Mario Vargas Llosa and Concepts

Image from the cover of La llamada de la tribu by Mario Vargas Llosa.

Since the very beginning of his extraordinary career as a writer, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (Arequipa, 1936) has tirelessly sought to reflect in depth on the nature of the genre that he has cultivated with such success. For him, literature (and literary criticism) are crystalized in fiction, and all the consequences that define it emerge from that space. In the short stories of Los jefes [The chiefs], his first book, published in 1959, we can perceive, under the early influence of Hemingway and Faulkner, his intention: to go against the literature that was then cultivated in his country, which, as he said in the prologue to the reedition of Los jefes and Los cachorros [The puppies], was “a literature of peasant women ravished by ignominious landowners, written with many proparoxytones, which the critics called ‘telluric’” and which he “hated for being deceitful, since its authors seemed to believe that denouncing injustice exempted them from any artistic and even grammatical concern.” Vargas Llosa’s later trajectory not only confirmed this conviction but also allowed us to see that, like the great novelists he admires, his work tells its stories while thinking carefully about the mechanisms that make this possible. No one can deny his dazzling technique in novels that are already true contemporary classics, like The Time of the Hero (1963), The Green House (1966), Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973), and The War of the End of the World (1981). There, in narrations that range from a sordid stay in a men’s military school to an anti-national rebellion in the Brazilian badlands, passing through deep meditation on the corruption of a dictatorship and the carnivalesque humor that surrounds the actions of a military outpost in the jungle, Vargas Llosa has shown why he must be considered not only one of the greatest contemporary novelists but also, above all, a master of his technique; under the appearance of a realism that he doubtless learned from Flaubert, among others, the Peruvian writer offers junctions of the theory and praxis of the novel, transporting it to stylistic dimensions that not been reached until his moment and that will undoubtedly be difficult to surpass. His receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010 represented universal recognition of his artistic excellence.

But Vargas Llosa has not only put his critical gifts into practice in fiction itself. Besides his novels, his work includes a generous repertoire of chronicles, essays, memoirs, monographic volumes on his favorite authors, stage plays, speeches, book reviews, interviews and conversations, and open letters, as well as the journalistic articles (his first writing-related work was journalism) that he publishes every month in many news outlets all over the world, in translation to more than a dozen languages. If we think of the development of modern Spanish American literature, starting with Modernismo, Vargas Llosa is a perfect heir to those “polygraphs” for whom quantity did not compromise quality, very much in the style of José Martí and Rubén Darío, masters he admires to the point of dedicating to the latter his bachelor’s thesis at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. In these pages, I will pay special attention to this aspect of his literary work, emphasizing above all the use of certain concepts he employs to develop his arguments; I will finish by talking about his most recent book of essays, in my opinion the most supposedly conceptual of all, which holds in its center what I consider a very controversial idea.

From the well known García Márquez: historia de un deicidio [García Márquez: story of a deicide] (1971) to Conversación en Princeton [Conversation in Princeton] (2017), Vargas Llosa has engaged in what we could call criticism that goes from the (auto)biographical to the intrinsic of the work he analyzes, including his own. The level of detail in which he enters in his book on García Márquez, based on his readings of his celebrated Colombian contemporary from his first books to One Hundred Years of Solitude, is dazzling to say the least. Vargas Llosa almost literally dismantles, in a tome of more than six hundred pages, the work of García Márquez, analyzing it from all possible points of view, starting with the biographical and the author’s family origins; these pages read, like many critical works by Vargas Llosa, like a true narration in which the real character, so to speak, acquires dimensions close to those of fiction owing to the critic’s capacity to create the mask about which he writes, and to create himself as the ideal reader of the work in question. This fact, this truly palpable sensation, does nothing if not speak well of the narrative skill of Vargas Llosa, who succeeds in creating worlds even in supposedly academic exposition. The essay pauses so much over biography that Vargas Llosa even makes time to tell how he met García Márquez in the airport of Caracas in 1967. I’ve already mentioned the completely detailed reading the Peruvian writer makes of his colleague’s works; this is a reading “from novelist to novelist,” that, as is common, possesses a value that is testimonial above all. I don’t mean to suggest that what Vargas Llosa says about García Márquez is useless; on the contrary, it is useful in many ways, but I would dare to say that it is not so from a strictly critical point of view. Reading Historia de un deicidio, we cannot help but admire that reader, committed down to the final consequences to everything on which he comments, willing to unravel all the secrets and internal mechanisms of the work he examines. But is it possible to call that criticism? The response is affirmative if we think of criticism as a meticulous, detailed reading; it is negative if we consider, as I consider, that criticism is not only an exercise of reading about particular aspects of a work that are susceptible to being explained biographically or from the testimonial point of view of a colleague in the world of letters. What these readings reveal is the effort, sometimes colossal, of a “total reader,” very much in the spirit of the so-called “boom” of Latin American letters.

