Even among his extraordinary generation of Latin American literary figures, Mario Vargas Llosa has had an unusually prodigious career. He is nine years younger than his most famous contemporary, Gabriel García Márquez, yet his first two novels had an electrifying effect on Latin American literature when García Márquez was still searching for the style that would plunge him into what he called a “frenzy of renown.”
Vargas Llosa had already experienced that frenzy in Peru. His biting first novel, The Time of the Hero (1963), about his years as a student at Lima’s premier military academy, provoked cadets to make a bonfire of its pages and several generals to charge him with being paid by the government of Ecuador to humiliate the Peruvian army. The Green House (1966), a dizzying Faulknerian concoction about a whorehouse on the outskirts of the provincial Peruvian city of Piura, employs a complicated, time-shifting technique that makes past and present part of a single simultaneous consciousness. Two characters will be engaged in a conversation, for example, during which thoughts, experiences, and prior conversations that relate to the current one are provoked in the characters’ minds. As the scene unfolds, these associations stitch into a unified narrative account. It’s a difficult, supremely modernist technique that Vargas Llosa has used throughout his career. When successful, it allows him to present a more or less seamless stream of concurrent realities and to bypass the cumbersome formality of flashbacks.
His social lens is wide, encompassing cholos (as the mixed-blood Indians of Peru are disparagingly called), businessmen, aristocrats, pimps, revolutionaries, foreigners, convicts, politicians, and artists in intertwining tales. His writing about Peru can be bitter, tinged with history’s cruelty: in The Green House, young Indian girls, kidnapped into a convent, chatter their teeth like “timid maquisapa monkeys when they are put in a cage.”
Fanaticism, social desperation, power, and sex are the main concerns of his fiction. The Feast of the Goat (2000), his novel about the thirty-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, is a scorching study of the psychology of state terror when it is embodied in a single man.1 From Chile to Cuba the cult of the caudillo with absolute power infected Latin America for much of the twentieth century. In The Feast of the Goat, Trujillo becomes emblematic of that caudillo. The effect is felt not only in imprisonments and paramilitary squads, in disappearances and torture, but also in the way the caudillo affects the psyche of his countrymen, colonizing their very way of thinking, giving rise to a dwarfing sense that the caudillo is always present, like a child’s unvanquishable parent.
Among the symptoms is the sense of shame the caudillo inspires—the machista shame for fearing him, the shame of the violated who believe, through the very mechanism of shame, that their oppression is their own fault. The damage can last for generations and, in the case of individuals, can be impossible to repair. The most memorable character in The Feast of the Goat is a woman who has left the Dominican Republic vowing never to return. She builds a career in New York as a successful lawyer, careful to arrange her life so as to erase every trace of Trujillo and the Dominican Republic. Because of her experiences there as a girl and young woman, however, she is unable to do so. Eventually she returns, driven to confront the figures and incidents that have psychologically maimed her.
For at least half a century Vargas Llosa has also cultivated a career as an essayist and public intellectual, chronicling, among other things, his evolution from romantic Marxist and beguiled supporter of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution to staunch admirer of Milton Friedman, global capitalism, and the putative efficiency of free markets.
It’s not clear when exactly Vargas Llosa lost his “taste for political utopias,” as he puts it. His disenchantment with Castro after he imprisoned the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla certainly played a part. In 1968, Padilla, who had mildly satirized Castro in some of his poems, was awarded a literary prize against Castro’s wishes. The international jury was urged to change its mind, refused to do so, and a crisis broke out over free speech that split Latin American intellectuals and severely damaged Cuba’s image in the world. When Padilla was imprisoned three years later, the crisis intensified. He was released after being forced to read, in words that obviously had been composed by his jailers, a list of his “demented” acts of betrayal “against the morals of the true intellectual and, what is worse, against the revolution itself.”
Vargas Llosa joined Jean-Paul Sartre, Susan Sontag, Alberto Moravia, and numerous others in denouncing Castro. Of particular concern was the fact that Padilla had been a supporter of the Cuban Revolution; his criticisms were of a regime that he wished to succeed. Vargas Llosa recognized that his imprisonment marked a definitive turn by Castro toward outright totalitarianism and suppression of free speech.
