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The Bitter Education of Vargas Llosa

A Fish in the Water: A Memoir

by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Helen Lane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 532 pp., $25.00


Mario Vargas Llosa belongs to a long tradition of the politically engaged Latin American intellectual. In the absence of a professional and competent political class, and in the face of an abundance of vile regimes, people with an education and no stake in the system—the kind of people who used to become journalists in the United States—have stepped in to fill a moral and ideological void. Often they too, like Vargas Llosa, have started out as journalists and ended up as fiction writers or poets. Often they have achieved professional acclaim and moral recognition. A great many have courted, and met, death courageously. But few would have been willing to risk extreme ridicule, as Vargas Llosa gamely did in his most recent political adventure. Apart from Václav Havel, no other writer in recent memory has taken his ambition as high as the presidency. And in a part of the world where a leftist revolutionary position is synonymous with intellectual honor, certainly none but the Peruvian Vargas Llosa would have tried to save his country by running for—and almost winning—the presidency of his country as the candidate of the right.

Now he has written a memoir about his life that concentrates largely on his run for office in 1990, when, after a very strong start that took everyone, including Mario Vargas Llosa, by surprise, he lost by more than twenty percentage points to Alberto Fujimori. One is relieved to learn in the part of this book describing his life before politics that his disastrous campaign was but one episode in a life generously filled with drama, and that a sense of proportion and irony provided by experience has allowed his ego a swift recovery. Three years ago he published a first version of the part of this memoir dealing with the campaign in Granta. He called it A Fish Out of Water then, and was holding a lot of grudges. Plunging into his subject now, he has changed the title for this edition, expanded his economic disquisitions, and reworked his campaign memories in ways that give the narrative detachment, amusement even, and some forgiveness.

Despite these revisions, Vargas Llosa’s account of his run for the presidency is not the most fascinating part of A Fish in the Water, and perhaps that is why he has constructed the narrative oddly, inserting chapters about the campaign between others that seize our attention from the first; chapters that trace his life from childhood through his early development as an intellectual, a political activist, and a novelist. The youthful narrative breaks off too soon (as the twenty-two-year-old author prepares to leave Peru for a sixteen-year-long stay in Europe), and we are left with characters hanging mid-plot and a great hunger for more of the stay-tuned sequences of his early life; the end of his marriage to his aunt, his experience of Europe, his readings, the writing of his first book. Vargas Llosa, author of some of the finest novels of this century, has written this book to explain himself as a politician, but he is first of all a writer and it is as a writer we must first try to understand him.

I interviewed Mario Vargas Llosa in Lima in the fall of 1987, just after he had made a reasonably successful debut as a political speechmaker (at a rally to protest President Alan García’s nationalization of Peru’s banks), but before he had decided to turn this semi-triumph into a full-fledged run for the presidency—or, at least, before he had made his decision public. It was, during the first part of our interview, a perfectly useless conversation: he was evasive about his intentions, plodding about his objections to President García, and not at all quotable about the awful situation of his native country. Then I asked him about his writing, and he relaxed. He told me about his first trip to the Amazon, at the age of twenty-two, an adventure which continues, he said, to provide him with the richest flow of imaginative material for his life as a novelist, and which was the inspiration for The Green House, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, and The Storyteller. I asked what had moved him to write The War of the End of the World, a novel about a fundamentalist sect that fought a millenarian war in the parched northeast of Brazil in the late nineteenth century, and he answered that it was his lifelong fascination with fanaticism, with the complexity and danger of the fanatic’s impulso totalizador.

He told an amusing story about a campaign against him in the Amazonian departamento of Loreto, provoked by his book Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (which describes a touring group of prostitutes at the service of the military in Loreto). The local radio announcer’s selective readings from the book were followed by impassioned claims that the novelist’s intention had been to defame Loreto womanhood, and calls for that womanhood to impede Vargas Llosa’s imminent arrival in their region by blocking the airport landing strip with their bodies. But although the story was funny, Vargas Llosa himself, in some curious way, was not. I had the impression of a profoundly inhibited man, someone who had spent a lifetime learning that he had a right to be himself, and who, despite his effort, was still trying very hard to behave as was expected of him, to please, to avoid giving offense. It seemed to me then that beneath his attentive charm, and his calm and modest awareness of the importance of his work, was an anxious, even timorous, core of personality.

The very first chapter of A Fish in the Water tells of Vargas Llosa’s encounter with terror at the age of ten, in the form of his long-lost father, a man the child Mario has never met and presumes dead. Mario’s mother, who is living with him and her large and loving family in the desert town of Piura in the north of Peru, announces the reappearance of the man she still loves passionately despite the fact that he has left her ten years earlier, newly-wed and pregnant with Mario, in Lima. She takes the child to meet his father at the local hotel, warning him on the way that if they run into any of Mario’s many cousins, aunts, or uncles, he is to say nothing about where they are going. Mario is shocked when he greets his father, because he does not recognize this menacing gray-haired man from the photograph of him on his night table. Then father, mother, and son all pile into a car “for a drive,” and don’t stop until they reach a hotel in the town of Chiclayo, where from an adjoining room Mario listens anxiously in the night for indications that his parents are doing “those filthy things…that men and women did together to have children,” and retches at the thought.

We’re going to Lima, Mario,” his father tells him in the morning. “‘And what are my grandparents going to say?’ I stammered. ‘What are they going to say?’ he answered, ‘Shouldn’t a son be with his father?’…He said this in a quiet voice that I heard him use for the first time, with a cutting tone, emphasizing every syllable, which was soon to instill more fear in me than the sermons on hell given us by Brother Agustín when he was preparing us for first communion.” In Lima, Mario was to live years of fear and rage under his father’s roof, belittled and bullied by him, censured and confined. The terror is so great that the bookish (or, as his father might put it, “queerish,”) Mario agrees to enroll in a military academy merely to escape home.

But long before we’ve got to that point in the narrative—right on page five, in fact—Vargas Llosa explains the reasons for his father’s raging turbulence, and with it, he recognizes his father—and himself—as Peruvian, a citizenship he can claim on the basis of a carefully nurtured, devastating, and specifically Peruvian tradition of rancor:

But the real reason for the failure of their marriage was not my father’s jealousy or his bad disposition, but the national disease that gets called by other names, the one that infests every stratum and every family in the country and leaves them all with a bad after-taste of hatred, poisoning the lives of Peruvians in the form of resentment and social complexes. Because Ernesto J. Vargas, despite his white skin, his light blue eyes, and handsome appearance, belonged—or always felt that he belonged, which amounts to the same thing—to a family socially inferior to his wife’s. The adventures, misadventures, and deviltry of my paternal grandfather, Marcelino, had gradually impoverished and brought the Vargas family down in the world till they reached that ambiguous margin where those who are middle-class begin to be taken for what those of a higher status call “the people,” and in a position where Peruvians who believe that they are blancos (whites) begin to feel that they are cholos, that is to say mestizos, half-breeds of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, that is to say poor and despised.

In particolored Peruvian society, and perhaps in all societies which have many races and extreme inequalities, blanco and cholo are terms that refer to other things beside race or ethnic group: they situate a person socially and economically, and many times these factors are the ones that determine his or her classification. This latter is flexible and can change, depending on circumstances and the vicissitudes of individual destinies. One is always blanco or cholo in relation to someone else, because one is always better or worse situated than others, or one is more or less important, or possessed of more or less Occidental or mestizo or Indian or African or Asiatic features than others, and all this crude nomenclature that decides a good part of any one person’s fate is maintained by virtue of an effer-vescent structure of prejudices and sentiments—disdain, scorn, envy, bitterness, admiration, emulation—which, many times, beneath ideologies, values, and contempt for values, is the deep-seated explanation for the conflicts and frustrations of Peruvian life.

Disdain, scorn, envy, bitterness, admiration, emulation…this hopeless litany that defined Ernesto J. Vargas as Peruvian shaped the work of his son, who has dedicated a lifetime to exploring the nuances and interstices of rancor, beginning with The Time of the Hero, his explosively tense first novel, which was written at the age of twenty-four and based on his miserable years at the military academy. Rancor, which also informs the poetry of César Vallejo and the novels of José María Arguedas and Manuel Scorza, dominates Mario Vargas Llosa’s best novels, but it is a literary territory first claimed explicitly by Miguel Gutiérrez Correa.

His novel, La violencia del tiempo, is set in the same desert city of Piura and in the same period used in several of Vargas Llosa’s works, and even based—I am guessing—on some of the same real-life characters, and its reiterated obsession throughout its one thousand pages of fury is to explore las posibilidades del rencor to their ultimate consequences. Vargas Llosa’s work compares to Gutiérrez’s as a sacramental wine does to a potion made of fingernails and toad’s blood. Vargas Llosa—a blanco in relation to Gutiérrez—wants to order the world and, as his candidacy would indicate, to save it. His Piura is a nostalgic place, idyllically remembered in A Fish in the Water. There is the crowded, welcoming family house, and the whorehouse (“La Casa Verde”), where, “as I remember it, the atmosphere of the place was happy and poetic, and those who went there really had a good time,” and also the Indian and Zambo (mixed Indian and black) enclave of La Man-gachería, “the joyful, violent, and marginal neighborhood on the outskirts of Piura…always identified in my memory with the Court of Miracles of Alexandre Dumas’s novels.” Gutiérrez Correa’s novel, by contrast, is set in and seen from a neighborhood like La Mangachería, narrated by the grandson of its ferocious Indian inhabitants. There are no good times and no lively music here, only despotism, murder, rape, as the child narrator traces his family’s disgraceful history and discovers it to be one long act of impotent defiance against the hated white landowners of Piura (with whom Vargas Llosa would presumably be lumped in the narrator’s mind).

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