ArticleFour Reasons to Read Mario Vargas Llosa
In awarding the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature to Mario Vargas Llosa in October, the Swedish Academy cited the Peruvian novelist’s “cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” The Common Review approached four critics and scholars and asked each to offer brief reflections on his or her favorite Vargas Llosa book.
One of the Great Literary Creations in the Spanish Language
On Conversation in the Cathedral
Efraín Kristal (author of Temptation of the Word: The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa)
Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) is arguably the greatest novel about Peru ever written. It offers an absorbing portrait of one of the defining demographic transformations of the twentieth century: the emigration of millions of indigenous people from the Andes to Peru’s urban centers, a process that created a dramatically new social landscape.
The novel’s protagonist, Santiago Zavala, is a young man who abandons a life of privilege and rejects the social milieu of his father, Don Fermín, whose wealth and social position depended on shady business dealings with powerful men from whom he gained political influence.
With this novel Vargas Llosa reconciled the daring literary techniques of James Joyce and William Faulkner (the crossing of temporal and spatial planes, the use of interior monologue, the free use of indirect speech) with expressions of popular culture (film, music, sensationalist journalism) to explore an indecent social world. Each of its chapters contains mysteries and allusions that can only be deciphered on a second reading. But even on a first reading, one is seduced by the force of the action and the gripping dilemmas of the characters.
Forty years after its original publication, when the novel’s political themes have lost their topicality, it is easier to appreciate that Conversation in the Cathedral is a work of fiction in which Vargas Llosa transformed personal experiences and historical events through his powerful literary imagination. One does not need to know anything about the details of Peruvian history to appreciate the genius of the novel’s literary construction or its moral dimensions—the intensifying anguish of a conflicted individual who does not know what to do about the human misery that surrounds him.
Santiago Zavala had thought of his father as a member of the Peruvian upper-middle classes whose comfortable lives depend on the exploitation of the lower classes, but he discovers that Don Fermín was a closeted homosexual, and well known in criminal milieus. His father's double life is revealed to him when he discovers that Ambrosio, the chauffeur and lover of Don Fermín, had assassinated a drug-addicted prostitute who threatened to reveal his sexual orientation.
The narrative axis of the novel is a four-hour conversation between Santiago and Ambrosio in a bar called La Catedral. Revolving around this conversation are many other conversations, stories, and situations. The encounter is accidental—Ambrosio has returned to Lima after many years of hiding from the law in the Peruvian provinces—but the conversation is pressing for both of them. Santiago wants to understand why Ambrosio loved his father, and Ambrosio wants to understand why Santiago has rejected his father. The conversation does not lead to an understanding between the two men, but when it concludes, the reader comes to terms with the world that shattered their aspirations.
In the compassion that Santiago Zavala is able to feel for his late father, and in his failed attempt to arrive at some understanding with Ambrosio, the greatest theme of Vargas Llosa's maturity as a writer had already emerged: the attempt to reconcile with other human beings after illusions have been lost. More than a milestone in Vargas Llosa's career, however, Conversation in the Cathedral is one of the great literary creations in the Spanish language.
Vargas Llosa’s Palimpsest
On The War of the End of the World
Ilan Stavans (general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature)
Not long ago, I was asked to write the introduction to a new Penguin Classics translation of Euclides da Cunha’s masterpiece Os sertões (Backlands), which is about a fanatical rebellion in 1896 in the town of Canudos in Brazil’s northern backlands, led by a messianic leader by the name of Antonio Conselheiro. Cunha was a journalist when he wrote the book. He convinced one of São Paulo’s newspapers to make him a correspondent, and the book is in large part a rewriting of what he witnessed during just one month of a confrontation that lasted more than a year, one in which the Brazilian army mercilessly killed hundreds of jagunços, as the rebels were known. The Canudos rebellion—as well as Cunha’s perplexing account of it in Os sertões, published in 1902—became foundational in shaping modern Brazilianness, for it happened at a time when the nation was coming to terms with its independence from Portugal.
In trying to learn as much as I could about the book, I reopened Mario Vargas Llosa’s rewriting of Cunha’s chronicle. I first read The War of the End of the World in Spanish when it came out in 1981. I had reached my twentieth birthday; I was a young Mexican would-be writer, and this epic, quasi-biblical fictionalization, showcasing Vargas Llosa’s stylistic pyrotechnics, which made an enormously complex series of plotlines coalesce through a technique of alternating perspectives, hypnotized me. My return to the book reawakened my original awe. Vargas Llosa was forty five when he published it, a consummate craftsman at the peak of his talent.