From politics through literature to the making of a writer... vignettes of a conversation with celebrated Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.
W hen Mario Vargas Llosa, the celebrated Peruvian novelist, entered the casually elegant garden for dinner under a full summer moon, he came from the little gate at the back. There was no momentous entry, no trumpets and drums. Just a casual reach for a glass of red wine and easy conversation with the other big literary names around the table.
These others must wait their turn; we will listen only to him, him with his silvery hair and easy laugh and hearty voice. Before and after that conversation, I have read and re-read Touchstones, his brilliant essays on literature, art and politics. I am no longer sure where his voice dies down and the essays pick up, or where the paragraphs fade away and he begins to speak…
Filtering slowly through the miasma of West Asian and Latin politics, the conversation inches towards what Vargas Llosa calls the “seeds of dreams”, the makings of a writer.
For him, these lie in a large house in Cochabamba in Bolivia where he spent his early years with his grandparents, mother and cousins, listening to stories and sinking happily into mounds of children's fiction and the worlds of Ivanhoe, Tarzan, Sandokan and Captain Nemo.
His father was not there, as Vargas Llosa recalls, standing near that sweet smelling bush in the garden. He was supposed to be dead; he was only the much-loved photograph of a handsome marine in a uniform. In fact, his parents had divorced and, his mother being Catholic, this was a disgrace and a secret. Finally one day, walking by the river, she told the young Mario that his father was alive. Not only that, the two had secretly remarried. When they met, Mario hated his father. And the latter believed that writing was a lost cause and even an indication that Mario was gay.
It was only when his son's photograph appeared in Time Magazine, with all its implicit certification of veracity, that Mario's father took his chosen vocation seriously. Based on his childhood experiences Vargas Llosa concludes that everything he has written has its roots in lived experience.
“It was something that I saw, heard, but also read, that my memory retained with a singular and mysterious stubbornness, that formed certain images which, sooner or later, and for reasons that I also find very difficult to fathom, became a stimulus for fantasy, a starting point for a complete imaginary construction.”
The Time of the Hero came from his days at the Military Academy; a trip to the Upper Maranon gave the material for The Green House, as did the solitary brothel in the Peruvian city of Piura and The Way to Paradise, a tale about the painter Gauguin and his grandmother, involved travel to the South Seas islands.
Lived experience aside, Vargas Llosa believes that every writer is essentially a reader and admits the influence of all he has read: Sartre's ideas on committed writing, or the epic style of Malraux or the American 20th century greats: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Dos Passos.
But William Faulkner, he says as he turns to carefully sign a book, was the greatest influence on all Latin American writers. From Faulkner, he learnt the prime importance of form in fiction and the infinite possibilities offered by point of view and the construction of time in a story.
“Without the wonderment that I felt when I discovered the richness of shades, allusions, perspectives, harmonies and ambiguities of his prose, and the absolutely original way in which he organised his stories, I would never have dared to rearrange “real” narrative chronology in my own work, or to present an episode from different points of view and levels of reality….” Faulkner's master, he believes, was James Joyce, as evidenced by the form of Ulysses; it's heartening to learn that Vargas Llosa too, like most of us, could not finish Finnegan's Wake.
The same issues of the narrative point of view and time in fiction are also examined in an essay on Don Quixote. “Even if they do not know it, contemporary novelists who play with form, distort time, mix up different points of view and experiment with language, are all indebted to Cervantes.”
The complexities of narration also form the greatest strength of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. “Only failed fictions reproduce reality: successful fictions abolish and transfigure reality,” he writes. The readers of Mrs. Dalloway never confront an objective reality but a subjective version woven by the narrators in which life is transformed into “memory, feeling, sensation, desire, impulse…”
Other Latin influences
Mrs. Dalloway also incidentally greatly influenced the other towering Latin writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I ask Vargas Llosa whether he can think of any other way in which A Hundred Years of Solitude could have been written. He says that it is very difficult to say, praising Marquez for the way in which he has so seamlessly woven together a century, lives and events of a bygone era.
I cannot resist asking him whether it is true that the two writers have not spoken since 1976 when their friendship ended in a spat and Vargas Llosa allegedly gave Marquez a black eye. With a winning smile, he denies the story and turns the conversation to India. He talks of Kipling and Kim's cannon — the Zamzama — that now stands outside the Lahore museum, of Octavio Paz and of Pablo Neruda's poems of India.
And suddenly, with the moon now overhead, he begins to recite in Spanish, Neruda's immortal lines —Tonight I can write the saddest lines./ I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too — lines that everybody in Latin America once knew by heart.
I no longer have the heart to write about his politics or the time he ran for the Peruvian Presidency and read fiction only at five in the morning. Neruda's lines have touched too many strings, opened up too many veins.
“Only failed fictions reproduce reality: successful fictions abolish and transfigure reality.”