The Real Life Of Mario Vargas LlosaThursday, October 07, 2010
The Real Life of Mario Vargas Llosa
The Peruvian novelist turned presidential candidate talks about his books and his country.
By Alex Waterhouse-Hayward
Books in Canada, May 1990
“I am a novelist who, in a transitory manner, is engaged in politics.”
As we went to press, Mario Vargas Llosa, born in Arequipa in 1936, was leading in the first round of presidential elections I Peru. He has written nine novels: The Time of the Hero (1963, translated 1966), The Green House (1966 trans. 1968), Conversation in the Cathedral (1969, trans. 1975), Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973, trans. 1978), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977, trans. 1982), The War of the End of the World (1981, trans. 1984) The Real Life of Aljandro Mayta (1985 trans. 1986) The Storyteller (1988, trans. 1989), and In Praise of the Stepmother (1988, trans. 1989); a collection of short stories, The Cubs (1967, trans. 1979); and a critical study of Gabriel García Márquez: Historia de un Deicidio (1979). He was interviewed in his home in Barranco, ana rea in Lima by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward.
BiC: In The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta you write: “We Peruvians lie, invent, dream, and take refuge in illusion. Because of these strange circumstances, Peruvian life, a life in which so few actually do read, has become literary.” Can you explain?
Mario Vargas Llosa: It is a fragment that, if I remember correctly, refers to how information in Peru is so lacking in objectivity. How difficult to believe it is and how, therefore, people tend to lend more weight to what they fantasize: what they want to happen as opposed to what really does happen. Life has become more literary in that one lives fiction. The borders of objectivity and subjectivity have faded. What is objective and what is fantasized or invented merge. I have the impression that’s what I meant.
BiC: Faulkner was a big influence in the structure of your novels. I had a hard time unraveling The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and Conversation in the Cathedral. The science fiction writer William Gibson says, “”Vargas Llosa uses that structure to force the reader to participate.” Do you agree?
Vargas Llosa: He is absolutely right. One of the thinks that I learned from Faulkner is that form could be character, a subject, or a theme in a work of fiction. The form in itself could become and attractive and intriguing element within a novel and as interesting as the characters. The sense of wonder that I feel when I read Faulkner is not only because of the things that happen in his novels but also because of the way they are revealed to the reader with an extreme complexity of language and time structure. The complexity enriches the story and obliges the reader to participate. It forces the reader to invest in imagination, fantasy, and invention. The reader then shares in literary creation with the author.
BiC What can North American readers gain from reading Latin American writers?
Vargas Llosa: The same thing that Latin American readers have gained from reading North American authors. I believe that good literature enriches readers, regardless of where it might come from. It enriches those who are especially sensitive, restless, and not readily satisfied. Literature, by being universal is an extraordinary door to the perception and understanding of other cultures. This is one of the big contributions of literature towards universalizing life itself.
Vargas Llosa: A contemporary one? Five novels? One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, The Lost Steps, by Alejo Carpentier, Hopscotch, by Julio Cortázar, Ficciones, by Jorge Luís Borges, and I the Supreme, by Augusto Roa Bastos.
BiC: You have not mentioned any of your books.
Vargas Llosa: If it were a novel about my country I would say Conversation in the Cathedral, and if not only about Peru it would be my favourite novel The War at the End of the World.
BiC: The women in your books: Have you been influenced in any way by Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude?
Vargas Llosa: I don’t know for sure, but I did read it when I was a university student. I remember that it did impress me. I believe it is one of his more stimulating works.
BiC: In Conversation in the Cathedral you write, “She talked about books and she wore skirts, she knew about politics and she wasn’t a man, the Mascot, the Chick, the Squirrel all faded away. Zavalita, the pretty little idiots from Miraflores melted away, disappeared. Discovering that one of them at least was was good for something else, he thinks.”
Vargas Llosa: Laughter.
BiC: You mentioned the Machiguenga Indians in your famous televised speech in San Martin Square two years ago, when you launched your political career. They are central to The Storyteller. You write in that novel that the Machiguenga has to be left alone. In Canada, Native Indias were persecuted, almost exterminated, and put into reservations. Many have lost their sense of identity. You are always saying that Peru is a backward third-world country. What can Peru learn from more advanced nations like Canada in its treatment of native populations?
