Mario Vargas Llosa | Critical Review by Jorge Guzman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of Mario Vargas Llosa.
This section contains 2,581 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Jorge Guzman

SOURCE: "A Reading of Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. XV, No. 29, January-June, 1987, pp. 133-39.

In the following excerpt, Guzman contends that the political interpretation of The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is key to a full understanding of the novel.

The Latin American literary "Boom" of the Sixties remains one of the very few triumphant happenings ever to spring from that troubled and unhappy region of the world. In fact, widely different kinds of reading audiences enjoyed the magical quality of the novels produced in those years. Some read them because they were tired of European literary fashions such as the Nouveau Roman and, more generally speaking, because there was a wide-spread desire for reading experiences different from the ones afforded by novels produced in Europe or the United States. These audiences delighted in reading accounts of heroic deeds performed by characters convinced that there was such a thing as good and evil. They also delighted in a set of novels that, unlike the prevailing European trend, were not written primarily to attack the very concept of the novel.

Today we know that the "Boom" was the result of a variety of factors. Among the most important of these was the role played by the business interests of the Catalonian printing houses which were later joined by other European concerns. This enterprising spirit met a magnificent group of Latin American writers (Cortázar, Yáñez, Rulfo, Carpentier, Sabato, Onetti, Guimarães Rosa, J. M. Arguedas, to name only some of the very best) only too happy to see their novels made available to millions of readers either in their original languages or in translation.

Another factor, less easily perceived today, was the political climate created by Fidel Castro's march into Havana. Most Latin American "Boom" writers hailed the Cuban Revolution and its access to power as a major step towards a better future for all the nations in the area. The resulting climate of political expectations certainly played a part in arousing the enthusiasm of European and American intellectuals for the novels produced in the region.

One should not forget also that the 1960s were the years of worldwide unrest in universities as well as the years when Marcuse, Adorno and Althusser were being fervently read by those wishing for a revolutionary change in the developed world and elsewhere.

I believe one needs to take into account all these facts if one is to read The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (hereafter Mayta) and fully grasp its meaning. Nevertheless, it is possible to read Mayta neglecting some of these factors and simply enjoy it for its universal or purely literary components. Any reader, however indifferent he may be to the political aspects of Mayta, can certainly enjoy it for its mastery of novelistic technique that is the mark of Vargas Llosa's work.

Two connected sequences of events are presented in the novel. In one of them, the "author" embarks on a year-long search for the true story of Alejandro Mayta (1983). In the other, Mayta himself embarks on a guerrilla action intended to bring about a socialist revolution in Peru (1958). The book tells us that both of them failed. Mayta was thrown in jail a few hours after his project got underway. The "author" is able to find out neither Mayta's true identity nor the real reasons for his failure.

There can be no doubt about Mayta's failure, but the "author's" failure is questionable. It appears rather that the real authorial design was carried through, and that he succeeded in presenting an elusive character who would escape the efforts of all readers to form a clear and distinctive image of his actions and personal characteristics. At first glance the book seems to belong in the family of Rashomon or Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Mayta and his actions are seen through the eyes of other characters who report them to the "author" and draw an impossible picture of him, a picture made of disparate traits that sometimes reinforce but frequently contradict each other. In the last chapter Mayta himself appears and lets the "author" interview him. But the hopes of the reader are frustrated once again. When he finishes reading the last chapter the number and the scope of the mutually contradicting traits have increased. And this is not to be solved by stating, for instance, that reports of different witnesses must contradict each other. The key fact about Mayta is that there are very few things about him that are not contradictory. There is one exception: he was a devout revolutionary. As for the rest, we cannot even be sure that he did have a wife, Adelaida (who gave him a son), in spite of the fact that we read a chapter (Number VII) where she and the "author" hold a long conversation.

Read as pure literature, the book is very entertaining indeed and pleasantly holds the attention of the knowledgeable reader, that is to say, of the kind of reader who has taught himself to enjoy novels in which the author plays with narrative conventions. In Mayta, one of the most amusing games is the continuous shifting of levels. The "author" himself enters the story; this story is set in Peru in 1983, but fiction enters the Peruvian reality in the form of a fictitious international war which never really took place in Peru in 1983. There is someone called Mayta who for nine chapters is never presented "in person" to the reader, but the reader discovers this only in chapter ten. In this chapter, another (and the same) Mayta is interviewed by the "author" and the reader discovers that this last Mayta contradicts the previous one while being equally real or unreal as the other. In short, one is immersed here in the amusing and interesting world where Jorge Luis Borges grounds the possibility of our being as fictitious as the characters in novels. If they can change levels, it is quite possible to conceive of ourselves as mere characters who live in another book read by someone else like God who might also be a character in yet another's book and so on ad infinitum.

Of course there is nothing to object to in this reading of Mayta. But the pleasures of so doing can be enriched if we bring a different set of facts to bear on our experience of the novel. Actually most Latin American writers consider themselves to be realists by which they mean they have a keen interest in their own countries in particular and in Latin America in general. This interest is, needless to say, mainly political.

As soon as we let the political component of Mayta participate in our reading experience our attention shifts from the character Mayta to another character, namely, the one called "I," the "author." This is the character who presents himself as conducting research on Mayta. He is also the character in charge of the rhetoric of the book, that is to say, of telling the reader what meaning he should give the novel. Narrative tricks like the one called "author's metalepsis," that is, the author pretending to produce real effects in the story, are intended, I believe, to give the "author" all due importance in the structure of the book.

