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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Mario Vargas Llosa (b. 1936)


Peruvian novelist, playwright, essayist and literary critic, who received Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the central writers in the Hispanic world, but he began his literary career in Europe. Most of his novels are set in Peru. From his first works, Vargas Llosa has used a wide variety of avant-garde techniques to create an aesthetic "double of the real world." Although Vargas Llosa has followed the tradition of social protest of Peruvian fiction exposing political corruption, machismo, racial prejudices and violence, he has underlined that a writer should never preach or compromise artistic aims for ideological propaganda.

"His voice was persuasive; it reached a person's soul without passing by way of his head, and even to a being as addlebrained as Big João, it seemed like a balm that healed old and terrible wounds. João stood there listening to him, rooted on the spot, not even blinking, moved to his very bones by what he was hearing and by the music of the voice uttering those words. The figure of the saint was blurred at times by the tears that welled up in João's eyes. When the man went on his way, he began to follow him at a distance, like a timid animal." (from The War of the End of the World, 1981)

Mario Vargas Llosa was born in Arequipa, but from ages one to ten he lived in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where he was brought up by his mother and maternal grandparents after his parents separated. However, Vargas Llosa once said, that "I feel very much an Arequipan". He also spent some time in Piura, northern Peru (1945-46), where his grandfather had been appointed as Prefect, and then in Lima. When he was about eight years old his parents reconciled. His father, Ernesto Vargas Maldonado, was a radio telegrapher, whose adventurous spirit passed down as an inheritance to his son.Vargas Llosa's mother, Dora Llosa Ureta, came from a highly respected family.

Vargas Llosa attended Leoncio Prado Military Academy (1950-52), where he was sent by his father. He had discovered that his son wrote poems and  wanted to stop him doing it. After two miserable years, during which he read  voraciously, he returned to Piura, where he finished Colegio Nacional San Miguel.

While studying literature and law at the University of San Marcos in Lima, Vargas Llosa held several jobs, including working as an assistant to he historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea. He also belonged to a communist cell that read and discussed Marx. Upsetting his whole family, Vargas Llosa married in 1955 Julia Urquidi Illanes, originally his aunt by marriage. When they wed, she was ten years his senior. They divorced in 1964.

At the age of twenty-two, Vargas Llosa moved to Madrid. He attended graduate school at the University of Madrid, receiving his Ph.D. in 1959. His doctoral dissertation about García Márquez (1971) was followed by several books on literary criticism, among them La orgía perpetua (1975), about Flaubert's masterpiece Madame Bovary. Decades later, in Travesuras de la niña mala (2006), Vargas Llosa drew on the character of Emma. 

In the 1950s, while still a student, Vargas Llosa worked as a journalist for La Industria. He was a coeditor of the literary journals Cuadernos de Conversación and Literatura, and journalist for Radio Panamericana and La Crónica. His first collection of short stories, Los Jefes came out in 1959. "I liked Faulkner but I imitated Hemingway", he said later.

Because the first wedding was a civil ceremony, performed by a mayor of a small Peruvian village, it had not been recognized. In 1965 Vargas Llosa married his first cousin, Patricia Llosa Urquidi, with whom he had three children. García Márquez became a godfather to his son, but after a brawl in a Mexican cinema in 1976, the friendship of two writers ended bitterly. However, in 2006 Vargas Llosa allowed an excerpt from his Historia secreta de una novela (1971) to be published in the 40th anniversary edition of García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. In 2015, after 50 years of marriage, he left Patricia for Isabel Preysler, the ex-wife of the Spanish singer and songwriter Julio Iglesias.

Along with such names as Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, and García Márquez, Vargas Llosa belonged to a group of writers, whose aim was to revitalize the Latin American novel. Vargas Llosa moved to Paris because he felt that in Peru he could not earn his living as a serious writer. Although the boom of Latin American fiction in the 1960s opened doors to some authors for commercial success, the great majority of Peruvian writers suffered from the problems of the country's publishing industry.

In France Vargas Llosa worked as Spanish teacher, journalist for Agence-France-Presse, and broadcaster for Radio Télévision Française in early 1960s. From the late 1960s Vargas Llosa held several positions as a visiting professor at many American and European universities. In 1970 Vargas Llosa moved to Barcelona and five years later he settled back in Peru, ending his self-imposed exile. Vargas Llosa was a member of the 1976 Cannes Film Festival jury, led by Tennessee Williams; Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver won that year's Palme d'Or. In 1977 he was elected President of PEN Club International. The military dictatorship, which started in 1968 when General Francisco Morales Bermudez took over the country, ended in 1980.

