The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta
by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Alfred MacAdam
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 310 pp., $16.95
Farewell to the Sea
by Reinaldo Arenas, translated by Andrew Hurley
Viking, 413 pp., $18.95
Until recently Latin American fiction was preoccupied with forms of helplessness. History was seen as farce or fable, an endless parade of ogres and thieves. Decent people could watch it, run from it, hide in it, subject it to mockery, ravel it in fantasy. What they couldn’t do was change it. The Cuban revolution suggested that the helplessness was willed rather than fated, a victory of irony and schism and despair over action, but this lesson only deepened the problem. The parade continued in most places, and a lack of historical necessity never made anyone’s plight less real. Indeed, much of the energy of the so-called boom in Latin American writing, chiefly associated with the work of García Márquez, Fuentes, Donoso, and Vargas Llosa, seems to have come from a new awareness of how much style and imagination had been devoted to life in an impasse: a cultural triumph, no less, the preservation of wit, even gaiety, through a hundred years of turpitude.
The preoccupation of Latin American writers now, it appears, is not with helplessness but with failure—another animal entirely. To have failed you must have tried, have had chances to miss or spoil. Your emblem is not impotence but ruin. The boom images of carnival and circus give way to obsessive recalls of spreading garbage and a corpse washed up by the sea. The two books under review have different settings, colors, complaints, but both are about broken or failed experiments, promises not kept. One asks why the revolution hasn’t come to the rest of Latin America as it came to Cuba; the other, set in Cuba, asks where the revolution went wrong, why it turned a Caribbean island into a cage. Both are angry books, full of a sense of waste. They don’t tell the whole story of Latin American moods, of course. In particular they ignore the recent, cheerful developments in Argentina and elsewhere. Vargas Llosa, in a lecture given in Chile last year, argues that the people of Latin America, given the choice, always opt for freedom. It’s just that they don’t get the choice very often. But the two novels do tell an important story. They register a moment in which helplessness reached out for action and was baffled.
On the first page of Vargas Llosa’s big novel Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) a character wonders bitterly, “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” Vargas Llosa’s last novel, the admirable War of the End of the World (1981), studied a strange rebellion in the Brazilian backlands, the resistance and destruction of a raggle-taggle band of religious fanatics whose only crime was to have refused modernity. What forbidding prophecy was to be found in this event? Now in his new work, published in Spanish in 1984, Vargas Llosa places the question in Peru again, but with a wider angle, and a curiosity obviously shaped by his recent historical researches. In many ways this book …