The wave of creativity that has swept through Latin American writing since the 1960s has turned the region into an engine for change on a global scale and Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the major figures in this Latin American renaissance. He was born in Peru in 1936 and his life, like his writing, straddles the old worlds of North America and Europe and the new worlds of the south.
As a writer, Vargas Llosa is clearly indebted to Latin American culture, but also to old world writers like William Faulkner and Gustave Flaubert. His output has been ceaseless and prolific and includes essays, criticism and memoirs, as well as journalism and plays. But he is most famous for his novels, starting with The Time of the Hero (1963), which had an immediate impact. In this novel, he draws on his own experience of attending a military academy in Lima and attacks both Peruvian military traditions and the rigidity of Peruvian society. In response, the army organised a book burning at his old school, and Vargas Llosa has remained a controversial figure who has succeeded in antagonising both the left and the right. He has always been a politically committed writer. In his early career, Vargas Llosa was a Marxist, but he has since moved to the centre right. What gives consistency to his position is a deep hostility to authoritarianism, a commitment to freedom and to individuality that makes him sceptical of collective identities.
For Vargas Llosa, literature gives readers a kind of third eye and enables them to see what is lacking in the real world. It sews the seed of a revolutionary attitude and great novels give us an appetite for the impossible. Vargas Llosa’s writing has always been experimental, as he explores different ways of telling a story, of depicting the passage of time, and of combining fact and fiction. His novels are very varied, but whatever form they take, they are interested in the interrelationship between politics and the individual and explore the private histories of nations.
The early novels are characterised by seriousness and darkness. The Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), for example, uses the form of a murder mystery to criticise authoritarianism and rightwing dictatorship. This phase was followed in the 1970s by more playful, comic novels, with strong elements of satire and parody. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977), for example, follows the career and romantic life of a young writer which it intersperses with scenes from a soap opera. Then Vargas Llosa moved into historical novels, with books such as The War of the End of the World (1981), an exposé of fanaticism, self-delusion and violence, based on the real confrontation between the young Brazilian state and a lunatic sect.
Vargas Llosa’s political engagement actually saw him run, unsuccessfully, for President of Peru in 1990. While he is no longer interested in professional politics, he is still committed to participating in politics through his writing. And he will continue to write. Writing is his vocation. He is driven by the need to speak and to try whatever means might make that speaking more powerful.
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