Vargas Llosa was a conservative candidate (Fredemo, the Democratic Front) for the Peruvian presidency in 1990. The development of his political convictions, from a sympathizer of Cuban revolution to the liberal right, has astonished his critics and has made it impossible to approach his work from a single point of view. Sabine Koellmann has noted that the publication of Vargas Llosa's La Fiesta del Chivo (2000, The Feast of the Goat) confirmed, "that politics is one of the most persistent 'demons' which, according to his theory, provoke his creativity." (see Vargas Llosa's Fiction & the Demons of Politics, 2002) Vargas Llosa was defeated by Alberto Fujimori, an agricultural engineer of Japanese descent, also a political novice, but who had a more straightforward agenda to present to the voters. An unexpected twist in the plot of this political play occurerred in 2000, when President Fujimori escaped to his ancestral homeland Japan after a corruption scandal.

From 1991 to 1992 Vargas Llosa worked as a visiting professor at Florida International University, Miami and Wissdenschaftskolleg, Berlin. In addition to the Nobel Prize, the author has received many other honors. Among the most notable are Leopoldo Alas Prize (1959), Rómulo Gallegos Prize (1967), National Critics' Prize (1967), Peruvian National Prize (1967), Critics' Annual Prize for Theatre (1981), Prince of Asturias Prize (1986) and Miguel de Cervantes Prize (1994).

Vargas Llosa made his debut as a novelist with La ciudad y los perros (1962, The Time of the Hero), set in Leoncio Prado military Academy, where he had been a student. The book received an immediate international recognition. According to Vargas Llosa's theory, personal, social or historical daemon gives a meaning to a novel and in the writing process unconscious obsessions are transformed into a novelist's themes. Autobiography and art has been one of the themes in his criticism.

One of Vargas Llosa's own obsessions is the conflict between a father and son, which he has approached from the private level or from more universal or social levels. The Time of the Hero is a microcosm of Peruvian society. The murder of an informer is buried due to the codes of honor to protect the academy's reputation. La tía Julia y el escribidor (1977, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter) is a partly autobiographical story of a courtship and marriage, written with uninhibited humor. The tyrannical father threatens to shoot his son, a novelist named Marito Varguitas, in the middle of the street, because of his marriage to the sexy, sophisticated, older Aunt Julia, the sister-in-law of his uncle. Marito is eighteen and the marriage is illegal. Eventually his father accepts the situation. The book started to live its own life when Aunt Julia, Vargas Llosa's first wife, wrote a reply to it, entitled Lo que Varguitas no Dijo.

In La casa verde (1966, The Green House) Vargas Llosa returned to formative experiences of his childhood and youth. The complicated novel has two major settings: the first, a provincial city, and the second, the jungle, a challenging, hostile and attractive environment, which the author has depicted in several works. In 1957 Varga Llosa travelled with a group of anthropologists into the jungle, and learned how Indian girls were being drafted into prostitution on the coast. The "Green House" of the story is a brothel, which is burned to the ground but rebuilt again. Another storyline follows the fate of the virginal Bonifacia from a jungle mission; she becomes a prostitute in Piura.

La guerra del fin del mundo (1981, The War of the End of the World) is a story of a revolt against the Brazilian government in the late 19th-century and the brutal response of the authorities. A religious fanatic, known as Conselheiro (Counselor), is followed by a huge band of disciples drawn from the fringes of society. Before the army of the Republic wins, the modern rational world suffers several humiliating defeats with the group of outcasts. Vargas Llosa uses Euclides da Cunha's account of the events, Os sertões (1902), as a source. One of the characters, a "nearsighted journalist", is loosely based on da Cunha.

Historia de Mayta (1983, The Real life of Alejandro Mayta) moves on several narrative levels. It deals with a failed Marxist-Leninist insurrection in the Andes, led by an aging Trotskyist Alejandro Mayta. He is captured and his second lieutenant Vallejos executed. The novelist-narrator interviews a number of people who give a contradictory view of Mayta's personality and the events. Finally the reader realizes that in the process of creating a novel within a novel, the narrator has invented Mayta's life and undermined the concepts of writing and reading history.

