Mario Vargas Llosa and the Literature of Sedition

Two cheers to the Nobel committee for awarding this year’s prize for literature to the Peruvian writer

01 December, 2010

IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO that I experienced for the first time, while reading, the strange combination of soaring and falling natural only to the economies of debtor-states. This crushing euphoria was caused by Mario Vargas Llosa’s retelling of the Canudos rebellion, an uprising led by Antonio Maciel in the last years of the 19th century against the newly-declared republic of Brazil. Maciel, a figure of such gauntness that looking at him is already like looking at him in profile, travels on foot to each of the far-flung communities of the backlands (so poverty-stricken that Church and State are conjoined in amnesia about them). He carries with him his version of the coming apocalypse, an event which will cause the faithful to join battle with the Antichrist—otherwise known as the republic. The republic must be fought because it deposed the king, because it upholds civil marriages which are rightfully church business, and because it is about to conduct a census, which can only be in order to return black people freed from slavery by the king to that very state. The Counsellor, as he comes to be known on account of his cheerful predictions, stirs the imagination of this populace and organises them into a theocracy of sorts. The republic begins to respond to this prodding, thus allowing the Counsellor his apocalypse.

The War of the End of the World, to identify the novel by its English title, had epic sweep and then some more. This tale of competing imaginations and the forms of blindness they enforce as articles of faith—the rebels fight the republic to restore a ‘natural’ order comprising Christ, a deposed king and the Counsellor, while the republic views them as misguided hordes or as agents of free love and anarchy who need to be saved from their barbaric fevers by an inoculation of modernity—was rich in idea and irony. In narration, these competing imaginations came home for me because they spoke dialects of bulbous resurrection and utopian bliss not very different from those favoured by competing fundamentalisms in the city where I grew up. Among the novel’s other charms were its audacious juxtaposition of the mythic time in which the rebels lived with the secular time of the republican army, the playful insertion of Euclides da Cunha (whose novel Os Sertões was an attempt at reclaiming the event from the footnotes of government history) as a character identified only as “the near-sighted journalist,” and, finally, the nature of the disclosure that ends the novel—that the victory of a modern nation preaching order and progress over older, local mythopoeia is more illusion than history.

I spoke of soaring and falling. This overloaded novel simply beggared everything I had read. The genteel Forster-inflected verities by which I measured fiction were incapable of holding this wild, twisting thing. The drab commonplaces of literary history that I had accumulated laboriously over some years departed from me with the valedictory shriek normally heard from exorcised spirits in horror fiction. What I now felt was the sense of terrifying freedom I had once glimpsed in picking my way through a sentence for the first time as a child. It was Vargas Llosa who won me over to another life with fiction—not a somnolent trance but an urgent wakefulness—and that is no small debt.

It was very late in life that I achieved a legitimate relationship with the author, which meant being able to buy one of his books off the shelf. I had chanced upon his Brazil novel quite by accident—he had been in the news for standing for president in Peru and I found the volume while searching for something else in a shop famous for textbooks. Serendipity continued to be the mode by which I discovered him. I never ever found a copy of any of his novels when I actively went looking for them. I prodded the bulge in an atlas at a pavement bookshop in Bangalore’s Upparpet one day, and yelped when it turned out to be a beheaded copy of InPraise of the Stepmother. I investigated all manner of shapes and religiously overturned every book at similar places for many years but that moment never came again. Select, Bangalore’s best second-hand bookshop through the 1980s and 90s, yielded both Conversation in the Cathedral and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter without warning on a day when I had gone there merely in moral support of a classmate who wanted to complete her Charles Dickens collection. This was a discovery that raped my wallet in equal instalments over three months. To this day I experience a sharp stab of pain as I recall the beautiful dust-jacket featuring aunt, nephew and radio-receiver that I abandoned in a corner of the bookshop to ensure that the good Mr Murthy would fix a lower price. A circulating library famous for its Keralite owner’s many moral admonitions to immoral members suddenly acquired three titles—The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, TheTime of the Hero, and Who Killed Palomino Molero? The urge to own them in some form was so strong that I had the books photocopied at the only 30-paise Xerox shop in the city and consoled myself with amateur anthropology as I waited impatiently among the kerosene fumes. Did the books turning up like that have anything to do with the peculiarly Malayali appetite for the foreign and the avant-garde?

