Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa; drawing by David Levine


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).

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.

One hardly knows whether to wince or laugh at his description of some of his rallies. Addressing the country’s largest labor confederation toward the end of his campaign, he instructs his listeners on the evils of job security, which make it impossible for Peru “to attract investment and stimulate the creation of new businesses and the growth of ones that already existed.” The workers who benefit from job security are a tiny minority, he points out gently to his audience—to those very beneficiaries, that is, of job security, men and women clinging with their nails to the last raft in the economic shipwreck. “It was not a happenstance that the countries with the best job opportunities in the world, such as Switzerland or Hong Kong or Taiwan, had the most flexible labor laws,” he tells them. And then he adds, describing this scene, “I don’t know if we convinced anyone.”

Whether he did or not was actually not important at the beginning of his campaign, because it so happened that Vargas Llosa decided to run for president at a time when there was absolutely no other candidate on the field whom people might be prepared to vote for. Alan García had brought his nationalist populist party, the APRA, to ruin, hopelessly tarnishing any would-be successor. The parties of the right, embodied by former president Fernando Belaúnde Terry, could not hope to offer—and furthermore, programmatically did not want to offer—any remedy for the impoverished majority’s urgent desperation. The left in Peru historically had never obtained more than 20 percent of the vote in any national election. More to the point, as Vargas Llosa’s campaign consultant at the New York public relations firm Sawyer/Miller understood all too clearly from the first, the traditional politicians who had ransacked Peru and bartered away its future were a lost cause.

“Peruvians wanted a break with the old politics. They despised the old politicians,” writes Mark Malloch Brown, the Sawyer/Miller consultant, in a brief memoir also published in Granta. To the degree that Vargas Llosa represented a break with politics, his audience was willing to give him a hearing, despite the message he preached. For the first few months of the campaign, Sawyer/Miller’s polls looked more than encouraging. The candidate’s mass rallies had masses in attendance. His organization, Libertad, grew nationwide. But by early 1990 Vargas Llosa was starting to show up in the polls as a potential loser. It wasn’t just the candidate’s great distance from the destitute masses of his native country that turned out to be a fatal problem. It was his closeness to the people those masses most loathed: the politicians and business class.

And yet, who but the novelist Vargas Llosa has done a better job of describing the mechanisms of power, despotism, and corruption as practiced in his native country? Conversation in the Cathedral, published in 1969, begins with the memorable question ¿En qué momento se había jodido el Peruú? (At what point did Peru lose it, lose all hope, fuck itself, fuck itself over, fuck itself up?) The novel is an investigation of that problem, focusing on the corrupt intimate life and intimate relations between the rich and the powerful of Peru. The two central characters on whom the plot hinges are Cayo Bermúdez (“Cayo Mierda”), in charge of repression, espionage, and torture for the Odría dictatorship, and Fermín Zavala, the wealthy, suave father of the main character, whose sordid connections to the dictatorship are forged in the course of the novel. In A Fish in the Water the author points out that Peru is so jodido that there are barely any rich people left, but for his campaign he chose to ally himself with these few survivors, and to predicate an economic program on the private sector’s selflessness, ingenuity, discipline, initiative, courage, and acumen, although the historical evidence is that the business class of Peru is almost entirely lacking in these virtues, and that its complicity with the most dreadful regimes is central to the country’s political history. Why did Vargas Llosa the politician fail to see what his novels know?

Partly it is because, in his own mind, the candidate was allying himself with the middle classes—“office workers, professionals, technicians, tradesmen, state employees, housewives, students”—who seemed to him more capable of reason and civilized political action than the masses whose greedy enthusiasm made him cringe at rallies. But office workers and tradesmen were not the people who put up the money—variously estimated at four and a half million dollars (by the author) and ten million dollars (by skeptics equipped with a calculator)—for the most expensive campaign in Peru’s history. The novelist decided that as president he would be able to avoid any unethical obligations to his campaign financers by the simple expedient of refusing to be told who was contributing what amount, and he made the crucial, foolish, and innocent mistake of confusing his financial backers with his potential voters. One could suspect the author of A Fish in the Water of disingenuousness, were it not for the image that lingers throughout the memoir of the teen-age Mario, endlessly shuttled, according to the family fortunes, between the seedier Lima neighborhoods of the lower middle class and the dazzling beachside district of Miraflores. There is, as an explanation for so much political ineptitude, the possibility that, as an adult, he never ceased feeling illegitimate and deferential in the presence of the moneyed class, and willing to suspend disbelief.

