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The Bitter Education of Vargas Llosa

Gutiérrez Correa’s son died in a 1986 uprising by jailed militants of the deliriously Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path. The prisoners’ revolt culminated in a government massacre in which more than 250 prisoners died, most of them killed in cold blood. His wife died in another Shining Path prison uprising in 1993, in which thirty-eight prisoners were killed. One might imagine from such a brief glimpse into his biography that Gutiérrez Correa’s literary work is the result of a larger accumulation of resentments than Vargas Llosa can boast of, but this is not necessarily so. A Fish in the Water shows that the more blanco writer’s claim on disdain, scorn, envy, bitterness, admiration, and emulation is justified, as much as by anything else, by his fictional and autobiographical character’s relation to the other essential component of rancor. This is machismo, which really is indispensable to, and in many cases virtually indistinguishable from, the class and race ferment that is the raw material of both novelists.

As is the case with his recollection of the city of Piura, Vargas Llosa’s understanding of how relations with the opposite sex worked during his oppressed adolescence is put to hideous good use in his novels, and remembered more rosily in the memoir.

Here is how he deals with the topic at various points in A Fish in the Water:

To make a girl fall for you and formally declare that she is your sweetheart is a custom that was to decline, little by little, until today it is something that to the younger generations, speedy and pragmatic when it comes to love, seems like prehistoric idiocy. I still have a tender memory of those rituals that love consisted of when I was an adolescent and it is to them that I owe the fact that that stage of my life has remained in my memory not only as violent and repressive but also as made up of the delicate and intense moments that compensated me for all the rest.

And here, in praise of the brothel:

Seeing a naked woman in bed has always been the most disquieting and most disturbing of experiences, something that never would have had for me that transcendental nature, deserving of so much tremulous respect and so much joyous expectation, if sex had not been, in my childhood and adolescence, surrounded by taboos, prohibitions, and prejudices, if in order to make love to a woman there had not been so many obstacles to overcome in those days.

This is ideal machismo, made up of sharp lust and delicate sentiments, and in some way redeeming. But the novelist Vargas Llosa knows better than the autobiographer about the torments of life under machismo, filled as it is for the men who suffer its weight with constant anxiety about their innumerable class- and race-related inadequacies; their lack of style, of height, of wavy hair, of power, of sleek new cars, tailored suits, a foreign accent, and all the other accoutrements that can provide access to the right category of woman. It is an anxiety that, despite the disclaimers quoted above, surfaces even in A Fish in the Water, in the form of endless adolescent debates about whether women (of one’s class or beneath it) are cunts with tits or sainted apparitions (of one’s class or above it), and, in either case, about how to “get inside their slits,” as Vargas Llosa’s teen-age friends put it. This is machismo as it really exists, a castrating condition which has to do primarily not with sex but with power. Its pain can often be made bearable only with large amounts of alcohol, or through explosions of violence, and Vargas Llosa’s characters suffer from it in meticulously and accurately observed detail.

Here, in The Time of the Hero, a character who will be baptized The Slave by his classmates in the military academy, endures an inaugural hazing. He is instructed to get on all fours and fight like a dog with another freshman:

The Slave doesn’t remember the face of the boy who was baptized with him. He must have belonged to one of the last sections, because he was small. His face was disfigured by fear, and, as soon as the voice stopped, he lunged against him, barking and foaming at the mouth and suddenly the Slave felt a rabid dog’s bite on his shoulder and then his whole body reacted and, as he barked and bit he had the certainty that his skin had become covered with bristling fur, that his mouth was a pointy snout and that, above his torso, his tail was whipping back and forth.

Enough,” the voice said. “You’ve won. On the other hand, the dwarf deceived us. He’s not a dog but a bitch. Do you know what happens when a dog and a bitch meet up on the street?”

No, my cadet,” the Slave said.

They lick each other. First they sniff each other affectionately and then they lick each other.”

And here, the protagonist sees the prostitute Goldifeet, with whom he is about to lose his virginity:

The woman was now sitting up. She was, in effect, quite short: her feet barely touched the ground. There was a black layer under her dyed hair, which was a disordered tangle of bold curls. The face was thickly painted and smiled at him. He lowered his head and saw two mother-of-pearl fish, alive, earthly, fleshy, “that you could swallow whole and without butter,” as Vallano had said, and which were absolutely alien to the chubby body that rose from them and that insipid and formless mouth and those dead eyes that were now contemplating him.

The early part of the narrative of A Fish in the Water traces the not untypical coming of age of a Peruvian-born survivor who inhabits the ragged edges of the ragged middle class: a childhood shaped by adult incomprehension and violence as much as by the nourishing warmth of a large and loyal family. An adolescence spent in a military school, enduring and learning to avoid humiliation and—once again—violence. An apprenticeship in sex at the whorehouses and an apprenticeship in writing as a very cub (age fifteen) reporter on the sordid crime pages of a Lima daily. Love as betrayal, sex as frustration, and friendship as the enduring source of loyalty. Resentment and rancor in generous doses.

