The Novelist’s Trade
A Writer’s Reality.
by Mario Vargas Llosa.
Edited, with an introduction, by Myron I. Lichtblau. Syracuse University Press. 184 pp. $24.95.
For the last 25 years, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has been known to connoisseurs of fiction as one of the greatest living novelists (The Time of the Hero, The Green House, Conversations in the Cathedral). And over the last ten years he has emerged as one of the leading “public intellectuals” of Latin America, challenging the asphyxiating statism which, he holds, is largely responsible for the backwardness of that continent—a point of view set forth in a series of essays published in Spanish under the title Contra viento y marea (“Against Wind and Tide”). Two years ago he moved from polemics to politics proper, running for the presidency of his unhappy country. Defeated by an unscrupulous opportunist (whose just punishment is now to govern that hopeless land), Vargas Llosa has been released to return to the republic of letters. We—if not the Peruvians—are much the richer for it.
If evidence were needed, we have here his latest volume, A Writer’s Reality, which brings together a series of lectures Vargas Llosa delivered in 1988 at Syracuse University. These talks—which are really spoken essays—deal with the task of being a writer, and at the same time they constitute something of an intellectual and artistic autobiography. Chapter by chapter, Vargas Llosa moves us through his entire ouevre, and explains the particular issues and problems he has chosen to address in each of his novels. He also reveals some of the tricks of the novelist’s trade. In fact, I know of no work, not even Henry James’s The Art of Fiction, which so lucidly explains what a novelist does and how he does it. Better still, one need not have read any of Vargas Llosa’s books to follow his argument, though after reading these witty and stimulating commentaries few will be able to resist the temptation.
Vargas Llosa is what used to be called a liberal intellectual—he evokes the period, almost lost to us now, when literature and its problems were the proper concern of every educated person, and when literary criticism was meant for potential or real consumers of literature, not—as today—merely for other critics. He also seeks to break down the artificial barrier between popular and high culture (though not in the way that this is being done today in American and some European universities). His argument is that fiction is a deep human necessity, and we will find it where we can—if not in novels, then in soap operas, gossip, legends, or what have you. In the case of Latin America, “one of our worst defects, our best fictions, is to believe that our miseries have been imposed on us from abroad, that others . . . have always been responsible for our problems.”
In these lectures, Vargas Llosa reveals himself also as a cultural commentator of no mean importance, and coming from a country on the margins of Western civilization, he unashamedly confirms the centrality and value of that civilization. On the subject of the Spanish conquest of Peru, he throws down the gauntlet to “multiculturalists” past and present:
. . . something new and exotic had germinated in the history of man. In [Spanish] culture, although injustice and abuse often favored by religion had proliferated, . . . a social space of human activities had evolved that was neither legislated nor controlled by those in power . . . this new society would give way to the creation of the individual as the sovereign source of values by which society would be judged.
Those who, rightly so, are shocked by the abuses and crimes of the conquest, must bear in mind that the first men to condemn them and ask that they be brought to an end were men . . . who came to America with the conquistadores and abandoned the ranks in order to collaborate with the vanquished. . . .
They fought against their fellow men and against the policies of their own country in the name of moral principle that to them was higher than any principle of nation or state. This self-determination could not have been possible among the Inca or any of the other pre-Hispanic cultures. . . .
The first culture to interrogate and question itself, the first to break up the masses into individual beings who with time gradually gained the right to think and act for themselves, was to become, thanks to that unknown exercise, freedom, the most powerful civilization in our world.
This is only one of the startling aperçus which Vargas Llosa manages to pack into fewer than 200 pages. Those pages also include, in addition to the spirited commentary on his own work, a discussion of the division between Latin American intellectual elites and the ordinary people; reflections on the peculiar prejudices of foreign visitors to Latin America; thoughts on the problem of the “committed” writer—a vindication of Jorge Luis Borges; and a defense of literary cosmopolitanism. In all, A Writer’s Reality is one of the most important, readable, and entertaining books to appear in years. Let us hope that Vargas Llosa will take time out frequently from the act of creation to give us more like it.