Besides fiction, Vargas Llosa has publushed a large body of essays, criticism, and literary and political journalism. A writer with an international readership, his foreign reportage has appeared in The New York Times Le Monde, The Times Literary Supplement, El País, and other influential newspapers. Vargas Llosa's articles about the war in Iraq, written for El Pais, were collected in Diario de Irak (2003). With his daughter Morgana, a photographer, he traveled to Israel and Palestine in 2005, and recorded his impressions in Israel/Palestina. Paz o guerra santa (2006). The book was received with mixed reactions among the Jewish community in South America. "Israel had become a powerful and arrogant country, and it is the role of its friends to be highly critical of its policies", Vargas Llosa said in an interview.

Vargas Llosa's bitter memoir, El pez en el agua (A Fish in the Water), appeared in 1993. It focused on his run for the presidency in 1990 – he was supposed to win the little-known Alberto Fujimori. The Feast of the Goat continued the author's political excursion into the recent history of South America. The story is set in the Dominican Republic in 1961, ruled by the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Urania Chabral has returned to the noisy Santo Domingo to visit her father, Agustin Chabral, who is ill. He is a former Dominican senator, a faithful servant of the dictator. "And how many times did you come home saddened because he did not call to you, fearful you were no longer in the circle of the elect, that you had fallen among the censured?" Eventually "Minister Cabral, Egghead Cabral" lost his favor. Urania left the country as a schoolgirl, three and a half decades ago, just before Trujillo's assassination in 1961. Urania wants revenge against father for everything he did not do, and has her own reasons to examine the Trujillo Era. "The most important thing that happened to us in five hundred years. You used to say that with so much conviction. It's true, Papa. During those thirty-one years, all the evil we had carried with us since the Conquest became crystallized."

Vargas Llosa portrays Trujillo as a superman intoxicated by his political and sexual powers, and worshipped by his demonic henchmen working in torture dungeons. "Oddly, Vargas Llosa's Trujillo sees himself as having gotten the short end of the bargain. He whipped his pathetic homeland into shape, modernized its attitudes and highways and in return he got -- old." (Walter Kirn in the New York Times, November 25, 2001) Vargas Llosa has structured the story like a thriller, leading the reader into the heart of the darkness. The Feast of the Goat is a highly topical book. The era of strong leaders is not totally over in Latin America, as one of the latest examples, Fujimori, sadly proved.

In El paraíso en la otra esquina (2002) two exceptional individuals, the socialist Flora Tristan, and her grandson, the painter Paul Gauguin, are inspired by great ideas. Flora devotes her life to serve the humanity, to create a worker's paradise. Gauguin leaves civilization behind and eventually rots alive in Atuana, Marguesas Island, in a tropical paradise. El sueño del celta (2010) again portayed an idealist, Sir Roger Casement, a diplomat and an Irish nationalist, who revealed human rights abuses in Congo and Peru, and was executed in 1916 by the British for treason.

For further reading: Mario Vargas Llosa's Pursuit of the Total Novel by Luis A. Diez (1970); La narrativa de Vargas Llosa by J.L. Martin (1974); Mario Vargas Llosa by José Oviedo (1981); Vargas Llosa: La ciudad y los perros by Peter Standish (1982); Mario Vargas Llosa by Dick Gwerdes (1985); Mario Vargas Llosa by Raymond L. Williams (1986); Novel Lives by Rosemary Geisdorfer Feal (1986); Mario Vargas Llosa by Roy C. Boland (1988); My Life With Mario Vargas Llosa by Julia Urquidi Illanes (1988); Sobre la vida y la política by A. Ricardo Sett (1989); El metateatro y la dramátice de Vargas Llosa by Oscar Rivera-Rodas (1992); Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa by Sara Castro-Klaren (1992); Vargas Llosa among the Postmodernists by M. Keith Booker (1994); Vargas Llosa's Fiction & the Demons of Politics by Sabine Koellmann (2002); The Cambridge Companion to Mario Vargas Llosa, edited by Efraín Kristal and John King (2012); Companion to Mario Vargas Llosa by Sabine Köllmann (2014); Mario Vargas Llosa: A Life of Writing by Raymond Leslie Williams (2014); Talking Books with Mario Vargas Llosa: a Retrospective, edited by Raquel Chang-Rodríguez and Carlos Riobó (2020)

