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Vargas Llosa, Mario: 1936—: Writer

Mario Vargas Llosa: 1936: Writer


Already a profound chronicler of South America's political and social reality, Mario Vargas Llosa took an unusual step for a writer in the 1980s: he immersed himself in the political life of his native Peru rather than simply standing outside it as an observer. In the widest sense, Vargas Llosa has been a champion of freedom, a writer who spoke out against abuses of military and government power, who defied literary conventions, and who stood up for the cause of freedom of expression for writers worldwide. His more than 15 novels and numerous other writings have gained him international acclaim as one of Latin America's most significant writers of the 20th century.

Vargas Llosa was born in the Peruvian city of Arequipa on March 28, 1936. He spent part of his childhood in Bolivia and was a voracious reader from the start; with an inclination toward classic novels of adventure such as The Three Musketeers, he sometimes penned his own endings, if the ones supplied were not to his liking. Vargas Llosa moved back to Peru with his family in 1945. For a time they lived in the small city of Piura, whose desolate house of prostitution would figure heavily in Vargas Llosa's novel, The Green House (La casa verde ). Vargas Llosa later attended parochial school in Lima, but after his father found out about his literary efforts he was sent for two years to a military school called Leoncio Prado.

Stayed On in France

From then on, Vargas Llosa resisted his parents' wishes. Attending law school in Lima with the intention of serving Peru's poor, he began to write in earnest and in 1958 won a trip to France as a prize for a short story he had submitted as a contest entry. The trip would be the beginning of a 15-year exile from Peru, during which Vargas Llosa ascended to literary fame. His first novel, The Time of the Hero (in Spanish La ciudad y los perros, 1962) drew on his experiences at the military school. Military personnel there gave Vargas Llosa invaluable publicity when they burned 1,000 copies of the novel in the school's courtyard.

With the highly acclaimed The Green House (1966) and Conversation in the Cathedral (Conversación en la catedral, 1969), Vargas Llosa adopted what became his characteristic mode of narrative in his more substantial works: a nonlinear approach to storytelling that alternated and juxtaposed, sometimes suddenly, the points of view of various characters. Vargas Llosa's intent was not literary experimentation, but rather an ambitious effort to capture social formations in their totality. The 600-page Conversation in the Cathedral, set during the dictatorship of Peruvian strongman Manuel Odría in the 1940s and 1950s, presented a panoramic view of a society plagued by corruption at many levels.

At a Glance . . .

Born March 28, 1936, in Arequipa, Peru; married Julia Urquidi, 1955; married Patricia Llosa, 1965; three children. Education: Attended military school Peru; attended law school in Peru; University of San Marcos, Spain, Ph.D., 1959.

Career: Moved to Paris, France, after winning literary prize, 1958; worked as journalist with Agence France-Presse and with ORTF radio and television network; published debut novel La ciudad y los perros (trans. as The Time of the Hero ), 1963; University of London, faculty member, 1966-68; visiting professorships in Americas and Europe; 1960s-1990s; Peruvian presidential candidate, 1990; has published over 50 books and five plays.

Memberships: PEN international writers' organization; servied as president, 1976-79.

Selected awards: Romulo Gallegos award, 1967, for La casa verde; Cervantes Prize for literature, 1994; National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, 1997.

Addresses: Office Agencia Carmen Balcells, Diagonal 580, 08021 Barcelona, Spain; Agent c/o PEN, 7 Duke St., London SW3, England.

Vargas Llosa's unease with military institutions showed through once again in the satirical novel Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (Pantaleón y las visitadoras, 1973), which depicted a military officer assigned to procure prostitutes for a jungle brigade of soldiers. In 1976 Vargas Llosa became president of the international writers' organization PEN, which works to help writers who have been persecuted for their political beliefs. The political cast of many of his novels sensitized him to the plight of writers imprisoned in repressive societies, but Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (La tía Julia y el escribidor, 1977) was an autobiographical work that juxtaposed the events leading to his own first marriage against a background of televison soap opera. Vargas Llosa has also written erotic novels on occasion.

Rejected Socialism

As a young man Vargas Llosa had admired Cuban Communist Party leader Fidel Castro, but he grew disillusioned with socialism. As a result his long friendship with Colombian novelist Gabriel García Marquez ended in 1976 in a slugfest in a Mexico City theaterVargas Llosa knocked García Marquez out cold. Vargas Llosa's novel The War of the End of the World (La guerra del fin del mundo, 1981), set in 19th-century Brazil, took a more pacifist view of conflict in its depiction of a struggle between the Brazilian government and a group of religious fanatics holed up in a city they had established. The novel was interpreted as a symbolic representation of the ways in which struggles between right-wing governments and violent left-wing rebels were sapping the strength of Latin American societies.

