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Mario Vargas Llosa and His Relationship with Peru

Image from Flickr user Luis Carlos Díaz, used under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license

“I came to Firenze to forget about Peru and the Peruvians for a while, and suddenly my unfortunate country forced itself upon me this morning in the unexpected way.”

This is the opening of The Storyteller, a not so well known, but nonetheless critical, novel composing the literary works of Mario Vargas Llosa. In it, the narrator – who is very similar to the writer (Vargas Llosa is an aficionado of what is known as meta-fiction) – describes his meanderings in Florence trying to separate himself from Peru as he falls upon photographs that rekindle his interest for his native country. This perfectly illustrates the conflictive relationship between Vargas Llosa and Peru, and is key to understanding the body of his literary work.

As has already been reported in Global Voices, Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. And yet, beyond the nearly unanimous congratulations that many have extended in the media and on social networks, few have analyzed the author’s work following the illustrious prize. Nevertheless, some Peruvian writers and literary enthusiasts have written a few lines that try to demonstrate what Vargas Llosa means to them and to the country. One such writer is Gustavo Faverón, who states [es] in Puente Aéreo:

…es el autor de las primeras siete novelas adultas que leí en mi vida. … Aprendí muchas cosas sobre el mundo y sobre mi país leyendo a Vargas Llosa, … En los años de mi adolescencia, tuve tres ídolos semejantes. Vargas Llosa fue el primero, el siguiente fue Paul McCartney y el último Stanley Kubrick. … En mi vida, en esos años, y en los años siguientes, pocas personas de carne y hueso fueron tan reales para mí como […] el Poeta, el Jaguar, Lituma, la Pies Dorados, el Periodista Miope, Jum, Galileo Gall, Fushía, Teresita, Santiaguito Zavala, el León de Natuba, Jurema o la Brasileña.

… he is the author of the first six adult novels I read in my life…. I learned many things about the world and about by country reading Vargas Llosa.… During my adolescence, I had three similar idols; Vargas Llosa was the first, the other was Paul McCartney and the third was Stanley Kubrick…. During that period of my life few actual people seemed as truly real to me as the Poet, the Jaguar, Lituma, Golden Toes, the Short-sighted Journalist, Galileo Gall, Fushia, Teresita, Santiaguito Zavala, the lion of Natuba, Jurema or Olga Arellano la Brasileña (the Brazilian woman).

But it is not only the characters from Vargas Llosa’s books who leave their impressions; there are also memorable phrases about Peru, like those collected by writer Richar Primo on his blog Zona del escribidor in a post [es] in homage to the author:

La primera novela que leí de Vargas Llosa fue “Conversación en la Catedral” y – mis amigos más cercanos lo saben – fue la lectura que alteró el curso de mi vida. Aun esta misma mañana, en que que he tenido que pasar por la avenida Tacna, y después de tantos años transcurridos, las primeras frases del libro me parece que reverberaran todavía nítidamente entre sus grises edificios … “automóviles, edificios desiguales y descoloridos, esqueletos de avisos luminosos flotando en la neblina. ¿En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?”

The first Vargas Llosa novel I read was “Conversation in the Cathedral” and, as my closest friends know, this was the book that changed the course of my life. Just this morning I needed to stop at Avenida Tacna, and though so many years have passed, the first lines of the book seem to still reverberate clearly among the gray buildings: “cars, uneven and faded buildings, the gaudy skeletons of posters floating in the mist, the gray midday. At what precise moment had Peru screwed itself up?”

Image of Juan Arellano's personal library.

In addition to his literary endeavors, Vargas Llosa has pursued political activism that has earned him recalcitrant opponents, above all because of his migration from the bastion of leftism to that of liberalism. Even more so when he ran for president in the early nineties, an experience that left him disillusioned with loyalist politics and with Peru and that eventually resulted in one of his most interesting books, A Fish in the Water.

But Mario Vargas Llosa is an untiring thinker, and his announced withdrawal from politics was only at the level of personal involvement as a primary actor in it, and not a withdrawal from political thought. In fact, the academic Camilo Fernández writes [es] in his blog La soledad de la página en blanco what he believes are the reasons Vargas Llosa merits the Nobel Prize. One such argument reads:

maneja el ensayo con invalorable destreza. Polemista a contracorriente, incendiario en el más ilustre sentido de la palabra, Vargas Llosa es un demócrata que defendió la cultura de la libertad sacrificando, incluso, intereses personales y asumiendo, si fuera necesario, el costo político de hacer una apología de la tolerancia y de la búsqueda de consenso en una sociedad como la peruana, donde es moneda común la corrupción y el arribismo como prácticas consuetudinarias.

He handles writing with invaluable dexterity. A debater who goes against the tide, an incendiary personality in the most illustrious sense of the word, Vargas Llosa is a democrat who [truly] defended the culture of freedom, going so far as to even sacrifice personal interests and assuming, where necessary, the political cost of apologizing for tolerance and the search for consensus in a society like Peru's, where the common denominator is corruption and clawing to the top as standard course.

