SABERS AND UTOPIAS
Visions of Latin America
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by Anna Kushner
260 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by Edith Grossman
244 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.
What to make of the tireless Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, candidate for president of his country in 1990, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 and, at age 81, still a vivid presence on the world stage? He is the only surviving member of the so-called “Boom” generation of Latin American novelists of the 1960s — an extraordinary group that included Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia, Julio Cortázar of Argentina, José Donoso of Chile and Carlos Fuentes of Mexico. Through some rare alchemy of the moment, they managed, as writers, to conjure the Bolivarian ideal of a unified Latin America that the fractious reality of politics could never achieve. Their popularity in Europe and the United States gave millions of Latin Americans the sense that they were part of a borderless, highly original culture that produced more than just caudillos, guerrilleros and boleros. It also paved the way for older writers, like Jorge Luis Borges, and younger ones, like Roberto Bolaño, to gain recognition abroad.
Vargas Llosa is the most overtly political of the Boom writers. His most admired novel, “The War of the End of the World” (1981), is about a provincial uprising in Brazil in the late 19th century that resulted in the slaughter of more than 15,000 peasants. The novel examines the dangers of utopian fanaticism, as well as the destructiveness of an out-of-touch government that imagines a threat to its existence where there isn’t one — a deadly misunderstanding between rulers and the ruled. His other major political novel, “Feast of the Goat” (2000), is a terrifying study of how a dictator with absolute power (Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, in this case) can colonize even the intimate lives of his countrymen, stifling the private freedom to enjoy, to appreciate, to reason and, finally, to love.
Vargas Llosa has also had a prolific career as a journalist and public intellectual; “Sabers and Utopias” is his 25th volume of nonfiction. An absorbing collection of essays and newspaper columns about Latin American politics and culture, it has the feel of a definitive position paper. Written over a period of 35 years, these pieces express, above all, his wish that Latin Americans would finally come to their senses and embrace that most unfairly (in his view) maligned of political doctrines: liberalism.
What he means by liberalism is free elections with no parties excluded, a judiciary independent enough to enforce democratic law over the ambitions of powerful individuals, freedom of expression for both the press and artists, an armed force concerned solely with protecting the country from external threats, equal rights for minorities and open capital markets. His ardent promotion of the last of these principles has earned him the label “neoliberal,” a term designed, Vargas Llosa writes, “to semantically devalue, with the corrosive weapon of derision, the doctrine that symbolizes, better than any other, the extraordinary advances that … freedom has made over the long course of human civilization.”
The rudimentary nature of his economic argument has not served him well. He acknowledges the danger “of powerful multinational companies operating, unrestrained, in all corners of the earth.” But his antidote is nothing more than a vague endorsement of “fair laws and strong governments.” In his previous book of essays, “Notes on the Death of Culture,” he bemoaned rampant consumerism as the death of serious art and thought, yet in “Sabers and Utopias” he ignores the fact that the lifeblood of giant manufacturers is not the creation of wealth for people who most need it, but cheap labor and ever-expanding markets. His attachment to a pure 18th-century European liberalism sometimes blinds him to present-day realities that must be reckoned with for liberalism to survive.
Still, autonomous liberal democracy has had few chances to thrive in Latin America, and Vargas Llosa’s passionate belief in it can be persuasive. It’s worth pointing out that in the 1960s he was a radical socialist and supporter of Fidel Castro, whom he saw, along with thousands of other intellectuals at the time, as the model for Latin America’s future. Disillusionment came when Castro suppressed free speech and imprisoned critics, homosexuals and other nonconforming minorities deemed enemies of the revolution. A government-controlled economy that led to decades of stagnation seemed to clinch his conversion. He began to see Castro not as a revolutionary savior, but as one of a long line of dictators from both the left and the right who have kept Latin America in a state of perpetual darkness.
Since then, Vargas Llosa’s liberalism has been remarkably consistent. Far from being a corporate apologist of the right, as his detractors have branded him, he has encouraged the development of “a genuinely democratic” left in Peru and has strongly supported left-leaning leaders in Chile, Uruguay and Brazil who have attempted to govern “in the manner of Spanish and British socialists.”CreditAlessandra Montalto/The New York Times
In 1990, running for president of Peru as a pragmatic, right-of-center liberal, he lost in a runoff to the populist candidate, Alberto Fujimori. At the time, unemployment was over 50 percent and quadruple digit inflation had rendered the currency virtually worthless. The war with the guerrilla group the Shining Path — which ultimately resulted in the murder, torture and disappearance of more than 69,000 “poor and completely innocent” Peruvians — was at its height. During the presidential campaign a guerrilla commando group planned to assassinate Vargas Llosa and his family at an airport but were discovered before they could attack.
