Issue 116, Fall 1990
In this interview Mario Vargas Llosa speaks of the inviolable mornings he spends in his office writing, seven days a week. In the fall of 1988, however, he decided to interrupt this otherwise strictly kept schedule to run as the Libertad party candidate for the presidency of Peru. Vargas Llosa has long been outspoken on the subject of Peruvian politics, and has made Peruvian political issues the subject of several of his novels. Yet until the most recent elections he had always resisted suggestions that he run for political office. During the campaign he mentioned his difficulty with the empty emotionalism and rhetoric that are the language of electoral politics. Following the multiparty election, he lost a runoff to Alberto Fujimori on June 10, 1990.
Mario Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 in Arequipa, a small town in southern Peru. While he was still an infant Vargas Llosa’s parents divorced and he moved to Cochabamba, Bolivia with his mother’s grandparents. In 1945 he returned to Peru, where he attended Leoncio Prado Military Academy and studied law at the University of Lima. At nineteen he married his aunt by marriage, Julia Urquid Illanes, who was fourteen years his senior. This first marriage later served as subject matter for his novel aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1982). After finishing his studies in Lima, Vargas Llosa went into a seventeen-year self-imposed exile from Peru, during which he worked as a journalist and lecturer. It was during this period of exile that he began writing novels. The Time of the Hero, Vargas Llosa’s fist novel, was published in Spain in 1963 and is based on his experiences in the military academy. His other novels include The Green House (1963), Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), and The War of the End of the World (1981).
Vargas Llosa is also a playwright, an essayist, and has produced a weekly interview program on Peruvian television. He has been the recipient of numerous international literary awards and was the president of PEN from 1976 to 1979. He has three children and lives with his second wife, Patricia, in Lima, in an apartment overlooking the Pacific.
You are a well-known writer and your readers are familiar with what you’ve written. Will you tell us what you read?
MARIO VARGAS LLOSA
In the last few years, something curious has happened. I’ve noticed that I’m reading less and less by my contemporaries and more and more by writers of the past. I read much more from the nineteenth century than from the twentieth. These days, I lean perhaps less toward literary works than toward essays and history. I haven’t given much thought to why I read what I read . . . Sometimes it’s professional reasons. My literary projects are related to the nineteenth century: an essay about Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, or a novel inspired by the life of Flora Tristan, a Franco-Peruvian social reformer and “feminist” avant la lettre. But then I also think it’s because at fifteen or eighteen, you feel as if you have all the time in the world ahead of you. When you turn fifty, you become aware that your days are numbered and that you have to be selective. That’s probably why I don’t read my contemporaries as much.
But among your contemporaries that you do read, whom do you particularly admire?
When I was young, I was a passionate reader of Sartre. I’ve read the American novelists, in particular the lost generation—Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos—especially Faulkner. Of the authors I read when I was young, he is one of the few who still means a lot to me. I have never been disappointed when I reread him, the way I have been occasionally with, say, Hemingway. I wouldn’t reread Sartre today. Compared to everything I’ve read since, his fiction seems dated and has lost much of its value. As for his essays, I find most of them to be less important, with one exception perhaps—“Saint Genet: Comedian or Martyr,” which I still like. They are full of contradictions, ambiguities, inaccuracies, and ramblings, something that never happened with Faulkner. Faulkner was the first novelist I read with pen and paper in hand, because his technique stunned me. He was the first novelist whose work I consciously tried to reconstruct by attempting to trace, for example, the organization of time, the intersection of time and place, the breaks in the narrative, and that ability he has of telling a story from different points of view in order to create a certain ambiguity, to give it added depth. As a Latin American, I think it was very useful for me to read his books when I did because they are a precious source of descriptive techniques that are applicable to a world which, in a sense, is not so unlike the one Faulkner described. Later, of course, I read the nineteenth-century novelists with a consuming passion: Flaubert, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Hawthorne, Dickens, Melville. I’m still an avid reader of nineteenth-century writers.