What is exceptional, of course, is the novelist, whose consuming need is to deny rancor, to transcend the moral squalor around him. At the military academy he reads Dumas from cover to cover and translates his own life into French adventure novels (La Mangachería becomes La Cour des Miracles). He courts the neighborhood girls breathlessly, not daring to imagine sex with them. He despises his father, but he remains polite, well-behaved, obedient even, when around him. At the age of twenty-one, timid and dreamy still, he marries his mother’s sister-in-law, and one can speculate that he does so not only out of infatuation with the sexy Aunt Julia (a thirty-two-year-old divorcée), but out of a need to keep faith with the purest love he knows, that of his mother’s family. (Having divorced Aunt Julia, Vargas Llosa is now married to his first cousin Patricia.) It is the tension between the vulnerable boy Mario’s need not to be disillusioned and the novelist Vargas Llosa’s fascination with the threats to his vulnerability that keeps A Fish in the Water moving forward powerfully in the chapters dedicated to his early life. And it is the adult Mario Vargas Llosa’s ways of transcending his disillusionment that makes him so unfit to be a politician.


Perhaps saying that I love my country is not true. I often loathe it,” Vargas Llosa states in his memoir. And, “Although I was born in Peru, my vocation is that of a cosmopolitan and an expatriate who has always detested nationalism.” This, in the course of explaining how he happened to decide to run for president. Can such a man triumph in politics? Should he?

Mario Vargas Llosa debated whether to run for president in 1987, arguably the worst year Peruvians had endured in this century. Drought parched the land. Whatever can be described as the industrial sector (a handful of manufacturers of cement, hairpins, and Inca Kola, more or less) was decrepit and near extinction. Unemployment was well over 50 percent. Inflation would soon reach the breath-taking high of 7,600 percent a year. A huge and inept bureaucracy gobbled up whatever small proportion of the government budget was not devoured by graft and interest payments on a foreign debt equivalent to 45 percent of the GNP. Shining Path, the guerrilla movement led by Abimael Guzmán—a stolid former small-town college professor otherwise known as Presidente Gonzalo—rampaged through the countryside, bringing the art of murder to new levels of senselessness and gore.

Presiding over this mess was Alan García, a toothy opportunist of some charm and no scruple, who was about to seal his country’s financial disaster by declaring a moratorium on all payments on the foreign debt. By the end of García’s term, Peru had been declared ineligible for foreign loans, its per capita gross national product had shrunk by 13.7 percent, and net government reserves were $142 million in the red. “The Peru of my childhood,” the author writes, “was a poor and backward country: in the last decades, mainly since the beginning of [General Juan Velasco Alvarado’s] dictatorship and in particular during Alan García’s presidency, it had become poorer still and in many regions wretchedly poverty-stricken, a country that was going back to inhuman patterns of existence.” It was clear to everyone that the 1990 presidential elections would be decided on economic issues, even more than on the urgent question of dealing with the Shining Path. One can gather from this memoir that other things were not so clear to Vargas Llosa. One was that his country’s disaster could not be laid exclusively at the door of the populist demagogues he despised, that it belonged also to the conservative politicians he admired. The other was that a successful electoral campaign would have had to provide the famished, humiliated poor of Peru—that is, the great majority of his countrymen—with something that was utterly irrational under the circumstances: a sense of dignity and hope.

Barnstorming the country, addressing Amazonian Indians in Iquitos, Quechua-speakers in the Andes, mulattoes and mestizos on the coast, everywhere braving crowds he had no appetite for (“I had to accomplish miracles to conceal my dislike for that sort of semihysterical pushing and pulling, kissing, pinching and pawing”), Vargas Llosa eschewed facile promises in his speeches and campaigned instead holding aloft the banner of reason. He might have known better, but, after all, rationalism, and cordura—level-headedness—had been the ropes he had used to pull himself out of his own Peruvian chasm: although A Fish in the Water skips over the author’s middle years, we know that by the time he gets into politics the disorder of his earlier life has been replaced by an orderly contemplative existence in which reading and discussion have their scheduled places. Why now should he not offer the same salvation generously to his compatriots? In the early part of the memoir he describes his extended flirtation with Marxism and the world of clandestine conspiracy so beloved of the Latin American left, but rationally, over the years, he had concluded that Marxist movements were doomed. He had evolved into a neoliberal who admired Mrs. Thatcher, and it was as a Thatcherite neoliberal that he campaigned in Peru.

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