How this led, ten years later, to Vargas Llosa’s conversion to Thatcher-style liberalism is not something, to my knowledge, that his numerous essays and political columns make clear. During that era in Latin America there was no middle political ground. To be taken seriously, writers were expected to have a portfolio of unambiguous opinions and as often as not those opinions were overstated and forced. Borges, for example, during the most criminal period of Argentina’s state terror in the 1970s, celebrated the junta of General Jorge Rafael Videla, calling it “a government of soldiers, of gentlemen, of decent people.”2 (He later admitted that he had been mistaken.) And García Márquez was so eager to defend Castro’s treatment of Padilla that he declared, “It didn’t matter if they hanged all us writers.”
In 1990, Vargas Llosa took political activism further than any of his literary contemporaries and ran for president of Peru, as the head of a coalition of conservative, Catholic, and pro-business parties. He won the first electoral round with 34 percent of the vote, then was defeated by another political novice, Alberto Fujimori, in the runoff.
Writing in these pages about his memoir of the campaign, A Fish in the Water (1993), Alma Guillermoprieto asked, “Why did Vargas Llosa the politician fail to see what his novels know?”3 As a novelist, Guillermoprieto points out, he has “dedicated a lifetime to exploring the nuances and interstices of rancor.” The rancor she is referring to is the social and racial obsessions and insecurities that poison Peruvian life. “One is always blanco or cholo in relation to someone else,” Vargas Llosa has remarked. As a candidate he came to be seen as the avatar of the blancos, allied with the upper class, the conservative Catholic Church, the corrupt hoarders of power and national wealth who had plunged Peru into near bankruptcy (even though Vargas Llosa himself adhered to the most stringent ethics and was completely free of corruption)—in short, the very enemies of the powerless people he evoked in his novels.
In A Fish in the Water, he describes being met at a campaign stop by
an infuriated horde of men and women…their faces distorted by hatred, who appeared to have emerged from the depths of time…. Half naked…bellowing and shouting…they hurled themselves on the caravan of vehicles…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.
His inability to speak to this horde, his bewilderment that they saw his edifying European-style liberalism—free speech, free markets, freedom from the corruption and regulations that kept hardworking Peruvians from improving their lives—as a mortal assault, is one of the more poignant miscommunications of twentieth-century Latin America.
The novelist discovered that he wasn’t cut out for politics—he was both too forthright and too repelled by the exigencies of campaigning. (He has confessed that he “had to accomplish miracles to conceal” his dislike for the “semihysterical” clamoring of his countrymen.) The severe economic austerity that he candidly prescribed as the first order of business cost him the election. Short of default or a radical revolution, it was probably the only available route for Peru, where annual inflation stood at 1,965 percent. The economy in 1990 was shrinking at the rate of 14 percent a year. Unemployment was over 50 percent. The Maoist guerrilla group the Shining Path controlled significant amounts of rural territory, was responsible for the killing of thousands, and was in cahoots with cocaine growers and dealers; cocaine, at the time, was by far the country’s leading export.
Vargas Llosa’s opponent, Fujimori, ran a demagogic populist campaign that carefully omitted stating his true intentions. Upon taking power, he immediately put into effect the same austerity measures that Vargas Llosa had proposed. In 2009, the Peruvian courts convicted and imprisoned Fujimori for embezzlement and human rights violations during his presidency. In many respects, it seems that Peru would have fared better had Vargas Llosa been elected. But how would the novelist have dealt with the convolutions of governing a half-ruined state in alliance with some of the same interest groups he abhorred?
Vargas Llosa’s new collection of essays (his seventeenth book of non-fiction) finds him in a similar bind, though one of a more intellectual nature. Notes on the Death of Culture is a potpourri comprised of seemingly dashed-off opinion columns about various aspects of cultural life for the Spanish newspaper El País and a few longer, impassioned essays on the devaluation of high culture in the face of advertising and mass entertainment. He defines culture as not just
a mere epiphenomenon of social and and economic life, but an autonomous reality, made up of ideas, aesthetic and theatrical values, and works of art and literature that interact with the rest of social existence, and that are often not mere reflections, but rather the wellsprings, of social, economic, political and even religious phenomena.
“Autonomous” and “interacting” are the key words. The corrosion over the past half-century of the mutual influence between high culture and the rest of social existence is, Vargas Llosa maintains, a wrenching catastrophe that has degraded our spirit and even our capacity to understand who we are. Without it, and its ability to illuminate permanent and sacred truths about morality and beauty, we are lost.