The same thing happens in almost all of Vargas Llosa’s critical work. If we closely examine, for example, The Perpetual Orgy, his essay on Flaubert and Madame Bovary (the novel and the character), we find ourselves before this same spirit: a total commitment to the book and its author, an absolute and absolutist fanaticism rich in detailed reflections on the characters in question, full of references to the author’s biography, his correspondence, his work habits, his almost self-destructive discipline. Without a doubt, Vargas Llosa read Madame Bovary more than once and identified with its author and with the characters he created; but the question remains: is this a book about Flaubert or about Vargas Llosa? I must confess that every time I read this wonderful essay I end up getting to know the Peruvian author better than the French one. You might say that there’s nothing wrong with that, that when a writer or critic (even the most “objective”) writes about someone else he is always writing about himself. This is very true. Nonetheless, I still think that this is not a critical effort in the strictest sense of the term. Trying to define and elucidate what criticism is has always been a prickly task that often leads us to the fascinating but not always friendly labyrinths of hermeneutics, and it is not my intention to delve into that area now. But, since we need a definition, even if minimal, I will say that when I speak of criticism in a “strict” sense of the term, I am referring, as I mentioned earlier, to a reading that does not pause over each peculiarity of a work that it analyzes and dare to elaborate concepts that explain its working in relationship to other works, whether of the analyzed author or of another who might be related. Some would call this “theory,” others “philosophy,” and a few might even speak of “poetics.” However we define it, what Vargas Llosa does is no more than comment on works based on opinions derived from his vast experience in the vocation of writing; as he does so, he goes without elaborating concepts, or he elaborates a few that are very vague and imprecise. A well known example is the one he formulated in Historia de un deicidio: “Writing novels is an act of rebellion against reality, against God, against God’s creation that is reality [...] the only way to discover the origin of this vocation is a rigorous confrontation between life and work: the revelation is in the points at which the two become confused. The question of why a novelist writes is viscerally mixed with the question of what he writes about: the ‘demons’ of his life are the ‘subjects’ of his work.”

The substitution of reality by means of fiction, “demons” against “subjects,” “life” versus “work.” These are the concepts—and their variations—that Vargas Llosa has employed again and again throughout his career as an essayist. Whether he is writing about Victor Hugo or Juan Carlos Onetti; about José María Arguedas or “the civilization of the spectacle”; about fiction as “the truth of lies” or his own novels, the Peruvian writer has pointed out again and again that art is the privileged space of utopia, of dreams, of the most shining aspirations and the darkest desires of man, leaving “real reality” to other spheres such as, for example, politics. I must confess that this sort of conceptual ingenuity has always surprised me, above all coming from a novelist who has written one of the most self-conscious bodies of literary work of recent decades. Every time I have read his essays or listened to his conferences, many of which are available in YouTube, I have wondered about the same thing. This is confirmed in the recent book Conversación en Princeton, in which Vargas Llosa, accompanied in conversation by Rubén Gallo, indicates again and again that “literature replaces truth,” and that in those extraordinary examples called War and Peace or Les Misérables it is imposed over truth in its entirety. This is where, in my opinion, the great conceptual problem of Vargas Llosa begins. This writer has never clarified what he understands as “truth” when he uses the term, and on occasion he gives the impression that “truth” is a term interchangeable with “reality.” But, in the end, and after so many years, we have an answer; we have La llamada de la tribu [The call of the tribe] (2018), his most recent book. Here, truth is directly related to a crucial sphere for any writer: the relationship of language with the world, and, more specifically, the status of language before this world.

La llamada de la tribu is, in the author’s words, an “autobiographical book” (again, autobiography) that “Describes my own intellectual and political history.” Its model is, as he says in the prologue, the book To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson. Vargas Llosa says he would not have written his book if he hadn’t read, a couple of decades before, that of the American essayist. Wilson describes the history of the concept of revolution, from its origins in Michelet’s reading of Vico to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. This is a true exercise in “intellectual history” that follows the tracks of an idea and cautiously analyzes its impact on the world. Vargas Llosa doesn’t do himself any favors by citing this book as a model for his own. La llamada de la tribu doesn’t possess anything close to the solvency exhibited by the American critic; the Peruvian author limits himself to putting together seven essays on seven liberal thinkers in chronological order, from Adam Smith to Jean-François Revel, passing by Ortega y Gasset, Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, and Isaiah Berlin. There is nothing organic in this volume, nothing that could be compared to the titanic intellectual effort of Edmund Wilson, just a set of essays in which, as always in Vargas Llosa, (auto)biography is intermingled with the ideas of the characters in question. I do not deny that many ideas are expressed with clarity by the novelist, but if To the Finland Station is a true work of intellectual research, La llamada de la tribu is an exercise in good journalism that sometimes reaches the heights of true essayism.

