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Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa
A Life of Writing

In this first comprehensive intellectual biography of the prolific Nobel laureate, a preeminent scholar of Hispanic studies examines Mario Vargas Llosa’s multifaceted literary career, spanning the polemics of the Latin American literary boom through five reflective novels published around the turn of the twenty-first century.

December 2014
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248 pages | 6 x 9 |

Awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010 at the age of seventy-four, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has held pivotal roles in the evolution and revolutions of modern Latin American literature. Perhaps surprisingly, no complete history of Vargas Llosa’s works, placed in biographical and historical context, has been published—until now. A masterwork from one of America’s most revered scholars of Latin American fiction, Mario Vargas Llosa: A Life of Writing provides a critical overview of Vargas Llosa’s numerous novels while reinvigorating debates regarding conventional interpretations of the work.

Weaving analysis with discussions of the writer’s political commentary, Raymond Leslie Williams traces the author’s youthful identity as a leftist student of the 1960s to a repudiation of some of his earlier ideas beginning in the 1980s. Providing a unique perspective on the complexity, nuance, and scope of Vargas Llosa’s lauded early novels and on his passionate support of indigenous populations in his homeland, Williams then turns his eye to the recent works, which serve as a bridge between the legacies of the Boom and the diverse array of contemporary Latin American fiction writers at work today. In addition, Williams provides a detailed description of Vargas Llosa’s traumatic childhood and its impact on him—seen particularly in his lifelong disdain for authority figures—as well as of the authors who influenced his approach, from Faulkner to Flaubert. Culminating in reflections drawn from Williams’s formal interviews and casual conversations with the author at key phases of both men’s careers, this is a landmark publication that will spark new lines of inquiry into an intricate body of work.



Part I. An Intellectual Biography

Part II. A Novelist for the Twenty-First Century

Part III. Rereading Vargas Llosa


Appendix 1. An Interview with Mario Vargas Llosa

Appendix 2. Fiction of Mario Vargas Llosa

Appendix 3. Selected Essays of Mario Vargas Llosa


Works Cited



RAYMOND LESLIE WILLIAMS is Distinguished Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. His previous books include The Twentieth-Century Spanish American Novel; The Writings of Carlos Fuentes; and The Colombian Novel, 1844–1987.



Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the major Latin American writers and public intellectuals of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He is also one of the most prolific, widely read, and polemical writers of the Spanish language of any period. Among his predecessors in receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature who wrote in Spanish—Octavio Paz, Camilo José Cela, Gabriel García Márquez, Vicente Aleixandre, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Gabriela Mistral, Jacinto Benavente, and José Echegaray—Vargas Llosa is the only one who is still living, actively engaged in writing and the focus of cultural and political debate throughout the Hispanic world. Among the writers of the much-heralded 1960s Boom of the Latin American novel— Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, García Márquez, José Donoso—Vargas Llosa is the only one still actively engaged in the writing of fiction: Cortázar, Fuentes, and Donoso are now deceased, and García Márquez, in his eighties, has become less visible and productive in recent years. In November 2010, approximately one month after receiving his telephone call from Peter Englund on behalf of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, however, Vargas Llosa, at the age of seventy-four, came forth with his sixteenth novel, El sueño del celta.

Since the publication of José Miguel Oviedo’s pioneer early book, Mario Vargas Llosa: La invención de una realidad (1970 and 1982), critical studies on Vargas Llosa’s work have been continual and abundant; these analyses offer a wide range of formal study, as well as an eclectic body of textual, political, feminist, and psychological readings. Of the latter, Roy Boland has published Mario Vargas Llosa: Oedipus and the Papa State (1988), the first book-length consideration of trauma in Vargas Llosa’s work.

