Mario Vargas Llosa’s great escapes
In Volume III of Piedra de toque (Touchstone), there is an essay called “Victor Hugo. Océano”, about the diaries in which Hugo listed his sexual exploits – in Spanish, so as to avoid being found out. In it Margio Vargas Llosa also comments on the oceanic proportions of Hugo’s work, estimating that if you include unpublished drafts, it would take a fully dedicated reader ten years to finish it. On reading Piedra de toque, I wondered how long it would take to get through Vargas Llosa’s own magnificent opus, which includes seventeen novels, and fifteen or so major works of non-fiction. Certainly, the three volumes of Piedra de toque, with their more than a million and a half words, kept me going for a good while. But it was well worth it. The 4,319 pages of text, which comprise Vargas Llosa’s shorter pieces of journalism and criticism between 1962 and 2012, maintain a remarkably high standard over the whole fifty years. The pieces were originally published as reviews of books, plays and films, press interviews, obituaries, prologues and reflections on world affairs. Above all they include the column called “Piedra de toque” which Vargas Llosa publishes in El País every fortnight, and which is syndicated all over the Spanish-speaking world.
The first part of Volume I (1962–83) covers Vargas Llosa’s period as a struggling young writer, first in Paris, and then in London in the 1960s. The Paris section brings back pleasant memories for anyone who, like me, was young and living in the city at that time: memories of seminal films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, or of path-breaking plays such as Samuel Beckett’s Oh! Les Beaux Jours; or of art shows such as the Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Charpentier in 1964, denounced by André Breton, who was furious that a bourgeois public should enjoy it.
There are several pieces on the then fashionable nouveau roman. Vargas Llosa is ferociously conscientious, so he tries very hard to like and understand it, and there are pieces that serve as good introductions to the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. But in the end he finds their obsession with non-subjective minutiae simply boring. “I have just read Nathalie Sarraute’s books, one after the other”, he complains, “and never, in all the years I have been reading novels, have I felt so bored and suffocated.” Vargas Llosa at this time also writes copiously about Sartre, against whom the champions of the nouveau roman were reacting. He admired Sartre so much as a student at San Marcos University in Lima, that his fellow Communist friends nicknamed him “el Sartrecillo valiente” (the brave little Sartre).
Vargas Llosa’s politics are markedly left-wing in the first part of Volume I. In a piece on Sartre, from March 1965, he approves his critique of “formal democracy”, on the basis that freedom is but a “subtle lie” when there is unequal distribution of wealth, and he agrees with Sartre that in that context, “the exercise of the right to vote is but an empty ceremony, pure form”. During this period Vargas Llosa is an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban revolution. On a visit to Cuba during the missile crisis in 1962, he praises Fidel Castro’s conversations with ordinary people, arguing that they allow the man in the street to feel “personally consulted by Fidel on every important step in the revolution”. Vargas Llosa would cringe at such opinions today, having become a passionate defender of liberal democracy. The fact that he is happy to publish them fifty years later says a great deal about how honest and open a man he is.
Vargas Llosa’s support of the Cuban revolution lasts through the 60s, but with growing caveats. He visits the island in 1967, and in a long essay called “Crónica de Cuba”, he is immensely taken with Fidel, with whom he has occasion to sit up all night. “If there is one thing of which I became absolutely certain that white night,” writes Vargas Llosa breathlessly, “it is the love of Fidel for his country and the sincerity of his conviction that he is working for the benefit of his people.” But he does by now acknowledge that there is no longer any press freedom on the island and that the Communist Party is the only one left. He regrets these losses, even if on balance he still feels that they are outweighed by the revolution’s gains.
