Vargas Llosa, Mario

views updated May 11 2018

Mario Vargas Llosa

BORN: 1936, Arequipa, Peru


GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction

The Time of the Hero (1963)
The Green House (1966)
Conversation in the Cathedral (1969)
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977)
The War of the End of the World (1981)


Few writers from South America have achieved the literary status and international recognition of Mario Vargas Llosa. A major figure in contemporary literature, Vargas Llosa is respected for his insightful examination of social and cultural themes and for the structural craftsmanship of his work. Vargas Llosa is best known for his novels, in which he combines realism with experimentation to reveal the complexities of human life and society. Never afraid of intellectual controversy, he has always been out-spoken on Latin American cultural and political issues. He ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990, narrowly losing to Alberto Fujimori. In spite of his involvement

in politics, literature remained his first passion, and it is in the art of storytelling that his talent has shone the most.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Brutal Discipline Shaped into Fiction Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa was born into a middle-class family on March 28, 1936, in Arequipa, Peru's second largest city. For the first ten years of his life he lived in Cochabamba, Bolivia, with his mother and grandparents. He returned to Peru in 1946 when his parents, who had divorced shortly before his birth, were reunited. Ernesto Vargas, disdainful of what he perceived as his son's unmanly personality, shipped the teenager off to the Leoncio Prado military academy. This experience marked the future writer's life; it was his first encounter with the institutional violence that affected the various social groups in Peru's ethnically diverse society. Vargas Llosa spent two years at the Leoncio Prado, then returned to his mother's suburban home to finish high school. Vargas Llosa worked for a local newspaper during that time and wrote a play, which was staged but never published.

In 1953, Vargas Llosa studied literature and law at the University of San Marcos in Lima. During these years, Peru was governed by the military dictator General Manuel Odría, who had overthrown the nation's democratic government in 1948. San Marcos was a stronghold for clandestine opposition to Odría's dictatorship. This proved crucial in Vargas Llosa's intellectual formation as he joined a student cell of the Peruvian Communist Party.

In 1959, Vargas Llosa left Peru to pursue doctoral studies at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid, Spain. His collection of short stories, Los jefes (The Cubs and Other Stories) (1959) was awarded the Leopoldo Alas Prize in Spain and published that year in Barcelona. Vargas Llosa later moved to Paris, where he worked as a journalist, taught Spanish, and continued to write. He became acquainted with several Latin American writers also living in Paris, including Julio Cortázar from Argentina and Carlos Fuentes from Mexico. In the 1960s, all three would be leaders of a literary “boom” that brought Latin American literature to international attention.

Vargas Llosa's painful experiences at Leoncio Prado were the basis for his first novel, The Time of the Hero (the title changed from the Spanish-language version La ciudad y los perros, meaning “the city and the dogs”) (1963). The work gained instant notoriety when Peruvian military leaders condemned it and publicly burned one thousand copies.

Experiments in Social Narrative The Green House (La Casa Verde) (1966), Vargas Llosa's next novel, also won wide acclaim and established him as an important young writer. He followed up his success with Conversation in the Cathedral (Conversacion en la catedral) (1969), a monumental narrative exploring the moral depravity of Peruvian life under dictator Manuel Odría. In 1973, Vargas Llosa published his first satirical novel, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (Pantaleon y las visitadoras). With biting wit, the novel demonstrates Vargas Llosa's disdain for military bureaucracy.

Fact and Fiction Four years later, Vargas Llosa published his autobiographical and most internationally popular novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (La tia Julia y el escribidor) (1977). While this book is less complicated structurally than his earlier novels, Vargas Llosa's manipulation of point of view is of primary importance. Half the chapters in the book represent a fictionalized version of the author's short first marriage to his Aunt Julia. The alternate chapters are soap opera scripts composed by a radio script-writer, Pedro Camacho, whose stories of infanticide, incest, prostitution, religious fanaticism, and genocide keep his audience glued to the radio. Vargas Llosa stretches 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.

Vargas Llosa produced an epic historical novel based on a true story, The War of the End of the World (La guerra del fin del mundo), in 1981. The plot concerns a rebellion in the Brazilian backlands late in the nineteenth century, reflecting the plight of the poor throughout Latin American history. It received international acclaim and is considered by some to be Vargas Llosa's masterpiece.

