustomed to the imperishable nature of their struggles. Coover describes this aspect of Mayta:

These parallel "failures"—the 1950's "revolution" and the 1980's "novel"—have generated between them a new kind of space, fragile maybe, impalpable, half-illusory, certainly disquieting, yet oddly immovable. Mayta lives there now with all his contradictions more securely than he does in the slums of Lima. As does the narrator with his contradictions, now less the transient jogger of the Barranco district than this new space's pervasive and imperishable voice.

The narrator has been ill at ease with the differences between his Mayta and the actual one, and the bad faith that has heretofore riddled the lives of Vargas Llosa's characters now pervades the modus operandi of the narrator himself, as Coover suggests:

Character, after all, at least in its traditional sense, has, for Mr. Vargas Llosa, long since given way to something more like Sartre's "orchestration of consciousness," a kind of creative interplay between text and reader. Now, in Mayta, the author-deity has been absorbed in the same transaction. The static, "totalized" space of his impenetrably autonomous world has been subverted by process.

The last novel in this series, Quién mató a Palomino Molero?, returns us to a character who has wound his way in and out of Vargas Llosa's entire narrative production. Herein he is a member of the Civil Guard and lives in a town called Talara. In The Green House (1963), he was the Sergeant who married the green-eyed Bonifacia and thereby sealed his doom. Lituma has enjoyed minor roles in many of the subsequent novels. In Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Lituma appears in one of the interpolated tales whose melodramatic narrator is Pedro Camacho:

He was a man in the prime of life, his fifties, whom the entire Civil Guard respected; he had served in commissariats in the roughest districts without complaining, and his body still bore scars of the battles he had waged against crime. The prisons of Peru were full of malefactors whom he had clapped in handcuffs. He had been cited as an exemplary model in orders of the day, praised in official speeches, and twice decorated: but these honors had not altered his modesty, no less great than his courage and his honesty.

Lituma is a member of the force that captures Mayta and his corevolutionaries. In the last novel, he is the central intelligence. He it is who finds the hideously butchered body of the murdered Palomino Molero.

Lituma and Molero are natives of Piura, and his investigation of the murder gives Lituma the opportunity to visit once again the infamous Chunga (a degraded reincarnation of the Green House) and to enjoy a drink with his old friends the Unconquerables. Lituma has changed since the old, macho days of The Green House. Now he is sentimental but bereft of love. He stubbornly pursues the killers of the dead Molero, a recruit at the nearby airbase, who had become locally famous as a singer of boleros. Lituma's foil is the Teniente Silva, a stereotypical Civil Guard who wears his sun glasses night and day and considers himself far superior to the humble Lituma. Vargas Llosa reduces the Teniente to abject misery through his love for the wife of a local fisherman. Lituma himself has been deflated since his glorious days at the port of Callao. Now he is content to be the subordinate, as long as he has regular meals.

Lituma, however, serves a variety of purposes. He is an unreliable narrator who sees but does not understand. His emotions are easily stirred, and he feels haunted by the presence of the dead airman until the crime is solved. His resentment of the gringos who have fine homes near the base and of the military officers gives Vargas Llosa a natural means to reveal those class frictions that have enlivened his prose since The Time of the Hero. Lituma is Vargas Llosa's most complete portrait of the man without qualities. He is the Peruvian's Madame Bovary. The heroic characters within Quién mató a Palomino Molero? fade or are destroyed. Lituma remains. Not only does he persist, but he glories in his own anonymity. As he and the Teniente meet the killer, the base commander himself, Lituma speculates as to why the Commander always addresses his remarks to the Teniente: "'Yo no existo para él,' pensó Lituma. Era mejor: se sentía más seguro, sabiéndose olvidado, abolido, por el Coronel." ["'For him, I don't even exist,' thought Lituma. Better that way; he felt much better, sure of himself now, knowing himself forgotten, abolished by the Colonel."]

As is the case with certain characters of Balzac, Conrad, and Faulkner, the reappearance of Lituma has become Vargas Llosa's signature, and the Peruvian uses Lituma to reiterate his belief in the circular, simultaneous nature of history. He is the signature character, and Vargas Llosa's readers know him well, better than he will ever know himself. In his latest mode, Lituma, who loves to sleep beyond any other human activity, is the antihero par excellence. Gone now are the violence and bravado of his youth. Through grim experience, he has learned to be at home in the world of bad faith that is uniquely Vargas Llosa's. Through Lituma's aimless and animal life, Vargas Llosa illustrates the need for a revolution beyond politics. [In "Emma, Flaubert and the Pleasure Principle," New York Times Book Review 23 November 1986], he maintains: "Literature for Flaubert was this possibility of forever going beyond what life permits." Literature gives access to the only revolution worthy of the name, that of reality itself.

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