Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa; drawing by David Levine

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 is an appendix to The War of the End of the World, a defense of its method, an attempt to take it home.

The story is simple. In 1958, just before Castro topples Batista in Cuba, a lonely (and I take it, imaginary) Peruvian Trotskyite joins forces with an ardent army lieutenant to start the revolution in the high Andes, “a land of condors, snow, clear sky, jagged ocher peaks,” as Vargas Llosa puts it. Their plans are precarious, uncoordinated, amateurish. Along with two hesitant peasant leaders and a handful of very young cadets they take over a provincial prison and civil-guard post, cut off communications (but not thoroughly enough), rob a bank, and set off in two trucks for the remoter villages, where they hope to build support and establish a base. They are caught before they get very far; some are beaten and killed, others jailed; the boys are held for a while then sent to their homes. For the government of the day they are just bandits. For a young writer in Paris, reading a tiny news item, they are a first glimmer of political talk put into practice. The novel recounts this writer’s investigation into and reconstruction of the sparse, sorry story.

The English title The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta expands and alters the more laconic Spanish Historia de Mayta, but works well enough if we catch the ironies clinging to the phrase “real life.” The translation is not always so happy. It keeps dipping into slang which is dated before it hits the page (“You know you really knock me out?”), and has odd moments of uncertainty about vocabulary. A word for “noticed” is given as “pointed out”; the phrase que envidia, meaning roughly “I wish I had such luck,” is opaquely rendered as “what envy.”


Mayta is the Trotskyite, a dedicated revolutionary, about forty, a man who has hitherto known nothing but failure and small-time conspiracy, a figure whose “secret, intact integrity” attracts the writer who becomes his historian. Mayta is described as a political orphan, as an amateur suicide. He believes that even Stalinists may have a role to play in a real revolution; he is seen as an adventurer, even as an informer. But the dominant impression is of a man who believes in “the true, the integral revolution, the one that would abolish all injustices without inflicting new ones.”

Is this romantic dream his “real life”? This is one of the two chief questions the novel wishes to ask. The other is, What does this life, real or not, mean for later generations, what lessons or warnings or promises lurk in it? Is Mayta Castro’s unlucky twin, the miss that mirrors the hit? Is he a trial run, a precursor? Or is he a model of failure, an explanation, among others, for the fucked-up condition of Peru? The writer in the book hesitates. He doesn’t know why he is looking into Mayta’s life.

Because his case was the first in a series that would typify the period? Because he was the most absurd? Because he was the most tragic? Because his person and his story hold something ineffably moving, something that, over and beyond its political and moral implications, is like an X-ray of Peruvian misfortune?

This writer is nameless, but bears more than a passing resemblance to Vargas Llosa. He is well known in Peru, and in the course of the book has a prison library named after him. He seeks out and interviews everyone he can find who knows anything about Mayta’s sad and distant adventure: Mayta’s aunt, the sister of the enthusiastic lieutenant, old political comrades and enemies, locals who were present at the uprising, the cadets now grown old and respectable, and ultimately Mayta himself, who after years in jail has put politics behind him. “It’s not that I gave up politics,” he says mildly. “You might say that politics gave me up.”

The technique of the novel is quite dazzling, and reveals its true subject: not Mayta but the story of Mayta; not the old adventure but its digging up and dusting off. Questions asked in the present are answered in the past, and vice versa, as if there were no break, as if then and now were a single time. Mayta says hello to his aunt in 1958, for example, and she says “Come in” to the writer in 1983. This method is followed throughout the book, and is not as confusing as it sounds—not confusing at all, in fact. The weaving of histories is tight, but the tenses are clear—even when the writer, in moments of strong identification with Mayta, says “he” and “I” indiscriminately.