Vargas Llosa: Within a country, the relations between a westernized society and a more primitive or archaic one is always difficult and harsh. Unfortunatly this almost always involves the oppression or extermination of the more primitive culture by the stronger one. This is an inescapable reality with almost no exception. What we must learn I don’t think any modern nation has yet been able to solve. This is to allow progress, development, and equal opportunity to those primitive cultures in their own terms without letting go of their language and tradition, and preserving within their culture all that which can be adapted and modernized. I am sure there is a lot that can be. But I don’t think that any country has found the answer that could be used as an example. Both Canada and Peru have to find a creative and just solution to this problem. By this I mean a democratic solution.
BiC: What emotional link exists between you and the Machiguengas?
Vargas Llosa: They represent many things to me. They are the very picture of the injustice that has ruled life in my country. They have been mistreated and discriminated against throughout our history. They have to be respected. Respected, because they have won the right to exist through their skill in surviving adversity. Primitive in ways that could be modernized, they have to be respected for what we can learn from them. For example, their intimate relation with nature. The relation that the Machiguengas have with nature is healthier, more intelligent, and more visionary than the usual one of far more advanced societies. These democratic societies have been the great despoilers of our environment. It is amazing to see the sense of preservation and coexistence that these so-called “more primitive” cultures hae with their natural environment. We westernized societies must learn from them.
BiC: In Praise of the Stepmother, the innocent young boy, Alfonso, seduces his stepmother. Is there something of the Machiguengas in the boy’s sense of wonder?
Vargas Llosa: I am not too sure. But subconsciously, this could be. I wrote In Praise of the Stepmother right after The Storyteller and the Machiguenga experience was still very vivid in my mind.
BiC: Two characters, Don Hilario from Conversation in the Cathedral and Moises Barbi Leyva from The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. The former is the quintessential government bureaucrat, the second the pragmatic an who adapts. Does Peru need more Moiseses and fewer Hilarios?
Vargas Llosa: Moises is an opportunist of great genius. He is a a chameleon-like character similar to Woody Allen’s in Zelig. This is a character that can be often in our society. In economic terms we could call him the perfect mercantilist. He lives off his rents and deals. But at the same time this man can be efficient and do things even in a system like ours. Perhaps, he is Peru’s only answer – and that certainly does not point our system as good one.
BiC: You describe Moises as “The typical example of the revolutionary who got sensualized.” What do you mean by this?
Vargas Llosa: This was a very popular expression that was used in Peru when I was a young student of the left. We spoke of those who lost their purity of purpose as “sensualized.” They would succumb to certain material appetites that we thought were despicable. They were losing their commitment. They were losing their sense of sacrifice to the revolutionary cause.
BiC: There’s a popular Mexican expression – “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” Peru is farther away. Is that an advantage?
Vargas Llosa: I think that systematic hostility towards the United States, in order to affirm one’s own national identity, is something that belongs to the past. It makes no sense today.
BiC: Canadian readers read a lot of American literature. Your latest book, the erotic novel In Praise of the Stepmother, is on the bestseller list in Germay. It’s difficult to imagine that happening in Canada.
Vargas Llosa: I think that the identity of a country, of a culture cannot be the result of an artificially imposed system like nationalism. Hostility and animosity towards what is foreign have never created rich cultures. The rich and strong cultures are those that have been willing to exchange and compare theirs with others. They must avoid and inferiority complex. So many small countries that do business with the world, in cultural terms, manage to keep their culture without feeling it may be diluted or lost. This attitude, this hatred of the United States, which has been almost a political profession in Latin America and still very much alive in certain countries, has not brought us many gains. There is a lot that can be criticized in the culture of the United States, but there is a lot that is laudable, as in any other culture. The reality of the times we live is that there is an exchange, a globalization of ideas. This has advantages that far outweigh the disadvantages. To try to re-establish petty 19the century nationalism in cultural terms would have no positive effect for either Canada or Peru.
BiC: Politicians can often deny what they said or explain that they were misquoted. Are people going to reread your novels for insight on what you are like now that you are an important political figure as well as a writer? Will anything you have written come back to haunt you?
Vargas Llosa: No, I stand by everything I have written. It doesn’t mean that what I wrote years ago is what I believe in today. I have changed my views. My books are proof of that. My books are out there and they form part of what I am, and perhaps they are what best expresses what I am. I will not deny what I have signed.
BiC: Two years ago, to the question, “What are you?” you might have answered, “I am a novelist.” What would you answer now?
Vargas Llosa: I am still a novelist who, in a transitory manner, is engaged in politics. I think of myself as a writer.
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