Interview with Mario Vargas Llosa
On helping Cuba, the writing life, and why Ortega is nobody's puppet
ISABEL VINCENT | August 27, 2007 |
The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, 71, has devoted much of his long career as a writer and his short career as a politician to fighting authoritarianism in Latin America. In 1990, he ran for president of Peru on a free-market platform. Although he lost to a little-known agronomy professor named Alberto Fujimori, he continued to rail against totalitarianism in both his journalism and novels. He has written more than 30 books, and was a winner of the 1994 Cervantes Prize, the Spanish language's most important literary prize. Vargas Llosa, who began his career as a journalist in Peru, writes regular commentary for newspapers in Spain, where he lives most of the year with his second wife of 41 years, Patricia.
His latest novel, Travesuras de la Niña Mala, which is to be released in an English translation, The Bad Girl, in October, borrows themes from one of his best known works, the semi-autobiographical Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Travesuras de la Niña Mala tells the story of Ricardo, an idealistic translator who leaves Peru to live in Paris, the city of his dreams. But a mysterious woman -- "the bad girl" from his past -- shows up at key moments in his life to torment him.
You have returned to Latin America, specifically to Brazil, to promote the re-release of your first book, La Ciudad y los Perros, published in English in the early 1960s as Time of the Hero. How did you come to write that book and how did it inform the rest of your work and outlook?
It's a novel about my years at military college at the Colegio Militar Leoncio Prado in Peru. My childhood was very sheltered by my mother and my grandparents. The first really traumatic break came when I went away to military school. The place was a real microcosm of Peru, with all the resentments and prejudices that existed in Peruvian society at that time. There were students from every economic class, who had to submit to military discipline. For me, this was completely new and in many ways extremely traumatic. At the same time, the experience was really important for me because that's where I discovered authoritarianism for the first time, and I was physically repelled by it. It was my father's idea to send me to military school thinking that it would "cure" me of literature. But what it ended up doing was giving me great material for my first book.
Authoritarianism is a theme you revisit again and again in your work. In addition to Time of the Hero you returned to the subject seven years ago in The Feast of the Goat, your book about the last days of Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic for 31 years. Totalitarian rulers used to dominate the landscape in Latin America, but over the last several years, democracy seems to have taken a firm hold in the region.
But has Latin America taken a step backward, especially with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998? He has tried to sway elections across the region, and as the leader of the fifth-largest oil producer, he has more than $30 billion a year at his disposal. How much is his influence being felt in Latin America today?
I absolutely hate authoritarianism, on the right and on the left. I had no time for [Augusto] Pinochet, a dictator on the right, when he was in power in Chile. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez is a great example of a dictator on the left, but he is a dinosaur. He is very dangerous, but I think he is no longer having his desired effect.
In Peru, in Colombia, in Mexico, he has tried and failed to influence election results, to support left-wing populists at election time. In Brazil, he tried to seduce [Luis Inácio da Silva] Lula. But while Lula says some very nice things about Chávez, he doesn't do anything he says. Lula has gone his own way, and is an example of the progressive left in Latin America. Lula has actually kept a very tough fiscal policy, and maintained good relations with the United States, which Chávez professes to hate. His [Chávez's] attempt to conquer South America is failing. He was successful in Bolivia with the election of Evo Morales two years ago, but other leftist governments are not following his plans. They are paying lip service, but they are doing other things. They are implementing free market reforms, curbing spending. This is not the Chávez model.