The voters held him accountable for this, and for a parallel mistake: a few months into the Libertad movement’s existence, Vargas Llosa decided that he would not be able to build a nationwide organization in time for the elections capable of giving him a broad mandate for his drastic program of economic reforms, and he chose to ally himself with two traditional right-wing parties, one of whose leaders, the worldly, literate former president Fernando Belaúnde, Vargas Llosa admired. As his consultant, Mark Malloch Brown, understood immediately, this alliance with politics-as-usual was the kiss of death for his campaign. “To most Peruvians, it marked a betrayal…. He had bartered away his most precious asset, his independence.”

Vargas Llosa’s campaign thus came to grief because of his failure to take into account the nonrational needs of the electorate, because of his own irrational, respectful faith in his most powerful backers, and because of his intense reliance on his family and its immediate circle of associates. Brown writes:

Mario’s wife, Patricia, shared our fear of what the politicians would do to Mario’s public image and fought to keep him out of their clutches, but her alternative was to build a political base among blonde ladies from upper-middle-class suburbs of Lima. They began as a Libertad group that worked in the Lima slums, and it was said against them, by men, that they had persuaded their husbands to contribute the funds to construct the feeding centres, schools and playgrounds they operated. The women, many of whom were impressive and strong-willed, were fighting a battle with their husbands and a male-dominated Peruvian upper class. Their slum work did not help Mario’s battle for the barrios. The ladies, often wearing Paris and Milan fashions, were representatives of Vargas Llosa, the rich people’s candidate.

His decline was swift. By the spring of 1990 the candidate was exhausted, but despite his nonstop campaigning the polls showed that he was arousing hostility in certain crucial sectors of the population, and that his remaining support was not enough to guarantee him the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff election. Closing up on him was the unknown, untested, untarnished, ideologically uncommitted candidate the voters had been waiting for. It could have been anyone. It could even have been Mario Vargas Llosa, if he had known how to play his cards. Instead it was a then fifty-one-year-old agricultural engineer who had never tried his hand at politics and who is now the strongman of Peru, Alberto Fujimori.

He was the rector of the Agrarian University of Peru, and he had absolutely no previous political experience. His presence on the presidential ballot was something of a fluke; a quirk in the constitution allowed anyone registering for the senatorial races to register simultaneously for the presidential candidacy, and, almost as a lark, Fujimori, the founder of a small businessmen’s movement called Cambio 90, had decided to take advantage of this option. Methodical and hardworking, he had campaigned on a shoestring, promising Honesty, Technology, and Work. To his astonishment, the voters paid attention, because he had no record at all, and, in the minds of the voters, this meant that he did not have the record of chicanery, mendacity, and sloth that they perceived as indistinguishable from professional politics. His spectacular rise in the polls paralleled Vargas Llosa’s decline.

The drama of Mario Vargas Llosa’s failed campaign culminates, in A Fish in the Water, with a rally outside his beloved Piura.

Armed with sticks and stones and all sorts of weapons to bruise and batter, an infuriated horde of men and women came to meet me, their faces distorted by hatred, who appeared to have emerged from the depths of time, a prehistory in which human beings and animals were indistinguishable, since for both life was a blind struggle for survival. Half naked, with very long hair and fingernails, never touched by a pair of scissors, surrounded by emaciated children with huge swollen bellies, bellowing and shouting to keep their courage up, they hurled themselves on the caravan of vehicles as though fighting to save their lives or seeking to immolate themselves, with a rashness and a savagery that said everything about the almost inconceivable levels of deterioration to which life for millions of Peruvians had sunk.

What were they attacking? What were they defending themselves from? What phantoms were behind those threatening clubs and knives? In the wretched village there was no water, no light, no work, no medical post, and the little school hadn’t been open for years because it had no teacher. What harm could I have done them, when they no longer had anything to lose, even if the famous “shock” [the package of neoliberal economic reform measures Vargas Llosa was proposing] proved to be as apocalyptic as propaganda made it out to be?…Despite the shower of stones…I made several attempts to talk to them over a loudspeaker, from the flatbed of a truck, but the outcries and the contention made such a din that I was forced to give up.

