Who is the real Mario Vargas Llosa?

October 20, 2012
Mario Vargas Llosa.

I deplore his politics, yet cannot help admiring his fiction. Are there two Mario Vargas Llosas out there? Will the real one please stand up?

Like the conflicted characters who populate his novels, the Peruvian novelist, 2010 Nobel laureate and one-time Peruvian presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa embodies contradictory tendencies that make him difficult to dismiss entirely as a rightist reactionary (though it is certainly tempting at times).

Born in Arequipa, 1936, Vargas Llosa was raised in Lima where he attended the elite Leoncio Prado cadet academy in a time of military dictatorship. His brutal experiences there formed the basis of his first novel, The Time of the Hero(1963).

So incensed were the generals by Vargas Llosa’s left-leaning critique of their system that they had a thousand copies publicly burned. In European exile, the novelist fell in with a circle of expatriate left-wing intellectuals that included the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Like them, he supported the Cuban revolution and reportedly even belonged to a secret revolutionary cell that dreamed of bringing socialism to Peru. Novels such as Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) offered further condemnation of right-wing authoritarian government, attracting international progressive readership.

By the early 1970s, however, Vargas Llosa’s politics had begun to shift to the right. The infamous 1976 fight with Garcia Marquez in Mexico City, in which Vargas Llosa punched the Colombian in the face, dramatically symbolised this transition, as did Vargas Llosa’s spiteful labelling of Garcia Marquez as “Castro’s courtesan”.

Vargas Llosa unsuccessfully ran for Peruvian president in 1990 on a centre-right ticket, campaigning for “austerity” and spruiking the neoliberal cause of privatisation and “free trade”.

He now regrets his foray into politics, and describes himself as an old-fashioned “liberal”. But Vargas Llosa still offers right-wing commentary on a range of issues (such as supporting the 2009 US-backed coup against democratically elected Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya).

Yet, in spite of his decades-long association with the predatory forces of neoliberalism and the Latin American right, we find in the ambitious historical novel The Dream of the Celt (2010) a searing indictment of capitalist imperialism’s genocidal assault on the population of the developing world. The contradiction is intriguing, to say the least.

Set in the early years of the 20th century, the novel’s protagonist is real life Anglo-Irish anti-imperialist and human rights pioneer Roger Casement, hardly a typical hero for your average right-winger.

At the novel's outset, Casement is a true believer in the “civilising” mission of European imperialism. But Casement's experiences in Africa gradually open his eyes to the realities of resource exploitation.

After winning fame for tabling an expose of the horrors of the Belgian rubber industry in the Congo, Casement was despatched by the British Foreign Office to the Peruvian Amazon to investigate the practices of the Anglo-Peruvian Rubber Company.

What he found there was every bit as shocking as the Congo. Financed by British investors, the Peruvian rubber lord Julio C Arana had established a private fiefdom in the jungle, converting it into a veritable death camp for indigenous people.

As in the Congo, countless victims were ruthlessly consumed by the global economy’s insatiable hunger for the hot commodity of the day, rubber.

A feted diplomat knighted by the British establishment, Casement later fell spectacularly from grace. Having made a connection between Africa, South America and British-ruled Ireland, Casement dedicated his life to the cause of Irish independence.

Irish people, he concluded, were suffering under the same imperialist yoke as the peoples of the Congo or the Peruvian selva. Granted, the brutality was less extreme, but their root condition was the same.

Casement’s insight, the outcome of years of reflection, remains a valuable lesson in international anti-imperialist solidarity today.

With World War I raging, Casement secretly travelled to Germany in search of arms and military assistance for the Irish independence movement. It was a desperate and ultimately fruitless move, a by-product perhaps of the trauma that Casement was undoubtedly suffering as a result of his exposure to the horrors of the jungle.

Convicted of treason in the aftermath of the failed Easter Uprising, Casement was hanged in 1916.

He still remains an overlooked figure in Ireland (largely because of the explicit gay content in his so-called Black Diaries, which were dredged up by British intelligence in order to discredit him in the public eye).

The best historical novels are never just about the past, they also indirectly reflect present-day trends and developments. Today, as Vargas Llosa is well aware, Peru is a country seething with social conflict between peasant/indigenous communities and global mining giants.

It might be said that there are a thousand Julio Aranas stalking the land, not harvesting rubber, but tapping the gas and digging up the minerals.

In describing the exploitative crimes of a century ago, is Vargas Llosa offering an oblique comment about the state of contemporary Peru? Does The Dream of the Celt herald some sort of leftward shift in Vargas Llosa’s thinking?

Then again, is it just a case of disconnection between Vargas Llosa’s literary and political selves?

Or has the multinational corporate exploitation of Peru now reached such a debased point that it is forcing even “Andean Thatcherite” ideologues like Vargas Llosa to reconsider their pro-market position? These are some of the questions that came to mind when reading the novel.

Then again, is a novel like The Dream of the Celt merely an outburst of hypocrisy? Certainly many critics on the Peruvian left have charged Vargas Llosa with that, and one can understand their point.

At what point do obliqueness and subtlety (which are literary virtues) become mere evasiveness in the face of ongoing monumental injustice?

Perhaps it is time for Vargas Llosa to offer more direct criticism of the “free trade” policies that are pillaging his native country.

As a “liberal” intellectual supposedly critical of authoritarianism of any political hue, it is long overdue for Vargas Llosa to recognise that the tyranny of the market is as dangerous and dehumanising as any he has previously condemned. His upcoming novel, reportedly set in contemporary Peru, will be an interesting cipher.

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