Mario Vargas Llosa (1936-)

Few writers from Peru have achieved the literary status and international recognition of (Jorge) Mario (Pedro) Vargas Llosa. A writer of many talents, Vargas Llosa is the author of several books that include novels, short stories, plays, literary criticism, memoirs, and a prolific production of journalistic writings. Never afraid of intellectual controversy, he has always been outspoken on Latin-American cultural and political issues. Vargas Llosa's political stands have ranged from defending socialism and the Cuban revolution in the 1960s to embracing neoliberal economic thought and free-market economies in the 1980s. But in spite of his recent involvement in professional politics, literature remains his first passion, and it is in the art of storytelling where his talent has shone the most.


With few exceptions, Peruvian society has always been at the center of Vargas Llosa's literary universe. A country of enormous contrasts, Peru encompasses many racial backgrounds--a ruling white class, a vast Quechua-speaking Indian population, and smaller groups of Asians, blacks, and Amazon Indians--resulting in great social stratification and fragmentation. Such divisions are only further exacerbated by Peru's diverse geographical makeup: the coastal desert area, the Andean region, and the jungle of the Amazon, three separate worlds coexisting in one country with fragile political institutions that are often incapable of representing such a wide spectrum of differences. These many worlds and their conflictive coexistence are at the center of Vargas Llosa's many novels.

Vargas Llosa was born into a middle-class family on 28 March 1936 in Arequipa in southern Peru. The second most important city of Peru after Lima, the capital, Arequipa is known for the local pride and rebellious nature of its people, who often boast of the natural beauty of their region, while holding a traditional rivalry with Lima as an economic and cultural center. Although middle-class when he was born, Vargas Llosa's family had an aristocratic background and hence held ties with the Peruvian ruling class.

The writer's childhood was marked by family turmoil. At the time of his birth his parents separated, leaving him to be raised as an only child in his maternal grandfather's home. Because of family connections, his grandfather held various government appointments, including diplomatic posts, which obliged the family to move frequently during Vargas Llosa's childhood years. His early schooling took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia, between 1937 and 1941. Later his grandfather moved to Piura, a city on the northern coast of Peru, where Vargas Llosa attended a private religious school.

In 1950, when Vargas Llosa was entering adolescence, his parents reconciled and moved once again, this time to Lima. Vargas Llosa recalls this period as a traumatic one that provided the roots of a rebellious character that aroused his first interest in literature. Although his father was a virtual stranger to him (as a boy he had been told his father was dead to avoid telling him he had abandoned his mother), Ernesto Vargas was intolerant and authoritarian with his son, constantly accusing him of displaying an unmanly personality due to his spoiled upbringing in his mother's family. As a result Vargas Llosa was sent by his father to the Leoncio Prado military academy, an experience that marked the future writer's life. The Leoncio Prado was not only Vargas Llosa's first experience outside his sheltered middle-class environment, it was also his first encounter with the institutional violence that affects the various social groups that make up Peru's ethnically diverse society.

Vargas Llosa spent two years at the Leoncio Prado, returning to Piura to finish his last year of high school at the Colegio Nacional San Miguel de Piura while living with one of his mother's brothers. By this time his literary vocation was maturing. He recalls his return to Piura as a time of discovery, greatly admiring the works of a variety of authors, Alexandre Dumas and Fyodor Dostoyevsky among others. While finishing high school Vargas Llosa worked for a local newspaper and wrote a play, La huida del inca (The Flight of the Inca), which, although never published, was staged at a theater in Piura. At the same time, he made repeated attempts at writing short stories.

In 1953 Vargas Llosa entered the University of San Marcos in Lima. He began his studies in literature and law during the dictatorship of Gen. Manuel Odría, who deposed the democratic government of President José Luis Bustamante y Rivero in a 1948 military coup and ruled Peru with an iron fist until 1956. Because San Marcos was a stronghold for clandestine opposition to Odría's dictatorship, it proved crucial in Vargas Llosa's intellectual formation. He joined Cahuide, a student cell of the Peruvian Communist party, which he later abandoned for the newly formed Christian Democratic party. While active in university politics, he also held part-time jobs as a newscaster, librarian, and journalist and worked closely with the historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea. In the 1950s Peruvian literature was greatly influenced by indigenist novels by Ciro Alegría and José María Arguedas, and a younger generation of writers such as Julio Ramón Ribeyro interested in portraying the changing social composition of modern Lima in urban-realist novels. However, none of these trends truly interested Vargas Llosa. Instead, he was more attracted by the rich narrative technique in the novels of William Faulkner, one of Vargas Llosa's first literary masters. Of the importance of Faulkner's style and structure for Latin-American writers, Vargas Llosa later commented in A Writer's Reality (1991):

By reading Faulkner I learned that form could be a character in a novel and sometimes the most important character--that is, the organization of the perspective of the narration, the use of different narrators, the withholding of some information from the reader to create ambiguity.... he is probably the most important novelist of our time, the most original, the most rich.... But there are more specific reasons for which Faulkner has such appeal in Latin America. The world out of which he created his own world is quite similar to a Latin American world. In the Deep South, as in Latin America, two different cultures coexist, two different historical traditions, two different races--all forming a difficult coexistence full of prejudice and violence. There also coexists the extraordinary importance of the past, which is always present in contemporary life. In Latin America, we have the same thing. The world of Faulkner is preindustrial, or, at least, resisting industrialization, modernization, urbanization--exactly like many Latin American societies. Out of all this, Faulkner created a personal world, with a richness of technique and form.

Vargas Llosa's discovery of Faulkner was crucial in the experimental nature of many of his novels and his concept of the "total novel," an attempt to depict through writing as many facets of reality as possible.


At the same time, Vargas Llosa was also attracted to Jean-Paul Sartre's political commitment and the way literature could become a tool to pursue such a commitment. Of Sartre he wrote, "I liked Sartre's idea that literature is not and cannot be gratuitous, that it is unacceptable for literature to be purely entertainment, that literature is serious because a writer, through his books, can be a voice in society, can change things in life.... I also liked Sartre's idea that literature is intimately linked with contemporary time, that it is morally unacceptable to use literature to escape from contemporary problems."