I have, in idle moments, speculated about what the comrades in Kerala (or Bengal) would do if they encountered TheReal Life of Alejandro Mayta. The novel zigzags between a time of innocence immediately before Fidel Castro’s successful assault on Havana and a fictional present where Peru is menaced by communist insurgents and a Cuban-Bolivian invasion. Its narrator is a proxy for Vargas Llosa, a celebrated author who interviews scores of people who knew the hero Mayta for a book about his abortive attempt to start a Marxist revolution out of the town of Jauja in Peru. The unfortunately-named Alejandro Mayta (unfortunate because his doubly-ironic moniker contains the names of Alexander the Great and the Inca conqueror Mayta Capa) is a member of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party (Trotskyite). This novel may well be the author’s most self-reflexive work, featuring sustained reflection on writing history versus writing fiction, and an unreliable narrator to boot. It is also a mordantly witty account of the rituals and feuds of middle-class Marxism in Peru. When Salman Rushdie slammed this novel for being an “overtly right-wing tract,” when he alleged that it was “unhistorical” because it “portrays the revolutionary impulse as being invariably divorced from the real lives of the people,” he chose to offer us three lessons. That the revolution is always above laughter; that any laughter directed thereat must be right-wing; that the often-noted lack of connection between revolution and real life is not worth writing about until that statistically perfect moment when the disconnect is obviously true.

The companion to this examination of Marxism is a later novel titled Death in the Andes where Corporal Lituma, the policeman who first appeared in Who Killed Palomino Molero?, must now investigate a series of disappearances around the building of a highway into the mountains commissioned by the government. Lituma’s investigations take him as far as the unpleasant realisation that the regime of the rational which employs him is at best an interruption in the lives of the older cultures, even as a far more violent politics, embodied by the Shining Path, begins to menace these flimsy structures of governance and perhaps even those older cultures. We may, from the order in which the books were written, infer yet again the author’s

disaffection with Marxism, for this seems to place farce before tragedy.

Conventional wisdom divides Vargas Llosa’s fiction into political novels and comic novels—but such wisdom is based on a combination of laziness and blindness. His political novels are so carefully wrought that the serious and the comic occur in some balance with each other. The Feast of the Goat, his celebrated novel about the Trujillo era, does not suffer from a diminution in its import as a dictator-novel because the tyrant and his opponents are equally attended by some strain of the ridiculous. Novels such as Aunt Julia and The Scriptwriter and the Don Rigoberto books may traverse either the comic or the erotic and still say profound things about writing and about art. Some of his novels are overtly playful, the others work by complex acts of play, by burdening the realist mode and making it do more than is expected. The reader will find in each of his novels a gift for narratives of labyrinthine complexity combined, unexpectedly, with traditional values like telling a story well rather than the normal joylessness that goes hand in hand with formal experiment.

LIKE OTHER NOVELISTS of the Latin American Boom Generation of the 1960s and 70s, Vargas Llosa acknowledges William Faulkner as a major influence, as a writer he read “with pen and paper in hand” so as to trace the way he organises time, to uncover the manner in which he describes a world not unlike Latin America.

The ‘total novel’ that Vargas Llosa aims to write appears to owe as much to Gustave Flaubert as it does to William Faulkner. The clearest explication he has ever offered for this idea occurs in a compliment he pays to the French author in The Perpetual Orgy, his tribute to Madame Bovary:

The idea of representing in a novel the totality of what is human—or if one prefers, the totality of stupidity, since for Flaubert the two terms were very nearly synonymous—was a utopia akin to that of capturing in an essay the totality of a life…the merit lies in the defeat itself, that defeat represents a sort of victory…we recognize the work to be a failure only after we recognize the grandeur that explains that failure and renders it inevitable. For to have persevered in such an adventure—to have fallen into Lucifer’s crime—is to have set the novel…loftier heights to attain.

Talking about Flaubert also offers Vargas Llosa the opportunity to lay down what he sees as the writer’s challenge, the responsibility of not letting literature diminish into a harmless diversion either through the abject conformity that may equally produce bestsellers as it might works of socialist realism, or through a ‘literature of the catacombs’ that aims to exclude. In Flaubert he sees a polemical engagement with the world that allowed the conversation between writer and reader to develop into “a tense, daring, intimate, and above all, seditious enterprise.” The enterprise is seditious because of the challenges it allows to traditional order, because it works by reminding us, “without intending to in the main, that the world is badly made, that those who argue the contrary—for example the powers that be—are lying, and that the world could be better, closer to the worlds that our imagination and our language are able to create.”

This notion of the committed writer draws equally from his early fondness for Jean Paul Sartre. While the enthusiasm he felt for Sartre’s fiction disappeared quickly, he has written admiringly of the philosopher’s moral stature, derived from “the lucidity, the forthright sincerity, and the youthful courage with which he has confronted not only fascism, conservatism, and bourgeois snares and pitfalls but also the authoritarianism and dogmatism of the left.”

