Vargas Llosa, Mario

Biography

Mario Vargas Llosa speaking

Image by Casa de America/CC Licensed

Peruvian novelist, essayist, journalist, literary critic and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa was born in Arequipa, Peru, in 1936. He attended Leoncio Prado Military Academy from 1950 to 1952 and Colegio Nacional San Miguel de Piura  in 1952. From 1955 to 1957, he studied Literature and Law at the University of San Marcos. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Madrid in 1959, writing his doctoral dissertation on Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Vargas Llosa’s first renowned novel was La ciudad y los perros (The Time of the Hero, 1963), set in the Leoncio Prado Military Academy where the author had been a student. The novel was immediately translated into many languages and received worldwide acclaim as well as several prestigious awards. In the 1960s, Mario Vargas Llosa became known for his innovative narrative techniques after publishing three novels with experimental forms.

Since the late 1960s Mario Vargas Llosa had been a visiting professor at many North American and European universities. In 1977 he was elected President of PEN Club International. In 1990 Vargas Llosa participated in presidential elections in Peru as a conservative candidate of the Democratic Front, but lost the election to Alberto Fujimori (Britannica Online). He has lived in Madrid since the 1990s and became a citizen of Spain in 1993, where he also became involved in national politics.

Major themes as explored through the novel The Storyteller

Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the most prolific Latin American “Boom” writers. His novels can be considered as microcosms of Peruvian society. Vargas Llosa has used the mythical, popular and heroic elements in his texts to capture the social, political or cultural reality of this country. Major themes of his texts are violence, machismo, formation of social and political hierarchies; corruption; struggle against the authoritative regimes and religious fanatism. His novels can be viewed as “national allegories” in Jamesonian sense, as well as texts that challenge the so called “first-world” readers with their narrative and thematic complexity.

This novel deals with displaced cultural identities and Peru’s noncohesive diversity. Its major themes are the relationship between the global, national and tribal societies; the coexistence and codependence of center and periphery, the “first and third worlds”; cultural hybridism, miscegenation and transnationalism as the only possible way of survival in the modern world. The novel also questions the dichotomous relationship between the writer, as a modern autonomous subject, and the storyteller, as an already disappeared part of the collective experience. It explores different possibilities of a dialogue between the storyteller/novelist and his/her listener/reader.

Through the alternation of two narrators, the novel presents a story of Saul Zuratas, a man who decides to leave his past identity behind and go native in one of the indigenous tribes of Peru. Unlike the ethnographers and linguists who explore the aborigine tribes for professional or rational reasons, Saul’s motive is intimate and emotional –- it is an act of love. But his noble intention becomes questionable when the reader gradually finds out that the hero could not leave behind the western dominant discourses on which his entire life had been built.
This novel deals with the problem that not only persists in Peru, but also in many other counties of Latin America: the coexistence of the modern society which is prepared to participate in the cultural, economical and political life of the global world, and of the indigenous population, which is viewed by modern societies as archaic and primitive.

The Machiguengas tribes in The Storyteller are indigenous tribes who live along the banks of the Urumba River in Amazon Rainforest of Peru. Throughout the centuries, Jesuit Missionaries, Franciscans and Dominicans, came to these territories to convert them and were often held responsible for the destruction of Machiguenga culture. The Amazon Basin became even more attractive when the World Market started exploiting rubber, quinine, and Hydrocarbons in the 19th and 20th centuries. In recent decades, ethnographers, anthropologists, and linguists took up the role of the colonial missionaries by carrying out the cultural penetration and Occidentalizing Amazonian Indians. At present there are still certain Machiguenga tribes that choose to live isolated from the world. However, throughout the Amazon Basin these indigenous communities are opening small lodges and co-operatives that allow tourists to visit their communities.

Cultural Hybridism: Global, National And Tribal Identities

The Storyteller is a novel on cultural conversion and the impossibility of the avoidance of hybridism. Despite centuries of explicit or implicit attempts to Occidentalize and Christianize the indigenous tribes, in the eyes of the narrator they remain a  “handful of tragic, indomitable beings, that society has broken up into tiny families, fleeing, always fleeing, from the whites, from the mestizos, from the mountain people, and from other tribes, awaiting and stoically accepting their inevitable extinction as individuals and as a group, yet never giving up their language, their gods, their customs ” (164). There is sadness in the voice of the narrator who is nostalgic for the reality that now belongs to the past and cannot be regained. But the novel undoubtedly suggests the impossibility of maintaining one’s authenticity and autonomy in such a hybrid atmosphere.  As Vargas Llosa says himself: “It is tragic to destroy what is still living, still a driving cultural possibility, but I am afraid we shall have to make a choice…where there is such economic and social gap, modernization is possible only with the sacrifice of the Indian cultures”  (Sommer 31).

