Vargas Llosa told an audience in Berlin that he was dismayed at the most recent Nobel selection. “I am an admirer of Bob Dylan as a singer. I like his songs very much. I don’t think he is a great writer. I think the Nobel for Literature is for writers, not for singers.” One wonders whether Vargas Llosa didn’t realize Dylan is a lyricist as well as a vocalist. Then again, his reaction to the pick may have had more to do with Vargas Llosa’s disdain for mass entertainment. Just days before he accepted his own Nobel in Stockholm in December 2010, he heaped particular scorn on an entertainment industry that, in his estimation, was nurturing not art, but a culture of “banalization, frivolization, and superficiality.”
Vargas Llosa was right about that—as right about it as he was wrong about Dylan. But his comments, from one Nobel laureate about another, won’t cast a shadow over Vargas Llosa’s achievement with Cinco Esquinas. This 19th of Vargas Llosa’s novels proves the observation that there are truths about human social and political nature that are best told in fiction. What Joseph Conrad achieved in Nostromo (1904) in describing the ways of Latin American parts of the not-yet-named Third World, Vargas Llosa matches in describing 1990s Peru under the strongman (but democratically elected) President Alberto Fujimori and his Rasputin-like palace adviser Vladimiro Montesinos. With Cinco Esquinas, Vargas Llosa returns us to Limeño (as residents of the capital are called) politics and Peruvian class fissures with a mastery that would impress even the Latin American Boom writer cohort of the 1960s and 1970s that included Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel García Márquez. As the last living member of that group, Vargas Llosa does not disappoint, even if we have to patiently wait for the English translation.
I had the scandalously pleasant perquisite of spending this past fall semester in the majestic colonial city of Arequipa in southern Peru. Nestled below a trifecta of volcanoes that each scratch the sky at more than 18,000 feet, Arequipa is known as the “ciudad blanca,” not for the majestic snow-capped Andes mountains that surround it, but for the type of volcanic rock building stones (locals call it sillar) used for the city’s colonial architecture. Arequipa also happens to be where Vargas Llosa, an only child, was born in 1936. But after the age of one he spent his childhood first with his mother in Bolivia, then in the northern desert city of Piura, and, by the age of 11, in Lima. (He initially believed that his father had died, when in reality his dad had ditched the family soon after Mario was born.)
Arequipa is perhaps the most Texas-like part of Peru. Here, defiantly independent-minded Arequipeños will tell you that they would rather die than live in Lima, the chaotic, bone-freezing, fog-shrouded coastal capital of 11 million. Each time I’m here with a clutch of Davidson College students, I teach a seminar on Latin American political novels that makes much use of Vargas Llosa titles like The Time of the Hero, Conversation in the Cathedral, The Feast of the Goat, The War of the End of the World, and The Dream of the Celt) as well as A Fish in the Water, his bittersweet but wise memoir penned after being trounced (he had been the prohibitive favorite) by a theretofore anonymous political neophyte named Alberto Fujimori in his native land’s 1990 presidential election. The background for the memoir, and the reality it mirrored, consisted of the previous half dozen or so years of Peruvian mayhem and heartbreak.
Known for posterity as the Lost Decade, the 1980s was a horrific time for Latin America’s hyperinflationary economies—a time in which millions of already desperate citizens were tossed into even greater misery. Perhaps no country epitomized the economic armageddon more than Peru; and no year could compete in terms of ignominy with 1987, the worst in Peru’s modern history. In addition to a scorching drought, the industrial sector was reduced to a “handful of manufacturers of cement, hairpins, and Inca Kola, more or less,” described redoubtable correspondent Alma Guillermoprieto. The country was teetering on extinction. Unemployment had soared beyond 50 percent and poverty was about 40 percent, with extreme poverty hitting a quarter of the population. Inflation was running around 8,000 percent on an annual basis; GDP for the year was a whopping negative 15 percent.
As if the country needed another cancerous threat, the pernicious Maoist guerrilla insurgency, the Shining Path, led by the Arequipa province-born academic philosopher Abimael Guzmán, expanded its dominion in the vast Andean countryside. The prospect that Guzmán’s swelling provincial insurgency might eventually seize Lima was not all that far-fetched. The Shining Path’s war chest was filled by proceeds from cocaine production, the country’s top export.