Selected works:

  • La huida del Inca, 1952 (play)
  • Los Jefes, 1959
    - The Cubs and Other Stories (translated by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ, 1979)
  • La ciudad y los perros, 1963
    - The Time of the Hero (translated by Lysander Kemp, 1966)
    - Kaupungin koirat (suom. Matti Rossi, 1966)
    - film 1985, dir. by Francisco J. Lombardi, screenplay by José Watanabe, prod. Inca Films S.A., starring Pablo Serra, Gustavo Bueno, Luis Álvarez, Juan Manuel Ochoa, Eduardo Adrianzén, Liliana Navarro
  • La casa verde, 1966
    - The Green House (translated by Gregory Rabassa, 1968)
    - Vihreä talo (suom. Matti Brotherus, 1978)
  • Los cachorros, 1967
    - The Cubs and Other Stories (translated by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ, 1979)
    - film 1973, dir. by Jorge Fons, prod. Cinematográfica Marco Polo S.A., starring José Alonso, Helena Rojo, Carmen Montejo, Augusto Benedico, Gabriel Retes
  • La novela en América Latina : diálogo, 1968 (in collaboration with Gabriel García Márquez)
  • Seven Stories from Spanish America, 1968 (ed., with Gordon Brotherston)
  • Conversación en La Catedral, 1969
    - Conversation in the Cathedral (translated by Gregory Rabassa, 1975)
  • La revolución en la literatura y la literatura en la revolución, 1970 (with Julio Cortázar and Oscar Collazos)
  • Gabriel García Márquez: historia de un deicidio, 1971
  • Historia secreta de una novela, 1971
  • Pantaleón y las visitadoras, 1973
    - Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (translated by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ, 1978)
    - films: 1975, dir. by José María Gutiérrez Santos and Mario Vargas Llosa, starring José Sacristán as Pantaleón Pantoja, Martha Figueroa, Sylvia Gálvez, Katy Jurado; 2000, dir. by Francisco J. Lombardi, starring Salvador del Solar, Angie Cepeda, Mónica Sánchez, Pilar Bardem
  • La novela y el problema de la expresión literaria en Perú, 1974 [The Novel and the Problem of Literary Expression in Peru]
  • La orgía perpetua: Flaubert y Madame Bovary, 1975
    - The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary (translated by Helen Lane, 1986)
  • La tía Julia y el escribidor, 1977
    - Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (translated by Helen R. Lane, 1982)
    - Julia-täti ja käsikirjoittaja (suom. Sulamit Hirvas, 1992)
    - film 1990, dir. by Jon Amiel, screenplay by William Boyd, prod. Odyssey & Polar Entertainment Corporation, starring Keanu Reeves, Barbara Hershey, Peter Falk, Bill McCutcheon, Patricia Clarkson
  • La utopía arcaica, 1978
  • Obras escogidas, 1978
  • José María Arguedas, entre sapos y halcones, 1978
  • Art, Authenticity and Latin American Culture, 1981 
  • La guerra del fin del mundo, 1981
    - The War of the End of the World (translated by Helen R. Lane, 1984)
    - Maailmanlopun sota (suom. Jyrki Lappi-Seppälä, 1983)
  • Entre Sartre y Camus, 1981
  • La señorita de Tacna, 1981 (play)
    - The Young Lady from Tacna (translated by David Graham-Young, in Three Plays, 1990)
  • Kathie y el hipopótamo, 1983 (play)
    - Kathie and the Hippopotamus (translated by David Graham-Young, in Three Plays, 1990)
  • Historia de Mayta, 1984
    - The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (translated by Alfred Mac Adam, 1985)
    - Mayatan tarina (suom. Jyrki Lappi-Seppälä, 1988)
  • La cultura de la libertad, la libertad de la cultura, 1985
  • La Chunga, 1986 (play)
    - La Chunga (translated by David Graham-Young, in Three Plays, 1990; adaptation by David Johnston, 2000) / Mistress of Desires (translated by Sebastian Doggart, in Latin American Plays, 2000)
  • ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero?, 1986