To some extent, this book is a consideration of the literary consequences, in the twenty-first century, of Vargas Llosa’s Oedipus complex as introduced in Boland’s book. My readings have been informed by the work of Cathy Caruth (Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History), Sigmund Freud (Beyond the Pleasure Principle), Arthur W. Frank (The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics), Judith Hehrman (Trauma and Recovery), and David Aberbach (Surviving Trauma: Loss, Literature, and Psychoanalysis). My intention is not to “apply” any of their theories; rather, my understanding of trauma and how it works owes much to these informed scholars. A recent volume on the politics of Vargas Llosa, published in 2010 under the title Vargas Llosa and Latin American Politics (Juan E. De Castro and Nicholas Birns, editors) is testimony to the ongoing current interest in the work of one of Latin America’s most controversial Nobel laureates. More recently, Efraín Kristal and John King have co-edited a volume of the latest valuable readings of Vargas Llosa’s novels. This current study, however, is the first singleauthored book on Vargas Llosa’s complete twentiethand twenty-firstcentury fiction.

In recent years, several lines of critical thought or narratives have dominated the public and scholarly image of this writer and his work. On the one hand, journalists and some scholars have claimed, since the 1970s, that the literary success of Vargas Llosa and other writers of the 1960s Boom is primarily the product of slick marketing by multinational publishing companies. This narrative, which began with early commentaries by the renowned and now deceased Uruguayan critic Ángel Rama, who believed that writers dedicated to “transculturation,” such as José María Arguedas, Juan Rulfo, and García Márquez, practiced a more valid form of literary expression than the more cosmopolitan Fuentes and Vargas Llosa. Hernán Vidal’s book on the 1960s Boom also argues that the fiction of Vargas Llosa and his cohorts was of no more, and perhaps less, merit than a long list of other Latin American writers who have been overshadowed by the marketing expertise of multinational companies operating in Latin America, Europe, and the United States.

A second line of thought or critical narrative is slightly more forgiving: Vargas Llosa admittedly wrote three novels with complex and nuanced representations of Peruvian and Latin American reality during the 1960s Boom—La ciudad y los perros (1963), La casa verde (1966), and Conversación en La Catedral (1969)—but since then his work has been less complex and significant. Within this line of thought are a substantive set of critical pieces that are basically negative toward Vargas Llosa’s writing.

A third line of thought, common among U.S. academics in Latin American studies, is that Vargas Llosa simply has become too politically conservative and narrow to be of interest today; these commentaries often claim that his vision as a writer is negative toward women, ethnic minorities, and other groups that do not belong to the social and political elites of Peru or other parts of Latin America. These three broadly described critical narratives contain several kinds of more in-depth, detailed analysis and argument, some of which I find useful and productive for the reading of this author, as will be discussed in parts I and II of this book.

The central focus of this book, however, is to question the critical lacunae and critical misrepresentations of Vargas Llosa’s writing of the twenty-first century. The structure of this study is an outline for my engagement with these discussions. In part I, “An Intellectual Biography,” I provide a chronological overview of Vargas Llosa’s complete work, with particular attention to the writer’s political essays and interviews on political topics. Thus, I will trace his political thought in essays, interviews, and novels as it has changed from his strident leftist declarations in the
1960s to his repudiation of some of these ideas in the 1980s, the 1990s, and the early twenty-first century. I will also sketch out Vargas Llosa’s polemical ideas on indigenous groups in Latin America. I begin part I with a detailed description of the writer’s traumatic childhood and later connect this childhood experience with his lifetime critique of authority figures.

Part II, “A Novelist for the Twenty-First Century,” is the centerpiece of this book and focuses on Vargas Llosa’s five novels published in the late twentieth and twenty-first century: Lituma en los Andes (1993), La fiesta del Chivo (2000), El paraíso en la otra esquina (2003), Travesuras de la niña mala (2006), and El sueño del celta (2010). I discuss the ways in which these works are comparable in complexity, nuance, scope, and significance to his more generally lauded works of the 1960s—La ciudad y los perros, La casa verde, and Conversación en La Catedral. My focus on the five novels of the twenty-first century makes this book the first comprehensive study of Vargas Llosa’s novels with emphasis on the later fiction.