This ethic of commitment has shaped both his fiction and his life as a public intellectual and critic. The idea of the committed public intellectual is one that several other writers of the Boom Generation share with Vargas Llosa, and was probably shaped by the Cuban Revolution, a surprise development that sparked much optimism about change across Latin America and resulted in greater public attentiveness towards individuals who could interpret dramatic events such as these. When the tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in August 1968, it caused a flurry of justifications from the splinter communist parties of Latin America and an official statement of support from Cuba’s Maximo Lider. In an essay titled Socialism and the Tanks, Vargas Llosa called the Soviet invasion a violation of sovereignty and “an irreparable setback for socialism.” The hostile responses that greeted his condemnation of Castro in the same essay (“To many sincere friends of the Cuban Revolution, the words of Fidel have seemed to us as incomprehensible and as unjust as the noise of the tanks entering Prague”), coupled with the regime’s gradual movement towards bureaucratic tyranny, seem to have fuelled a disillusionment with leftist politics, the recognition that dictatorships were dictatorships irrespective of their politics.

Since then, Vargas Llosa has practiced a journalism of courage, using every opportunity to attack both the Castro and the Pinochet options as disasters, and urging instead a policy of steady change through the strengthening of democratic institutions and free markets. It was on such a platform that he based his novelistic 1990 campaign for the Peruvian presidency, promising a period of ‘necessary shock’ by way of economic reforms rather than the easy populism that such moments demand. His honesty about his intentions allowed his opponent Alberto Fujimori to ride to power on a wave of paranoia. Ironically, Fujimori eventually suspended democracy to force through the same reforms Vargas Llosa had promised.

This excerpt from his autobiography, A Fish in the Water, captures the ambiguities of that moment tellingly:

My grimmest memory of those days is that of my arrival, one torrid morning, in a little settlement between Ignacio Escudera and Cruceta, in the valley of Chira. 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 medical post, and the little school had not 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’ had proved to be as apocalyptic as propaganda made it out to be? Of what free education could those poor creatures have been deprived, when their only school had already long since been closed by national poverty? With their tremendous defenselessness, they were the best possible living proof that Peru could not continue to exist any longer in the populist delirium, in the demagogic lie of the redistribution of a wealth decreasing by the day.

I have never been able to decipher this moment for it has about it both the quality of insight and, ironically, the ‘reciprocal blindness’ that he set out to capture in The War of the End of the World.

That campaign—as well as his public admiration for figures like Margaret Thatcher and Friedrich Hayek—has inevitably led to the N-word being lobbed indiscriminately at the man. While I must confess that I cannot understand his admiration for someone so frighteningly vapid as Mrs Thatcher, I suspect that the abuse masks an inability to engage with the contrarian boldness that he brings to his writing.

Anyone who carefully reads Llosa in this avatar will acknowledge the very special illumination he provides in being able to go beyond what Steven Pinker calls “the mentality of taboo.” By the givens of our world, the Incas were tragic victims of Spanish colonialism, globalisation is a terrible despoiler of diversity, and Latin America is perennially the victim of US imperialism. In separate essays, Llosa subjects each of these carelessly-held notions to scrutiny and offers the reader alternative perspectives in each case—the Incas were as much victims of a paranoia about power-sharing and individual freedom as they were of Spanish greed; that globalisation might be our last opportunity for freedom from the enforced tribalism that nations demand; that while the US may well be imperialist, Latin America’s intellectuals have caused, by their inability to engage creatively with their unignorable neighbour, the proliferation of stereotypes about the region. Vargas Llosa, like Sartre, derives some part of his stature from this ability to speak from conscience without being cowed down by the easy jeers of the morally lazy. The Nobel committee deserves two cheers for not letting their normal sympathies interfere with making the right decision this year. I must withhold the third because it needn’t have taken them so many years to reach this decision.

In one of his essays, Vargas Llosa talks of how the special moment of attentiveness the Boom writers enjoyed has faded, largely due to the transformation of everyday life by mass media. Our media-inflected lives turn “actual history into fiction…demobilizing the citizen…encouraging the conviction that it is beyond anyone’s reach to intervene in a history whose screenplay is already written. Along this path we may slide into a world where there are no citizens only spectators.” The writing dinosaur must nevertheless resist such inertia. He cites what he calls the “moving example of Walter Benjamin poring over Baudelaire” to understand the plight of the individual “while the circle of oppression which cost him his life closed in on him.” And that of Karl Popper, who while in exile in New Zealand chose to learn ancient Greek to read Plato, an effort that resulted in The Open Society and its Enemies. These different figures, the Marxist and the liberal, seem to offer some insight into how such a resistance is to be lived.