The admiration Vargas Llosa professes for Karl Popper—admiration he has also mentioned in numerous interviews and articles—is evident. The essay he dedicates to Popper is the longest in the set, and in it he comments in detail on The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), the Austrian thinker’s most important book. Due to my limited space here, I will focus exclusively on this essay, not only because it is the most important one in La llamada de la tribu but also because it contains an idea that I believe has crucial consequences in the consideration of Vargas Llosa’s thoughts on his vocation. As I presaged a few lines ago, this idea has to do with language and its intimate relationship with the concept of “truth.” In note number fifty of chapter eleven of The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper makes a statement that places him directly within the Platonic philosophical tradition that he himself denounces: “Clear speaking is speaking in such a way that words do not matter.” “Operation definitions”—something like key-concepts that open numerous doors, according to Popper—will help us to make a move toward fields of thought in which nothing or very little depends on words. When Vargas Llosa cites these words (making the reference in a very inexact and confusing way, I must say), he seems to not be outraged in the least. But there is good cause for outrage, and how. Popper, as a good philosopher, suffers from deafness in his disregard for the very material—the words—that allow him to think. Ironically, this puts him at the same level of the philosophical tradition (Plato, Hegel, and Marx) that he seeks to discredit politically, marking it as the origin of all modern totalitarianisms. Because Western philosophy, from its Greek origins until today, has wanted again and again to forget language and stop listening to it; it has wanted to describe the world precisely without paying attention to that which makes it possible to describe it. The old Kantian fable of the dove that wants to fly without air in order to be freer, not knowing that the air is what allows it to fly, is manifested in Popper’s idea. Vargas Llosa seems to accept it, although only with certain qualms that, nonetheless, do not separate him entirely from Popper; words do matter to the novelist, and he recognizes that Popper’s “reticence” to consider language as an autonomous reality has had “negative consequences in his work,” sometimes rendering it imprecise and confusing. But Vargas Llosa stops there and does not consider language as something entirely important either. For him, ideas are what count, and words are more or less innocent objects that “at most, bore, hypnotize, or outrage.” How is is possible that a writer should think this is possible? How could someone who has created entire universes with words suggest that they are disposable? The answer to these questions can be found in the surprising declaration that Vargas Llosa makes to Rubén Gallo in Conversación en Princeton: “The Green House [...] was a novel deeply marked by Faulkner, in which language is interposed between the reader and the story [... ] I didn’t want the same thing to happen in Conversation in the Cathedral, and perhaps that is why the language attempts to be transparent, purely functional, so much so that the story seems to live by its own right, without passing through language. I sought a totally invisible language.” Invisible language as an ideal of writing: philosophical pathos in the worst sense of the word.

On the concept of truth, whose Popperian version he accepts without qualms, Vargas Llosa is no less controversial. For Popper, truth “is discovered” in a process that has no end. Loyal to his origins as a philosopher of science, he indicated that truth is already out there, waiting to be discovered, and that it must be put to the test from all possible points of view; if it resists, as Vargas Llosa says, this “critical assault,” it will cause “the advancement of knowledge of nature and society.” Truth in Popper, adds Vargas Llosa, “has one foot in objective reality, which Popper recognizes as having an existence independent of the human mind, and that foot is, according to the definition of the Polish physicist Alfred Tarski that he makes his own, the concurrence of theory and facts” (it is worth clarifying that Tarski was not a physicist, but a logician and mathematician). And so, truth exists objectively and does not depend on its elaboration in language because, as we know, the status of this elaboration is more or less minor and of relative importance. Because only fiction and art are allowed to engage in the innocent task of creating truths that are lies, because literature takes place in a void in which everything is acceptable, because words do nothing more than hypnotize or outrage with no consequence. For Vargas Llosa, words are at the service of reality and truth, and they are only autonomous, while unimportant, when it comes to elaborating fictions. For Vargas Llosa, the novel and art in general are of shockingly little consequence; they are nothing more than a game.

Under the seal of the venerable genre of the essay, Vargas Llosa has sought to write a study like that of his model, Edmund Wilson. But its faults are plain to see. Also evident is the profound disappointment brought about by his ideas.

Marcelo Pellegrini
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Translated by Arthur Dixon


LALT No. 7
Number 7

The seventh issue of Latin American Literature Today highlights indigenous voices with dossiers dedicated to three Wayuu writers from Colombia and Zapotec poetry and prose. We also pay homage to renowned Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo with a special dossier, as well as returning to the strange worlds of Latin American science fiction and opening a new space for Brazilian literature in Portuguese and English.

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