Kausa justa, the blog by the “Equipo de Indiciencia en Derechos” (Rights Brigade), includes a post [es] entitled “Seven fundamental texts by our author in defense of human rights in Peru.” Because even though Vargas Llosa is abroad most of the time, like his narrator in the fiction novel cited at the beginning of this post, he is always aware of what is going on in Peru. Writer Sonia Luz Carrillo from Habla Sonia Luz cites [es] a recent example of his participation and the consequences of his outspoken beliefs:

Hace algunas semanas apenas, nos dio muestras de cuán estrecho es el vínculo con las circunstancias nacionales al renunciar a la presidencia de la comisión encargada del Museo de la Memoria al encontrar incoherencia entre su presencia y un decreto legislativo diseñado para favorecer a los violadores de derechos humanos durante el régimen dictatorial de Fujimori y Montesinos y que el autor de La fiesta del chivo calificó acertadamente de amnistía encubierta.

Just a few weeks ago, he showed us just how closely he is linked to national events when he resigned as president of the committee in charge of the Memory Museum [Museo de la Memoria] because he saw his participation as inconsistent with a legislative decree designed to favor human-rights violators during the dictatorial regime of Fujimori and Montesinos, which the author of The Feast of the Goat rightly called undercover amnesty.

Something Vargas Llosa recalls with pride is his time at National University of San Marcos. Three years ago, Sandro Medina, a journalist who blogs on Letra Suelta, was entrusted with interviewing the author for the university [es] magazine and published [es] some parts of the interview on his blog. Among other notable statements is this paragraph dedicated to politics and university life:

Tu vida universitaria no solo estaba ceñida a la lectura y las clases. Siempre tuviste la certeza de que en la universidad no solo se debe dar un entrenamiento profesional. “Yo creo que al mismo tiempo de formarlos profesionalmente, a los alumnos deben motivarlos para que desarrollen inquietudes, curiosidades. Para que tengan una actitud crítica frente al mundo en que vive, y esto se vivía en San Marcos en mi época estudiantil.”

Alzas la voz y criticas con fundamento a todos aquellos que están inmersos en la “política mal llevada”, que tanto daño le hizo a la Decana de América. Que tanto daño le hace al país. “Insisto, la política no puede estar ausente en una universidad, pero en el sentido más creativo de la palabra: debates, cotejos intelectuales, discusión de proyectos, de modelos.”

Your university life was not just restricted to lectures and classes. You always felt that the purpose of the university was not just professional training. “I think that at the same time we prepare students for the work world, we also need to encourage students to question, to be curious – in order for them to have a critical view of the world in which they live; and this is what we experienced at San Marcos during my student days.”

You raise your voice and give well-founded criticism to all those immersed in the “mismanaged policies” that so damaged the Dean of America, that so damaged the country. “Let me stress: politics cannot be absent from the university, but in the most creative sense of the word: debates, intellectual engagements, discussions about projects, about models.”

Finally, despite the fact that many an artist have said nothing on Mario Vargas Llosa’s relations with Peru, we return to the (almost) strictly literary reflections of author Juan Manuel Robles in his blog Manhattan Mental. He found himself in New York, where he attended a press conference given by Vargas Llosa after Vargas Llosa found out that he had won the Nobel Prize. Although he states that at first he approached the subject with some skepticism, he later relates [es]:

Entonces empecé a entender por qué este día era también importante para mí, para todos los que tratamos de encontrar en la escritura una forma de resistencia. Porque ver a Vargas Llosa ahí sentado es entender también que la única lucha que importa es la que empieza con la primera página en blanco y termina con miles de tachaduras. Me vi adolescente sintiendo piedad por el periodista miope, fascinación por la Barbuda, terror por el perro que mochó a Pichulita Cuéllar, compasión por Varguitas, respeto por el Jaguar. Vi una cabina de radio y un chiquillo que embellecía noticias. Vi a la brasileña. Vi todo eso y recordé un viejo chiste: el del escritor latinoamericano que se despierta a las once de la mañana y se hace una pregunta culposa: ”Qué tarde. ¿Cuántas páginas habrá escrito ya Mario Vargas Llosa?”

La conferencia siguió con su inevitable dosis de política, pero en un punto llegamos al Perú. Porque siempre hay que hablar sobre el Perú, porque ya pasaron esas feas épocas en que el escritor no contestaba a ningún periodista peruano. “¿Qué tiene que decir sobre el Perú?”. Vargas Llosa, sonriente, se sacó la capucha que mejor le queda, la de Flaubert. —El Perú soy yo.

So I began to understand why this day was also important for me, for all of us who try to find a form of resistance in writing. Because seeing Vargas Llosa sitting there is to understand as well that the only fight that matters is that which begins with the first page blank and ends with thousands of cross outs. I saw myself a teenager feeling pity for the Short-sighted Journalist, fascination with la Barbuda, terror from the dog that mauls Pichulita Cuéllar, compassion for Varguitas, respect for the Jaguar. […] I saw all of this and I recalled an old joke: that of the Latin American writer who wakes up at eleven in the morning and asks himself guiltily: “How late it is! How many pages must Mario Vargas Llosa have already written?”

The conference progressed with its inevitable dose of politics, but at some point we arrived at the topic of Peru. Why must we always talk about Peru if the ugly times in which the author did not respond to any Peruvian journalist have ended? “What do you have to say about Peru?” Vargas Llosa, smiling, pulled off the mask that suits him best, Flaubert's. [And said,]“I am Peru.”

This post is a version for Global Voices of the post Mario Vargas Llosa and Peru [es] published in the blog Globalizado.

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