As president, Fujimori suspended all civil liberties. In 2009, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for murders carried out by a military death squad while he was in office. Last December, the current Peruvian president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, pardoned Fujimori, now 79, on medical grounds, provoking protests and resignations from members of the government. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for human rights called it “a slap in the face for the victims” and “a major setback for the rule of law in Peru.” It is enticing to wonder how the country would have fared had Vargas Llosa won the 1990 election.
In “Sabers and Utopias,” Vargas Llosa repeatedly returns to what he regards as Latin Americans’ chronic weakness for demagogues and phantom utopias. This admirer — and practitioner — of magic and illusion in art pleads for bland, mediocre reality in politics. Why must “what is real and possible” be continuously rejected “in favor of what is imaginary and chimeric”? His exasperation is almost palpable on the page. It is as old as Simón Bolívar’s lament, made shortly before he died, in 1830, that “America is ungovernable.” And it echoes the words of his fellow Boom novelist García Márquez, who in 1999 called Latin America “a laboratory of failed illusions. Our main virtue is creativity, and yet we have not done much more than live off reheated doctrines and alien wars.”
Unlike García Márquez, Vargas Llosa does not resign himself to this state of affairs. The contradiction between Latin America’s extravagant creativity and its agonies of injustice and poverty can be overcome with sound laws and reasonable democracy, he believes, if only “poetic metaphors” are kept out of politics and stay where they belong.
“The Neighborhood,” Vargas Llosa’s 20th novel, is a political mystery of the kind he regularly turns out between his more monumental historical productions. The tone, perfectly conveyed in Edith Grossman’s virtuoso translation, is amused and theatrical — realism that never asks the reader to forget it has been neatly contrived.
The subject, however, couldn’t be more serious. The story takes place in Lima shortly before the downfall of the Fujimori regime in 2000. The cast of characters includes the star reporter of a vile tabloid magazine who is “nourished” by “finding out other people’s secret shames,” her flashy, unscrupulous editor, an impoverished old man who worked in show business until the editor destroyed his career and two complacent, upper-class couples who are also best friends. The wives pass the time shopping, decorating and bossing their servants around while secretly conducting a passionate lesbian love affair. The husbands make the money that keeps their bubble from bursting — one is a lawyer at Peru’s most prestigious firm; the other owns a mining company and has extensive international connections, as well as an engineering degree from M.I.T. Vargas Llosa’s portrait of the couples is ambiguous: At one moment they are worldly sophisticates doing their best to operate productively in the political barbarism of Peru; at the next they are vulgar members of an elite for whom “culture comes down to two words: whiskey and Miami.” In the background, bombs explode at all hours, guerrillas kidnap businessmen, government death squads murder indiscriminately and workaday life somehow manages to grind on.
The plot slips into gear when the tabloid editor tries to blackmail the mining magnate with explicit photographs from an orgy. Vargas Llosa knows how the levers of power in his country work, and he uses his story to anatomize the degradation of civic life under Fujimori. Vladimiro Montesinos, who was the head of Fujimori’s secret police, emerges as a character in the novel, buying the support of journalists and opposition leaders with bags of cash and videotaping the bribes from his compound. In these scenes, the novelist need hardly invent a word: The real-life Montesinos is currently serving time for bribery in a maximum-security prison he himself built for his enemies.
To tell his story, Vargas Llosa employs the familiar telenovela technique of alternating chapters among different characters, allowing the destinies of the lowborn and the high, the powerful and the powerless, to intersect in ways they themselves never see. In a diseased body politic, he seems to say, no one is exempt from infection, and the sanity of every citizen is dependent upon that of his neighbor.
The novel’s hero arises unexpectedly from the lowest depths of the gutter press, “an inconsequential girl, a nobody” who, “on the basis of pure courage,” changes the lives of Peruvians. This seems fitting; those toiling in the muck, without illusions, are best prepared to beat the government at its own game.
The book’s “happy” ending reflects its author’s belief, perhaps, in the power of individual morality and will. In “Sabers and Utopias” Vargas Llosa approvingly quotes Karl Popper’s dictum that “optimism is a duty. The future is open. … We all contribute to determining it by what we do.” His steadfast liberalism in the face of state terror, military dictatorships, violent liberation movements and collapsed economies is his ultimate expression of that duty.