At age nineteen Vargas Llosa married his aunt, Julia Urquidi Illanes, thirteen years his senior, an event that caused great family turmoil. They later divorced. As an aspiring intellectual seeking to broaden his horizons, he soon decided he needed to leave for Europe to pursue a career as a writer. While completing his degree in literature Vargas Llosa edited two literary journals, Cuadernos de Conversación and Literatura, and continued working on a book of short stories. One of the stories, "El desafío" (The Challenge), won a short-story competition sponsored by the Revue Française in Lima; as a result he briefly visited Paris in 1958. In 1959, after a brief stay in Madrid, where he began doctoral studies at the Universidad Complutense, Vargas Llosa moved to the French capital, initiating a self-imposed exile that lasted several years. Meanwhile, his collection of short stories Los jefes (1959; translated in The Cubs and Other Stories, 1979) was awarded the Leopoldo Alas prize in Spain and published that year in Barcelona.

Survival in Paris proved difficult for Vargas Llosa in the early 1960s. While earning a living teaching Spanish at Berlitz schools and working as a journalist for Agence France-Presse and the French radio-television network, he finished a first draft of his first novel. Work at the network allowed Vargas Llosa to become acquainted with several Latin-American writers also living in Paris: Julio Cortázar, Alejo Carpentier, Miguel Angel Asturias, Carlos Fuentes, and others. Like Vargas Llosa, many of them were supporters of the 1959 Cuban revolution. In 1962 he also met Carlos Barral, the editor of the prestigious Spanish publishing house Seix Barral. Shortly after this he entered his manuscript in the competition for the prestigious Biblioteca Breve award, sponsored by Seix Barral, under the title "Los impostores" (The Imposters). He won, and in 1963 the novel was published in Barcelona as La ciudad y los perros (translated as The Time of the Hero , 1966).

La ciudad y los perros was soon acclaimed as a masterpiece, earning Vargas Llosa international recognition. It was one of many outstanding works that appeared in the 1960s written by an important group of Latin-American writers, including Cortázar's Rayuela (1963; translated as Hopscotch , 1966), Fuentes's La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962; translated as The Death of Artemio Cruz , 1964), Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres (1967; translated as Three Trapped Tigers , 1971), and Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (1967; translated as One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970). Such novels brought Latin-American literature to international attention in what was later known as the Boom generation.

The publication of La ciudad y los perros was undoubtedly a turning point in the history of Peruvian literature. Inspired by Sartre's notion that the writer's role in any given society is to question the established social order relentlessly, La ciudad y los perros marked the appearance of Peru's most internationally renowned writer to date. On a personal level the novel proved that many of Vargas Llosa's early autobiographical experiences were to be crucial in the crafting of his fictional universe. Within the boundaries of traditional realism but pursuing many experimental modes of narration, Vargas Llosa's work denounced the violence that permeates all levels of Peruvian society.

In La ciudad y los perros Vargas Llosa comes to terms with his painful years at the Leoncio Prado military academy. Led by Jaguar, the leader of a gang of cadets, a first-year cadet named Cava steals an exam to share with his peers. Another cadet, nicknamed El Esclavo (The Slave), witnesses the theft, but the secret code of honor shared by the group silences all who know about the robbery. El Esclavo finally breaks down and reports the theft, and the school's military authorities launch an internal investigation. Shortly after, during military maneuvers, Jaguar kills the informer. While his murder is finally brought out into the open by another cadet, the superiors cover up the tragic events, fearing embarrassment to the institution and harm to the army's reputation. Only Lieutenant Gamboa insists on bringing out the truth, but he is soon silenced by his superiors to avoid a public scandal and is eventually sent to a remote region in the Andes as a form of punishment for his defiance.

The city of Lima and its neighborhoods are made to represent the different social classes of Peruvian society. But by sharing a common space within the closed boundaries of the school the Leoncio Prado cadets re-create a microcosm of Peru's potentially explosive society, marked by strong ethnic and social tensions that reproduce themselves on a larger scale in the open boundaries of the city. In the name of military discipline the cadets endure brutal physical and psychological acts. Degrading and dehumanizing, these acts are seen as rites of passage into manhood but are often fed by social prejudices. Hence, in many ways the novel is a statement about survival in a society that has lost its sense of human dignity, which has been replaced by a code of brutality to preserve a rigid and corrupt social order. La ciudad y los perros also reveals Vargas Llosa's strong antimilitaristic stance, a constant theme in his work. The novel's first appearance prompted a strong protest by the Peruvian army, which soon after its publication organized a book burning on the school's patio, which only helped its popularity.

The novel's literary mastery received unanimous critical praise. A turning point in contemporary Peruvian literary history, La ciudad y los perros moves away from traditional linear narration, mixing interior monologue, omniscient narration, and dialogue. The result is a rich mosaic that, although apparently chaotic, actually expands the boundaries of reality thanks to its rich psychological depth and experimental nature.

Vargas Llosa's early literary talent was confirmed by the publication of his second novel, La casa verde (translated as The Green House , 1968) in 1966. Two distinctive geographical regions of Peru, the northern coastal city of Piura where Vargas Llosa had lived with his grandfather, and Santa María de Nieva in the Amazon jungle serve as the settings. La casa verde traces the stories of two interconnected characters. Within this larger framework, the intricate plot and narrative structure divide the book into four chapters and an epilogue to develop a five-story line. Each chapter in turn is carefully crafted to include multiple stories that are fragments the reader must organize. However, the main points of reference for the novel's many characters are the lives of the two main characters, Sergeant Lituma and a girl named Bonifacia, who move in opposite geographical directions. Lituma is sent from Piura to an army post in Santa María de Nieva, while Bonifacia is sent from the Amazon jungle to the desert city. As a young girl Bonifacia had been taken away by a group of Spanish nuns who, with the support of soldiers, systematically kidnap native Aguaruna Indian girls from their jungle tribes to place them in their boarding school in Santa María de Nieva. There they are educated in Western ways and forced to integrate into civilization. Through the novel's careful interweaving of numerous stories in a complex use of time and space, the reader also learns of the rape of a blind girl, Antonia, who is the daughter of the musician Anselmo, the owner of the Green House, a brothel in Piura; and of the sale of the adolescent Lalita, who is to become the concubine of a Japanese outlaw and rubber lord of the area named Fushia. Fushia controls an island in the jungle and a personal army with which he raids the native villages in order to steal their rubber and women repeatedly. He eventually dies in a leprosarium in the jungle, while Bonifacia, after escaping from the convent and marrying Sergeant Lituma in a kind of domestic slavery, finally becomes a prostitute at the Green House on the outskirts of Piura.