What the writer—the writer in the book and the writer of the book—makes heavy weather of is not his ineffable involvement in the inquiry, but the philosophical status of what he is doing. He keeps stumbling into terrible banalities and offering them as discoveries—I think because his starting points are too easy and too broad. What is he doing? Well, writing a novel, a story, not history—the Spanish word nicely takes both meanings. Then why does he need the facts, the witnesses? “Because I’m a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it…. That’s how I work.” The writer/narrator repeats this explanation several times in the book, as if it explained something. “I didn’t do it so I could relate what really happened…but so I could lie and know what I’m lying about.” Somewhere buried in here is the traditional defense of fiction as truer than history, but the notion is blurred by too many concessions and not enough irony—and a conception of truth rather alarming in a novelist. If the lies of fiction don’t touch some order of truth, they are pointless: just lies. In any case most of the lame conclusions this writer comes to have to do with the difficulties of history, not fiction:

One thing you learn, when you try to reconstruct an event from eyewitness accounts, is that each version is just someone’s story, and that all stories mix truth and lies.

But the more I investigate, the less I feel I know what really happened.

Yet another proof of how mysterious and unforeseeable the ramifications of events are, that unbelievably complex web of causes and effects, reverberations and accidents that make up human history.

As Hamlet’s friend Horatio almost said, there needs no ghost come from the jail to tell us this.


Vargas Llosa confronts these issues rather more satisfactorily in the setting he describes and in his conclusion. The contemporary scene, the point from which 1958 is viewed, is not “the Peru of the near future,” as the blurb suggests, but a dark dream-Peru of 1983—twenty-five years on from 1958, as the writer keeps saying. There is rationing, there is a curfew. The (doubtless real enough) garbage of Lima assumes hallucinatory proportions; the slums seem to come from A Clockwork Orange. Rebel armies have taken over entire areas of the countryside, Russian-backed Cuban regiments have invaded across the Bolivian border. The ruling military junta has asked for (and will presumably get) the aid of US troops and supplies. Che Guevara’s plea is being met: another Vietnam, one of a chain, perhaps. “Here we go. The war is no longer a Peruvian affair.” Here is a fiction that reflects the truth of our danger, and the violence of our talk.

At the end of the novel the writer meets the “real” Mayta, and explains that he is working on a book about him. He has changed a few things, he says, in the past character as in the present place. “I’ve pretended…that we were schoolmates, that we were the same age, and lifelong friends.” The writer hopes, of course, in spite of his talk of lying, to have kept the essentials. Mayta embarks on his crazy project because he is tired of committee-room revolution: “The possibility of taking concrete action…electrifies him.” He is an “obstinate optimist,” a “man of faith who loves life despite the horror and misery in it.” Does the flesh and blood Mayta recognize himself in this portrait? No, and we don’t recognize the writer’s Mayta in this sad and ruined figure, “a man destroyed by suffering and resentment, who has even lost his memories.” And so the shabby fact and the noble fiction stare at each other. Is the fiction what Mayta could have been, once was, but can no longer remember being? Or is it only a figment of the writer’s wishing, the revolutionary ancestor he longs for, a stick to beat the present day? More the second, probably, but then this is the novel’s deepest theme: not the past but our need of the past, the memory and the measurement of failure.

The Mayta we meet at the end of the book is bothered by one particular change the writer has made in his character, one florid fiction. Mayta in the novel is homosexual. Why? The writer improvises an answer, a little too plausibly and too ideologically.

To accentuate his marginality, his being a man full of contradictions. Also to show the prejudices that exist with regard to this subject among those who supposedly want to liberate society from its defects. Well, I don’t really know exactly why.

I’m afraid the reason is just this one, in spite of the writer’s hedging. He wants to make an abstract point, not realizing that his formulation embodies the very prejudices he wants to deny—what is the contradiction between homosexuality and revolution?—and he has a foible for the lurid contrast which makes Mayta “by day, a clandestine militant totally given over to the task of changing the world, and, by night, a pervert on the prowl for faggots.”

Mayta himself, in this last confrontation, says,

I was never prejudiced about anything. But, about fags, I think I am prejudiced…. How can you not be sick to your stomach? It’s unbelievable that a human being can sink so low.

That sure sounds prejudiced, and the ugliness of Vargas Llosa’s writing about the imagined Mayta’s homosexuality rather confirms the prejudice than denies it.

