Sunday, 14 April 2013

Mario Vargas Llosa in 10 Books



My first encounter with Mario Vargas Llosa dates back to 2010. Just to make it clear, I did not read him because of the Nobel Prize – I’m not that shallow a reader. Just a few months before the announcement I read The Bad Girl, at the time the latest novel he had finished, and thoroughly enjoyed. Later I was told by better-read fans of Vargas Llosa that this wasn’t one of his best novels, and nowadays I agree with that, but for me it was a solid, gripping and well written introduction. The novel follows Ricardo Somocurcio, a Peruvian expatriate and translator, in his decades-long chance meetings with a woman he met in Lima when they were teenagers and who became the true love of his life, even though she never reciprocated his feelings. As a study of the follies of love I thought it was quite good, and in spite of the naysayers I recommend it. Then for my second reading I got The Time of the Hero, the first novel he had written. And this is more in tune with his usual work: mixed storylines, carefully-controlled shifts from third to first person narrative, a delicate manipulation from temporal events. In his first novel Vargas Llosa laid down the blueprint for most of his future novels. The story itself follows the lives of several cadets in the Military College Leoncio Prado, where young men are supposedly educated to become heroes for the fatherland but in fact is a den of drinking, gambling and vice. When a cadet dies during a training, Lieutenant Gamboa is led to believe the boy may have been murdered by a classmate and starts slowly unravelling the corruption running rampart under the lax attention of the authorities. This novel was a more complicated and not as immediately-satisfying read than The Bad Girl but with time I’ve come to appreciate it more.

Then Vargas Llosa received the Nobel Prize, and I joined an online reading group of The War of the End of the World, whose review is posted on St. Orberose. A 700-page historical novel about the Brazilian civil war of Canudos, to me it’s the author’s masterpiece and my favourite work by him. Before the end of the year I still found time to read The Dream of the Celt, another historical novel about Roger Casement, a civil rights pioneer who headed investigations into the rubber plantation crimes in Congo and Peru. Casement was also an Irish nationalist and was executed after a botched rebellion. With this novel, which was good but no exceptional, I started seeing another pattern in Vargas Llosa’s fiction: his fascination with history and real-life figures.

The reading order starts becoming fuzzy. I think next I read The Feast of the Goat, another historical novel about the assassination of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. It’s another masterpiece and on the level of The War of the End of the World. The novel interweaves three different storylines: the return of Urania, an expatriate living in the USA, to the Dominican Republic decades after the assassination of Trujillo; the days preceding Trujillo’s car ambush that ended in his death; and the chapters exploring the lives of the conspirators before and after the assassination. This was a dark, violent novel that laid bare the regime’s abuses of power and sadism. The punishment meted out to the conspirators involves some of the most horrible things I’ve ever read. And the secret Urania carries with her, the revelation of which is elegantly postponed by the author until the end, turns her into a metaphor for what Trujillo did to the country.

Next came, I think, The Storyteller. And this was the novel that started opening fissures in my admiration of Vargas Llosa. The novel, like all others, combines different storylines, in this case just two: one is told by the novel’s narrator, who once knew a man who may have become a storyteller in an Amazonian tribe; and the second narrative corresponds to the tales told by this storyteller. I absolutely hated the storyteller’s sections.

Things improved with Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which revealed yet another facet of Vargas Llosa’s work: his talent for comedy. Autobiographical, the novel is about Varguitas, an aspiring writer working for a radio station, and his infatuation with his older aunt, Julia. Fighting against poverty, family and society, the two lovers get themselves involved in a long series of hilarious travails to get married. It’s one of the funniest and sweetest books by him. But like in The Storyteller, I only appreciated the half about the lovers. The other half is about a hack writer of soap operas, Pedro Camacho. Half the novel is descriptions of episodes from his soap operas, and they’re genuinely awful. There’s something admirable, insanely heroic even, about Vargas Llosa deliberately writing bad fiction for purposes of satire, but the problem of satire is that you end up becoming the thing you satirise. And so half the novel is unreadable garbage.

The two books I read next didn’t reconcile me with Vargas Llosa. The Cubs and other stories is arguably the weakest book I’ve read by him. It’s the first book he published and you can see the young but serious writer trying very hard to impress with opaque prose and nihilistic sentiments. Fortunately he learned to relax. The Green House is undeniably a superior example of writing, the archetypical Vargas Llosa novel: abrupt shifts of perspective, dense stream-of-consciousness, non-linear storylines. I admire the execution but I didn’t feel anything for it. I was getting worried I was never going to enjoy his novels again.

Reading Conversations in the Cathedral has therefore been a balm. It’s the sort of intricate, perfectly-constructed, polyphonic novel I encountered in my early experiences with the author.

Santiago Zavala, journalist for a sleazy newspaper, unexpectedly finds an old acquaintance in a dog pound while looking for his missing dog. Ambrosio, living an abject existence killing dogs in the dog pound, was once chauffer of Zavalita’s father, a businessman already dead at the time of this meeting. For many years Zavalita has been haunted by the suspicion that his father, Don Fermín, was implicated in the murder of an underworld figure, a cabaret singer called Hortensia. Sitting down with Ambrosio in a bar called The Cathedral, they start reminiscing about the fifties, when Peru was under the rule of dictator Manuel A. Odría.

Don Fermín, in spite of his ties with the regime, loves his son and envisions a successful future as lawyer for him. Zavalita, however, resents him and enrols in the National University of San Marcos, a hotbed of left-wing activity, where he briefly flirts with the activist group Cahuide, just to spite his father. He experiences initial insecurities about integrating the group because of his bourgeois background. “The best revolutionaries came out from the bourgeoisie,” one of the Cahuide reassures Zavalita when declares in a meeting that he’s the son of Fermín Zavala. But his revolutionary career is interrupted when authorities detain him and his friends, and his father has to his influence with Cayo Bermúdez, the violent minister of police, to release him. Embarassed and anodyne, Santiago chooses to leave an independent life cultivating mediocrity, neglecting his studies and becoming more and more involved in his journalistic work for La Crónica, a second-rate newspaper. Zavalita’s lack of willpower becomes a metaphor for Peru itself. “The truth is I’m disoriented. I know what I don’t want to be, but not what I would like to be. I don’t want to be a lawyer, or rich, or important, uncle. I don’t want to be at fifty what my father is, what my father’s friends are,” he says to his uncle, who fails to convince him to go back to studies. As journalist, Zavalita starts sleeping during the day and living a bohemian life during the night, settling into the cosy insignificance of his job. Later he marries a nurse from the lower class, breaking his mother’s heart.

Although he spends years trying to ignore his family, it is his job at La Crónica that reunites him with his father. One day a woman named Hortensia shows up dead. The ex-lover of Cayo Bermúdez, the minister in charge of political repression in Peru, she falls into poverty when the fearful minister loses favour with Odría and is forced to travel abroad. A former businessman until his friend Colonel Espina invites him to work for the government, Cayo quickly rises in the government’s ranks and becomes a symbol of torture, arrests and abuse of power in the dictatorship. Like in The Feast of the Goat, Vargas Llosa triumphs in showing the complex inner workings of a dictatorship and its many-sided effects on society.

When La Crónica starts investigating the murder of Hortensia, Zavalitas is loaned to Becerrita, the editor of the crime section, to help him out in the macabre investigation in order to crank out more lurid details and keep the story alive to sell more newspapers. But they investigate so thoroughly, surpassing even the cops, that Zavalita discovers ties to his father. During this part of the novel the tension grew to gut-wrenching heights I hadn’t experienced in years, at least not since re-reading James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. Although the investigation runs into a dead end, the case continues to torment him for years. The mystery is too interesting to reveal it. I’ll just repeat that for a hundred pages or so it becomes one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read.

Although Zavalita abandoned political activism after his college years, and withdrew into his own world, even stopping to read newspapers, he never makes peace with his father. Ironically only Ambrosio defends his former master, insisting that he had a kinder nature than his son thought. Indeed Don Fermín, like all the characters in the novel, is multi-layered. Although he originally has ties with the regime he loses his contracts and nearly ruins his family when he joins a coup that is later stopped. And regardless of his political connections, his love for Zavalita is never put into question.

Conversations in the Cathedral is one of Mario Vargas Llosa’s best novels. It’s the kind of novel I needed to restore my faith in this great novelist. It showcases all his tricks in their most refined instances: non-linear storylines, multiple narratives, a wide array of voices, irony, humour, incisive social commentary and extraordinary gifts for creating a captivating story.

21 comments:

  1. Nice to hear that you have finally read it. Totally agree, it's my personal favorite of his novels. I read it straight after the Green House, if memory serves me well. I kept track of all the different people by making a large diagram with all the characters and their relationships. As in the Green House it can be quite confusing sometimes. There are so many characters and they are addressed with varying names and quite often one only learns late into the novel about important connections.

    Just to let you know, I only read him after his Nobel win, haha :) I had heard of him before, of course, but the nobel discussion was the final trigger for me at the time after I had postponed reading him for many years. I do not think this says anything about what kind of reader one is. It does not matter what exactly brings one to read a great author. In this sense the Nobel is not different from any other form of recommendation, like other prizes, articles by critics or journalists, blog-posts, well-read friends, movie adaptations that one has seen etc. The same with Mo Yan last year. He had been on my reading list for several years. In his case the Nobel was the final trigger. For others authors there are other triggers.

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    1. Birne, I was only joking. It makes no difference to me how one discovers a writer.

      This book forms a nice trilogy with The Time of the Hero and The Green House, in terms of complexity and a certain narrative opaqueness, like Vargas Llosa is deliberately trying to be difficult. There's a noticeable progression of obscurity in each book. The Green House did that trick with characters having multiple names, this book does with when conversations abruptly shift from one period to another, from one interlocutor to another. Vargas Llosa was really testing his readers. I fear I failed in The Green House but did better in Conversation.

      Interestingly his novels relaxed a bit and became clearer afterwards. There's a clear turning point in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and although novels The War of the End of the World and The Feast of the Goat continue to rely on non-linear narratives and multiple strands, they've also become more conventional.

      It's great when one has read so much by an author that he's capable of making all these observations in his oeuvre :)

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    2. Indeed.

      With respect to the complexity of his early books, I guess one probably can blame his youth and ambition ;) maybe he came to the conclusion (after the cathedral book) that he had achieved everything he could in this narrative direction or something, just guessing...

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    3. Yes, I think the same too. He was clearly passionate in those early novels, wanted to take the world by storm :)

      Still I think his post-Cathedral work is very powerful and well-written, I personally love The War of the End of the World and think it's one of the best novels I've ever read, but I'm crazy about the War of Canudos so that may cloud my judgment...

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  2. I'm slowly getting around to reading some Spanish- (and Portuguese-!)language classics, so I'm sure I'll be putting Llosa on my library wishlist before long. What would you recommend as a first book?

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    1. Well, Tony, I think The Feast of the Goat and The War of the End of the World are quite approachable and gripping. Vargas Llosa's style and techniques are all contained in these two books, so you can decide if he's for you or not.

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    2. Hmm. Just finished 'The Feast of the Goat', and I wasn't overly impressed. It was OK, but definitely not up there with the wonderful style of Samarago and Marías (or Borges!). Perhaps I need one which *isn't* quite so approachable ;)

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    3. Mario Vargas Llosa was one of the voices of the Latin American Boom that didn't care about magical realism, so he's in fact nothing like Borges or Gabrcía Márquez. He's a realist and his influences are clearly Flaubertian, although I read Faulkner is also seminal to his work.

      I certainly rank him below Saramago, but I admire the consistence of his work. I've written before: García Márquez may have written one great novel, but most of his work is very weak; Vargas Llosa perhaps never wrote anything as powerful or game-changing as Solitude, but he maintains a high level of quality throughout his work.

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    4. Perhaps he's a writer I'll struggle with then - certainly, I found 'The Feats of the Goat' to be nothing special. From what you wrote in the post, 'Conversations in the Cathedral' might be a better bet...

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    5. 'The Feast of the Goat', I mean.

      'The Feats of the Goat' may have actually been a better book ;)

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    6. That one sounds like magical realist territory, not MVL's cup of tea :)

      But damn it, what would be the goat's feats? Now I wonder.

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    7. Seventy-five pages into 'Conversations in the Cathedral', and after the disappointment of the goat book, I'm starting to think 'so, *that's* why he won a Nobel Prize' ;)

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    8. So you're you enjoying it, Tony?

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  3. My Vargas Llosa autobiography is simple. I read The Storyteller when it came out in English, in 1989 or 1990, and have never read another book, even though some of them - the Canudos book especially - are highly appealing. No good reason. I just read that instead of this.

    It is a pleasure to read a more complete, thoughtful history.

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    1. I can't imagine a worse introduction save for The Cubs and other stories. That novel is dull and, to me, doesn't have a point.

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  4. I already knew I had to get this but now all the sooner. Thanksdammit.

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  5. Miguel, just to clarify, I believe the work in translation you're referring to as The Cubs and Other Stories is actually a hodgepodge of Vargas Llosa's 1959 short story collection Los jefes and his 1967 novella Los cachorros [The Puppies or The Cubs]. I haven't read either, but I think this might complicate your timeline. I've started La casa verde twice without being able to get into the flow of it yet, so my personal V-Ll faves at present (w/their English titles) would look something like The Time of the Hero for its tight pace and plotting, The War of the End of the World for its monumental and juicy storytelling, Conversation in the Cathedral for its challenging confrontational storytelling style and political edge, and The Feast of the Goat for its pace and characterziation. You succintly described many of the things I enjoy about Vargas Llosa's writing in your post, but I'm also troubled by him at times for what seems like gratuitous rape/violence scenes and other heavyhandedness. He sure knows how to tell a compelling story, though!

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    1. Richard, from what I read in wiki, since 1980 Los Jefes have been published with Los cachorros. For me it's still his first book, but it's remarkable how the 1967 novella resembles the 1959 stories so much. Indeed his ability to tell a compelling story, as you put, was sorely lacking in both :)

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    2. Miguel, the ironic thing is I've almost bought a standalone version of Los cachorros on Cátedra (one of my favorite Spanish publishing houses) several times now but haven't largely because I didn't want to have to buy Los jefes separately. Now that I've seen your opinion of those two works, though, maybe it's just as well I save them for later! Had a happy surprise at my local foreign language bookstore today--found a copy of Borges' Textos cautivos, which was wonderful timing because my library recall of the book hasn't yet come in.

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    3. I thought you had read Textos Cautivos already, happy reading, they're some of the best stuff Borges wrote on literature! I like to re-read them from time to time, Borges' thoughts on literature are so original and entertaining.

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