Peru’s President at the time was Alan García, the brilliant orator whom the adoring press called the “Kennedy of Latin America” for his youth (35 when he took office). In a fit of economic folly, García responded to the country’s meltdown by making another blunder: In 1987 he nationalized the banking sector. For Vargas Llosa, who by now had spent three decades in Europe teaching, translating, and writing numerous novels, García’s incompetent demagoguery was too much. Soon thereafter, Vargas Llosa made a political speech—his first—that resonated with many Peruvians and led to his becoming a presidential candidate in the 1990 election. For Vargas Llosa, the “Peru of my childhood was a poor and backward country,” but now under García’s watch it had become “poorer still and in many regions wretchedly poverty-stricken, a country that was going to inhuman patterns of existence.”
But who was this mainly expat novelist who dared claim that he could save his country? Had Vargas Llosa’s literary imagination gotten away from him? To understand Vargas Llosa’s decision to joust with politics armed only with a keyboard, it is important to go back several decades to a literal biography, which in this case leads us to the personally revealing and politically timeless A Fish in the Water.
Before Vargas Llosa came to tilt his lance against Latin American strongmen like Fujimori or Argentina’s Juan Perón well before him, he had directed his anger toward his imperious father. Ernesto Vargas Llosa came back into Mario’s life when he was ten. After Ernesto set up house again with his wife in Piura, Mario spent the next ten years nursing a visceral hatred of his father. From Ernesto’s perspective, his son was worthy of ridicule and contempt for his bookish, “eccentric, bohemian” ways. The only thing worse—and this could have meant Mario’s banishment—was if Mario had been gay. (He wasn’t.)
With the family now living in a middle-class barrio in Lima, Ernesto sent Mario, then 14, to a military school—the Leoncio Prado Military Academy. While he only lasted two years there, the military academy, with all its social and racial classes from across Peru, was a veritable school of life for Vargas Llosa. It is also the setting of Vargas Llosa’s precocious first novel, La Ciudad y los Perros (the English translation is the painfully awkward The Time of the Hero). Published in 1963, the book was so searing that the military ceremoniously torched hundreds of copies at the very same Leoncio Prado, a self-indulgent tantrum that turned out to be not unhelpful for this budding novelist’s exposure.
Vargas Llosa’s post-Leoncio Prado adolescence included stints as a “cub reporter” for a Lima daily, where he covered the city’s down-and-outs: whores, drunks, and grisly murders of passion or (non) payment—all of it, years later, would appear in his fiction. Before he had hit the age of twenty, he was writing for Lima literary magazines. And, in what also became a novel—the rip-roaring Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter—he started dating and married his “Aunt” Julia—his uncle’s sister-in-law who was then in her early thirties. With Peru under the dictatorship of General Manuel Odría—eight brutal years that Peruvians call the “ochenia de Odría”—and now a student at the public University of San Marco, Vargas Llosa plunged into the cauldron of subversive and even armed leftist politics that captivated so many middle- and upper-class Latin American youth—or what historian Enrique Krauze called the guerrilla universitaria. In Mario’s case, Communist Party student recruiters fed him and a couple of buddies a “diet of Marx, Engels, and Lenin,” and invited them to join the cause. And while he opted to be a sympathizer rather than a member, he still had to pick a pseudonym: So he became Comrade Alberto. Yet his communist sympathies could never compete with his insatiable ambitions to become a great writer, and this, he knew, required leaving his native land for Europe:
I then understood one of the most dramatic expressions of underdevelopment. There was practically no way in which an intellectual of a country such as Peru was able to work, to earn his living, to publish, in a manner of speaking to live as an intellectual without adopting revolutionary gestures, rendering homage to the socialist ideology, and demonstrating in his public acts—his writing and his civic activities—that he belongs to the left. To get to be editor-in-chief of a publication, to be promoted to higher academic rate, to obtain fellowships, travel grants, invitations with expenses paid, it was necessary for him to prove that he was identified with the myths and symbols of the revolutionary and socialist establishment. Anyone who failed to heed the invisible watchword was condemned to the wilderness: marginalization and professional frustration.Vargas Llosa simply could not compromise his ideas and words—could not become what he acerbically coined “El intelectual barato” (“the cut-rate intellectual”)—and still live with himself.
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