In the novel, Indian cultures are not sacrificed but become an inseparable part of the society as nationalities and identities merge to make it practically impossible to grasp any kind of cultural authenticity, be it dominant or subaltern. The novel has two narrative threads that follow two main characters: one protagonist goes to Florence in order to “read Dante and Machiavelli and look at Renaissance paintings” (174) and stumbles on the Amazon Forest exhibition where he sees a photo of a Machiguenga storyteller. The storyteller — another protagonist of the novel — appears to be his old friend, a Jewish anthropology student Saul Zuratas. Saul becomes obsessed with this group of Amazonian Indians and decides to go native. Saul loses touch with everyone he knows in Peru. He tries to acquire a new identity by becoming one of the Machiguengas. But the reader soon realizes that what Saul has to retell “his” tribe is just a re-narration of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the story of Jesus Christ, and the Exodus of the Jews. History has changed reality and Saul’s attempt to return what has already been lost is futile. Hybridism, thus, becomes the only solution — there is no center and periphery.

The Act Of Storytelling

In the Machiguenga society, the storyteller’s mission is to tell stories and entertain. His work is somewhat parallel to the work of a modern writer: their mission is to establish the dialogue with the community of listeners or readers through the fables, tales and stories. The storyteller, somewhat similar to the medieval troubadours, is an anonymous individual who bears the collective memory of the Indian tribes. Being an entertainer, he represents the collective consciousness and oral memory of the people; he goes from one place to another, passing new and old information. The tribe can be seen here as an audience ready to hear a fascinating tale. According to the narrator of the novel the storyteller is “someone mysteriously touched by the magic wand of wisdom and the art of reciting, of remembering, of reinventing and enriching tales told and retold down through the centuries” (166).

The idea of the storyteller as a magic and heroic figure for his community contrasts with the image of the writer in the modern world. Since nowadays the storytelling has become a forgotten and distant practice, the modern writer is almost jealous of this position of the storyteller as the cultural and moral memory/consciousness of his nation. As Walter Benjamin suggests “the communicability of the experience is decreasing… The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of the truth, wisdom, is dying out” (86-87). This possibility of the writer being identified and belonging fully to a community has disappeared in the modern world as he/she became, according to Benjamin, engaged in individual, isolated, almost lonely activity of writing. What Mario Vargas Llosa tries to find in his novel is the space where the two activities, one of storytelling and the other of writing, become compatible and mutually complementary. He explores both entertaining value of the literary text as well as its authority as scientific discourse. The novel offers a very profound anthropological, historical and linguistic account of the topic as well as a fascinating tale that will be able to entertain any reader/listener.

The Idea Of Travel

The protagonists of The Storyteller travel through geographical and cultural spaces and encounter parts and pieces of places that are familiar to them in the most unlikely territories. There is also a more abstract kind of travel — the one that the writer himself undertakes, when he chooses an anthropological discourse as a point of departure in his novel, as well as when he tries to establish similarities between the storytellers as forgotten, archaic figures and the writers as their modern substitutes. Through the interweaving of the interior and exterior, the displacement of the center and the periphery, through the mixture of a tale, an entertaining story, and a scientific discourse, Mario Vargas Llosa conceives modern society not as idiosyncratic entity, but one that is hybrid and multifaceted from every angle.

Selected works by Mario Vargas Llosa

  • Vargas Llosa, Mario. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1977.
  • —. The Bad Girl. New York: Farrar Straus and Grioux, 2006.
  • —. La Casa Verde. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1966.
  • —. Conversación en la catedral. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1969.
  • —. Death in the Andes. Miami: Planeta, 1993.
  • —. The Dream of the Celt. Madrid: Alfaguara, 2010.
  • —. The Feast of the Goat. Madrid: Alfaguara, 2000.
  • —. A Fish in the Water. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1993.
  • —. The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1997.
  • —. In Praise of the Stepmother. 1988.
  • —. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1984.
  • —. The Storyteller. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1987.
  • —. The Time of the Hero. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1963.
  • —. The Way to Paradise. London: Faber and Faber, 2003.

Awards

Nobel Prize in Literature 2010
Premio Biblioteca Breve (1962)
National Book Critics Award (1963, 1966)
Premio Internacional de Literatura Rómulo Gallegos (1967)
Premio Planeta (1993)
Cervantes Prize (1994)

Works Cited

  • Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller.” The Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1985: 83-109.
  • Jameson, Frederic. “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.
  • Sommer, Doris. “Be-longing and Bi-lingual States.” Diacritics (WIN 1999): 29, no.4. 84-115
  • Vargas Llosa, Mario. The Storyteller. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989.
  • “Vargas Llosa, Mario.” Britannica Online. November 16, 2002. Web.
  • “Vargas Llosa, Mario (1936-).”  Books and Writers. 19 November, 2002. <http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/vargas.htm>

Related Sites
Nobel Prize biography
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2010/

Author: Kati Kupatadze, Fall 2002
Last edited: May 2012

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