Mario Vargas Llosa
The Limits of Engagement
There are probably quite a few writers who believe writing is more important than life, and plenty who might not go that far but live it in a manner that suggests there is at least a decent tussle between the two. Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa would suggest in his remarks that he is one of the former and in his discipline someone who acknowledges aspects of the latter. He insisted in a 1990 interview that "Monday through Saturday, I work on the novel in progress, and I devote Sunday mornings to journalistic workarticles and essays. I try to keep this kind of work within the allotted time of Sunday so that it doesn't infringe on the creative work of the rest of the week." When asked if he deviates from this spartan regime he says, "I can't seem to, I don't know how to work otherwise." (Paris Review) After all, "the primary duty is not to live but to write," a comment he made years earlier that the interviewer quotes back to him. Yet in the late eighties he got into politics and ran for the Peruvian presidency on a Thatcherite programme that included privatisation, a market economy and free trade. Writing on his campaign, Varga Llosa reckoned "countries today can choose to be prosperous. The most harmful myth of our time, now deeply embedded in the consciousness of the Third World, is that poor countries live in poverty because of a conspiracy of the rich countries which have arranged things to keep them underdeveloped in order to exploit them... But the internationalisation of life of markets technology, capital today permits any country, if organised on a competitive basis, to achieve rapid growth." (Granta) How does a writer who appears to put so much store in literature, find himself so in sympathy with a leader famous for seeing the country as a little like a store: the grocer's daughter from Grantham who believed in the common sense economics her father practised?
In a 1991 essay a year after losing the election, Vargas Llosa talked about Milan Kundera in the context of Vaclav Havel. He notes that Kundera went into exile in the mid-seventies, he did so "to dedicate himself completely to literature, he had lost all hope that his country [Czechoslovakia] would one day emerge from despotism and servitude...but the one who was right was Vaclav Havel." (Making Waves) The dedicated and continual determination to undermine the Communist government, however small, eventually made an impact. Nevertheless, though Varga Llosa says he would probably have done what Kundera did rather than Havel, there he was a year earlier fighting an election to become Peruvian president. He could easily have been not only in sympathy with Havel but sharing a table with another writer who was running a country.
While certain professions would appear to lend themselves well enough to the later furtherance of a political career (though reality TV probably shouldn't be one of them), others appear anathema to that type of trajectory. A lawyer, an economist, a doctor, an engineer or a scientist might see politics as a natural progression; that their interest in a specific job becomes a concern for the common good. But while many writers have held government posts and diplomatic positions (Andre Malraux, Octavio Paz, Havel, Fuentes, Ivo Andric, and Paul Claudel come to mind), isn't there something antithetical to the idea of the artist-politician? Obviously, Vargas Llosa often felt this contradiction, saying he promised himself that he would keep writing through the campaign and even if he were to become president. But "writing was impossible. It wasn't only for lack of time. Although I woke very early and entered my study before the secretaries arrived, I never got used to the idea that I was actually alone. It was as if some mysterious muse, unknown to me until then, had grown resentful at the lack of solitude and had left my study for good." (Granta) Anybody interested in producing literature and changing the world is likely to accept the tension of these two apparently opposing positions and it was as though Vargas Llosa had initially resolved it through the reading of Sartre. He agreed with the French philosopher and novelist that words could change things; that a writer needn't be only a man of entertainment but could also impact on their time and all the more so in a society that was in a process of change. For Vargas Llosa, in Latin America especially. "These ideas were very exciting for a Latin American writer coming from a society with tremendous problems involving political dictatorships, poverty, exploitation and economic inequalities. In a society with problems like these you wonder, is it all right to write novels, to consecrate your life to literature. Sartre's solution was wonderful. He said, 'Yes, by writing you can change history. Writing produces effects in history and society if you commit yourself to defending certain values in your writing.' ('Exhilaration and Completeness') Sartre's notion of engaged literature might have included political involvement but it wasn't a necessary function of it. The writing itself might contain socio-political necessity while also abiding by the limits of its representation: it needn't become actual activism. It seems there has always been a tension in Vargas Llosa: between a man who admires the perfection he sees in Faulkner's work and the need to act to improve the situation in Latin America.