Its huge success was only the beginning of an intense decade for Vargas Llosa, both as a writer and an influential public figure in Peru. In the 1980s he published a major anthology of his journalistic essays, Against All Odds (Contra viento y marea) (1983–1990). Its three volumes portray the shift in his political perspective, from his early admiration for socialism in the 1960s to his defense of free-market capitalism in the 1980s. This shift to a conservative position often placed him at the center of controversy both in Peru and abroad. After twelve years of progressive military rule, civilian rule was restored in 1980. Vargas Llosa maintained such close political ties to President Fernando Belaunde Terry that he was offered the post of prime minister, which he did not accept.

The Storyteller and the Candidate Vargas Llosa's political stands are present in his next novel, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (Historia de Mayta) (1985). Using real and imagined events, it tells the story of Alejandro Mayta, a Marxist revolutionary who organized a failed rebellion against the Peruvian government in the late 1950s and quickly faded from public view. At the same time, a contemporary novelist in the 1980s (like Vargas Llosa himself) is trying to track down information about the legendary Mayta, sometimes embellishing factual material with fiction to enhance the significance of his story. The novel is a politically charged inquiry into the relationship between representation and reality, fact and depiction.


Vargas Llosa's famous contemporaries include:

Gabriel García Márquez (1927–): Colombian novelist, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Fidel Castro (1926–): Cuban revolutionary and government leader from 1959 to 2008.

V. S. Naipaul (1932–): British novelist and essayist born in Trinidad and of Indian descent.

Václav Havel (1936–): Czech playwright, essayist, and president of Czechoslovakia (1989–1992) and the Czech Republic (1993–2003).

In his 1987 work The Storyteller (El hablador), Vargas Llosa once again explores stories told from multiple points of view. The Storyteller concerns a Native American tribe, the Machiguengas, and in particular the community's storyteller, Saul Zuratas. The book energetically questions the multifaceted identity of Peruvian society, in which primitive and modern lifestyles are forced to coexist in conflict and contradiction. Peru has the largest Native American population in the western hemisphere: about half its population of 28 million is Native American. More than 15 percent of Peruvians speak Quechua, an indigenous Peruvian language, and Native American storytelling traditions have had a marked effect on modern Peruvian literature.

Vargas Llosa believes that a Latin American writer is obligated to speak out on political matters. This belief led Vargas Llosa in 1987 to speak out against the reformist tendencies of Peruvian President Alan García. His protest quickly led to a mass movement against nationalization of Peru's banking industry, and the government was forced to back down. Vargas Llosa's supporters went on to create Fredemo, a conservative political party calling for democracy, a free market, and individual liberty. The novelist 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.

Later Career Shortly before campaigning for the presidency, Mario Vargas Llosa published an erotic novel, In Praise of the Stepmother (Elogio de la madrastra; 1988), and followed it up with a work of literary criticism, Lies That Tell the Truth (or A Writer's Reality, 1991). He offers a critical look into his campaign in his 1993 memoir, A Fish in the Water (El pez en el agua: Memorias).

Since his political defeat, Vargas Llosa has lived in Europe and concentrated on his first love, literature. His novel Death in the Andes (Lituma en los Andes; 1993) was awarded Spain's prestigious Planeta Prize. His 1997 novel The NoteBooks of Don Rigoberto (Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto) marked the first time any publisher had released a title in all Spanish-language markets on the same day. His most recent works of fiction are The Way to Paradise (El paraíso en la otra esquina; 2003) and The Bad Girl (Travesuras de la niña mala; 2006).

Works in Literary Context

As a teenager in the coastal town of Piura, Mario Vargas Llosa developed his affinity for literature, greatly admiring the works of a variety of authors, including Alexander Dumas and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. At the university, he was attracted by the rich narrative technique in the novels of William Faulkner, whose work he admired greatly.

The Total Novel 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. Another important source for Vargas Llosa's theory of the total novel is Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary (1857). 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, becoming the invisible creator of a fictional world, a god that holds the ultimate power over a given reality. In a later work of literary criticism, Vargas Llosa holds up One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), by his contemporary Gabriel García Márquez, as a prime example of the total novel.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Political Prose At the same time, Vargas Llosa was also attracted to the way French author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre used literature as a tool to pursue a life of political commitment. Some of Vargas Llosa's early works, such as The Time of the Hero, are clearly inspired by Sartre's notion that the writer's role in any given society is to question the established social order relentlessly.

After the Boom Vargas Llosa's first two novels, with their innovations in narrative technique, established him as a major influence in Latin American literature, along with his fellow representatives of the “boom” generation. Vargas Llosa has continued to redefine the role of the writer in Latin American society, and, in that fashion, his work has remained contemporary. For example, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is in tune with the works of the so-called post-boom generation of writers from the 1970s, including Manuel Puig and Isabel Allende, who immersed themselves in popular culture and expanded the Latin American genre of magic realism.