The book’s title deliberately echoes T.S. Eliot’s famous essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948). Eliot and Vargas Llosa share the idea that to be cultured has little to do with any specific accumulation of knowledge; it predates knowledge, it is spiritual by nature, the nourishment of a sensibility that, in Eliot’s plain words, “makes life worth living.” Vargas Llosa, an avowed agnostic, goes a step further, believing culture to be capable of replacing the “myths, mysteries and rituals of religions” and supplying its own intimations of the divine. Religion and culture are linked by a sacred bond, since both have the power to give “sense, content and order to what we call Civilization.”
What makes this idea attractive is the suggestion that anyone can be in possession of this sensibility; it doesn’t require specialized learning, educational degrees, or even social sophistication. The sensibility is of a metaphysical nature and cannot be anointed by title or class. Since it isn’t given to all any more than mathematical prowess is, the existence of a minority “cultural elite” is unavoidable. But it does not necessarily follow that it is antidemocratic.
Vargas Llosa’s lament over the drowning, and ultimate replacement, of high culture with advertising and mass media is neither subtle nor particularly original, but the intensity he brings to it has an interesting subversive tinge. To upend, and render meaningless, the distinctions between left and right when discussing culture, he enlists the work of Guy Debord, the Marxist founder of the Situationist movement and guiding angel, through his writings, to a growing number of young anarchists, including many of the core members of the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. (Debord died in 1994. The subtitle of Notes on the Death of Culture is a paraphrase of Debord’s 1967 manifesto about the soul-deadening effects of consumerism, La Société du spectacle.)
The obsession with commodities and manufactured products that take aim at our self-image rather than our actual material needs, argues Debord, “has taken on such a central role in the life of consumers that it has displaced any other cultural, intellectual or political reality.” We are all of us deindividualized actors—objects, really—in an ongoing spectacle staged by advertisers and corporate molders of desire. “The spectacle,” writes Debord, “is the effective dictatorship of illusion in modern society.”
The dictatorship works so well because we participate in it while believing we are free, coaxed by a barrage of pop songs, magazine and newspaper articles, movies, advertisements, and television shows that flatter our uniqueness, our attractiveness, our illusory will to choose. We have surrendered ourselves to the spectacle, the theory goes, striking poses, playing roles, adapting personae, drifting further and further from our true selves and even from the ability to recognize that such a self might exist. As a result, we feel depressed, unmotivated, hollow, and, since we live so deeply inside the spectacle, we experience this feeling as a personal failure, thus discounting our true selves even further.
Where Vargas Llosa stumbles, to my mind, is in his unbending allegiance to unregulated economic markets. If not for “the collapse of moral and religious values,” he writes, markets would self-regulate “within certain norms of honesty.” The “unbridled greed” of the super-rich that has flourished in a stratosphere of privilege that requires virtually no contact with the workaday world would be held in check. But it would be difficult, if not impossible, to point to a time when religious values could be depended upon to curb financial swindling. More to the point, the question arises: Can one uncritically champion unregulated markets yet deplore the monoculture and depreciation of serious art that they help to spawn?
Vargas Llosa is on surer ground when he laments the rise of critical theory over the past half-century at the expense of broad, public critical debate. Since the 1960s it has sometimes seemed as if an arcane methodology of reading has replaced original, non-conformist (and nonacademic) critics. Vargas Llosa instructively holds up Edmund Wilson, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, and others as examples—writers who found in the novels of Émile Zola, Theodore Dreiser, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Albert Camus, Leo Tolstoy, and Joseph Conrad, to name just a few, crucial expressions of radical social change. The deconstructionist idea that words are “disguises of reality, and for that reason literature does not describe the world, it merely describes itself,” has contributed heavily to the trivialization, and consequent declawing, of imaginative writing.
For Vargas Llosa, a cultural nadir was reached in 1977 when Roland Barthes, on being appointed to the Chair of Semiology at the Collège de France, declared that language itself is “quite simply fascist.” By this logic, there is no utterance that isn’t stained with the blood of a repressive deed. The critic becomes the primary creator, the awakened artist who can tear off literature’s mask; while the actual artist is a mere supplier of raw material crudely ripped from the bowels of a corrupt civilization.
One of the finest pieces in the new collection, “The Hour of the Charlatans,” describes a lecture Vargas Llosa attended in London in 1997 by his former friend the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. In the 1950s, when Vargas Llosa was studying in Paris, he and Baudrillard had been fellow students of Barthes at the Sorbonne. “We both lent a helping hand to Algeria’s FLN through the aid networks created in France by the philosopher Francis Jeanson,” he recalls.