All of the characters' lives are marked by a clear sense of determinism in spite of their attempts to escape their miserable existences. But power, money, human brutality, and violence prove overwhelming. Vargas Llosa's extraordinary overlapping of time and space allows each of these lives to be told in a multiple narrative, allowing the reader to learn about each of the character's lives from youth into adulthood and old age. By the same token, his strategy forces the reader to organize the linear sequence of the many fragmented stories that are presented simultaneously. Many bridges are built into the narrative structure to establish the various relationships among the characters. All of them eventually gather at the Green House, a microcosm of human degradation and despair. Lalita, for example, after escaping Fushia's domain and marrying Nieves, another of the brothel's musicians, introduces Bonifacia to Sergeant Lituma. Lituma returns to Piura when his post in the jungle is over and forces Bonifacia into prostitution at the Green House, where she is called La Selvática (Wildflower). At the brothel Bonifacia also meets Chunga, the new owner of the establishment; she is the daughter of Anselmo.

La casa verde is an all-encompassing novel in which narration, description, flashbacks, dialogue, and omniscient and first-person narration add to a torrential narrative through which the author's technical mastery emerges. La casa verde received unanimous critical acclaim soon after its release and in 1967 was awarded the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize of Venezuela, at which Vargas Llosa delivered an important speech titled "Literature Is Fire," inspired by his admiration for Sartre's notion of the writer's commitment to social criticism.

Vargas Llosa returned to Lima's urban setting and the world of the Peruvian upper middle class in his third book, Los cachorros (The Cubs, 1967). A novella set in Lima in the 1950s, Los cachorros provides Vargas Llosa the opportunity to delve into the world of adolescence and its rites of passage into adulthood. While its events are relatively simple, this work is once again an extraordinary exercise in form and content carefully interwoven to create a masterpiece.

Inspired by a newspaper story Vargas Llosa once read, Los cachorros narrates the tragic story of a young boy emasculated by a dog. Cuéllar, the protagonist, struggles for acceptance among his peers, who, as they grow up from early childhood into adulthood, become his companions and who rebaptize him after his accident as "P. P. Cuéllar," to refer euphemistically to his lost manhood. The novella's six chapters chronicle the different stages of their development, emphasizing moments of crisis in the boys' personal development. Cuéllar is repeatedly hit the hardest. Always an outsider, he has not only been physically crippled through direct castration but is also progressively alienated by the strict social code of the Peruvian bourgeoisie. In a patriarchal society in which the exercise of a macho identity is essential for survival, Cuéllar's physical deformity symbolizes his moral defeat, eventually leading him to self-destruction in a car accident in his thirties.

Theme and technique are carefully balanced by Vargas Llosa to achieve a complete fictional universe. A multiple-narrative voice is carefully crafted to obtain such an effect, but in contrast to his two previous works, the various points of view this time all come together in one single text in a unique form of syntax that switches at will its grammatical subject, ultimately representing a collective consciousness. As a result multiple levels of reality are depicted, and the reader is soon placed in the center of the fictional world that is evoked. At the same time language emerges as the central element in the novel to express an ambiguous, rich context in which a rigid social code brings about personal alienation and defeat.

One of Vargas Llosa's most monumental works is Conversación en La Catedral (1969; translated as Conversation in the Cathedral , 1975). The backdrop is Vargas Llosa's experience as a university student during the dictatorship of General Odría. Odría's corrupt administration illustrates the authoritarian yet chaotic course of Peru's republican history, as expressed in one of Vargas Llosa's most quoted phrases: "¿En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?" (At what precise moment had Peru screwed itself?). Vargas Llosa often has acknowledged the traumatizing scars that Odría's repressive regime left on him and his entire generation.

Conversación en La Catedral centers on a four-hour conversation between Santiago Zavala, the black sheep of a well-to-do family, and Ambrosio, the family's former chauffeur, as they drink in a bar in Lima. At stake is Zavala's final outcome as a failed rebel or antihero, exemplified in his identity as Zavalita. Minimizing the presence of the omniscient narrator, the author has the conversation between Santiago and Ambrosio serve as a review of the two characters' lives and their thoughts and recollections of their individual lives as Odría's final days in power take place. At the same time, such a narrative structure triggers multiple dialogues in space and time between other characters in the novel. As many as six conversations are represented simultaneously on a page, but because of Vargas Llosa's masterful technique, the apparent juxtaposition of elements ultimately interact in a concert of narrative voices and dramatized episodes that slowly reveal the novel's happenings. The final result is the portrayal of a multiple canvas of interlocking realities about Peruvian society that redefines Vargas Llosa's art of the total novel.

Odría's dictatorship is seen as a manifestation of contemporary Peruvian society's deeply rooted ills. As the dialogue between Santiago and Ambrosio develops, the reader learns of Santiago's personal transformation and his total disillusionment with his country. Santiago's father, Don Fermín Zavala, is a rich, aristocratic entrepreneur who supports Odría and in return receives important favors for his business enterprises. He also holds close ties with the regime's minister of the interior, the mischievous Cayo Bermúdez, who is largely responsible for repressing the regime's political enemies. Santiago despises his father's wrongdoings and grows increasingly uncomfortable with his privileged social status. He attends San Marcos, where he joins a clandestine Marxist cell. When the group is discovered by Odría's secret police Santiago and his comrades are detained. But while the latter are punished, Santiago is freed in less than twenty-four hours because of his father's connections. Further enraged by the situation, Santiago abandons the paternal household, getting a job as a crime reporter for the daily La Crónica. Through his job he learns even more about the life of fear and violence that affects many Peruvians and becomes progressively skeptical about the society to which he belongs and his future in it.