He cast a jaundiced eye on European and American leftists who embraced a chic radicalism in the Third World while doing little about it at home; he wrote, as quoted in the New Republic, that such activists treated Latin America like "a plebian mistress with who all those secret fantasies and frightful excessesprudently repressed in their relations with their wives (their native countries)can be given free rein." Peruvian leftist intellectuals attacked Vargas Llosa for his role in a government commission that blamed members of a small Andean community for the killing of eight journalists, and the experience marked something of a crisis point for the novelist. Vargas Llosa became more and more involved in the political life of the homeland he had abandoned for so long.

After leading several mass protests against the left-wing Peruvian government's plan to nationalize key industries, Vargas Llosa ran for president of the country himself in 1990. Calling for an expansion of free enterprise, he surged to an early lead as his oratorical skills matched those he had shown with the pen. In one speech late in the campaign, according to the National Review, he compared Peru to "an ancient, beautiful, never-ending book." In the end, however, Vargas Llosa lost the election to Alberto Fujimori, who later ran into trouble because of allegations of civil rights abuses. Vargas Llosa has not run for elective office again, but has continued his involvement in Peru's civil life.

Some in the literary community actually welcomed Vargas Llosa's election loss, for the campaign had somewhat reduced his extraordinary fertility as a writer. Vargas Llosa looked back on his campaign in the memoir AFishintheWater (El pez en el agua, 1993), and took up political questions in several new novels. Death in the Andes (Lituma en los Andes, 1993) dealt with the Shining Path (Sendero Luminso) Marxist guerrilla movement that had troubled Peru for many years, and The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo, 2001) was an epic of the long dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his 1961 assassination.

Vargas Llosa had lost none of his ability to provide masses of realistic detail; many of the true-life characters in The Feast of the Goat were so accurately drawn that the book caused a scandal in the Dominican Republic, even half a century after the events it depicted. Well into his seventh decade, Vargas Llosa showed no signs of slowing down. Many called him the conscience of Peru, but his substantial body of writing perhaps qualified him to serve as conscience and moral compass for a much wider area.


Selected writings

Los jefes (The Leaders; short stories), Rocas (Barcelona), 1959, translation by Ronald Christ and Gregory Kolovakos published in The Cubs and Other Stories, Harper, 1979.

La ciudad y los perros (novel), Seix Barral (Barcelona), 1963, translation by Lysander Kemp published as The Time of the Hero, Grove, 1966, 2nd edition, Alfaguara (Madrid, Spain), 1999.

La casa verde (novel), Seix Barral, 1966, translation by Gregory Rabassa published as The Green House, Harper, 1968.

Conversación en la catedral (novel), two volumes, Seix Barral, 1969, translation by Rabassa published as Conversation in the Cathedral, Harper, 1975.

Pantaleón y las visitadoras (novel), Seix Barral, 1973, translation by Christ and Kolovakos published as Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, Harper, 1978.

La tia Julia y el escribidor (novel), Seix Barral, 1977, translation by Lane published as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Farrar, Straus, 1982.

La guerra del fin del mundo (novel), Seix Barral, 1981, translation by Lane published as The War of the End of the World, Farrar, Straus, 1984.

Historia de Mayta (novel), Seix Barral, 1985, translation by Alfred MacAdam published as The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, Farrar, Straus, 1986.

Quien mató a Palomino Molero? (novel), Seix Barral, 1986, translation by MacAdam published as Who Killed Palomino Molero?, Farrar, Straus, 1987.

El hablador (novel), Seix Barral, 1987, translation by Lane published as The Storyteller, Farrar, Straus, 1989.

Elogio de la madrastra (novel), Tusquets (Barcelona), 1988, translation by Lane published as In Praise of the Stepmother, Farrar, Straus, 1990.

Lituma en los Andes (novel), Planeta (Barcelona), 1993, translation by Edith Grossman published as Death in the Andes, Farrar, Straus, 1996.

A Writer's Reality (nonfiction), Syracuse University Press, 1991.

El pez en el agua (memoir), Seix Barral, 1993, translated by Lane as A Fish in the Water: A Memoir, Farrar, Straus, 1994.

Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto, Alfaguara, 1997, published as The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, translated by Edith Grossman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

La Fiesta del chivo, Alfaguara (Madrid, Spain), 2000, published as The Feast of the Goat, translated by Edith Grossman, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001.


Sources

Books

Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996. Periodicals

Economist, January 20, 2001, p. 9.

Library Journal, April 1, 1998, p. 126.

National Review, May 14, 1990, p. 26; April 17, 1995, p. 53.

New Leader, November-December 2001, p. 30.

The New Republic, February 12, 1990, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly, April 11, 1994, p. 49; April 21, 1997, p. 49; July 30, 2001, p. 55.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1997, p. 70.

Time, February 12, 1996, p. 75; December 10, 2001, p. 107.

U.S. News & World Report, May 9, 1988, p. 69; November 5, 1990, p. 15.


On-line

Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group,

2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 2001. (http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).

James M. Manheim

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