Of course, the "author" is nothing but a critical character in Mayta. He has the key to the meaning of the world. He pretends he decides what the characters will do and how they will be. The way he himself voices his preeminence is, at first, puzzling to the reader: "Because I am a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it." Later on, stating his reason for interviewing people who knew Mayta, he says he does it "So I will know what I'm doing when I lie." The paradox implicit in searching for truth so as to be able to lie is solved when he explains: "That is how I work. And I think the only way to write stories is to start with History—with a capital H." If we couple this statement with this belief that all novels are lies, we end up with a clear understanding of his rationale: all novelists are liars, but if one is a realist, the source of his novels has to be History.

And now we can see clearly the "author's" function in Mayta. He represents the link between History (with a capital H) and Mayta. Now we can account for the continuous presence of the "author" in this novel: he embodies the teachings of History. And we can also account for the many contradictions he incurs as he presents his story: by letting glaring contradictions stay in his book he points to himself as the master of facts and meaning.

In addition, this "author" is a very specific character. He is a Boom author. One of those who in their Parisian years (late 50s) acted in such a way that today (1983)—with the perspective and knowledge experience has given him—he is in a position to look back on them and call them "café revolutionaries." Shortly after those days in Paris, came in Latin America the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, "[…] that event which split the left in two" as one of the characters puts it.

The "author" therefore knows what History is. He has been at it, let's say, since 1958. And in the light of the knowledge he has, it appears that his frequent declarations of not knowing the reason for his own profound interest in Mayta cannot be taken seriously. Rather, they should be taken to be incentives intended to move the reader to give Mayta's importance careful consideration.

Mayta is a great many things, but the center of all his different beings, his core, is that he believes in violence as a means of bringing heaven to earth. That is the one and only trait that attracts the "author's" interest. This novel therefore is not, as it seems at first glance, a distant relative to Rashomon with different witnesses given disparate versions of a single event, but rather something like an inverted image of Carpentier's Reasons of State. Just as Carpentier depicts his dictator taking features from various Latin American dictators and using them to compound a paradigmatic portrait, our "author" does the same with the image of the revolutionary. That is the reason why Mayta is so very many mutually contradictory characters impossibly rolled into one. His involvement in violence makes unimportant whatever else he might be at the same time: homosexual, heterosexual, a good husband and father, a very poor family head, a self-sacrificing man who does not care for his own well-being, a man who would leave his own country to have more money. None of these contradictions matters. The only thing that matters about him is the fact that he is a revolutionary and believes in violence as a means of political change.

The real opposite of Mayta in the book is Moises Barbi Leiva. He receives the wholehearted approval of the "author." Barbi was once a member of Mayta's diminutive Trotskyite party, but later evolved away from these youthful involvements. Now (1983) he is a paradigm of good will, cunning, generosity and patriotism. He keeps himself equally distant from the two political poles that dominate the world and skillfully plays the one against the other the better to serve the best interests of Peru and the Peruvian intellectuals. Here, the "author" believes, is a man to be imitated. The organization he so successfully leads (Action for Development) "has helped Peru and certainly contributed more to the nation than twenty years of party militancy. Yes, it also helped the people whose books it published; it got them grants and liberated them from that whorehouse of a university."

As for the "author" himself, his ideology is composed mainly of moral issues; it is mostly on moral grounds, for instance, that he declares his deep distaste for Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan poet and politician. He finds Cardenal to be histrionic and insincere and dislikes these traits so profoundly as to find it difficult to read Cardenal's poetry after detecting his moral flaws.

It is also on moral grounds that he repeats most commonplaces about the Inquisition (in its Lima version) and widens his condemnation to cover all inquisitorial behaviors. On leaving the Lima Museum of the Inquisition he runs into a crowd of beggars and thinks: "Violence behind me and hunger in front of me. Here, on these stairs, my country summarized." After this lurid visit he hurries home, afraid of what could happen if the police found him out in the streets after curfew; he remembers as he runs that the wife of a neighbor was beaten and raped by the police when her car broke down not far from her home. The husband in his impotence and fury wishes the "internationalists" to win the war, because he believes nothing could be worse than the present. Knowing History, the "author" knows better. Restrained by pity he does not tell the man it could "still get worse, that there are not limits to our deterioration." This is the outcome he dreads should the Maytas of Peru persist in their revolutionary ways.

In yet another sense, the "author" is a man for whom health, cleanliness, sanity are dear values. The first time the reader meets him, he is out in the streets of Lima jogging and deploring the accumulation of garbage everywhere.

Furthermore, the "author" proves to be a very important person in Peru. For him all doors, be they those of members of the Peruvian Congress or those of the sordid jail of Lurigancho, open easily. He is influential enough to consider in his mind the possibility of offering Mayta help if the poor fellow wants to stop being the humble attendant of an ice cream shop that he is. The "author" has enough money to pay "a stiff price" to Adelaida, Mayta's ex-wife, for granting him an hour of her time.

In spite of the fact that he is a character in this novel concerned mostly with political issues, the "author" would be considered by most Latin Americans to be a very nonpolitical character. He is deeply concerned with bodies, and he views bodies related to polar structures like health/disease, vigor/decrepitude and also cleanliness/filth. It seems as if poverty, for instance, is important in this book mainly by its incidence in the condition of bodies. He does not give one thought to other political and politically related issues or to what a citizen of the U.S. would call "gracious living." Of course, all this makes the "author" a person very easy to like. He is very seldom concerned with controversial matters and then only when he is sure his most moderate and good mannered readers will agree with him, as is the case with his strongest adverse statement, namely, the one against Cardenal.

The "author" does not explicitly say that in the split of the left brought about by the Cuban Revolution he was one of those who moved away from the violence and dangers that lurk in the purity of the Maytas of Latin America, but there can be no doubt that the book is presented to the eye of the reader, first as a novel, and then, as a novel with a very strong political message. If this message goes unheard, the novel loses most of its intended meaning.

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This section contains 2,581 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Jorge Guzman
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