Over the years, however, an unbreachable intellectual divide has opened up between them. Baudrillard has written an essay “proving that the  Gulf War ‘did not take place’—since all that business involving Saddam Hussein, Kuwait, and the allied forces was no more than television playacting.” Vargas Llosa takes as “an unassailable truth” the Debordian idea that “large-scale [media-driven] representations of reality make it difficult to understand the real world.” But what the novelist in him cannot abide is a “linguistic machismo” that seeks to negate, and vanquish, our capacity to perceive what is. I suspect it is Baudrillard’s pessimism, his dismissal of autonomous human intelligence, that is anathema to Vargas Llosa, who has spent his career trying to reflect, in his fiction, the most elusive elements of political and social life. If we have become “mere ghostly automatons…condemned to expire without ever having lived,” if we cannot perceive reality, then we cannot perceive art or literature either and culture has ceased to exist.
The Discreet Hero is Vargas Llosa’s nineteenth novel, and it can be read in part as an illustration of some of the ideas in his essays. Rigoberto, long employed as manager of a successful insurance company, is looking forward to a retirement filled with cultural pleasures: meticulously planned trips to Europe; saturation in works of Classical and Renaissance art; tranquil reflection at home in Lima, in “his small space of civilization” where his library of books and CDs resides; a harmoniously erotic late middle age with his companionable wife Lucrecia; and the careful edification of Fonchito, his gifted fifteen-year-old son.
Peace temporarily eludes him, however, thanks to the vulgar intrusions of a morally corrupt world. Fonchito may or may not be having hallucinatory visions of the archangel Lucifer, and the parasitical heirs to the insurance company Rigoberto works for are at war with their father, who has abruptly disinherited them and married his young chola housemaid.
Readers may remember Rigoberto as the sexual connoisseur of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (1997). They may also recognize characters from The Green House in the novel’s second, parallel story, which takes place in sweltering Piura, five hundred miles south of Lima. Piura is now throttled with traffic and beset with crime—thieves throw live rats into cars driven by women; the women jump out of the cars in horror and the thieves climb in and drive calmly away. Few visual traces of the city’s past remain; grains of sand no longer blow into residents’ faces like buckshot—the desert has been paved over.
At the center of the Piura story is fifty-five-year-old Felícito, “a small, very thin man who…in Chulucanas, where he attended elementary school, had never worn shoes.” His father, an illiterate sharecropper with lines in his face “like knife wounds,” worked himself to the bone to bring his son to Piura for high school and give him a chance to succeed.
Honoring his father’s memory—“the holiest thing I have”—Felícito has done just that, painstakingly building from scratch a small transport company. When he receives a letter of extortion, instructing him to pay a monthly fee in return for the protection of his business, he responds with contempt. Remembering his father’s edict, “Son, never let anybody walk all over you,” he risks—and almost loses—everything he has worked for. What we get in both the Lima and Piura stories is the moral bankruptcy of a younger generation that has delivered itself to hedonism, greed, familial disloyalty, monstrous self-interest—in short, everything that Vargas Llosa inveighs against in Notes on the Death of Culture.
The Discreet Hero is a relatively minor addition to Vargas Llosa’s oeuvre. He has taken one of his periodic breaks from the opacities of history and politics to concoct an entertaining tale. (His previous novel, The Dream of the Celt, about Roger Casement, the Irish crusader for human rights in the Congo and the Putumayo basin of Peru, is an absorbing investigation of the critical point where a noble struggle for justice gives way to zealotry and violence.)
The writing in The Discreet Hero is uneven, with evocative passages existing alongside wooden, overdetermined scenes that dutifully push the plot forward. It would give too much away to tell how the two stories, which echo each other in almost every major detail, converge. But as they steam along toward their rather comical resolution, an array of characters from various levels of Peru’s social stratum have small parts, including a bruja who sees the future, a compliant and calculating salt-of-the-earth mistress, a religiously devout former prostitute, a pair of irredeemable villains, two honest lawyers, a loyal black chauffeur, and a team of buffoonish decent-hearted detectives. Some of these seem enlarged versions of stock characters and they give the novel a somewhat dusty flavor.
Vargas Llosa has lived in Europe for much of his life; literary fame, including the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, has made him an honorary citizen of the developed world. But Latin America, and especially Peru, which he has likened to “a kind of incurable disease,” remain the reliable well from which his most memorable creations are drawn. His relationship to his country, he has written, “is intense, harsh and full of the violence of passion.” It is this confounding and incurable passion that has provoked his most memorable, as well as his most contradictory, work.