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Tucson Weekly In The Wake Of Revolution

Mario Vargas Llosa Keeps Navigating Stormy Waters

By Heather McMichael

Making Waves, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Edited and translated by John King (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Cloth, $27.50.

SEPTEMBER 8, 1997:  THERE'S A SPECIAL role in literature for go-betweens--those writers who make their world between worlds, traversing international borders and ideological boundaries, translating not only words but world views. For almost 35 years, Peruvian novelist, essayist, journalist and literary critic Mario Vargas Llosa has been one of the most prolific and versatile of these emissaries.

Several times nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Vargas Llosa is well-known in this country for his novels. His 12 works of fiction, nearly all set in Peru, are available in English, along with a couple of critical volumes and a memoir of his 1990 lost bid for the presidency.

But it's in his personal essays, journalistic investigations and philosophical musings-- syndicated throughout the Spanish-speaking world--where one sees the range of Vargas Llosa's experience and thinking.

Making Waves brings together for the first time, in English, a selection of these wide-ranging essays spanning the past three decades. He turns his erudite gaze on world events, art, literature, sports, philosophy, and the everyday absurdities of life in his adopted countries (Spain, France and England).

Vargas Llosa has sometimes been reviled as an expatriate and right-winger (for suggesting that plain old democracy could work in Latin America?); but he just keeps writing his opinions and observations, which are usually sensible and often entertaining.

Sometimes the tone is whimsical: He searches for the meaning of football at Spain's 1982 World Cup; tries to comprehend his son's transformation into a Rastafarian under the tutelage of the British public school system; and expostulates on the pleasures of the "excellent bad films" of Bruñuel.

He paints in vivid strokes the famous, the infamous and the anonymous: He offers fond tributes to Hemingway, Julio Cortázar, and the Colombian painter Fernando Botero; he traces the rise to power of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán. Alongside these celebrities, one finds the poignant story of P'tit Pierre, a homeless handyman in the Latin Quarter of Paris, and an hilarious account of the meticulous machinations of the mouse exterminator at Vargas Llosa's flat in Earls Court London.

The more or less chronological order of the essays allows certain themes to emerge and evolve over time. One of these is his changing attitude toward socialism. In 1962, "Chronicle of the Cuban Revolution" praises the plurality and tolerance of the revolution and describes in glowing terms the popular enthusiasm for Castro. Within the decade his attitudes begin to change. In a succinct 1971 letter to Haydée Santamaría, director of the Cuban journal Casa de las Américas, Vargas Llosa resigns from the board of that prestigious institution in protest of the rough handling of compañeros forced to sign confessions for "imaginary betrayals," simply stating, "this is not the example of socialism I want my country to follow." By 1979 he asserts that political utopias "usually end in holocausts."

"It is a strange fact that in politics mediocre solutions tend to be the best solutions," he writes.

That kind of centrist talk may have earned him the label "right winger" among Latin American intellectuals, but such a label does not do justice to his concern for the poor and uneducated majority in Latin America regardless whether what they are doing coincides with current doctrine. In "The Story of a Massacre," he reconstructs the events leading up to the 1983 killing of eight Peruvian journalists who'd gone to the isolated village of Huaychao, high in the central Andes, to investigate a clash between Shining Path guerrillas and peasants fed up with the indoctrination and violence of military, paramilitary and revolutionary patrols invading their lands. This fascinating account reveals the "People's War" in Peru, not surprisingly, to be far more complicated than the good-guys/bad-guys dichotomy championed by political mouthpieces.

Vargas Llosa's dedication to level-headed discourse on the complex milieu that is Latin American politics is only matched by his exasperation with first-world would-be revolutionaries who use Latin America as a receptacle for their privileged ideological longings--like the students who in 1991 graffittied with pro-Shining Path slogans the walls of the Swiss university where Vargas Llosa was to speak. They also came armed with foodstuffs to pelt at their eminent guest, to which he wryly comments: "These Swiss revolutionaries could not have been serious, since the egg and tomato throwing incident--luxury items for the people of Peru--marked them down as spoiled brats."

A parallel dynamic--the double standard borne of privilege--leads to Vargas Llosa's early disillusionment with Sartre, whose idea of the importance of "socially committed" literature apparently did not extend to third-world countries, in which, the French Mandarin counseled, writers should temporarily suspend their work in favor of teaching and other activities that would build a society "where literature would be possible at a later date." This suggestion of literature as a luxury suited only to rich and "just" societies is the ultimate betrayal for Vargas Llosa, the betrayal of literature itself. He asks: "What coefficient of proteins per capita did a country have to achieve before it was ethical to write novels?"

In this, Vargas Llosa defends his most deep and abiding conviction: that literature can change the world. The aptly titled Making Waves certainly advances that theory with unmeasured eloquence.

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