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 on Mario Vargas Llosa

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).