Through Ambrosio's conversation Santiago learns how Don Fermín's alliance with the regime has required that his home phone be tapped by the secret police and of his father's sordid behavior behind public life. While leading a life of decency for the external world, Cayo Bermúdez also keeps two whores, La Musa and Queta, for his entertainment and to blackmail many of the upper-class men who support Odría. La Musa and Queta carry on a lesbian liaison that Cayo Bermúdez enjoys as a voyeur. Don Fermín frequently attends the minister's parties. One day Don Fermín elopes with Cayo Bermúdez's childhood friend and chauffeur, Ambrosio. In reality Don Fermín is a well-known homosexual, and Ambrosio soon becomes his lover. Santiago learns of his father's true identity when he investigates La Musa's murder and hears Queta tell the authorities that La Musa was killed by Ambrosio to protect Don Fermín from being blackmailed. Vargas Llosa once again depicts human violence, widespread corruption, and degradation at every level of Peru's institutional and social structure. Regardless of social class, however, all of the novel's characters lead an existence marked by defeat. As part of a system lacking any kind of basic values, Santiago is no exception. He too becomes the victim of a society that engenders only mediocrity and personal failure. Zavalita's stubborn refusal to conform to the cheap values of his social class offers perhaps the novel's only hope in Vargas Llosa's otherwise pessimistic outlook for Peru's future.

Along with his prolific fictional production, Vargas Llosa has also proved to be a lucid literary critic. Many of his theories about the novel, particularly his idea of the total novel, can be traced back to his enthusiasm for novels of chivalry and for the works of Gustave Flaubert. In 1969 Vargas Llosa wrote the prologue for the first modern Spanish edition of the chivalric Catalan novel Tirant lo Blanc (1511) by Joanot Martorell. Vargas Llosa points to Martorell's great virtues as a storyteller: his talent as a narrator of adventures and his attempt to capture reality on more than one fictional level, two essential ingredients in the Peruvian writer's craft. Vargas Llosa further developed this idea of the totalizing vocation of the novel in two other books. In García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio (García Márquez: The Story of a Deicide, 1971) he studies the entire canon of the Colombian author, using García Márquez's masterpiece Cien años de soledad as a prime example of the total novel. He also discusses his personal ideas on a writer's obsessions, what Vargas Llosa calls any novelist's demons. These demons, he claims, whether psychological, intellectual, autobiographical, or otherwise, inadvertently invade the writer's creative consciousness and ultimately surface in his fictional work. In his later study of Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), La orgía perpetua: Flaubert y "Madame Bovary" (1975; translated as The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and "Madame Bovary," 1986), Vargas Llosa expands on these ideas, stressing the notion of the writer as a god, as a creator of fictional realities. For Vargas Llosa, Flaubert's writing is key to understanding realism and the modern novel. If the novel is a genre that captures all aspects of reality, the novelist should strive to represent all aspects of life with equal passion and persuasion. In his attempt to achieve this totality by exploring as many different planes of reality as possible, he becomes the invisible creator of a fictional world, a god that holds the ultimate power over a given reality. Such is the case, Vargas Llosa argues, of Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

After Vargas Llosa's narrative achievements in the 1960s and his important theoretical reflections on the novel, he returned to his familiar world of the Peruvian jungle and the army in Pantaleón y las visitadoras (1973; translated as Captain Pantoja and the Special Service , 1978). Abandoning the blunt realism he had used to explore these themes in his previous works, he turned to parody and satire. Captain Pantaleón Pantoja is a model officer who genuinely believes in the values of service, obedience, and discipline in the army. Commissioned by his superiors to organize a secret prostitution service for the sex-starved soldiers stationed in the Peruvian jungle, Pantaleón carries out his mission with military zeal, running the operation with enviable efficiency. He scientifically calculates the number of prostitutes needed, the number of soldiers to be serviced, and even the number of orgasms each man requires to satisfy his sexual appetite. Whether by boat or by plane, he arrives at every army post in the jungle punctually so that each man may have mathematically calculated equal time with the visitadoras.

Without realizing it, Pantaleón slowly becomes a glorified pimp in an army uniform. His dutiful conscience is burlesqued by the values of a religious sect that operates in the jungle whose proselytizing often disrupts the efficiency of his secret mission. Led by Brother Francisco, the fanatical members of the esoteric Ark Brotherhood carry out strange cults, including infanticide. Eventually Captain Pantoja decides to have a taste of his own product, while the news of his enterprise is leaked by a radio broadcaster. The army's authorities quickly claim no knowledge of the clandestine operation because of the hypocritical public outcry, and the faithful captain is demoted by the army and sent to a remote post in the Andes.

Except for omniscience Vargas Llosa deploys an extraordinary montage of narrative techniques ranging from multiple dialogues to letters, radio news, official military bulletins, and scientific statistical discourse. Humor breaks through the rigid tone of all of these discourses, quickly revealing the crass absurdity of the protagonist's military operation, functioning as the main tool of criticism of the army as an institution.

Humor also serves as a key element in Vargas Llosa's fifth novel, La tía Julia y el escribidor (1977; translated as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter , 1982). Fictionalized autobiography and soap-opera melodrama construct a narrative that attempts to erase the borders between fact and fiction. Set in Lima in the 1950s, La tía Julia y el escribidor tells the story of Marito, an eighteen-year-old radio journalist and aspiring writer, who falls in love with and marries his thirty-two-year-old aunt. At the radio station Marito meets Pedro Camacho, an eccentric Bolivian soap-opera scriptwriter whose corny fantasies hold a high audience rating. Camacho is fanatical about the various stories of infanticide, incest, prostitution, religious fanaticism, and genocide that keep his audience glued to the radio. Such success contrasts with Marito's failed attempts to become a respected writer. However, both kinds of narration blend in the novel's plot, for Marito and Julia's crazy love affair could well be merely the product of Camacho's fantasies. Vargas Llosa takes his fictional enterprise a step further, often stretching the limits of fact and fiction by using not only the historical real names of his main characters, but many historical events and characters from Peruvian public life as well. The novel ends with the return of Marito from Paris as a famous writer and the deterioration of Pedro Camacho, who has gone crazy, confusing the lives of his characters to the point that he believes they actually exist.