The Prague Spring of 1968 seems to have been a major turning point in Vargas Llosa’s political evolution. He criticizes the Soviet invasion with passion, and he chides Fidel for supporting it. In 1971, he quarrels with the Cuban authorities over the treatment of Heberto Padilla, the Cuban poet who, after a spell in prison, made a shocking Stalinist-style confession of his crimes against the Cuban state to his colleagues in the Writers’ Union. In Volume I, the year 1971 in fact opens with a letter to Haydée Santamaría, Editor ofCasa de las Américas, in which Vargas Llosa indignantly resigns from the magazine’s editorial board, and this is followed by a similar letter to Fidel Castro, which Vargas Llosa signs with several dozen other writers, including Sartre and Sarraute. Yet he still defends the Cuban revolution, arguing in an interview that his quarrel is with a “specific act”, and not with a government whose “formidable accomplishments on behalf of the Cuban people are carried out in truly heroic conditions”.
One can guess, however, that Vargas Llosa will eventually react against other aspects of the Cuban revolution long before he actually does so. We can anticipate it from his novels, because they describe a rich, diverse world in which men of power are always being challenged and exposed; and we can sense it from the many essays on literature in Piedra de toque. As early as 1964, in one about “littérature maudite” (with examples from Henry Miller, Céline, Jean Genet, Violette Leduc and William Burroughs), he writes that “only a sense of lack, of dissatisfaction, can drive a man to write fictions. Why would he create imaginary realities if he were content with the world that surrounds him?” Then in 1966, in a long piece on the Peruvian writer Sebastián Salazar Bondy, he claims that writers are of necessity always in a state of rebellion against the world and the powers that be. That is the essence of the writer’s calling, and when it summons him, he cannot allow anything to stand in its way. That is why Salazar Bondy would never allow his literary vocation to be conditioned by politics. As a man of the Left, he would take any risk for his cause, but not the one of sacrificing literature, for to do so would be self-defeating. This is because a writer is ultimately at his most subversive when he allows his inner creative forces to become unleashed without censorship or direction.
In Volume I three long, thoughtful essays, on Bataille, Camus and Isaiah Berlin, confirm Vargas Llosa’s increasingly individualistic stance. In “Bataille or the Redemption of Evil” of 1972, he finds a kindred spirit who also conceives literary activity as being essentially rebellious. For Bataille, this is because literature draws on the uncontrollable, “deicidal” demons we are said to harbour within us. Bataille, moreover, shows that literature is incompatible with socialism, because literature is irrational and individualistic, where socialism is rational and collectivist. In his “Albert Camus or the Morality of Limits” of 1975, Vargas Llosa praises Camus’s ability to see through ideological abstractions. Camus is above all a writer, a novelist with an eye for the flesh and blood of his characters and for the sweltering landscapes they inhabit. He is therefore too involved with the real world here and now to have any time for ideology, or for the fashionable call of “history” or “the future”. He also believes that because abstraction stretches reality, it can only be imposed by force. Hence his “idea about the morality of limits”. Camus’s “conviction that any theory that presents itself as absolute – for example Christianity or Marxism – sooner or later ends up justifying crime and lies”, led him to develop the “morality of limits” which Vargas Llosa describes as the most fertile and valuable of his teachings. It partly consisted in “admitting that an adversary can be right, in allowing him to express himself, in agreeing to reflect on his arguments”.
The most important of these essays in Volume I is “A Hero of Our Time”. Written in 1980, it discusses Isaiah Berlin’s disquisitions on major thinkers. Amusingly, Vargas Llosa suggests that Berlin, in his reflections on them, is like a novelist who just lets his characters speak, allowing his own ideas to come through without our really noticing how, like the story in a well-written novel that seems to be self-generated, so cleverly are the narrator and author hidden.
Vargas Llosa approvingly discusses Berlin’s rejection, like Camus’s, of all-embracing utopias, and of the idea that good ends can justify bad means. He is impressed by Berlin’s argument that desirable objectives are often incompatible with each other, that equality, for instance, is not always compatible with freedom, and with his contention that there is never a single answer to our problems, and that therefore it is rational, and morally necessary, that we practise pluralism and tolerance. Vargas Llosa also analyses Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive freedom, predictably preferring the former even if, with his usual good sense, he agrees that it is wise to have some of the latter too; in the end it is best to be free not only from undue coercion, but also from undue social injustice. In Berlin’s hedgehog-and-fox dichotomy, Vargas Llosa predictably declares himself to be a fox, curious and knowledgeable about many things, but he admits to sometimes wanting to be a hedgehog too, for the comfort of “knowing just one big thing”. In a final, original touch, Vargas Llosa suggests that Berlin over-relies on the prevalence of virtue and reasonableness in humanity, that he is unduly innocent of the dark side we harbour, and which Bataille brilliantly demonstrated is an essential component of any creative genius. Vargas Llosa in the end would have us opt for a synergistic fusion of Berlin, Bataille and Camus.