    - Who Killed Palomino Molero? (translated by Alfred Mac Adam, 1987)
  • El hablador, 1987
    - The Storyteller (translated by Helen Lane, 1989)
    - Puhujamies (suom. Erkki Kirjalainen, 1990)
  • Diálogo sobre la novela Latinoamericana, 1988 (with Gabriel García Márquez)
  • Elogio de la madrastra, 1988
    - In Praise of the Stepmother (translated by Helen Lane, 1990)
    - Äitipuolen ylistys (suom. Sulamit Hirvas, 1991)
  • La verdad de las mentiras, 1990
    - A Writer's Reality (ed. by Myron I. Lichtblau, 1991)
  • Three Plays, 1990 (translated by David Graham-Young)
  • Contra viento y marea (1962-1982), 1983-90 (3 vols.)
  • Carta de batalla por Tirant lo Blanc, 1991
  • Lituma en los Andes, 1993
    - Death in the Andes (translated by Edith Grossman, 1996)
    - Andies mies (suom. Sulamit Hirvas, 1995)
  • El pez en el agua, 1993
    - A Fish in the Water (translated by Helen Lane, 1994)
  • El loco de los balcones, 1993 (play)
    - Madman of the Balconies (tr. 1993)
  • Georg Grosz and Mario Llosa, 1993
  • Desafíos a la libertad, 1994
  • Making Waves, 1996 (ed. by John King)
  • Ojos bonitos, cuadros feos, 1996 (play)
    - Pretty Eyes, Ugly Paintings (tr. 1996)
  • Una historia no oficial, 1997
  • Cartas a un joven novelista, 1997
    - Letters to a Young Novelist (translated by Natasha Wimmer, 2003)
  • Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto, 1997
    - The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (translated by Edith Grossman, 1998)
  • La Fiesta del Chivo, 2000
    - The Feast of the Goat (translated by Edith Grossman, 2001)
    - Vuohen juhla (suom. Sulamit Hirvas, 2002)
    - film 2005, dir. by Luis Llosa, starring Tomas Milian, Isabella Rosselini, Paul Freeman, Juan Diego Botto, Stephanie Leonidas, Shawn Elliot
  • Literatura y política, 2001
  • El lenguaje de la pasión, 2001
    - The Language of Passion (translated by Natasha Wimmer, 2003)
  • El paraíso en la otra esquina, 2002
    - The Way to Paradise (translated by Natasha Wimmer, 2003)
    - Paratiisi on nurkan takana (suom. Sulamit Hirvas, 2005)
  • Diario de Irak, 2003 (with Morgana Vargas Llosa)
  • Escritos políticos y morales: Perú, 1954-1965, 2003
  • Palma, valor nacional, 2003
  • Obras completas, 2004 (ed. Antoni Munné)
  • La tentación de lo imposible, 2004
    - The Temptation of the Impossible (translated by John King, 2007)
  • Ensayos literarios, 2005
  • Travesuras de la niña mala, 2006
    - The Bad Girl (translated by Edith Grossman, 2007)
    - Tuhma tyttö (suom. Sulamit Hrvas, 2010)
  • Teatro: obra reunida, 2006
  • Diccionario del amante de América Latina, 2006
  • Israel/Palestina. Paz o guerra santa, 2006 (with Morgana Vargas Llosa)
  • Odiseo y Penélope, 2007 (with Ros Ribas)
  • Touchstones: Essays on Literature, Art and Politics, 2007 (translated and edited by John King)
  • El viaje a la ficción, 2008
  • Al pie del Támesis, 2008 (with Morgana Vargas Llosa)
  • Sables y utopías, 2009 (ed. by Carlos Granés)
    - Sabers and Utopias: Vision of Latin America (translated by Anna Kushner, 2018)
  • Las mil noches y una noche, 2009 (with Ros Ribas)
  • El sueño del celta, 2010
    - The Dream of the Celt (tr. 2012)
    - Keltin uni (suom. Sulamit Hirvas, 2011)
  • Piedra de Toque, 2012 (3 vols.)
  • La civilización del espectáculo, 2012
    - Notes on the Death of Culture (translated by John King, 2015)
  • El héroe discreto, 2013
    - The Discreet Hero (translated by Edith Grossman, 2015)
  • Cinco Esquinas, 2016
    - The Neighborhood (translated by Edith Grossman, 2018)
  • Tiempos recios, 2019
    - Harsh Times (translated by Adrian Nathan West, 2021)
  • La ciudad y los perros, 2020 (edición de Dunia Gras)
  • Medio siglo con Borges, 2020

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