Mario Vargas Llosa's journey: power and individualism

Congratulations, Señor Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa !
2010's Nobel laureate in literature has trodden a political path from defender of the Cuban revolution to an embrace of Popperian liberalism. But what are the constant themes of his literary production?
Iván Alonso
30 November 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa began collecting literary prizes in 1959 when Los Jefes (The Leaders), a short story about a student rebellion, was awarded the Leopoldo Alas Prize. In the fifty-odd years since then, he has received many distinctions, including some of the most prestigious awards in the Spanish language and several honorary doctorates from top-end universities around the world. The long-awaited and much-deserved award of the Nobel Prize is the coronation of a brilliant career. But the people celebrating this latest achievement is not, perhaps, the same who celebrated the earliest ones. For in the intervening years Vargas Llosa’s political opinions shifted. The supporter of the Cuban revolution became the defender of personal liberties and the scourge of dictatorships, left and right. The shift came as his stature as a novelist grew, and hence the weight of his pronouncements. Today Vargas Llosa is not only an accomplished writer, but also a political essayist and a respected voice in the ideological debates in Latin America.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is, above all, recognition of the quality of Vargas Llosa’s novels. But, like all works of art, good novels embody human values. The Swedish Academy has praised him “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat”. Personal freedom and integrity are at the heart of Vargas Llosa’s artistic motives. But personal freedom and integrity cannot be understood other than in a political context. Hence, in the case of Vargas Llosa, artistic motives and political concerns are intimately connected.

There was a time when Vargas Llosa believed that communism would relieve the people from the oppression of political and economic power. He enrolled in an activist group while still in university. He called himself a Marxist through most of the ‘60s and spoke wonders of the Cuban revolution. Two events shook him from his ideological complacency. One was the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks in 1968. The other was the imprisonment of Heberto Padilla, a Cuban poet, in 1971. Vargas Llosa was part of the group of intellectuals from over the world who pressured Fidel Castro’s regime for his release.

Freedom of speech may have been the immediate concern in Vargas Llosa’s mind in both cases. But he must have realised soon enough that one freedom is inseparable from another. Padilla was not just censored; he was jailed. And there was more to the Prague Spring than freedom of speech. The Czechoslovak leaders had conflicting opinions about economic reform. Some wanted to maintain centralised economic planning; others wanted a mixed economy with some measure of free markets alongside central planning. It was the potential drift towards capitalism that most alarmed the Soviet leaders.

The brutality of power was already there in Vargas Llosa’s earliest novels, such as The Time of the Hero (1963), set in a military school where discipline turns into abuse and abuse leads to complicit silence, or Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), where the thuggishness and corruption of a right-wing military dictatorship are exposed. Suddenly it became clear that such things could also happen in the socialist paradise.

As the 1970s went by, Vargas Llosa became acquainted with the likes of Raymond Aron, Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, drifting away from his erstwhile intellectual hero, Jean-Paul Sartre. He was coming closer to the liberal tradition. One may speculate at this point about two possibly decisive influences in his turn of mind. Firstly, Popper’s view about the conjectural nature of all knowledge based on positive evidence, as well as Hayek’s idea that all information relevant to any social process is necessarily decentralised, gave philosophical support to Vargas Llosa’s instinctive distrust of what may be called “official truth”, to his revolt against the false security of the powerful and the enlightened. Secondly, living in London in the Thatcher years, he could see that economic freedom is not a superfluous annex to other freedoms; that it can have a distinctive impact on the lives of people and turn around the fortunes of a nation that seemed to be in terminal decline. Perhaps this explains why Vargas Llosa was drawn into the political arena when the Peruvian government attempted to confiscate privately-owned banks in 1987. He sensed a menace to all kinds of private property, and hence to economic freedom, and hence to personal liberty more generally. His presidential candidature in 1990 ended in disappointment, losing to a little-known university professor who went on to establish an arrogant, brutish and eminently corrupt regime, albeit one that implemented some of the economic reforms that the country so badly needed. His electoral defeat, however, and the subsequent political events in Peru intensified Vargas Llosa’s activity as a political essayist and apostle of liberalism.

The embrace of liberalism obviously should not have changed Vargas Llosa’s concern with the abuse of power in his literary work, and it didn’t. The Feast of the Goat (2000), a novel about the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the long-time military dictator of the Dominican Republic, dwells one more time on the brutality and corruption of the powerful. But as he was getting closer to liberalism in the 1980s, political fanaticism emerged as a new motive, in novels such as The War of the End of the World (1981), about a rebellion in northern Brazil, and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1985), on the bloody terrorist insurgency in Peru. Vargas Llosa’s concern with political fanaticism is connected to his intense dislike of nationalism, which he considers a source of hatred and violence and racism, a view no doubt inspired by his reading of Isaiah Berlin’s philosophy of history.

Both extreme nationalism and fanaticism, political or otherwise, feed on prejudiced conceptions of reality. The latest mutation of this species in Peru is the so-called ethno-nationalistic movement. They see a capitalistic threat to the Andean utopia and they call for an armed struggle and a peasant revolt. What most of us can see is rather "popular capitalism" as Vargas Llosa puts it. But these are dangerous movements for the ideals of liberty. They dream of some mission and believe it is everybody’s duty to carry out, and once is power they are prepared to let it be known to us all.

Here is another thread worth following. Throughout his literary career Vargas Llosa has cultivated the historical novel, from the already mentioned Conversation in the Cathedral to the recently published El Sueño del Celta (literally, The Celt’s Dream), about an Irish political activist who is also a diplomatic envoy in the Congo. Historical events, which Vargas Llosa thoroughly researches, obviously add to the realism of a story. But to write an historical novel also signals a preoccupation with reaching the depths of the human condition. To quote Lord Acton, “history is not a burden on the memory, but an illumination of the soul”.

What Vargas Llosa’s historical novels sadly show is that too often the individual is defeated by the “structures of power”, as the Swedish Academy put it. Those structures of power, however, are not alien creatures from another world. They spring from the depths of the human soul. What are we to do, then? Here the novelist must stop and the political essayist take over. Crossing the line can turn into propaganda. Vargas Llosa has steered clear of it in his literary work.

As a public figure, however, he has been a consistent defender of human rights. In 1983 he led a presidentially-appointed commission that inquired into the killing of eight journalists in the Peruvian highlands, in a place terrorised by the Shining Path guerrilla. He was later called to court for his role in the inquiry, in what could have been a passage taken from one of his novels. The left did not like his conclusion that it was not the military nor the guerrillas who killed them, but the local villagers. More recently he supported the conclusions of the Truth Commission, which sought to set the record straight on human rights abuses both by the military and the guerrillas. This time it was the right who were unpleased. And more unpleased were they earlier this year when Vargas Llosa resigned his post as head of a planned Museum of Memory, citing a governmental decree that was lenient on military men charged with abuses.

But more than anything, Mario Vargas Llosa is a superb writer. His work includes theatrical pieces, short stories and lightly entertaining novels, besides literary criticism and an extensive journalistic production, none of which have been dwelt upon here. The Nobel Prize announcement singles out that part of his work dealing with power and the individual. That by itself makes him a worthy recipient.

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