Vargas Llosa, Mario (1936–)

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Vargas Llosa, Mario (1936–)

The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa was born on March 28, 1936, in the city of Arequipa. Although he has written most of his novels while living in Europe, based primarily in Paris, London, Barcelona, and Madrid, his early experiences and deep attachment to Peru have been his primary creative inspiration. Vargas Llosa has permanent residences in Barranco, a suburb of Lima, and in Madrid (he became a dual citizen of Spain in 1993), but he is an indefatigable traveler, a man of insatiable curiosity.

In the 1960s, when he was a committed socialist, Vargas Llosa became an international literary sensation for his depiction of the corrosive effects of corruption on human hopes and aspirations. La cuidad y los perros (Time of the Hero, 1963) diagnoses the baseness of the social order through the microcosm of a military academy; La casa verde (The Green House, 1966) explores the brutality of a corrupt nation at its margins (the Amazonian jungle and the northern coastal area); and Conversación en La Catedral (Conversation in the Cathedral, 1969) presents a panorama of Peruvian society under a dictatorial regime through a dialogue between Santiago Zavala, a young man who has repudiated his bourgeois family, and Ambrosio, the chauffer and male lover of Santiago's father. Vargas Llosa's early novels were hailed for their political force, but also for their innovations in narrative form. In a literary movement known as the Boom, Vargas Llosa, along with Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia), Julio Cortázar (Argentina), José Donoso (Chile), and Carlos Fuentes (Mexico), contributed to the ascendancy of the Latin American novel to the top ranks of world literature in the 1960s.

In Vargas Llosa's novels a single story can be narrated from various and contradictory points of view. Mystery and intrigue derive not only from the plot but also from the author's intentional vagueness or ambiguity, as well as from his willful withholding of significant information from the reader. Vargas Llosa fuses techniques from the modern novel—the interior monologue of James Joyce, the multiple narrators and dense prose of William Faulkner—with vigorous action and melodramatic plots, some of which recall Latin American popular movies and radio plays. His narratives, while brilliant and engaging, are also in keeping with the French novelist and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's recommendation that literature be committed to political causes. By 1968, however, Vargas Llosa began to express public differences with the regimes on which he had pinned his political hopes: He deplored the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the repression of writers in Cuba. As a result Vargas Llosa was repudiated by cultural organizations of the Cuban Revolution and shunned by former friends and allies on the Left. Nevertheless, his success as a novelist did not diminish. He published Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, 1973), an ironic, humorous take on some of his previous themes. La tía Julia y el escribidor (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, 1976), an autobiographical fiction, is the first of a series of novels about the compensatory nature of the literary or erotic imagination.

By the 1980s Vargas Llosa had openly abandoned his socialist convictions and became an outspoken advocate of free-market democracy; he has never wavered from his anti-authoritarian outlook or from his defense of human rights. His novels of that decade were concerned with the fragility of societies assailed by fanatics, political opportunists, or well-intentioned visionaries for whom violence is the most attractive means to make the world a better place. This artistic turn resonated with his growing interest in reconciling the ideas of liberal thinkers such as the Russian-born, British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the Austrian-born, British philosopher of science Karl Popper with the views of the French thinker Georges Bataille on eroticism. His masterpiece of this period, La guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World, 1981), a historical novel set in nineteenth-century Brazil, explores the human propensity to idealize violence, whether with the visions of the idealists, the intimations of apocalyptic religious leaders, the patriotic fervor of military professionals, or the abstractions of intellectuals who fail to comprehend war for what it is—the most devastating collective experience of all. In this period he wrote Historia de Mayta (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, 1984), on the origins of revolutionary action; El hablador (The Storyteller, 1986), about a young man fascinated by the indigenous cultures of the Peruvian Amazonian region; and Elogio de la madrastra (In Praise of the Stepmother, 1989), about the compensations of the erotic imagination as a coping mechanism for the banalities of everyday life.

Vargas Llosa ran for president in the Peruvian elections of 1990, losing to Alberto Fujimori. Since then his writings—fiction and nonfiction alike—have been informed by a less optimistic vision, a growing sense that all struggles to prevail over one's intractable feelings of discomfort are doomed to failure. Hints of the change can be gleaned in Lituma en los Andes (Death in the Andes, 1993), about the human recourse to irrational violence when law and order cannot be maintained, and Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto (The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, 1997), about the inevitable disruptions caused by the impulses to transgress.

Renouncing revolutionary solutions for the problems of sick and corrupt societies, Vargas Llosa has turned to a wistful exploration of the traumas and suffering that can turn some individuals against the world. Set in the Dominican Republic, Fiesta del Chivo (The Feast of the Goat, 2000) is the first novel about a Latin American dictatorship to explore the process by which a corrupt strongman must undermine the dignity and self-worth of his closest collaborators and associates to remain in power. In El paraíso en la otra esquina (The Way to Paradise, 2002), Vargas Llosa recreates the lives of the French activist Flora Tristán and her grandson, the painter Paul Gauguin, portraying his fanatical protagonists with indulgence and empathy. Indeed, parallels can be drawn between his fictional account of Tristán's courageous but failed attempt to launch a political movement that would defend the rights of women and workers and his Pez en el agua (A Fish in the Water, 1993), a memoir of his unsuccessful effort to establish a political party during his presidential campaign of 1990.

Though the male protagonist of Travesuras de la niña mala (The Bad Girl, 2006), Ricardo Somocurcio, is a translator and not a novelist, his experiences parallel Vargas Llosa's own—living more or less in the same cities at about the same time, and, whether they liked it or not, subject to the vicissitudes of Peruvian history. The novel offers a running commentary on the major political and historical events in Perú from the 1950s until the late 1980s, stopping short of Vargas Llosa's own political campaign for the Peruvian presidency. Somocurcio's attachment to a mysterious woman, the niña mala (bad girl) who appears and reappears in his life, is Vargas Llosa's most searching allegory about his own bonds to Peru: a love-hate relationship that has informed the career of one of the world's most celebrated writers and public intellectuals.

See alsoCortázar, Julio; Donoso, José; Fuentes, Carlos; Fujimori, Alberto Keinya; García Márquez, Gabriel; Literature: Spanish America; Peru: Peru Since Independence.


Boland, Roy C. Mario Vargas Llosa: Oedipus and the "Papa" State. Madrid: Voz, 1988.

Castro-Klarén, Sara. Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Cueto, Alonso. Mario Vargas Llosa: La vida en movimiento. Lima: Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas, 2003.

Kristal, Efraín. Temptation of the Word: The Novel of Mario Vargas Llosa. Nashville and London: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998.

Kristal, Efraín, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Oviedo, José Miguel. Mario Vargas Llosa: La invención de una realidad. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1982.

Williams, Raymond L. Vargas Llosa: Otra historia de un deicidio. Mexico: Taurus, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2001.

Zapata, Miguel Angel, ed. Mario Vargas Llosa and the Persistence of Memory. Hempstead, NY: Hofstra University, and Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2006.

                                    EfraÍn Kristal

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Vargas Llosa, Mario (1936–)

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