Homosexuality is at the center of Reinaldo Arenas’s Farewell to the Sea, a work as brilliant as it is troubling, but the prejudice here is internalized and put dramatically to work. It becomes homosexual self-hatred, the victim’s endorsement of the tormentor’s values, and more generally a figure for what Arenas sees Cuba as doing to itself. This novel, Arenas has said, depicts “the secret history of the Cuban people”—a claim that is no doubt too ambitious and definitely tendentious. The secret, Arenas suggests in an exuberant prose which plainly enjoys its own antics, is that the Cubans hate Castro and what has happened to them, that only time-servers and small tyrants are happy in that country, that resentment and suspicion and brutality and fear are the realities of contemporary Cuban life. The book, we are told, “disappeared” in 1969, when it was first written, was confiscated in 1971, smuggled out of Havana in 1974, and published in Barcelona in 1982. It is dedicated to three friends, “thanks to whom this novel didn’t have to be written a fourth time.” It is hard, as Heberto Padilla has said, to judge the work of dissidents: we either lionize the writer or get defensive about the accusations. What we must do, I think, is listen; and then try to tell how central or how marginal these protests are; how urgent or how self-serving.

The work has high literary as well as political ambitions; it seems conceived as a successor to Lezama Lima’s Paradiso, as a Cuban cousin of Pound’s Cantos, and it draws on bits of Joyce’s Ulysses. It is part novel, part free-verse poem, full of parody and phantasmagoria, but also of carefully observed current scenes. It lives in the tortured consciousness of its two main characters, and also in its profuse spray of language, its harsh and mocking incantation of sorrows and pains. It is very well translated by Andrew Hurley, who must have had nightmares trying to render the movement and tone and jokes of this extraordinary writing: rewarded nightmares, though. The book may be too obsessive and too prolix to earn the authority of the works I’ve mentioned—although those adjectives describe entire patches of the Cantos well enough, so perhaps we shouldn’t hurry to arrive at a judgment. Certainly Farewell to the Sea is a major work by a gifted writer, and Octavio Paz’s “remarkable,” on the dust jacket, seems tame, almost an irony.

Hector, a diffident, disaffected veteran of the final struggle against Batista, and his unnamed, loving, frustrated wife have taken a cabin by the sea for a week. Their eight-month-old baby is with them, they want to spend time away from the crowding and routine and hopelessness of life in Havana. The date is 1969. “By applying the methods and guidelines of our Commander-in-Chief,” the radio announces, “we will reach ten million tons of sugar by next year, 1970!” What we read are the thoughts of these two people, in subtly interwoven times, arriving at the beach, driving back at the end of the week, remembering their past, experiencing present moments in the sea, at meals, in bed, walking, reading. We get first the wife’s thoughts, in a long, sinuous interior monologue in which the passing days are marked but which is otherwise undivided. It is full of cramped memories, and violent, unsatisfying dreams—at one point she turns a scene from the Iliad into a wild sexual orgy, heroic phalluses everywhere. She has sudden, evanescent moments of happiness too, and her perceptions are captured in language of great beauty:

The sky and the smell of time, the smell of leaves, the singed smell of earth that was waiting today too for a cooling shower, for rain. Perfume. The smell of trees that take darkness as a comfort. The smell of ocean and pine trees, the imperceptible fragrance of oleanders, the smell of almond trees. The smell of the ocean….

But what I would really like to perserve, have, is exactly that which vanishes—the brief violet of evening on the water, the last gleam of the pines, the moment when a yagrumo leaf flutters and falls, a smile of my mother’s that I never saw again afterward.

But mainly she is lost, uncertain, anxious for a consolation she only half believes in. “Somewhere there must be more than this violence and loneliness, this stupidity, laziness, chaos, and stupor which are killing us.” “The terrible,” she thinks in a memorable phrase, “becomes merely monotonous.” “Real disaster never comes suddenly, because it’s always happening.” She understands though that her unhappiness has to do with her character and with Hector’s indifference to her, and that in Cuba as elsewhere it is possible to blame public events for private griefs.

We take advantage of the horrible state of affairs to avoid our own horrible situation…we denounce the implacable censorship so as not to discuss our own silences.