In part III, “Rereading Vargas Llosa,” I provide an overview of Vargas Llosa’s eleven other novels, from La ciudad y los perros (1963) to Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto (1997), the fictional work of the twentieth century. I do not discuss these novels work by work. Rather, I establish some topics that are constant throughout Vargas Llosa’s career, and offer analysis of them in the context of several works. These topics are the novels that are his “entertainments,” his work as a modernist and a postmodernist, and his work reread in an ecocritical context.

In the epilogue, I have added a personal touch to this study of Vargas Llosa and his work, beginning with a description of Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize week in Stockholm in December 2010. In the remainder of the epilogue I move backward in time, from 2011 to 1968, describing and quoting from my formal interviews and informal conversations with Vargas Llosa. In the process, I offer final brief reflections on the writer and his work.

This is my third book on this author, and over the years, numerous individuals—more than I can possibly name here—have contributed to my work on Mario Vargas Llosa. As is evident in part I and the interviews I cite in part III, I have been fortunate to count on the good will, patience, and time of Mario Vargas Llosa and his wife, Patricia. Patricia and Vargas Llosa’s secretarial staff in Lima, headed by Rosario de Bedoya, also have been exceptionally generous and helpful in my research trips to Peru. Lucía Muñoz Nájar and María Carmen Ghezzi, as a part of that staff, were also kind and helpful. Vargas Llosa’s nowdeceased mother, Dora de Vargas, generously gave me the only interview she ever conceded to an academic or journalist. I cite this interview briefly in this book, and I thank the family for that special opportunity in May 1991. Dr. Peter T. Johnson and his colleagues at the library of Princeton University kindly made Vargas Llosa’s letters and manuscripts available to me.

When I was an undergraduate student at Washington State University, Professors Robert Knox and Wolfgang A. Luchting introduced me to Vargas Llosa’s work, and I remain indebted to them to this day. Knox, in fact, first made me aware of Vargas Llosa’s concept of the “communicating vessels” as it appeared in none other than the obscure Spanish novelist Pérez de Ayala. José Miguel Oviedo was never a classroom teacher of mine, but I have benefited so much over the years from his informed work on Vargas Llosa that I feel obliged to recognize him as a mentor. Much closer personal mentors, John S. Brushood and Raymond D. Souza, have contributed much to my ability to read and write about Vargas Llosa in the early stages.

Conversations with R. H. Moreno-Durán, Darío Jaramillo, Germán Vargas, Arthur Flemming, Raymond D. Souza, John Ganim, Malcom Bader, and Carlos Fuentes have afforded valuable insights, over the years, about Vargas Llosa, his interlocutors, and related subjects.

For this most recent study in particular, I am grateful for the support for my research efforts provided by the chair of the Department of Hispanic Studies, David Herzberger, and the dean of the college, Stephen Cullenberg, at the University of California, Riverside, as well as Arnold Baas at UCLA. Graduate students in several recent seminars provided an ideal dialogic setting for my work on Vargas Llosa’s twenty-first-century novels to advance, and I am particularly appreciative of the insights of Diana Dodson Lee and Charles Stuart.

Readers César Ferreira, Arthur Flemming, and Thomas Schneider improved the manuscript and research assistants Enrique Salas-Durazo, Julio Enríquez-Arnelas, and Judy Jiménez were always efficient and reliable. Without the exceptional support and sacrifice of my wife, Pamela, this project would be unthinkable. I thank Casey Kittrell of the University of Texas Press for his superb work in taking the manuscript through the final stages to publication.

I certainly do not wish to hold any of these individuals accountable for any shortcomings the book may have; rather, I hope they may find some satisfaction that suitably rewards their friendly cooperation.


“ Over the decades, Williams has enjoyed a flourishing relationship with his subject, and that is reflected in details he offers about Vargas Llosa's private persona.  Williams's riveting portrait of a remarkable and prolific savant immersed in his intellectual interests and a citizen of the world is not to be missed. Essential.”

“An excellent study that synthesizes well the major points of the Peruvian writer’s career and the controversies it has provoked.”
David William Foster, Regents’ Professor of Spanish and Women and Gender Studies, Arizona State University