Mario Vargas Llosa strove to write the “total novel,” a sweeping view of society within the pages of a single work. Here are some other notable works that fit that definition:

The Sound and the Fury (1929), a novel by William Faulkner. The lives of the Compson family, expressed in stream-of-consciousness narrative, represent in microcosm the declining culture of the American South.

Madame Bovary (1857), a novel by Gustave Flaubert. In this novel that is credited as a founding text of literary realism, Flaubert uses the failing marriage of Emma and Charles Bovary to depict French bourgeois culture of the period.

Sister Carrie (1900), a novel by Theodore Dreiser. In this panorama of America at the turn of the century, a young country girl ascends in social class as mistress to a bar manager, finally becoming a well-known stage actress.

The Rules of the Game (1939), a film written and directed by Jean Renoir. This comedy of manners concerns a group of French aristocrats and the servants they employ.

Works in Critical Context

Mario Vargas Llosa is one of a small handful of the most esteemed Latin American authors of the twentieth century. His novels are widely acknowledged as path-breaking in their narrative complexity and in the social panorama they encompass. Some critics have found the labyrinthine structure of works like Conversation in the Cathedral difficult to comprehend. Others have objected to some of the stylistic pyrotechnics in Vargas Llosa's fiction, contending that they exist at the expense of character development.

Conversation in the Cathedral Llosa's 1969 novel Conversation in the Cathedral, first published in English in 1975, received a range of critical reactions typical of the author's work. Roger Sale, writing for The Hudson Review, notes that the book “is huge, almost a quarter of a million words, and it manages that bulk with often amazing skill.” Although he claims the story would work better as a film, Sale concludes, “Conversation in the Cathedral is immensely knowing, and so it makes a reader feel knowing; it is an excellent rather than a moving novel, not great, but very good.” Suzanne Jill Levine, in the New York Times Book Review, writes, “It would be a pity if the enormous but not insurmountable difficulties of reading this massive novel prevent readers from becoming acquainted with a book that reveals, as few others have, some of the ugly complexities of the real Latin America.” Other critics were less enthusiastic. For example, Pearl K. Bell of The New Leader calls the book “such a tiresome, repetitious, logorrheic bore that only in the cruelest nightmare could I imagine myself reading [Vargas Llosa's] greatly praised earlier works.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Write an essay about the relationship between fact and fiction in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta.
  2. Research the life story of Antonio Conselheiro and the bloody battle he and his followers provoked in Brazil. What interpretation does Vargas Llosa give to these events in The War of the End of the World?
  3. What relationship do you discern between the evolution of Vargas Llosa's political views and the development of his literary concerns?
  4. Which of Vargas Llosa's contemporaries had the greatest effect on his style of writing, and in which of his works do you see this being represented?
  5. Is there an American author today whom you feel presents a similar biting look at politics in America? Explain your choice.



Booker, M. Keith. Vargas Llosa among the Postmodernists. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.

Cano Gaviria, Ricardo. El buitre y el ave fenix: Conversaciones con Mario Vargas Llosa. Barcelona: Anagrama, 1972.

Feal, Rosemary Geisdorfer. Novel Lives: The Fictional Autobiographies of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Mario Vargas Llosa. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Gallagher, D. P. Modern Latin American Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Gerdes, Dick. Mario Vargas Llosa. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Harss, Luis and Barbara Dohmann. Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers. New York: Harper, 1967.

Lewis, Marvin A. From Lime to Leticia: The Peruvian Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983.

“Mario Vargas Llosa (1936–).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Carolyn Riley and Phyllis Carmel Mendelson. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale, 1976, pp. 543–48.

Moses, Michael Valdez. The Novel and the Globalization of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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

Oviedo, José Miguel, ed. Mario Vargas Llosa: El escritor y la crítica. Madrid: Taurus, 1981.

Pereira, Antonio. La concepción literaria de Mario Vargas Llosa. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1981.

Rodriguez Elizondo, José. Vargas Llosa: Historia de un doble parricidio. Santiago, Chile: La Noria, 1993.

Rossmann, Charles and Alan Warren Friedman, eds. Mario Vargas Llosa: A Collection of Critical Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978.

Standish, Peter. Vargas Llosa: La ciudad y los perros. London: Grant & Cutler, 1983.


Americas (March–April 1989): 22; (March–April 1995): 62.

Latin American Literary Review (1983): vol. 11 no. 22: 15–25; (January–June 1987): 121–31, 201–06.

New Yorker (February 24, 1986): 98, 101–04; (August 24, 1987): 83; (December 25, 1989): 103; (October 1, 1990): 107–10; (April 15, 1996): 84.

World Literature Today (Winter 1978) (Spring 1978).

Mario Vargas Llosa

views updated Jun 08 2018

Mario Vargas Llosa

The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa (born 1936), novelist, critic, journalist, screenwriter, and essayist, abandoned writing at least temporarily in 1990 to run unsuccessfully for president of his country.

Like many of the characters in his fiction, (Jorge) Mario (Pedro) Vargas Llosa, internationally acclaimed Peruvian writer and recipient of almost every literary award short of the Nobel Prize, is something of a paradox. An author at home in many forms of writing, Vargas Llosa once described literature as the passion of his life. As his country's leading presidential candidate, campaigning for the center-right coalition, Fredemo, or the Democratic Front, he had come a long way from the days when he supported the Cuban revolution and was an active member in Cahuide, a small underground remnant of Peru's then-outlawed Communist Party.

He had also come a long way from his student days in the University of San Marcos when he longed to leave Peru for the heady stimulation of Europe where so many of his favorite novels at the time were set and written. His escape came in 1958 after winning a fellowship to pursue a doctoral degree in literature at the University of Madrid.

Nevertheless, although he spent two years in Madrid and several more in Paris working for French radio and television, he continued to think and write about his home-land. As evident from his life and fiction, Vargas Llosa had an intense love-hate relationship with Peru from his boyhood when he first began to write.

He was born on March 28, 1936, in the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa. For the first 10 years of his life he lived in Cochabamba, Bolivia, with his mother and grandparents. He returned to Peru, however, in 1946 when his parents, who had divorced shortly before his birth, were reunited. The family settled in Magdalena del Mar, a middle-class Lima suburb.

By the time he was 16 he was working part-time for several Lima tabloids, covering crime stories mainly. His first book, Los Jefes, a collection of short stories, was published in 1958 when he was 22.

These years proved to be difficult for Vargas Llosa, however, since he and his father did not see eye to eye on Vargas Llosa's writing ambitions. "We were opposites; we did not respect each other, " the author said. "In Bolivia I wrote and my grandparents and mother hailed me for it. When my father discovered that I was a writer, he had the opposite reaction. The bourgeoisie of Lima then scorned literature—they considered it an alibi for idlers, an activity of the upper class."

Fearful that his son was in danger of losing his virility because of his passion for writing, Vargas Llosa's father shipped him off to Leoncio Prado, an institution that the author described as half reform school and half college, run by fanatics of military discipline. "It was the discovery of hell for me, " Vargas Llosa said. "I understood what Darwin's theory meant in the struggle for life."

Vargas Llosa's painful experiences at Leoncio Prado were the basis for his first novel, The Time of the Hero (1963). The work gained instant notoriety when Peruvian military leaders condemned it and burned one thousand copies in the courtyard of Leoncio Prado.

Praised for its stylistic and innovative craftsmanship, the novel presented from multiple points of view a story of official corruption and cruelty in a military institution. It won several major literary awards in Europe and quickly established Vargas Llosa's reputation as social critic and writer.

Vargas Llosa's next two novels were The Green House (1969), a magical realistic tale of an enchanted whore-house, and Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), a 601-page narrative of the moral depravity of life in Peru during the 1950s under dictator Manuel Odria. Both books provided further variations on his themes of hypocrisy and corruption in Peruvian society and politics.

In 1973, however, Vargas Llosa's first humorous novel, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, was published. A black comedy about a naive army officer who diligently obeys his commanding officers' order to organize a corp of prostitutes to service soldiers in desolate jungle camps, the novel depicted with biting wit Vargas Llosa's continual disdain for military bureaucracy and incompetence.

Four years later his most internationally popular—and most autobiographical—novel, Aunt Julia and The Script-writer, appeared. A fictionalized version of his first marriage to his Aunt Julia, a woman ten years his senior, the novel traces the adventures of an 18-year-old character named Mario and the outlandish plots of his co-worker and friend, Pedro Camacho, a fanatical writer of soap operas who becomes increasing neurotic as he spins out daily his fantastic, convoluted tale of love, loss, and insanity.

This device of multiple-level storytelling from the point of view of widely divergent characters is a Vargas Llosa hallmark, and most critics agree that the structures of his next two overtly political novels, War at the End of the World (1981) and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984), are shaped by it.