La tía Julia y el escribidor is the story of fiction writing itself. Although seemingly opposites, Marito and Camacho are ultimately two versions of one authorial figure who, in contrast to his previous works, creates a larger presence for himself in his own fiction. At the same time, La tía Julia y el escribidor is in tune with the works of a new generation of writers that slowly emerged in the 1970s in Latin America--the so-called post-Boom generation that included Manuel Puig, Antonio Skármeta, Mempo Giardinelli, and Isabel Allende. Distancing themselves from the solemn issues of the novels of the Boom, these younger novelists vindicated elements of popular culture such as music, cinema, and soap operas, artistic expressions traditionally viewed as second-rate, giving them in their fiction a renewed artistic status.

Varga Llosa's artistic renewal in Pantaleón y las visitadoras and La tía Julia y el escribidor, which many argue were less-fortunate artistic endeavors, also coincided with his interest in new ideological trends. Throughout the 1970s Vargas Llosa became progressively disenchanted with the Cuban revolution he had supported since the early 1960s, becoming highly critical of Fidel Castro's regime as well as of right-wing totalitarian governments that appeared throughout Latin America. In 1971 when the poet Heberto Padilla and various other Cuban intellectuals critical of Castro's government were forced to apologize publicly for their criticism of the Cuban regime, Vargas Llosa resigned from the editorial board of Casa de las Américas, Cuba's most important cultural institution, of which he had been a member since the 1960s. Instead, thanks to his discovery of thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin, Jean-François Revel, and Karl Popper, he slowly moved from social-democratic ideas to more liberal-democratic ideas. These new tendencies began to emerge in his next novel.

While La guerra del fin del mundo (1981; translated as The War of the End of the World , 1984) is Vargas Llosa's only novel not set in Peru, the events--this time set in Brazil--can be read as representing Latin-American history as a whole. A historical novel of epic proportions, it is based on the Brazilian journalist Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertóes (1902; translated as Rebellion in the Backlands, 1944), the account of a rebellion by a poverty-ridden peasant population in northeastern Brazil led by the fanatical preacher Antonio Conselheiro.

By the late nineteenth century, Brazilian society was making the transition from a monarchy to a newly born republic in the fever of European positivist thought. Conselheiro establishes on the backlands of the city of Bahía a community known as Canudos, where followers quickly increase, lured by his charismatic personality and his announcement of the end of the world. Vargas Llosa carefully narrates individual stories of how the Conselheiro's prophetic word sparks spiritual hope among the poor that soon brings out religious fanaticism. As Conselheiro clashes with the state and with the authorities of the Catholic church, he is considered by the government as the tool of a monarchic subversion against the republic. The republican army is soon sent into Canudos to suppress the peasant subversion, and after several failed attempts and much bloodshed Conselheiro's followers are destroyed.

Though set in northeastern Brazil, the struggle of the people of Canudos can be read as the fight of a community of marginalized peoples. Their plight is contrasted to the narrow-minded concerns of Brazilian politicians who interpret the happenings in Canudos from their comfortable surroundings in Bahía and Rio de Janeiro, making every effort to protect their personal privileges. Along with many politicians and military commanders, Vargas Llosa includes important characters such as Galileo Gall, a wandering phrenologist, and a journalist, both of whom accompany the republican army in its mission into Canudos. Gall, caught between his intellectual ideals and reality, significantly never reaches Canudos. The journalist, however, known for his physical near-sightedness (resembling da Cunha himself) and lack of political commitment, symbolically loses his spectacles during the struggle, only to see and understand fully through the eyes of Conselheiro's followers the genuine nature of this rebellion in Canudos.

A tour de force, La guerra del fin del mundo is for many Vargas Llosa's masterpiece. It exemplifies a classical narrative style reminiscent of the great adventure novels of the nineteenth century and includes many naturalist touches whereby Vargas Llosa displays his talent as a storyteller. More important, the novel depicts an apocalyptic struggle of the marginal people of Latin America. Inspired by fanatical religious beliefs, Conselheiro and his followers clash with a conservative middle class, who must justify Canudos's bloody events with an equally fanatical faith in science and reason in order to protect the status quo.

The huge critical success of La guerra del fin del mundo was only the beginning of what proved to be an intense decade for Vargas Llosa both as a writer and an influential public figure in Peru in the 1980s. He added a new dimension to his literary career with the publication of three plays, La señorita de Tacna (1981; translated as The Young Lady from Tacna , 1990), Kathie y el hipopótamo (1983; translated as Kathie and the Hippopotamus , 1990), and La chunga (1986; translated as La Chunga , 1990). The first play is an intense work that probes the nature of the creative act, an ever-growing intellectual preoccupation in Vargas Llosa's works. This is seen through the aspiring writer Belisario's attempts to save cherished moments of the past from oblivion through the recollections of his great-aunt, the aging Mamaé. Kathie y el hipopótamo is a comic farce about people who deceive themselves while living part of their lives in make-believe worlds created through stories in order to escape their own suffocating mediocrity and insignificance. In La chunga Vargas Llosa brings to the stage many of the characters from La casa verde, using melodrama and sordid eloquence to focus on capitalist exploitation from a sexual viewpoint.

In spite of the interesting combination of time and space and of fantasy and reality in each of these plays, their obvious narrative tendency is often disappointing from a theatrical point of view. Perhaps more important than the works themselves are Vargas Llosa's reflections about the nature of why human beings tell stories, leading to such universal questions as the need for art, its purpose in life, and the process involved in creating fiction. As a fiction writer and a playwright Vargas Llosa seeks to show his readers the many ways in which art contributes to the quality of life--particularly the human need to substitute fantasy for reality--in order to gain a better understanding of human nature's deepest concerns.

In 1983 Vargas Llosa began publishing many of his journalistic writings under the title Contra viento y marea (Against All Odds). A three-volume anthology, Contra viento y marea gives an overview of Vargas Llosa's political and literary ideas ranging from his early admiration for Sartre and Cuban socialism in the 1960s to his defense of neoliberal free-market capitalism of the 1980s. This shift to a conservative position often placed him at the center of intellectual controversy both in Peru and abroad. Peru itself had experienced a wide range of political changes. After a twelve-year left-wing military government led by Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado and Francisco Morales Bermúdez, elections were held, and Fernando Belaunde Terry, ousted earlier by Velasco Alvarado's coup in 1968, returned to power. While remaining politically independent, Vargas Llosa maintained such close political ties to Belaunde's regime that he was offered the post of prime minister, which he did not accept. At the same time, El Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), a Maoist guerilla group, began operating in the southern highlands of the Ayacucho province, quickly making its violent presence known in Peru's major cities.

Vargas Llosa's political stands are present in his next novel, Historia de Mayta (1984; translated as The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta , 1986). In it he delves again into Peruvian history in the late 1950s and using real and imagined events tells the story of Alejandro Mayta, a Marxist revolutionary who organized a rebellion in the provincial city of Jauja in the southern Peruvian Andes. At the same time a contemporary novelist in the 1980s (like Vargas Llosa himself) is trying to track down information about the legendary Mayta who, as the novel progresses, becomes a character bigger than life. The novelist interviews Mayta's political allies, his leftist professors, a senator, Mayta's girlfriend, and even Mayta himself, who by this time is an older man who has chosen to forget his revolutionary past. The reader is often a close witness of the author's struggle to convert the facts of Mayta's failed revolution into fiction. At times the book's essayistic tone resembles that of a documentary repeatedly questioning the boundaries between fact and fiction, one of the novel's greatest virtues. Within this larger framework an ideological debate between Christianity and Marxism takes place. Ultimately, however, Historia de Mayta is an inquiry into and a reflection on the relationship between writing as a means of representation and reality itself. As in La tía Julia y el escribidor, the portrait of the author as artist and the mysterious craft of storytelling again become central issues.

Vargas Llosa's novella ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (1986; translated as Who Killed Palomino Molero? , 1987) can be seen as a return to the melodramatic ingredients based on the secret passions of men and women that make for good storytelling. Relying on proven narrative techniques that create layer upon layer of ambiguity and the conviction that reality and truth are indeed illusions, Vargas Llosa plays with the reader's curiosity from the outset by posing a question in the title of the novel that is never satisfactorily answered. In addition to asking who killed the protagonist, an innocent young man, the novel's characters ask themselves why he was killed in such a brutal manner and for what reason.

The action takes place in the northern Peruvian city of Talara, near Piura. Again Vargas Llosa includes a medley of characters who represent the gamut of social and economic levels in Peru. The novel is an entertaining piece of detective fiction. Sergeant Lituma of La casa verde reappears as a detective with his faithful companion, Lieutenant Silva. Lituma and Silva are portrayed as clumsy and inexperienced in their undertaking. In fact, they face great odds in discovering the truth, as certain individuals work to prevent the policemen from uncovering it. Although they are able to write a report to their superiors with the names of Palomino's murderers, larger questions loom heavily over the incident. In the end the reader is faced with the moral task of disentangling the elements that played a role in bringing about Molero's death: a pure, ideal love between a girl and a boy made impossible because of social mores based on racial and economic discrimination, unrequited love, incest, perversion, lust, and false illusions.

In El hablador (1987; translated as The Storyteller , 1989) Vargas Llosa returns to the Amazon jungle of Peru, adding another piece to the author's growing narrative mosaic of social, cultural, and literary concerns from previous novels. El hablador tells of an Amazon Indian tribe, the Machiguengas, and in particular the life of the community's storyteller, Saúl Zuratas. As in Historia de Mayta, the narrator-author closely resembles Vargas Llosa himself. The novel opens as the narrator wanders into a photo gallery in Florence, Italy, where an exhibition of old photographs of the Machiguengas is being held. The author remembers his college days with Zuratas before he abandoned his anthropological studies to live permanently with the Machiguengas. In a society without writing or rigid political or religious hierarchies, his role as a storyteller becomes crucial to remember the tribe's history. This metaliterary theme is not new in Vargas Llosa's work, and the relation between the primitive tribal storyteller and his community and a modern-day novelist and his society is easily made. In parallel fashion the novel communicates other themes Vargas Llosa has previously explored: the right to dissent, the right to tribal or ethnic autonomy, the clash between a dominant Western culture and a marginalized indigenous population, the novelist's responsibility to write history (not the official version, but the personal, unwritten human histories), and the art of fiction writing. In the case of the last theme, the novel's counterpoint structure becomes significant for the juxtaposed nature of two narrative lines--one characteristically realist and objective involving the narrator-author, who conjures up his memories of Zuratas, the other a construct around myth, magic, and legend, dealing with the storyteller. A felicitous blend of oral fiction, although at times lacking narrative tension, El hablador was a new inquiry into the multifaceted identity of Peruvian society, in which primitive and modern lifestyles are forced to coexist in conflict and contradiction.

In 1987 Vargas Llosa was unexpectedly placed at the center of political debate in Peru as he became an outspoken critic of President Alan García's reformist tendencies. García had achieved the presidency by an overwhelming margin in 1985, placing his center-left party in power for the first time in the country's history. Lured by the support of Peru's two oldest conservative parties, Vargas Llosa soon formed the Movimiento Libertad (Freedom Movement), a conservative coalition, and became an outspoken supporter of neoliberal economic ideas. In the meantime, he published a short novel in 1988, Elogio de la madrastra (translated as In Praise of the Stepmother , 1990), a successful but minor attempt at the erotic genre, and a book of essays on various American and European novels, La verdad de las mentiras (Lies That Tell the Truth, 1990), reflecting on various aspects of creative fiction.

Vargas Llosa's only incursion into professional politics was short-lived. He ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990 and, despite being heavily favored, lost in a second-round vote to the then-unknown Alberto Fujimori. His failed attempt for the presidency of Peru led him to produce a volume of memoirs in 1993, El pez en el agua (translated as A Fish in the Water , 1994). Using the counterpoint technique that had proved so successful in his previous works of fiction, the book is a behind-the-scenes look into Vargas Llosa's political campaign in the context of Peruvian political history as well as a biographical account of his childhood through young adulthood and his slow rise to literary stardom. A passionate and often bitter narrative, El pez en el agua provides the author's views on Peru's tumultuous history as a nation and his participation as a writer in its cultural development.

Since his political defeat in 1990 Vargas Llosa has lived in Europe, devoting himself entirely to writing with occasional visits to the United States to lecture at universities. He has also published a fourth play, El señor de los balcones (Lord of the Balconies, 1993), which tells the story of Prof. Aldo Brunelli, an Italian immigrant, who one day decides to save every old colonial balcony from being destroyed by Lima's growing modernity. Brunelli makes the preservation of colonial balconies a lifelong crusade, buying every balcony that he can and protesting the destruction of old buildings. Modernity, however, proves to be an overwhelming force against which Brunelli and his quixotic quest cannot compete.

Vargas Llosa's most recent novel is Lituma en los andes (Lituma in the Andes, 1993), which was awarded the important Planeta prize in Spain. Set in the small town of Naccos, in the central highlands of Junín province, it is Vargas Llosa's first work entirely set in the Andes. It revolves around the mysterious disappearance of three natives of the region. Lituma reappears as the central character, this time accompanied by his faithful subordinate Tomás Carreño. Although at first the plot resembles that of a detective novel, it slowly delves into the mythical psychology of Andean legends, superstitions, and demons. Lituma en los andes can be read as a remake of the Greek myth of Dionysus transposed to the Peruvian highlands, for as Lituma tries to shed light on the missing members of the community he soon discovers that the belief in local myths is responsible for many acts of violence. He eventually learns that a local bar owner, Dionisio, once a musician in remote towns of the region, has presided over the human sacrifice of the missing members of Naccos to the apus (Andean gods). Lituma en los andes plays out the struggle between rational Western thought and mythical nonrational beliefs in the context of Peru's recent violent history. What surfaces is a portrait of a world whose violent and barbaric manifestations (the Shining Path included) remain mysterious.

Vargas Llosa is without a doubt at the forefront of Latin-American literature. Constantly redefining the role of the writer in Latin-American society, he is very much a man of his time. His evolution from an interest in social criticism to a more conservative position parallels to some extent the evolution of Latin-American political ideology from Socialist and statist solutions to a tendency toward neoliberalism. Although immersed in the complex problems of Peru in particular and Latin America in general, his works also have a universal stature as they repeatedly examine social and ideological conflicts and the contradictory nature of human passions. Vargas Llosa's own relentless passion for the world of fiction and the multiple manifestations of reality make him a crucial protagonist in Spanish America's contemporary literary history.


From: Ferreira, César. "(Jorge) Mario (Pedro) Vargas Llosa." Modern Latin-American Fiction WritersSecond Series, edited by William Luis and Ann Gonzalez, Gale, 1994. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 145.


