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16 April 2007

Engaged and sincere

Touchstones: Essays on Literature, Art and Politics by Mario Vargas Llosa (Faber)

By Jason Cowley

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.”

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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.

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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.