As for Latin American literature, strangely enough, it wasn’t until I lived in Europe that I really discovered it and began to read it with great enthusiasm. I had to teach it at the university in London, which was a very enriching experience because it forced me to think about Latin American literature as a whole. From then on I read Borges, whom I was somewhat familiar with, Carpentíer, Cortázar, Guimaraes Rosa, Lezama Lima—that whole generation except for García Márquez. I discovered him later and even wrote a book about him: García Márquez: Historia de un decidio. I also began reading nineteenth-century Latin American literature because I had to teach it. I realized then that we have extremely interesting writers—the novelists perhaps less so than the essayists or poets. Sarmiento, for example, who never wrote a novel, is in my opinion one of the greatest storytellers Latin America has produced; his Facundo is a masterwork. But if I were forced to choose one name, I would have to say Borges, because the world he creates seems to me to be absolutely original. Aside from his enormous originality, he is also endowed with a tremendous imagination and culture that are expressly his own. And then of course there is the language of Borges, which in a sense broke with our tradition and opened a new one. Spanish is a language that tends toward exuberance, proliferation, profusion. Our great writers have all been prolix, from Cervantes to Ortega y Gasset, Valle-Inclán, or Alfonso Reyes. Borges is the opposite—all concision, economy, and precision. He is the only writer in the Spanish language who has almost as many ideas as he has words. He’s one of the great writers of our time.
What was your relationship to Borges?
I saw him for the first time in Paris, where I lived in the early sixties. He was there giving seminars on the literature of the fantastic and gauchesca literature. Later I interviewed him for the Office de Radio Television Française where I was working at the time. I still remember it with emotion. After that, we saw each other several times in different parts of the world, even in Lima, where I gave a dinner for him. At the end he asked me to take him to the toilet. When he was peeing he suddenly said, The Catholics, do you think they are serious? Probably not.
The last time I saw him was at his house in Buenos Aires; I interviewed him for a television show I had in Peru and I got the impression he resented some of the questions I asked him. Strangely, he got mad because, after the interview—during which, of course, I was extremely attentive, not only because of the admiration I felt for him but also because of the great affection I had for the charming and fragile man that he was—I said I was surprised by the modesty of his house, which had peeling walls and leaks in the roof. This apparently deeply offended him. I saw him once more after that and he was extremely distant. Octavio Paz told me that he really resented that particular remark about his house. The only thing that might have hurt him is what I have just related, because otherwise I have never done anything but praise him. I don’t think he read my books. According to him, he never read a single living writer after he turned forty, just read and reread the same books . . . But he’s a writer I very much admire. He’s not the only one, of course. Pablo Neruda is an extraordinary poet. And Octavio Paz—not only a great poet, but a great essayist, a man who is articulate about politics, art, and literature. His curiosity is universal. I still read him with great pleasure. Also, his political ideas are quite similar to mine.
You mention Neruda among the writers you admire. You were his friend. What was he like?
Neruda adored life. He was wild about everything—painting, art in general, books, rare editions, food, drink. Eating and drinking were almost a mystical experience for him. A wonderfully likable man, full of vitality—if you forget his poems in praise of Stalin, of course. He lived in a near-feudal world, where everything led to his rejoicing, his sweet-toothed exuberance for life. I had the good fortune to spend a weekend on Isla Negra. It was wonderful! A kind of social machinery worked around him: hordes of people who cooked and worked—and always quantities of guests. It was a very funny society, extraordinarily alive, without the slightest trace of intellectualism. Neruda was exactly the opposite of Borges, the man who appeared never to drink, smoke, or eat, who one would have said had never made love, for whom all these things seemed completely secondary, and if he had done them it was out of politeness and nothing more. That’s because ideas, reading, reflection, and creation were his life, the purely cerebral life. Neruda comes out of the Jorge Amado and Rafael Alberti tradition that says literature is generated by a sensual experience of life.
I remember the day we celebrated Neruda’s birthday in London. He wanted to have the party on a boat on the Thames. Fortunately, one of his admirers, the English poet Alastair Reid, happened to live on a boat on the Thames, so we were able to organize a party for him. The moment came and he announced that he was going to make a cocktail. It was the most expensive drink in the world with I don’t know how many bottles of Dom Pérignon, fruit juices, and God knows what else. The result, of course, was wonderful, but one glass of it was enough to make you drunk. So there we were, drunk every one of us, without exception. Even so, I still remember what he told me then; something that has proven to be a great truth over the years. An article at the time—I can’t remember what it was about—had upset and irritated me because it insulted me and told lies about me. I showed it to Neruda. In the middle of the party, he prophesied: You are becoming famous. I want you to know what awaits you: the more famous you are, the more you will be attacked like this. For every praise, there will be two or three insults. I myself have a chest full of all the insults, villainies, and infamies a man is capable of withstanding. I wasn’t spared a single one: thief, pervert, traitor, thug, cuckold . . . everything! If you become famous, you will have to go through that.
Neruda told the truth; his prognosis came absolutely true. I not only have a chest, but several suitcases full of articles that contain every insult known to man.
What about García Márquez?
We were friends; we were neighbors for two years in Barcelona, we lived on the same street. Later, we drifted apart for personal as well as political reasons. But the original cause for the separation was a personal problem that had no relation whatsoever to his ideological beliefs—which I don’t approve of either. In my opinion, his writing and his politics are not of the same quality. Let’s just say that I greatly admire his work as a writer. As I’ve already said, I wrote a six-hundred-page book on his work. But I don’t have much respect for him personally, nor for his political beliefs, which don’t seem serious to me. I think they’re opportunistic and publicity-oriented.
Is the personal problem you mentioned related to an incident at a movie theater in Mexico where you allegedly fought?
There was an incident in Mexico. But this is a subject that I don’t care to discuss; it has given rise to so much speculation that I don’t want to supply more material for commentators. If I write my memoirs, maybe I’ll tell the true story.
Do you choose the subjects of your books or do they choose you?
As far as I’m concerned, I believe the subject chooses the writer. I’ve always had the feeling that certain stories imposed themselves on me; I couldn’t ignore them, because in some obscure way, they related to some kind of fundamental experience—I can’t really say how. For example, the time I spent at the Leonico Prado Military School in Lima when I was still a young boy gave me a real need, an obsessive desire to write. It was an extremely traumatic experience which in many ways marked the end of my childhood—the rediscovery of my country as a violent society, filled with bitterness, made up of social, cultural, and racial factions in complete opposition and caught up in sometimes ferocious battle. I suppose the experience had an influence on me; one thing I’m sure of is that it gave rise to the great need in me to create, to invent.
Up until now, it’s been pretty much the same for all my books. I never get the feeling that I’ve decided rationally, cold-bloodedly to write a story. On the contrary, certain events or people, sometimes dreams or readings, impose themselves suddenly and demand attention. That’s why I talk so much about the importance of the purely irrational elements of literary creation. This irrationality must also, I believe, come through to the reader. I would like my novels to be read the way I read the novels I love. The novels that have fascinated me most are the ones that have reached me less through the channels of the intellect or reason than bewitched me. These are stories capable of completely annihilating all my critical faculties so that I’m left there, in suspense. That’s the kind of novel I like to read and the kind of novel I’d like to write. I think it’s very important that the intellectual element, whose presence is inevitable in a novel, dissolves into the action, into the stories that must seduce the reader not by their ideas but by their color, by the emotions they inspire, by their element of surprise, and by all the suspense and mystery they’re capable of generating. In my opinion, a novel’s technique exists essentially to produce that effect—to diminish and if possible abolish the distance between the story and the reader. In that sense, I am a writer of the nineteenth century. The novel for me is still the novel of adventures, which is read in the particular way I have described.