I have dwelled on Volume I, because it covers the most formative period in Vargas Llosa’s thinking, where we can see his ideas bedding in. They are ideas that develop coherently over time, because they are shaped not only by his endless reading, but also by his nature, his restlessly inquiring mind, his passion for truth and hatred of cant, his reluctance to be told what to do, his novelist’s eye for flesh and blood human beings transcending abstractions, and his strong sense of justice. It is not difficult to imagine how a man of this kind would admire Fidel Castro and want to give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as possible, out of loyalty. Who didn’t? But also it is not hard to see why he would eventually react against the lies and cruelty of Castro’s dictatorship, which Vargas Llosa ends up denouncing with the same passion he deploys against a dictator like Pinochet.
In Volume II (1984–99), Vargas Llosa’s political philosophy is deepened and consolidated. He now comes to believe that Berlin’s negative freedom is difficult to sustain without economic freedom, which is also necessary for economic growth, without which poverty will never be overcome. In this context he becomes an avid reader of Friedrich Hayek, and an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and of the free market economic model implanted in Chile during the late 1970s and 80s. He reads Karl Popper, who reinforces his belief that there are no definitive truths. And he reads more Berlin. There is a perceptive essay, in June 1991, called “Nationalism and Utopia”, on Berlin’s views on the origins and nature of nationalism, of which Vargas Llosa has by now become a ferocious opponent; and in 1992, a moving tribute to Hayek, who has just died. Vargas Llosa says that if he had to name the three thinkers that had most influenced him, he would “not hesitate for a second: Popper, Hayek and Isaiah Berlin”. He adds that he has been reading all three of them for twenty years.
Volume II also takes us through the period in which Vargas Llosa became a presidential candidate. First he denounced a bid by the populist President, Alan García, to nationalize the banks, which he attacks in 1987 in an essay called “Towards a Totalitarian Peru”. He then creates a political movement called Libertad, and there is a fine speech recorded in Volume II which he made on the back of this initiative. But the best source for Vargas Llosa’s bid for the presidency, which he finally lost to Alberto Fujimori in 1990, is his engaging political and autobiographical memoir, Un pez en el agua (1993; A Fish in the Water).
There is a myth which, like most political myths, cannot easily be dislodged from the minds of many Peruvians, particularly right-wing ones, according to which Vargas Llosa started to denounce the presidency of Fujimori in his articles because he was peeved at losing the election to him. The fact is that he did not write a word against Fujimori until Fujimori closed Congress, the Supreme Court and other key Peruvian institutions, and effectively became a dictator, on April 5, 1992. Vargas Llosa had until then taken a noble vow of political silence. But from the staging of Fujimori’s coup onwards, starting with an article called “Return to Barbarism” published on April 9, 1992, he fires passionate broadsides against Fujimori’s regime, because he sees it as his duty to defend Peruvian democracy.
Yet Vargas Llosa’s most memorable essays in Volume II – and even more so in Volume III, covering 2000 to 2012 – are ones that take him away from political thought or politics to a more personal domain. Here we find essays in which he describes some adventure, or evokes some notable person, in what are magnificent human portraits. This is territory in which the novelist nourishes the essayist, often in highly amusing ways. There are mishaps on lecture tours, for instance. In 1991, left-wing pickets try to upset a lecture he is to give in Zurich. He repeatedly makes the mistake of cracking jokes about what the pickets may do to him or the audience. His Swiss hosts do not laugh. Later, he is arrested trying to enter Belgium illegally, at the insistence of his persuasive host, Professor Jacques de Brun, a “tyrant of Flemish Hispanism”. Vargas Llosa explains that de Brun is typical of Hispanists, a sect of single-minded fanatics, who stage abstruse conferences to discuss topics such as “relation accusatives in the historic romances of the Duque de Rivas, or castration complexes and anal sadism in Galdós’sLa de Bringas”. In these essays Vargas Llosa has fun exaggerating to the hilt, but his exaggeration is fundamentally affectionate – no Hispanist could take offence, since it is clear that Vargas Llosa is at the same time laughing at himself.
This art of affectionate exaggeration is beautifully deployed in some of his human portraits. One particularly memorable one is his “My Son, the Ethiopian”, a piece from February 1986, in which he describes his shock when meeting his son Gonzalo at Berlin airport. Gonzalo, who is still at school in England, has become a Rastafarian sage, a “hominoid” whom Vargas Llosa Sr barely recognizes as he approaches this figure with shoulder-length dreadlocks and a saintly gaze. Vargas Llosa is on the jury in the Berlin Film Festival, from which it is hard to get away because it is presided over by Liv Ullmann, who has an “almost monstrous sense of duty”, and won’t release anyone until total justice is achieved in the appraisal of each film. Vargas Llosa’s descriptions of his philosophical discussions with Gonzalo during the rare occasions on which he can escape from Ullmann are moving and extremely funny.
There are some remarkable portraits of writers that Vargas Llosa knew well, often written spontaneously a day or two after getting the sad news of their death. Some are written with warts-and-all frankness, such as in “The Trumpet of Deya”, from August 1991, a remarkable piece on Julio Cortázar, written with great affection and admiration, but at the same time suggesting candidly that the great Argentinean changed for the worse, entering into a sort of second childhood, full of implausible revolutionary dreams, during the last stages of his life, after breaking up with his wife, Aurora. There is a moving tribute to Blanca Varela, the Peruvian poet. But my favourite – perhaps because he was one of my friends, too – is his piece on Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the Cuban novelist. Vargas Llosa is travelling in the south of Chile when the news of Cabrera Infante’s death in London reaches him, in February 2005. Cabrera Infante had been ostracized for many years by many of the leading Latin American novelists, because in the mid-60s he had to leave Cuba as an exile, and it was not politically correct even to talk to him. I remember Cortázar – no doubt already in his dotage – reporting in an interview that he could never agree to be in the same room as Cabrera Infante. Well, Vargas Llosa was always the exception, even long before breaking with Fidel. It never passed his mind to shun a friend or colleague out of political expediency.
Some of Vargas Llosa’s portraits are of substantially less well-known people. There is even one about me. Written in August 2004, it describes with great exaggeration the shock I allegedly caused when I gave up being lecturer in Latin American literature at Oxford for a career in finance. There are some moving pieces about people who remain anonymous. People like “Alejandro”, an ageing, erudite Peruvian who lives in abject poverty in Paris. He is an avid reader, but as he doesn’t have money to buy books, he reads them in bookshops. When he feels he has outstayed his welcome, he moves to another bookshop, so as to continue with the same book there. Alejandro has being doing this for decades. Vargas Llosa wonders why he never tries libraries, but assumes it is for the fun of testing the patience of the bookshop staff.
These three fine volumes will be of much use to students of Vargas Llosa. Each piece is carefully dated, and scholars will be able to glean what his mindset was when writing each novel. Some of the pieces are indeed evidence that he is working towards a particular novel. Thus before the publication of El paraíso en la otra esquina (2003; The Way to Paradise), the novel about Gauguin, we find him in French Polynesia, where Gauguin lived. Before publishingEl sueño del celta (2010; The Dream of the Celt), about Roger Casement, he is in the Congo, where Casement investigated the cruelty of the Belgian colonizers. But the three volumes ofPiedra de toque will not be of use just to scholars. They are a store of brilliant insights on the widest variety of topics, cast in the very best Spanish prose. One can imagine this as an ideal bedside book, to be dipped into by readers confident that they will find a subject for any mood.