Perhaps the best place to start in addressing the tension is The Storyteller, a book that offers a narrator who resembles Vargas Llosa, someone who says that "for six months in 1981 I was responsible for a program on Peruvian television called The Tower of Babel," a programme that did exist and that Vargas Llosa was involved in. But rather than seeing the writer's narrative presence as a metafictional device, it seems more a determination to ask what a storyteller is and does, what his purpose happens to be. In the novel, we discover that a friend from his childhood, Saul Zuratas, someone with a conspicuous birthmark on his face that nobody can miss, and a love for Kafka that he would never deny, neglects his law studies and becomes obsessed with ethnography and Amazonian tribes hardly touched by Western culture. While some reckon it is important to protect the tribes from impinging western influence with the aid of government agencies and missionaries, Saul disagrees. Any contact with the western world is contaminating, no matter how well-meaning. Instead, they should be left to their ways: "these tribes had survived because their habits and customs had docilely followed the rhythm and requirements of the natural world, without doing it violence or disturbing it deeply, just the minimum necessary so as not to be destroyed by it." Before the end of the book we will discover that Saul hadn't gone off to Israel as he claimed, but instead immersed himself in the Amazon; in Conradian terms 'gone native'. But this isn't a Kurtzian madness that strips the jungle of its resources and its people of their dignity, but a narrative recuperation. It turns out that Saul has become a storyteller who goes from place to place speaking at great length over many hours. We might admire such dedication to the Amazonian tribal cause but where does the book stand, narrated by more or less Vargas Llosa and clearly telling his story in the 'advanced' world rather than the 'primitive' one? After all, here is a book by a famous writer who has for many years made a comfortable living as a novelist of repute, publishing the book in various languages, including in English by his regular British publisher, Faber?
Would only a naive reader or a cynical opportunist be inclined to say that Vargas Llosa is a hypocrite or might we suggest that another Sartre notion might be at play? That here is a novel about a man who sees that the only way one can follow through on his claims that the tribes should be left alone is to retreat all together or become an Amazonian figure himself, but here we also have Vargas Llosa who can do no more, nor less, than write a novel about such integrity. Is this metafictional bad faith at work? Others though would note that Vargas Llosa is interested less in commitment than in complexity: in seeing in any given situation not the resolute belief but the necessary accommodation. As he says speaking of politics, "when so-called revolutionaries participate in democratic politics they become social democrats and learn to respect democratic institutions." ('Exhilaration and Completeness') Some may see a hopeless compromise at work; Vargas Llosa sees belief tempered by reality. It was partly why he could no longer agree with Sartre's notion of commitment when the great French philosopher said in a well-known mid-sixties interview, "I understand African writers who abandon literature to make the revolution and create a society in which literature would be possible. ('Exhilaration and Completeness') For Vargas Llosa, literature represents both idealisation and acceptance: the world will never live up to it. He thinks literature is a world perfectly created and next to it the real world lacks that substance and perfection. Instead of losing ourselves in the fictional universe it can make us critical of the actual one we live in. "I think this makes you very critical of the real world, and better prepared to resist manipulation." ('Exhilaration and Completeness') If Saul insists that he must retreat into the jungle to act in good faith, then Vargas Llosa must publish his book as widely as he can since literature helps us function as democratic beings.
Vargas Llosa has always been a writer interested in lives other than his own even if he became famous partly through a book that was seen as a variation of his early life. In Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, the story concern an 18yr old who becomes involved with his 32-year old divorcee aunt. But often his work seems quite removed from his own experience and he talks fascinatingly for example about the research involved in a book (The Feast and The Goat) about the Dominican Republic dictator, Trujillo. Interviewing one of the worst of the dictator's torturers who also happened to the first husband of the dictator's daughter, Vargas Llosa asked him numerous questions before mentioning that he had a friend outside who had driven him to the interview, someone who says he was tortured by the man Vargas Llosa is interviewing. The torturer becomes livid and then says "you want the truth?...I don't remember" For Vargas Llosa it is an appalling answer because it reveals just how many people over the years the man had tortured why should he remember especially one who he strapped to an electric chair, and whipped and scarred when there were so many others? The horror of another's reality often galvanises Vargas Llosa into prose. Even in the most ostensibly autobiographical of books, he insists that it is the love of others that interest him and the action that can come out of those lives. "Sometimes someone appears who has my name and in other ways takes advantage of experiences that I have had, but he always appears in a context and living experiences that are much more diverse than those I have had, such that none of my novels is exclusively autobiographical, not even the one that most seems to be, which is Aunt Julia." "Sure", he says, "in that case I took advantage of a moment in my own life, but even in the story of Varguitas, who would have liked to have been a writer, there is much more imagination than personal memory. Autobiography is a literary resource, as in El hablador [The Storyteller]." (Literal)