Neither Hector nor his wife believes in words—“There are no words, there are no words, there definitely are no words”—and yet words are all they have, the silent, mental spinning out of their loneliness. Hector is a poet—or was before he lost his hope or his will and stopped writing, and his part of the book, divided into six cantos to match his wife’s six days, is a buzzing mixture of verse and prose, of rhetoric and self-scrutiny. Hector is an uneasy homosexual, vaguely kind to his wife, only unintentionally cruel, always absent, usually silent. “All she wants,” he thinks, “is for you to want her. She is so tender, so unbearable.” He plays happily with the child, sometimes getting overhistrionic in his diatribes against the Cuban situation. He has an encounter with a handsome boy met on the beach, and then afterward reviles him for being what they both are:

You will live your whole life pleading, begging pardon of the whole world for a crime you haven’t committed, and doesn’t even exist…. You will always be the safety valve, in a way, for any era—for all eras…you will be the world’s shame. And the world will use you to justify its failures and discharge its fury…. For you there are only jail cells and work camps where you’ll meet people like yourself, but much worse—and you will, of course, have to become like them.

The boy later commits suicide by throwing himself from a cliff.

Hector has lyrical moments too, usually associated with the sea—“for the sea is the memory of some holy thing which we cannot comprehend,” the sea is “unsmirched by legends, curses or offerings”—and he has his memorable phrases—“all that is not trivial is damned.” But mainly his thoughts are “offensive and offended,” as his wife thinks his speech is. She at least has the clarity of her unrequited love; he has only anguish and disgust and rage. He often sounds like a hysterical version of Eliot’s Prufrock, or a stray from The Waste Land, which he both quotes and parodies:

Let’s go, then hand in hand, to take
a walk, make a face, and babble nonsense, dancing the jig around this emptiness

He arraigns Whitman for his easy hope—

   Ah, Whitman, ah, Whitman,
how could you not have seen the hypocrisy
behind the mask of an act of mercy?…

I refute your poetry by that single and eternal disproportion

between what is possessed and

what is desired

—but he also has more local, more particular complaints, bitterly listing what he calls the privileges of the present system in Cuba:

Writing a book on cutting sugarcane and winning the National Poetry Prize;

Writing a book of poetry and being sent to cut sugarcane for five years

Concentration camps exclusively for homosexuals

Song festivals without singers

The child as a field of police experimentation

Tamarind trees felled to plant tamarind trees;

Betrayal of ourselves as the only means of survival

Rabidly, sarcastically, he asks who shall begin his fourth canto.

The ex-minister reduced to four walls and a desolate memory? … The man who, for having talked about one of the latest outrages, was put to vile torture, and who now suffers the even crueler torture of having recanted? … A teenager with all his hair cut off? … An angry queen? An embittered cook?

How closely are we to associate Hector with Arenas? A delicate question, since Castro’s regime, and perhaps some of Arenas’s friends, think there is no question at all. Arenas, I would say, wants us to note the shrillness of Hector’s thoughts, their whining tone, his self-pity, and his failure to distinguish, in itemizing his complaints, between hurt flesh and wounded vanity. Arenas wants us to see too that some of what Hector finds in Cuba are only what he grimly calls “the era’s standard adornments: bombs, shots, arguments, shouts, threats, torture, humiliation, fear, hunger”—not confined to Cuba, but then not banished from Cuba either. As with the passage on Whitman, an elegant parody of the chorus from a Greek play puts the blame not on politics but on the species:

is of all vermin the most loathsome, for convinced that all things go to irrevocable death he kills…

Ah, man a doubtful, laughable thing that merits our most suspicious
observation—having invented God,


   and other punishable crimes….

In spite of Arenas’s grandiose phrase about secret history, the book is not that; it is not a history at all, secret or otherwise, and not an indictment, but a novel, that is, an evocation of desperate, complex, individual, imagined lives.

Even so, we must ask, for the reasons I have mentioned in connection with Vargas Llosa, how this fiction relates to our facts, what order of truth it aims at. The point, it seems to me, is not that Hector must be right or wrong, but that he must be heard; and if he can’t be heard, he is already halfway right, evidence for his own exorbitant case. Unhappiness needs a voice, is perhaps the least censorable of all conditions. It can be unjust in its accusations, but it can scarely be unfelt. And if it is widely felt, then that in itself is a truth to be faced.

This Issue

March 27, 1986