  • Further Reading
    • Ricardo Cano Gaviria, El buitre y el ave fénix: Conversaciones con Mario Vargas Llosa (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1972).
    • Raymond L. Williams, William Gass, and Michel Rybalka, "The Boom Twenty Years Later: An Interview with Mario Vargas Llosa," Latin American Literary Review, 15, no. 29 (1987): 201-206.
    • Ricardo Setti, "The Art of Fiction: Mario Vargas Llosa," Paris Review, 116 (Fall 1990): 47-72.
    • Julia A. Kushigan, "Entrevista: Mario Vargas Llosa," Hispamérica, 63 (1992): 33-41.
    • María Isabel Acosta Cruz, "Writer-Speaker? Speaker-Writer? Narrative and Cultural Intervention in Mario Vargas Llosa's El hablador," Inti, 29-30 (1989): 133-143.
    • Carlos J. Alonso, "La tía Julia y el escribidor: The Writing Subject's Fantasy of Empowerment," PMLA, 106, no. 1 (1991): 46-59.
    • Alicia Andreu, "Pedro Camacho: Prestidigitador del lenguaje," Modern Language Studies, 16, no. 2 (1986): 19-25.
    • Birger Angvik, "La risa que se vuelve mueca: El doble filo del humor y de la risa: Historia de Mayta frente a la crítica en Lima," Lexis, 15, no. 1 (1991): 39-72.
    • Luis de Arrigoitia, "Machismo, folklore y creación en Vargas Llosa," Sin Nombre, 13, no. 4 (1983): 19-25.
    • Rosa Boldori de Baldusi, Mario Vargas Llosa: Un narrador y sus demonios (Buenos Aires: Fernando García Cambeiro, 1974).
    • Belén Sadot Castañeda, Mario Vargas Llosa: Crítico, novelista y dramaturgo (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).
    • Castañeda, "El elemento añadido en Historia de Mayta," Confluencia, 4 (Spring 1988): 21-28.
    • Debra Castillo, "The Uses of History in Vargas Llosa's Historia de Mayta," Inti, 24-25 (Fall-Winter 1986-1987): 79-98.
    • Sara Castro-Klarén, "Fragmentation and Alienation in La casa verde," Modern Language Notes, 87, no. 2 (1972): 286-299.
    • Castro-Klarén, "Humor and Class in Pantaleón y las visitadoras," Latin American Literary Review, 7, no. 13 (1978): 64-79.
    • Castro-Klarén, "Locura y dolor: La elaboración de la historia en Os Sertòes and La guerra del fin del mundo," Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana, 10, no. 20 (1984): 207-230.
    • Castro-Klarén, Mario Vargas Llosa: Análisis introductorio (Lima: Latinoamericana, 1988).
    • Castro-Klarén, "Santos and Cangaceiros: Inscription without Discourse in Os Sertòes and La guerra del fin del mundo," Modern Language Notes, 101, no. 2 (1986): 366-388.
    • Frank Dauster, "Vargas Llosa and the End of Chivalry," Books Abroad, 44, no. 1 (1970): 41-45.
    • Mary E. Davis, "Dress Gray y La ciudad y los perros: El laberinto del honor," Revista Iberoamericana, 47, no. 116-117 (1981): 117-126.
    • Davis, "Mario Vargas Llosa: The Case of the Vanishing Hero," Contemporary Literature, 28 (Winter 1987): 510-519.
    • Rita De Grandis, "La problemática del conocimiento en Historia de Mayta de Mario Vargas Llosa," Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana, 19, no. 38 (1993): 375-382.
    • Luis Alfonso Diez, Mario Vargas Llosa's Pursuit of the Total Novel (Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC, 1970).
    • Diez, ed., Asedios a Vargas Llosa (Santiago, Chile: Universitaria, 1972).
    • Inger Enkvist, Las técnicas narrativas de Mario Vargas Llosa (Güteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothobugensis, 1987).
    • M. J. Fenwick, Dependency Theory and Literary Analysis: Reflections on Vargas Llosa's "The Green House" (Minneapolis: Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literature, 1981).
    • Roland Forgues, "Lectura de Los cachorros," Hispamérica, 5, no. 13 (1976): 34-49.
    • Carlos Fuentes, "El afán totalizante de Vargas Llosa," in his La nueva novela latinoamericana (Mexico City: Joaquín Mortiz, 1969), pp. 35-48.
    • Magdalena García Pinto, "Anatomía de la revolución en La guerra del fin del mundo e Historia de Mayta de Mario Vargas Llosa," in The Historic Novel in Latin America, edited by Daniel Balderston (Gaithersburg, Md.: Hispamérica, 1986).
    • Dick Gerdes, Mario Vargas Llosa (Boston: Twayne, 1985).
    • Helmy Giacoman and José Miguel Oviedo, eds., Homenaje a Mario Vargas Llosa (New York: Las Américas, 1971).
    • Rita Gnutzmann, Cómo leer a Mario Vargas Llosa (Madrid: Júcar, 1992).
    • Jorge Guzmán, "A Reading of Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta," Latin American Literary Review, 15 (January-June 1987): 133-139.
    • Hollis Huston, "Revolutionary Change in One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta," Latin American Literary Review, 15 (January-June 1987): 105-120.
    • Instituto de Cooperación Iberoamericana, Semana de Autor Mario Vargas Llosa (Madrid: Cultura Hispánica, 1985).
    • Julie Jones, "The Search for Paradise in Captain Pantoja and the Special Service," Latin American Literary Review, 9, no. 19 (1981): 41-46.
    • Marvin A. Lewis, From Lima to Leticia: The Peruvian Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983).
    • Stephen M. Machen, "Pornoviolence and Point of View in Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," Latin American Literary Review, 9, no. 17 (1980): 9-16.
    • George McMurray, "The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa," Modern Language Quarterly, 29, no. 3 (1968): 329-340.
    • Willy Muñoz, "La historia de la ficción de Mayta," Symposium, 44 (Summer 1990): 102-113.
    • Michael Moody, "Paisajes de los condenados: El escenario natural de La casa verde," Revista Iberoamericana, 47, nos. 116-117 (1981): 127-136.
    • Marta Morello-Frosch, "Of Heroes and Martyrs: The Grotesque in Pantaleón y las visitadoras," Latin American Literary Review, 7, no. 14 (1979): 40-44.
    • José Miguel Oviedo and others, "Focus: Conversation in the Cathedral," Review, 14 (Spring 1975): 5-37.
    • Oviedo, ed., Mario Vargas Llosa: El escritor y la crítica (Madrid: Taurus, 1981).
    • Oviedo, Mario Vargas Llosa: La invención de una realidad (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1982).
    • Michael Palencia-Roth, "The Art of Memory in García Márquez and Vargas Llosa," Modern Language Notes, 105 (March 1990): 351-366.
    • Antonio Pereira, La concepción literaria de Mario Vargas Llosa (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1981).
    • René Prieto, "The Two Narrative Voices in Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," Latin American Literary Review, 11, no. 22 (1983): 15-25.
    • Angel Rama, "La guerra del fin del mundo: Una obra maestra del fanatismo artístico," Eco, 40 (April 1982): 600-640.
    • Susana Reisz de Rivarola, "La historia como ficción y la ficción como historia: Vargas Llosa y Mayta," Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica, 35, no. 2 (1987): 835-863.
    • José Rodríguez Elizondo, Vargas Llosa: Historia de un doble parricidio (Santiago, Chile: La Noria, 1993).
    • Charles Rossman and Alan Warren Friedman, eds., Mario Vargas Llosa: A Collection of Critical Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978).
    • William Rowe, "Liberalismo y autoridad: Una lectura política de Vargas Llosa," Nuevo Texto Crítico, 4, no. 8 (1991): 91-100.
    • Joaquín Roy, "Mario Vargas Llosa," in Narrativa y crítica de nuestra América, edited by Roy (Madrid: Castalia, 1977), pp. 351-386.
    • Michel Rybalka, "Mario Vargas Llosa and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta from a French Perspective," Latin American Literary Review, 15 (January-June 1987): 121-131.
    • Iván Silen, "El anti-Mayta," Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana, 11, no. 23 (1986): 269-275.
    • David Sobrevilla, "La nueva teoría de la novela de Mario Vargas Llosa," Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos, 496 (October 1991): 59-71.
    • Joseph Sommers, "Literatura e ideología: La evaluación novelística del militarismo en Vargas Llosa," Hispamérica, 4, no. 1 (1975): 83-117.
    • Peter Standish, Vargas Llosa: La ciudad y los perros (London: Grant & Cutler, 1983).
    • Eduardo Urdanivia, "Realismo y consecuencias políticas en Historia de Mayta," Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana, 11, no. 23 (1986): 135-140.
    • Alvaro Vargas Llosa, El diablo en campaña (Madrid: El País/Aguilar, 1991).
    • Raymond L. Williams, Mario Vargas Llosa (New York: Ungar, 1986).
    • World Literature Today, special issue on Vargas Llosa, 52 (Winter 1978).
    • Roger A. Zapata, "Las trampas de la ficción en Historia de Mayta," in La historia en la literatura: Textos del XXVI Congreso del Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana, edited by Raquel Chang-Rodríguez and Gabriela de Beer (New York: Ediciones del Norte/City University of New York, 1989).