This is the Piura of the novelist Miguel Gutiérrez Correa’s savage fictional landscape, and, on coming face to face with it, Mario Vargas Llosa may have had his first inkling that he had been campaigning in the wrong country. An insult offered during a televised debate by the man who was to beat him at the polls still rankles. “It seems that you would like to make Peru a Switzerland, Doctor Vargas,” Alberto Fujimori said, with his characteristic tight-lipped smile. But, typically for Fujimori, his gibe was a few degrees off the mark: the point was, Vargas Llosa had campaigned as if Peru already were Switzerland.

On April 8, Mario Vargas Llosa got 27.6 percent of the vote and Fujimori 24.6. In the sixty days that elapsed between that date and the mandatory second round, electoral politics in Peru, such as they were, sank to shameful lows. The previously penniless Fujimori—now backed by President Alan García, according to strong rumors—spent money almost as recklessly as his rival on television ads that showed bits of a video-clip of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in which a monster devours what the campaign depicted as the Peruvian electorate martyred by Vargas Llosa’s conservative economic program. To Vargas Llosa’s horror, his supporters’ campaign against Fujimori was, if anything, more dirty, but then, it was no longer really a campaign, and it was no longer Vargas Llosa’s to control.

It was class warfare, decreed by the upper-middle-class blond people of Lima against the darker-skinned multitudes now swarming at the gates. Peru’s conservative church hierarchy leaped into the fray with religious parades against the evangelical Protestants whom Fujimori had cannily wooed to his side. The press and television made fun of El Chinito—as the Japanese-descended Fujimori was universally known. The ruling classes’ xenophobia, racism, and conservative prejudices found expression in Mario Vargas Llosa’s campaign, even as the candidate haplessly defended his own agnosticism, decried racism, and took refuge in his daily readings of Karl Popper and the Spanish Golden Age poet Luis de Góngora.

The attacks on Alberto Fujimori were proof to the most desperate voters—who made up the vast majority—that anyone the ruling elite hated as much as it also appeared to despise them must be worth supporting. On June 10, 1990, Alberto Fujimori was elected president in the second voting round with a twenty-three point advantage over his rival, and he took power in July. It was the end of politics for Vargas Llosa, who boarded a plane with Patricia two days after the elections and headed back to the peace of his study and the libraries of Europe, where he became a Spanish citizen. But it was not, unhappily, the end of politics for Peru.


At this writing, Alberto Fujimori has been in power for nearly four years. He has brought down inflation to what is, by Peruvian standards, a modest 50 percent a year. The scourge of Peru, Abimael Guzmán, leader of the Shining Path, is now in prison, reading statements to his followers in which he orders them to put down their arms and praises the sagacity of his captors. Fujimori has built up Peru’s reserves, and even attracted a little foreign investment to the country.

He has also closed down Congress and replaced it with a puppet National Assembly, jailed a number of his enemies within the military, arrested dozens of journalists, set up an intelligence service that some people think rivals that of Conversation in the Cathedral’s Cayo Mierda, and turned the hatred of politicians into something of a cult. He is popular. In fact, he may enjoy the most sustained popularity of any Peruvian president in history, and the easy betting is that, if he runs for reelection in 1995, as he appears eager to do, he will win. What did he offer Peruvians that Mario Vargas Llosa could not?

Perhaps it is easier to ask what Vargas Llosa offered the electorate that they did not want—at least, not at the price he was selling it. He offered Liberty and Democracy, and voters sizing up the offer decided that this meant the liberty of businessmen to fire workers in the name of the bottom line; the liberty of the state to fire tens of thousands of bureaucrats in pursuit of administrative efficiency; the liberty of the poor to fend for themselves without even token recognition from the state—their state—that it might owe them some protection from hunger and chaos. Fujimori wisely offered little beyond his campaign slogans, the second of which, for the runoff elections, was “A President Like You.”

This presumably meant a president who was like the poor, who understood the poor’s need for a little respite; but what Fujimori did on taking power was impose a package of economic reforms as harsh as anything Vargas Llosa might have proposed. Thanks to the sudden un-freezing of prices, Limeños lost 25 percent of their income virtually overnight, a blow struck against a population that had already lost half of its purchasing power during the preceding five years. Cholera and tuberculosis—diseases directly linked to poverty—reached epidemic proportions in the first year of the new regime. “The present reforms have put the economy on a sounder footing, but they have failed to further social justice, because they have not broadened in the slightest the opportunities of those who have less, so as to enable them to compete on equal terms with those who have more,” Vargas Llosa writes in the postscript to A Fish in the Water.

