Peru’s leading contemporary novelist, Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa (VAHR-gahs YOH-sah), is regarded as one of the creators (along with such writers as Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes) of the new Latin American novel. Born in the town of Arequipa in southern Peru, Mario Vargas Llosa was the son of Ernesto Vargas Maldonado and Dora Llosa Ureta. His parents were divorced before he was born, and he was taken by his mother to live at Cochabama, Bolivia, with her parents, who spoiled him. When he was nine, he and his mother left for Piura, in northwestern Peru; however, a year later, his parents remarried, and they moved the family to Lima.
Mario Vargas Llosa
The pampered and sensitive boy found himself no longer the center of attention. At the Catholic school he attended in Lima, he was younger than most of his classmates and was consequently ridiculed. At home, his artistic activities had to be kept from his father, who (like many Peruvians) regarded writing as no work for a man. For Vargas Llosa, literature became an escape and, as he later described it, a way of justifying his existence. Intending to “make a man of him,” Vargas Llosa’s father sent his son to a military academy in Lima, the Leoncio Prado. The machismo and brutality he encountered there proved highly traumatic for the young man.
This experience ended in 1952, when Vargas Llosa returned to Piura for his final year of secondary school. In Piura he worked part-time on the newspaper La Industria and wrote a play called “La huida” (the escape). Returning to Lima, Vargas Llosa studied for his degree in literature at the University of San Marcos, while being employed as a journalist with Radio Panamericana and the newspaper La Crónica. In 1955 he married Julia Urquidi, a Bolivian; the marriage ended in divorce. In 1965 he married his first cousin Patricia Llosa, with whom he had two sons and a daughter.
Vargas Llosa made a brief visit to Paris in 1958 and won a prize in a short-story competition sponsored by La Revue française. The winning story, “El desafío” (the challenge), was published in his first book of short stories. The book won for Vargas Llosa the Premio Leopoldo Alas award in Spain, where it was published in 1959. That same year the author traveled to the University of Madrid on a scholarship but decided to move on to Paris without completing his doctoral dissertation. He lived there for seven years, working as a Berlitz teacher, as a journalist, and with URTF, the French radio and television network.
In Paris, Vargas Llosa met other Latin American and French writers and intellectuals but worked and wrote in relative isolation until the publication of his first novel, The Time of the Hero, which caused a sensation throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Highly experimental in style, the novel portrays an educational institution that deliberately corrupts innocence and perverts idealism in its students (indicting both the Leoncio Prado and the Peruvian military regime that it represents). The Peruvian military authorities burned a thousand copies of the book on the grounds of the Leoncio Prado and dismissed the work as the product of a demented Communist mind. In Spain, however, it received the Premio de la Crítica Española, and it has been translated into more than a dozen languages.
The Green House appeared three years later. The title refers both to a Piura brothel and to the rain forest. The social messages–the complicity between army and church, the horrors of human exploitation–coexist with the intense inner conflicts of the characters. Some critics disparaged the novel’s characters as one-dimensional, failing to understand that for Vargas Llosa a novel is primarily a chronicle of action, not an inner revelation of the forces that motivate action. The book was awarded numerous prizes in Spain and Peru.
In 1966 Vargas Llosa left Paris for London, accepting an appointment as visiting lecturer in Latin American literature at the University of London; he also traveled and lectured throughout Great Britain and Europe. He then spent a semester as writer-in-residence at the University of Washington in Seattle.
After the publication of his third novel, Conversation in the Cathedral, a monumental two-volume indictment of Peruvian life under the corrupt dictatorship of Manuel Udria (he ruled from 1948 to 1956), Vargas Llosa lectured briefly at the University of Puerto Rico. The doctoral dissertation he had begun in 1959, a study of the fiction of his close friend Gabriel García Márquez, was finally published in 1971. Two years later a fourth novel appeared: Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. While it once again attacked the unholy alliance of church, army, and brothel, it was written in a new farcical style. This comic vein continues in the author’s next novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a satirical account of the discovery of a Bolivian genius in his genre: radio melodramas.
Besides being a writer of fiction, Vargas Llosa has published much literary criticism. For him, writing literary criticism is a creative act, not unlike that of writing a novel or a short story, in which the critic indulges in the same arbitrariness and fantasy as the author.
Finally, Vargas Llosa has taken an active role in Peruvian politics, running for president in 1990. As a spokesman for democratic centrism, he has been harshly criticized by his erstwhile colleagues on the left. Not only in speeches and journalistic pieces but also in novels such as The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and The Feast of the Goat, Vargas Llosa has cast a skeptical eye on revolutionary ideology and its real-world outcomes. Political controversy, however, has not diminished his reputation as one of the leading writers in Latin America.