In 1986 Vargas Llosa turned his hand to detective fiction and wrote the fast-paced cops and killer thriller Who Killed Palomino Molera? Although the novel lacked the thickly layered narrative scope of his other works, it clearly proved Vargas Llosa's talents for writing sordid detail and earthy, comic dialogue.

His 1987 work The Storyteller returned again to the theme of tale-telling from multiple points of view. It relates the adventures of a nameless narrator who is fascinated by the almost mystical transformation of his college friend, Saul Zurantas, a Peruvian Jew and former student of ethnology, who leaves civilization to live and tell tales among the Machiguenga tribesmen in the depths of the Amazonian rain forests. "Who is purer or happier because he's renounced his destiny?" The storyteller asks as he roams the jungle with the Machiguenga, people who must continually walk in order to fulfill their obligation to the gods and preserve the earth and the sky and the stars. "Nobody," the storyteller responds. "We'd best be what we are. The one who gives up fulfilling his own obligation so as to fulfill that of another will lose his soul."

A haunting, deeply spiritual novel, The Storyteller is entirely different in scope and tone from Vargas Llosa's later work Elogio de la Madrastra (1988), an erotic tale of sexual tension between a stepmother and stepson, described by the author as a "diversion." An English translation, In Praise of the Stepmother, was published in 1990. It was an erotic novel about a beautiful but naughty little boy. The later novels are amazing works to come from the pen of a man who temporarily, at least, abandoned his isolation as a writer to pursue an active political career. This was to fulfill what he considered his obligations toward improving the moral, social, and economic quality of life in his country.

In 1990 Vargas Llosa became the candidate for president of a center-right coalition called the Democratic Front (Fredemo). He was opposed by the candidate of the Change (Cambio) 90 Party, Alberto Fujimori. The well-known author took an early lead but gradually lost ground and in a run-off election was defeated by Fujimori.

His book about the experience, Tale of a Sacrifical Llama, released in June, 1994, offers a convincing self-portrait of a political innocent sinking under a tide of democratic absurdities. This follows his work A Fish in the Water: A Memoir which detailed "his bittersweet look at the nearly three years he spent in public life."

Vargas Llosa went back to his writing full-time after his brief affair with politics. The coveted Planeta Prize for 1994, traditionally awarded each year to a Spaniard for the best pseudonymously submitted manuscript of fiction, went to Vargas Llosa (whose application for Spanish citizenship was approved in July); his Lituma en los Andes is a story of political violence and social regression—laced with Dionysian overtones—in a contemporary Andean setting.

Vargas Llosa's latest novel, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (1997) marked the first time any publisher had released a title in all Spanish-language markets on the same day. Sixteen of the 26 countries involved (including Spain) have Santillana companies to print and publish, although in the case of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, only Spain and Mexico printed for all the others. In the first month of publication 250, 000 copies were sold, 100, 000 of them in Latin America.

Further Reading

Additional information on Mario Vargas Llosa can be found in D. P. Gallagher, Modern Latin American Literature (1973); New York Review of Books (March 20, 1975); New York Times Book Review (March 23, 1975); Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, (1975, 1976). Gregory Rabassa, "'O Tempora, O Mores': Time, Tense, and Tension in Mario Vargas Llosa, " in World Literature Today (Winter 1978); Jerry Bumpus, "The Good Soldier, " in Partisan Review (1979); John M. Kirk, "Mario Vargas Llosa's 'Conversation in the Cathedral', " in The International Fiction Review (January 1977); Antonio D'Orrico, "Vargas Llosa's 'Demon, "' in World Press Review (August 1987); Gene Lyons, "Latin America's Bestlooking Great Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa May Also Be the Next President of Peru, " in Vogue (November 1989); Elizabeth Farnsworth, "The Temptation of Mario, " Mother Jones (January 1989); Alvin P. Sanoff, "A Writer's Use of Adversity: A Conversation with Peruvian Author Mario Vargas Llosa, " U.S. News and World Report (May 9, 1988); Richard Grenier, "Have Typewriter, Will Run, " National Review (March 24, 1989); Gerald Marzorati, "Mario Vargas Llosa: Can a Novelist Save Peru?" The New York Times Magazine (November 5, 1989); Roger Sale, "Mario Vargas Llosa, " in Hudson Review (Winter 1975-1976); "Organized Pleasures, " in The Times Literary Supplement (October 12, 1973); Jane Larkin Crain, "Mario Vargas Llosa, " in Saturday Review (January 11, 1975); Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann, "Mario Vargas Llosa, or The Revolving Door, " in Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers (1967); Publishers' Weekly (June 30, 1997). □

About this article

Mario Vargas Llosa

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic