Conversations in His Cathedral
Why We Love Mario Vargas Llosa
Maybe his best writing days—“Conversation in the Cathedral,” “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,” “The War of the End of the World,” “The Green House” — are, as the critics like to say, over (though I haven’t read his last three). But then, so are Garcia Marquez’s and so, for that matter, are Zola’s, Flaubert’s, Faulkner’s and Twain’s. If death doesn’t diminish stature, why should longevity? Vargas Llosa is still writing and still delivering essay-length or quote-length gems, like this one in last Saturday’s Journal: “I think that literature has the important effect of creating free, independent, critical citizens who cannot be manipulated.”
The Journal piece was a good summation of Vargas Llosa’s hatred of dictatorships and love of literature as one of the means of defeating them. He—appropriately—excoriates Venezuela’s Chavez for his latest blunder (his refusal to renew the license of a television station that had been critical of his ways and means), but also puts it in context: Chavez is no Castro, and popular opposition there is still alive. But infringements of free speech are inexcusable. And remediable: “It is such infringements of free speech that highlight why in places like Latin America,” writes Emily Parker in her column-profile,
reading a good novel can be much more than just a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. "I think in countries where basic problems are still unresolved, where a society remains so traumatized by deep conflicts--as in Latin America or in Third World countries in general--the novel is not only a form of entertainment, but it substitutes for something that these societies are not accustomed to seeing--information, for example," Mr. Vargas Llosa says. "If you live in a country where there is nothing comparable to free information, often literature becomes the only way to be more or less informed about what's going on." Literature can also be a form of resistance, perhaps the only way to express discontent in the absence of political parties.
Parker, writing in the Journal as she does, can’t help noting how Vargas Llosa did a 180 on the Iraq invasion. He initially opposed it. “But then he went to Iraq and heard accounts of life under Saddam Hussein.” He did. Even wrote a book about it called “Diario de Irak.” What Parker doesn’t tell you is that Llosa’s trip goes back to the immediate aftermath of the American invasion, in July 2003, so the account, as a New Statesman essay by Jason Cowley noted more recently, “feels cruelly dated.” Cowley notes of that book that Vargas Llosa “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’?” At any rate, what Vargas Llosa thinks of the Iraqi situation now isn’t made clear, so Cowley picks up where Parker leaves off:
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.
And as Vargas Llosa wrote in “In Praise of the Stepmother,” “Fantasy gnaws life away, thank God.”