Perhaps a writer is much more inclined to err on the side of the autobiographical rather than the impersonal in successful fiction: even if we read a book about a notorious figure like Tujillo we are reading more because of Vargas Llosa than the Dominican dictator. However, while his former friend and fellow Latin American writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez was more actively radical in his political beliefs than Vargas Llosa, Marquez was also more inclined to create fictional worlds that were removed from the directly socio-political, unless the works were non-fiction altogether as in Clandestine in Chile and Notes on a Kidnapping. Vargas Llosa is a writer for whom the fiction and the fact, the personal and the impersonal, have been more intertwined, evident in his admiration for Sartre while also insisting that fiction is still the thing: a writer needn't eschew the work in moments when the directly engaged might appear more useful. Though Vargas Llosa may insist as we've noted that in reality he works on fiction during the week and the journalistic at the weekends, more than many a writer he sees himself as a sociopolitical figure from a country whose fiction cannot easily escape reflecting his beliefs. He understands that while a writer from the US, UK, France or Germany can choose more easily to step forward or step back, a famous writer from a country that has relatively little literary output, despite producing amongst numerous others the well-known Cesar Vallejo and Vargas Llosa, cannot easily do so. When Vargas Llosa writes on another significant figure in Peruvian literature (Sebastian Salazar Bondy), he talks as much about the struggle as the literature itself. In Peruvian Literature "there was almost nothing and he tried to do everything." Peru, after all "is an underdeveloped country, that is a jungle where one has to earn the right to survive through force: and where "if Peruvian society has no room for him, the writer must, of necessity, turn his back on that society..." (Making Waves)
Though some critics and academics very understandably focus chiefly on Vargas Llosa's narrative technique, especially in bigger books like Conversation in the Cathedral and The War of the End of the World, where he intermingles separate strands of conversation, described variously as telescopic dialogues, dialogue montages or, by Vargas Llosa himself, as 'communicating vessels', our purpose is more to say a few words about the shorter fiction and the essays, including the stories 'On Sunday', 'The Challenge' and 'The Cubs' and the non-fiction pieces, 'Bataille or The Redemption of Evil' and 'The Story of a Massacre'. In the stories, we have a young writer clearly influenced by Hemingway and Faulkner, determined to bring out the milieu of machismo.
In 'Sunday', central character Miguel feels hatred for Ruben as a reflection of his love for Flora. It is Ruben who she will be spending time with not him, but one Sunday afternoon the two young men find themselves up for a challenge. They enter the water and wonder who will wish to go back to the coast first. Miguel starts to tire but doesn't want to lose face so that when Ruben asks how he is doing, instead of saying they should go back he claims he is fine, before Ruben in turn tires and admits not only can he not go on, he isn't sure if he will make it back on his own. Miguel is tempted to let him drown, aware how much another man can drag him under the waves, but ends up helping nevertheless. As they reach the shore and Ruben is safe, pride returns as he asks Miguel not to tell others that he called out for help. Instead, he admits that Miguel won and Miguel seems happy. In 'The Challenge', a father watches his son fight another young man and expects him to keep fighting even it means to the death. The boy, Jules, with a large purple scar down one side of his face, fights the Gimp, whose left leg was lame. Here we have men proving themselves as if from within their inadequacies, but it is also the environment that expects them to fight each other. The father has fought many times in the past and seems finally to see honour as more important than life itself, even his son's.
In both stories, Vargas Llosa details a world where self-destructive characters find justification for their actions in the nature of the environment, and much the same can be said in 'Cubs', where nevertheless the self-destruction is more pronounced and the milieu less aggrandising of such behaviour. Here, a boy, Cuellar, gets bitten in the nether regions by a dog and in time garners various nicknames when it becomes known that he has lost the use of his penis. Over the years he becomes more and more self-destructive, driving cars too fast and involving himself in a series of accidents, one of which eventually kills him. By the end of the story, many years after the young man's death, the others including the narrator who teased him have become "mature and settled men by now. We all have a wife, car, children...and we began to get fat and to have grey hair, pot bellies, soft bodies, to wear reading glasses, to feel uneasy after eating and drinking and age spots already showing up on their skin as well as certain wrinkles." Death will come to us all the story suggests, but is it better or worse if it comes earlier or later?
That depends on the value a culture promotes and this is where his essay on Georges Bataille comes in, where Vargas Llosa notes, "should one reach human fulfilment by embracing death as early as possible or live separated to some degree from one's being, only to die in any event in the long run?" Bataille's position on writing in Literature and Evil was very different from Sartre's in Literature and Existentialism. Sartre saw the importance of engagement, saying "in short, literature is, in essence, the subjectivity of a society in permanent revolution...in collectivity which constantly corrects, judges and metamorphosis itself, the written work can be an essential condition of action, that is, the moment of reflective consciousness" (Literature and Existentialism). What Vargas Llosa sees in Bataille's work is a sort of surplus that literature offers rather than a transformation it insists upon. Bataille's fiction and essays, Vargas Llosa believes, "excludes the possibility that a civilisation, a society, of any kind, might reach wholeness globally..." Bataille's notion of evil is unconventional: evil "means everything that contravenes the laws that society has imposed on itself in order to endure, to make life possible, to struggle against death." ('Bataille or the Redemption of Evil') Thus for Bataille we don't eradicate evil, we come to terms with it, understanding it as a necessary condition of the human who rebels, who wants properly to 'live'. "Torn between reason and lack of reason, between the desire to endure and the desire to live 'supremely', man, that miserable paradox, 'should not allow himself to remain enclosed within the limits of reason', but nor can he abolish these limits for fear of causing his own destruction..." For Vargas Llosa, Bataille's is an aristocratic aesthetic which suggests we can transgress but the rules remain in place; Sartre's is more democratic because literature can change the very rules themselves.
In the short stories, one can see Bataille's position played out by characters who want to create rules, games, fights and challenges that can be transgressed rather than society which can be transformed. Now, Vargas Llosa's political position over the years may have changed greatly, as if trying to work through a position that absorbed both Sartre and Bataille and found itself shifting from one end of the political spectrum to the other in the process. Gene H. Bell Villada says even after Vargas Llosa had moved from the Left to the Right, from tentatively supporting Castro to supporting a modest Thatcherism, he surprised his readers with yet further shifts. "In the 1990s, he emerged as an uncompromising libertarian, in the U.S. sense. (In Europe, it should be noted, libertarian means anarchist.) His op-ed columns for El Pais now refer admiringly to free-market theoreticians like Ludwig von Mises and philosophers like Robert Nozick and Friedrich von Hayek. His new Latin American heroes are the ubiquitous street vendors, whom he construes as carriers of the entrepreneurial future." ('The Inventions and Reinventions of Mario Vargas Llosa') But the characters he often shows us in the short stories he wrote early in his career aren't too far removed from the vendors he was admiring much later on.
Yet whatever the direction Vargas Llosa's politics have taken, he would finally seem to remain in the realm of the dichotomous rather than the transgressive, seeing for example in the Chilean situation the dangers of extremism either way. Speaking of Hayek he says, "It wasn't his intention. What happens is that he had a faith, a religious faith in the market... I think the nuances get lost in the case of Hayek. For example, he got to the point of saying something outrageous, that there was more freedom [in Chile] with [General Augusto] Pinochet [the military dictator] than with [Salvador] Allende [the Socialist president who was overthrown]." Vargas Llosa adds, "He said that twice, in Chile and England. Well, I believe that is outrageous. It's nonsense, because there was a free market during the time of Pinochet but there was torture, killings, there wasn't any freedom of expression, the press was completely controlled. So, let's say, I think that was an exaggeration." (The Economist) Such an approach to equilibrium resides in his essay 'The Story of a Massacre', which ends, "the double threat the Pinochet model or the Fidel Castro model will continue to haunt democratic regions for as long as there are people in our countries who kill for the reasons that the peasants of Uchuraccay killed." In Vargas Llosa's account, a number of journalists ventured into a northern province of Peru determined to discover the truth behind a handful of deaths. It seemed members of a guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso had been killed by peasants. They wanted to find out if this was the case or whether others had been responsible for the killings. In Vargas Llosa's essay (he was also in charge of the committee that investigated the case), the Indians weren't only responsible for the initial killings, they also slaughtered the journalists too, believing that they were part of the radical Maoist movement which was intruding in their region. For Vargas Llosa, the story vindicates his politics: that ameliorative progress is the answer rather than radical change. Guerilla movements he notes are not usually formed by peasants but by the educated intellectuals from the cities, those who manage to convince the poor to support them based on the numerous injustices the peasants have suffered over the years. "The fact is that the war between the guerrillas and the armed forces is a settling of accounts between 'privileged' sectors of society in which the peasant masses are used with cynicism and brutality by those who say they wish to 'liberate' them." Thus Vargas Llosa sees a democratic, more or less neo-liberal society as the answer, just as he reckons Bataille's approach to literature (where change is minimal) or the later Sartrean one (where change must be radically engaged) is less useful than the earlier Sartrean stance that indicates literature can help change the society of which it is a part. "A society that is well-read, impregnated with good literature, is much more difficult to fool than a society of ignorant people. "In this sense, I think that, yes, writers should engage themselves and try to do something, through their literature, through their literature about what is going wrong in the real world." ('The Inventions and Reinventions of Mario Vargas Llosa') But at what point does such an engagement prove detrimental to the literature rather the furtherance of it? There are many writers who have trodden that path which might often seem more like a gangplank, but one wonders if Vargas Llosa might have felt quite so obliged had he come from a country where a bourgeois is a rule rather than an exception. Instead, Vargas Llosa's roots are in a country where the creation of literature, difficult anywhere, carries with it expectations beyond the prose one writes and involve the writer in contradictions he can't easily resolve. His need to act and his need to write nevertheless seemed to resolve itself most successfully when the desire to act was sublimated in the desire to write, contributing to a consciousness in which others might thus act more successfully than he could. Vargas Llosa's move from one end of the political spectrum to the other might seem less important than the underlying determination to hold on to the position where writing mattered, but also society too, yet where his role was to concern himself chiefly with the former over the latter.
© Tony McKibbin