Mario Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city. During his childhood in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and Piura, a city in the north of Peru, he believed that his father had died. However, this was a lie told by his mother to conceal their tortuous separation. The truth emerged when, in 1946, his father appeared unexpectedly to take him away from his mother’s parents, moving with him and his mother to Lima. This revelation signified an abrupt change in Vargas Llosa’s life, from the pampered upbringing of a feminine environment to the hostile treatment of an authoritarian father. At his side, he was to discover fear, injustice and violence for the first time.
During these years in which he left his childhood behind, devouring the works of Dumas and Victor Hugo, the political climate in Peru was a reflection of Vargas Llosa’s home life. The dictator Manuel Odría rose to power in 1948 and over the next eight years, while Vargas Llosa studied law and literature at the University of San Marcos, he imposed rigid controls on social life which stifled individuality, engendering scepticism, defeatism and frustration among Peruvians. This period later inspired his novel Conversation in the Cathedral, published in 1969.
The dominant presence of authoritarianism in both public and private spheres led Vargas Llosa to strongly condemn systems which, in one way or another, sought to inhibit individual initiative and restrict personal freedom. His literary works, starting with The Time of the Hero (1963) – one of the key novels which pioneered the ‘Boom’ period in Latin American literature – reflect his loathing of arbitrary manifestations of power and the absence of law which enables the strongest to impose their will. The inspiration for this novel was the time he spent between 1950 and 1951 in the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, where he was sent by his father to stifle his literary ambitions through military discipline. However, Vargas Llosa managed to rebel against his paternal yoke, not only pursuing a writing career, but also marrying his maternal uncle’s sister-in-law Julia Urquidi, who was eleven years older than him and divorced. He drew on these experiences to write his novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, published in 1977.
Another fundamental experience in his life was a journey he made in the Amazon jungle in 1958, which inspired novels such as The Green House (1966), Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973), The Storyteller (1987) and The Dream of the Celt (2010). As opposed to other city dwellers who first came into contact with the remote jungle landscapes of Peru, which are still inhabited by primitive indigenous tribes, Vargas Llosa found neither exoticism nor harmony between humanity and nature but rather despotism, violence and cruelty. The absence of law and institutions exposed the jungle natives to the worst humiliations and acts of injustice by colonists, missionaries and adventurers, who had come to impose their will through the use of terror and force. What he heard, saw and felt in the jungle convinced Vargas Llosa that the archaic Peru which survived in the depths of the Amazon and the peaks of the Andes should be integrated into a modern Peru, the only Peru which, due to its legal framework, could stop the pillaging and wrongful acts committed against minorities and the most vulnerable sectors of Peruvian society.
Until the early seventies, Vargas Llosa perceived in socialism and the Cuban revolution a series of ideas which embodied modernity and a solution to the moral vices and economic underdevelopment of Latin America. However, when the revolution showed signs of having become an oppressive dictatorship where writers felt their freedom to create was restricted, Vargas Llosa distanced himself from Fidel Castro and socialism and began to advocate reformism, liberal pluralism, democracy and the free market. His changing political inclination brought with it a new way of understanding Latin American problems. The revolution, the dictatorship, nationalism, racism and religious mysticism, all of which are present throughout the course of the republican history of Latin America, now proved to be symptoms of a deeper problem related to intolerance and dogmatism. A host of leaders, rebels and saviours had instigated fanatical attempts to impose a closed view of the world with no concern for the consequences. This human tendency, which is ever present in Latin America and the root cause behind innumerable tragedies, provided the plot for his novel The War of the End of the World in 1981.
In 1987 the attempt by the then president of Peru, Alan García, to nationalise the banking industry was vehemently rejected by Vargas Llosa, who saw this project as a strategy to accumulate power and place the media and businesses in government hands. With the support of large sectors of the population, Vargas Llosa organised protest marches which catapulted him into the political arena. His Movimiento Libertad, which opposed Alan García, evolved into the Frente Democrático, three years later. As the leader of this party he ran in the presidential elections in 1990. However, he lost in the second round to the engineer Alberto Fujimori, who then shut down congress and established a despotic and corrupt dictatorship for which he is currently serving a sentence. Memories of these years can be found in his book of memoirs A Fish in the Water (1993).
Since 1990 Vargas Llosa has published a fortnightly column in the Spanish daily newspaper El País, which is reprinted in different media sources all over the world. In these, he states his opinion regarding the most important current political, social and cultural events. He also teaches literature courses at American universities and writes literary essays. Although Vargas Llosa began writing plays in the 1980s, it was not until 2005 that he decided to take to the stage himself to portray his characters. Aitana Sánchez Gijón, the actress who accompanies him in this new adventure, has described him as a promising young actor.
Translated by Colin Howe
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.