But what of his other campaign offer, Democracy? It was a word that in the midst of the Peruvian maelstrom sounded infinitely less appealing than Order, and that even today, despite Fujimori’s quasi-dictatorial status, does not seem to have a strong market among most of Vargas Llosa’s countrymen. Democracy in Latin America has been the keystone of United States policy for the hemisphere for a decade now. Previously, it had been Anticommunism, with a concommitant high degree of tolerance for dictatorial and murderous regimes. Under the new priorities, elections are taken as virtually sacred proof that a country is on the right track and deserves Washington’s encomiums and loans. What is one to make, then, of Alberto Fujimori, whose freely elected Constituent Congress has provided the necessary rubber stamp for his April 5, 1992, autogolpe, the coup against his own elected government? Or of Fernando Collor de Mello, freely elected to plunder and despoil Brazil? Or of Guillermo Endara of Panama or Carlos Menem of Argentina, both of whose elections served to mask high degrees of corruption? Or of the reelection, in El Salvador, of the party whose name is inextricably linked to the country’s death squads? What is one to hope for Mexico, where carefully supervised elections in August could conceivably lead to the first loss in sixty-five years for the party in power, and thus, quite possibly, to national breakdown?

Throughout Latin America, elections and despair have proved to be a scary combination, and a decade of economic contraction and antipopular economic reform measures—however urgently needed many may have been—have led inevitably to extreme levels of popular despair. Everywhere half-mad but extremely wily candidates—television gameshow hosts, drug money launderers, astrologers, experts in the art of promising all—have run for office and come close. One wonders if the television emcee who ran briefly against Collor de Mello in Brazil—Silvio Santos—could have done a worse job than the people’s choice.

In this particular case, and in a few others, the electorate has been able to rectify its mistakes. Collor de Mello became the first president in Brazil’s history to be impeached. In Venezuela a corrupt old populist, Carlos Andrés Pérez, was stripped of his powers as president and ordered to stand trial on charges of misappropriating $17 million in public funding. In Panama, on the other hand, following Guillermo Endara’s embarrassing term in office, the likely victor in next month’s elections is the leader of the party founded by the dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega, back with some more of the demagogic, wasteful policies that kept Noriega popular for so many years. (It is worth recalling that the United States spent some effort and inflicted considerable ruin on Panama by invading it in order to depose Noriega and install the popularly elected Endara.) And in Peru, Fujimori looks as if he will last. “The support for the regime is based on a tissue of contradictions,” a wiser Vargas Llosa writes bitterly, and accurately, in his memoir’s postscript:

The entrepreneurial sector and the right hail in President Fujimori the Pinochet that they were secretly yearning for, the military officers nostalgic for barracks coups have him as their transitory straw man, while the most depressed and frustrated sectors, which racist and anti-establishment demagoguery have penetrated, feel that their phobias and complexes have somehow been explained, through Fujimori’s deliberate insults of the “corrupt” politicians and “homosexual” diplomats, and through a crudeness and vulgarity that gives these sectors the illusion that it is, at last, “the people” who govern.

And yet…. For all its horrors, Vargas Llosa is wrong to say that the Peru he tried to save is now worse off than the Peru of his childhood. Fujimori is not the same as the bloody dictator Odría, and he could not be because some things have changed in Latin America. Internationally, respect for human rights is becoming an established criterion for loans.* Domestically, the hordes that terrify the novelist are, to my eye at least, rather different from his vision of them. They have not sunk to the level of animals; they have been rushed into the late twentieth century, a change that is confusing and threatening for traditional communities, and that has dismantled their sense of identity and purpose and threatens to dismember all the familiar social links and hierarchies. But at the same time, however chaotically, it has pushed them into membership in a civil society that is only now being born.

The new political realities of Latin America are being created between the longing for the false certainties and real order of the past, and the attraction of the false promises and real freedoms of the future. This is the world in which the Indian campesinos of Mexico can hold aloft the banner of Emiliano Zapata and call for both democracy and Indian autonomy, and in which an improvised politician like Fujimori can prosper. It is not a world without hope, but rather one with too many unfulfilled expectations, and the sad, final truth of Vargas Llosa’s campaign is that he, too, failed to understand and address them. He concentrated instead on reforms that look orderly on paper but are not designed to deal with chaos, and on the formalities of a democracy that does not yet exist. (Elections, while an important step in the direction of democracy, are far from being the thing itself.) While Latin America awaits the emergence of a new, democratic, political class that can address the economy’s limitations and the citizenry’s needs with truly participatory programs, the door remains open for demagogues.

April 28, 1994

This Issue

May 26, 1994