Mario Vargas Llosa is finally a Nobel laureate and none too soon. As a non-native Spanish speaker and reader, I have always found his books among the most accessible and entertaining of modern Latin American and Iberian literature. While his enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher and other oddities of his political trajectory are distasteful and even bizarre, he has hewed to a consistent line in defense of democratic rule, which for a ring-winger on the continent he comes from is quite laudable.
We should be so lucky to have conservative spokespeople who do not want immediately to dump the rule of law and slaughter anything that moves. Imagine what we would be hearing in the U.S. if we had anything remotely comparable to the Shining Path guerrilla movement rampaging through the countryside spouting Maoist inanities and assassinating mayors. Vargas Llosa might not have done much better if he’d won the presidency of Peru in 1990, but he has been a critic of the scorched earth policy of the guy who won, the execrable Fujimori, who presided over the disappearance of more civilians than Pinochet in neighboring Chile.
And now, a highly personal and idiosyncratic review of his books in descending order of praise:
Conversation in the Cathedral (1969)—I read this while sitting in a hammock in Cozumel, Mexico, and was completely enchanted. It remains a mystery how anyone who understands his country so well can be such a neoliberal ideologue, but no matter, it’s a great book. BTW, the Cathedral is a bar.
Feast of the Goat (2000)—a fictionalized account of Trujillo who ruled the Dominican Republic for 30 frightening years. Chilling on multiple levels and utterly unforgettable. The portrait of the slimy Joaquín Balaguer who took over from Trujillo after decades of passive complicity with his crimes is a reminder that crime at the top usually does pay.
The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984)—most people call this a minor work, but it holds together beautifully as a fractured, multi-perspective take on this curious, semi-autobiographical character.
The Time of the Hero (1963)—his breakthrough work remains a great portrait of a military academy and was made into a very decent film in Peru. The Peruvian military hated it, always a good sign. How they got this English title out of La Ciudad y los Perros I'll never understand.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977)—I don’t know if anyone has ever outdone this howler in which the soap opera creator gets his plots mixed up. The weird coda about MVL’s affair and later marriage to his own aunt doesn’t belong in it, but I guess he had to get it out of his system. I see it was also made into a movie (Tune in Tomorrow), which must have bombed if I never heard of it.
Dissident alert: The War of the End of the World (1981)—never could see the point of this book, which winds on endlessly through the Amazonian war without creating a memorable character. Some people love it—I think it stinks.
Never read and should someday: The Green House (1965)—I even have a copy but never got around to it. They say it’s a marvel.
Never read and don’t intend to: Pantaleon and the Special Service (1973)—a comedy about prostitution in the jungle. I don’t think anyone who’s ever been close to the industry of prostitution as actually practiced in grubby frontier towns (I have) would find the topic very amusing.