Engaged and sincere

<strong>Touchstones: essays on literature, art and politics</strong>

Mario Vargas Llosa <em>Faber

Noted at the end of each of the essays collected here is the city in which they were written: Lima, Madrid, Paris, London, Washington DC, Berlin . . . If you did not know already, you would think that Mario Vargas Llosa was trying to tell us something: that, for instance, he is a polyglot cosmopolitan, with homes in many cities, as indeed he has. I once interviewed him at one of those homes, his London flat.

Before our meeting, I had considered him to be something of a poseur and dilettante, a self-styled Great Man, in the classic Latin American model - he did, after all, run for the presidency of his native Peru in 1990, losing to Alberto Fujimori, an ethnic Japanese who, as it was pointed out to me, looked not unlike an Inca, and thus by way of these things had the support of the "cholos", of the indigenous poor and the dispossessed. Vargas Llosa, in appearance, attitude and ambition, could not have been mistaken for anything other than what he is: a son of the conquistador elite, the writer-as-public-figure who seeks self-affirmation by locating himself at the very centre of the affairs of the nation.

That evening in London, I was beguiled by Vargas Llosa's elaborate courtesies - but also by his sincerity. He was no poseur. It seemed to me that he meant what he said, and reading these essays I was again impressed by a similar sense of sincerity. At the age of 71, he continues to engage the current moment, whether through writing about the political transformation of Chile or reporting from Iraq or Palestine.

His despatch from Iraq is excellent: urgent and complicated, it has a pace and intensity quite unlike anything else in the book. It also feels cruelly dated - Vargas Llosa was there during June and July 2003, when Saddam Hussein was still free. He is told by one Baghdadi that, in spite of the present suffering, one should be optimistic because "nothing could be worse than Saddam Hussein". Reflecting on what has happened since - the intensification of the insurgency, the mass suicide killings, the hardening of sectarianism and conflict - one can only ask: surely it depends on what you mean by "worse"?

This was not something Vargas Llosa asked himself as he departed Iraq. He had been opposed to the American-led invasion, but now, having spoken to so many Iraqis on the ground, he was unequivocal in supporting it. "All the suffering that the armed intervention has inflicted on the Iraqi people is small compared to the horror they suffered under Saddam Hussein."

There is horror still. What are Vargas Llosa's politics? Like many Latin American intellectuals, he experimented with socialism before settling for a more pragmatic conservatism, influenced by the high-table liberalism of Isaiah Berlin (who, it seems, nearly every cosmopolitan intellectual over the age of 50 likes to claim as a friend and mentor) and Karl Popper. He writes scathingly here of the abuses of what he calls the Fujimori dictatorship in Peru (Fujimori eventually ruled for ten years, before fleeing in disgrace to Japan) and of the failures of the authoritarian regimes, both left and right, in Latin America.

Yet there is a contradiction in his world-view, most evident when he writes about literature and, to a lesser extent, the visual arts. Vargas Llosa is a sensualist and aesthete. He is an advocate of the good and orderly society, of the liberal democratic, yet there is something deep within him that longs imaginatively for disorder and chaos. He is aware of a deep duality in our nature: the conflict between reason and instinct, between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, between self-control and the transgressive. In a fine essay on Death in Venice, he writes with acuity and empathy of the rapid decline, in late middle age, of Thomas Mann's Gustav von Aschenbach, an austere and distinguished writer, a model of rectitude and self-discipline, who, on a trip to Venice, falls uncontrollably in love with a beautiful boy. Von Aschenbach sickens, succumbing entirely to his obsession. His pursuit of the boy brings not release from tortuous desires, but more misery, humiliation and, ultimately, death.

"How can we define this subterranean presence which works of art usually reveal involuntarily . . . [and] without the author's permission?" Vargas Llosa asks. "Freud called it the death wish, Sade desire in freedom and Bataille, evil." What does Vargas Llosa call "it"? Unfortunately, he has little gift for aphorism, so this will have to do: "It is the quest for the integral sovereignty of the individual that predates the conventions and rules that every society - some more, some less - imposes in order to make coexistence possible and prevent society from falling apart and reverting to barbarism."

This slow, stately sentence is characteristic of his often ponderous style. His grand, declamatory tone - "Stand aside, I'm coming through", as it were - is an authorial mannerism, and unintentionally self-parodic. It is as if an issue cannot be resolved until he has written about it.

Vargas Llosa has reached that happy position in which he can write about whatever he wants knowing that he will always be published, and in many languages. It's hard to overestimate how admired he is in the Hispanic world, and his El País column is widely syndicated. Nowadays, though, you seldom meet English-language writers who cite him as an influence, as perhaps they once might have done when Faber first began to translate and publish his early novels in the 1980s. It is almost as if our culture is too sceptical, sophisticated and self-mocking for a writer as earnestly engaged and sincere as Mario Vargas Llosa. We do not like our writers telling us what to read or how to live, and we wouldn't listen anyway if they tried.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 16 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis