If one reads all his work, beginning with his first novels, one can
see that Vargas Llosa has always preferred brilliant realists and
mocking moderates to utopians and fanatics.
--Orhan Pamuk, "Mario Vargas Llosa and Third World
Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the world's greatest living
writers, was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2010,
the latest in a long series of awards and prizes honoring a
distinguished and prolific literary career.
In the Spanish-speaking world, however, he is more than just a
great novelist. He is a public intellectual in the full sense of that
expression, and his regularly aired opinions on political events,
literature, culture, and the arts are a fixture of the intellectual life
of this part of the world. His writing is always intelligent and urbane.
Moreover, it is informed by a definite point of view, which is that of a
classical liberal. Indeed, he is undoubtedly the most prominent
expositor of this point of view writing in the Spanish language today.
The Young Writer as a Man of the Left
It was not always so. Indeed, given his current prominence as a
spokesman for classical liberalism, it is easily forgotten that as a
young man Vargas Llosa was a typical "man of the left." Like
most intellectuals coming of age in the 1950s and early 1960s, he was
closely identified with left-wing causes, and he greatly admired the
Cuban Revolution. This ideological stance was in part owing to the
prevailing climate of opinion among intellectuals at the time,
especially in France, where he spent his formative years as a struggling
young writer. Two other factors were a personality that has always
exhibited a strong antiauthoritarian streak and the association of
authoritarianism in Latin America with right-wing regimes.
He eventually became convinced, however, that armed revolution was
not a real option for improving social conditions in Latin America and
that gradual reform within a functioning democratic polity was the only
way to achieve social justice. (2) He consequently became increasingly
interested in the preconditions for a well-functioning democratic
This interest was not merely intellectual or academic. During the
1980s, he became personally involved in political activism, to the point
of running for the presidency of Peru during the 1990 elections. He was
defeated by Alberto Fujimori, who later imposed one of the most brutal
and corrupt dictatorships in that country's history. Peru's
loss was the world's gain, however, because as a result of this
experience Vargas Llosa essentially withdrew from active political
militancy, and since then his literary output has continued unabated.
Books and essays have flowed from his pen in a constant stream, and his
bibliography includes a remarkable political memoir (Vargas Llosa 
1994), which relates in painstaking detail the joys and sorrows of his
political campaign. (3)
The distance between his early beliefs and his current convictions
is evident in two contrasting assessments of a "canonical"
text of the revolutionary left--the "Diary" of Che Guevara--:
"If the Latin American revolution occurs according to the method
proposed by Che, following the stages that he envisioned, the Diary will
be an extraordinary document, a historical account of the most difficult
and heroic moment of the continent's liberation," be wrote in
1968. "If the revolution does not occur ... the Diary will still
endure, as a testament to the most generous and most daring individual
adventure ever attempted in Latin America" (reprinted in Vargas
Llosa 1986a, 214, my translation). That was then. Twenty-five years
later Vargas Llosa had come to believe that Che's revolutionary
strategy "did not work anywhere," and its only result was that
"thousands of young people who adopted it and attempted to put it
into practice [ended up] sacrificing themselves tragically and opening
the doors of their countries to cruel military tyrannies." Instead
of offering solutions, Che's ideas and his example
"contributed more than anything to undermine democratic culture and
to plant in universities, trade unions and political parties in the
Third World a contempt for elections, pluralism, formal liberties,
tolerance and human rights as being incompatible with authentic social
justice. This delayed by at least two decades the political
modernization of Latin America" (1996, 295).
Confronting Latin American Reality
In his narrative work, Vargas Llosa expressed this shift in his
political and social thought most forcefully in two major novels of the
early 1980s: The War of the End of the World (La guerra del fin del
mundo [(1981) 1984]) and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (Historia de
Marta [(1984) 1986b]). Both of these novels deal, in different ways,
with the myopia that renders ideological adversaries incapable of
understanding their opponents' viewpoints. As Vargas Llosa himself
later explained (in commenting on Mayta), he came to realize that all
ideologies are fictions and that instead of providing solutions, they
were making problems even worse:
Prior to The War of the End of the World, all of Vargas
Llosa's fictional writings had dealt with Peru, his homeland. In
fact, he had often stated that he was incapable of writing about any
other place. He now proved otherwise, producing what many still consider
his greatest work of fiction, a book that he himself has described as
"the author's favorite of his novels" (1991, 123). It
deals with another place and another time, and it is, moreover, the
story of a real event, a peasant uprising in northeastern Brazil during
the late nineteenth century, led by a charismatic prophet known as
Antonio Conselheiro (the Counselor), who began his career as a wandering
preacher in the parched and drought-stricken province of Bahia,
repairing churches, tending cemeteries, and teaching his own
idiosyncratic version of Catholic fundamentalism. Political changes in
Brazil's far-off power centers--collapse of the monarchy and
establishment of a republic in 1889--events about which the simple
backlands dwellers had only the vaguest ideas, would have ramifications
whose cumulative effect would lead to horror and disaster on an
The tragedy was triggered by the collision of two antagonistic
worldviews: Conselheiro and his tradition-minded followers felt
threatened by the rush of modernizing reforms implemented by the
progressive elites who now controlled the new republic. Among other
aberrations, the republic had separated church and state and had
instituted civil marriage--"as if a sacrament created by God were
not enough" ( 1984, 20). (4) It had also introduced a new and
alien set of weights and measures (the metric system) and had even
proposed to take a census. The latter measure was the last straw because
in the Conselheiro's view it was quite obviously designed to enable
the government to identify freedmen in order to put them back in chains.
(5) He could only conclude that "the Antichrist is abroad in the
world; his name is Republic" (22). Rebellion in the name of the
legitimate authority (that is, the monarchy) was therefore justified,
and the Conselheiro's followers proceeded to burn the
government's edicts, refused to pay taxes, and gathered at the
former plantation of Canudos to prepare for the government's
assault. The rebels successfully drove back three military expeditions
sent to suppress them. The uprising was eventually crushed, but only
after a fourth expedition, armed with heavy artillery, laid siege to
Canudos for two months. Many thousands were slaughtered.
Vargas Llosa's treatment of this story is a fictionalized
version of a famous account of the rebellion written by Euclides da
Cunha ( 1944), a journalist who accompanied the fourth and final
expedition. In Vargas Llosa's reading of these events, their
meaning for our time lies in illustrating the destructive power of
fanaticism. The Conselheiro, who sees a vast conspiracy bent on wiping
out the last remnant of true believers in the Blessed Jesus, is
obviously a fanatic. But so are his main opponents, most notably the
commander of the third expedition, Colonel Moreira Cesar, who is
convinced that the peasant uprising is a smokescreen and part of a
larger plot by reactionary landlords and British agents to restore the
monarchy. As he tells the Baron de Canabrava, a conservative landlord:
"Objectively, these people [the peasants of Canudos] are the
instruments of those who, like yourself, have accepted the Republic the
better to betray it" (217).
"Because they [the progressive intellectuals of Brazil] could
not understand what was happening," Vargas Llosa later explained,
"they did what all intellectuals do when they fail to understand
something: they invented a theory.... The monarchists were the people
really responsible for the rebellion. And England was also responsible
because it was a natural enemy of the republic" (1991, 128).
"What fascinated me about the Canudos phenomenon was how these
ideologies, which were totally impermeable to direct experience, managed
to blind those two sectors of
Brazilian society and bring them to the point of kilting each other
in that fashion. I was so fascinated by this because it was a phenomenon
we were experiencing in Latin America at that moment, those absolutely
insurmountable divisions among social groups basically due to
ideological and political fictions" (in Rebaza-Soraluz 1997, 20).
Into the deadly brew of confusion and misunderstanding that Vargas
Llosa depicts in The War of the End of the World, a third, foreign
element is added in the person of Galileo Gall, an expatriate European
radical who seeks to make common cause with the rebels. As a modern free
thinker, he of course detests religion, but he sees the rebellion as a
protorevolutionary force to be encouraged and, if possible, guided:
"Those poor devils represent the most worthy thing there is on this
earth, suffering that rises up in rebellion" (249). Gall thinks of
himself as a scientist, but he cannot avoid viewing events through the
prism of his own ideological preconceptions.
The character who plays the role of da Cunha in the novel is,
significantly, an extremely nearsighted journalist who can see only
through very thick glasses. Jose Miguel Oviedo points out perceptively
Although the issues involved in the Canudos war are long forgotten,
Vargas Llosa's observations and intuitions about the distorting
lenses of ideology are of course much more broadly relevant and
applicable--which should be apparent to anyone who takes a dispassionate
look, mutatis mutandis, at our own post-9/11 world. The similarity
between the story of Canudos and the rise of Islamic jihadism as well as
the neoconservative response in the United States is almost eerie.
The characterization of Galileo Gall is obviously a stab at
today's progressive intelligentsia and reflects Vargas Llosa's
gradual movement away from the left. Even more symptomatic of this
transition is his portrayal of the aristocratic Baron de Canabrava, the
novel's fourth major character. Indeed, some critics argue that his
favorable treatment of the baron indicates that Vargas Llosa had finally
made his peace with the Latin American elites. In any event, the baron
is unquestionably one of the few really sympathetic characters in the
whole story. At times, he seems to be the only sensible and clear-headed
person around, and he is appalled by the sight of a mad world spinning
out of control: "The Baron felt a shiver down his spine; it was as
if the world had taken leave of its reason and blind, irrational beliefs
had taken over" (246).
The baron's key traits are flexibility and willingness to
compromise, which are invariably portrayed in a positive light. Against
the twin fanaticisms engulfing his world, his pragmatism sounds like the
voice of sweet reason: "We must make our peace," he tells an
associate. "Let us keep our Republic from turning into what so many
other Latin American republics have: a grotesque witches' sabbath
where all is chaos, military uprisings, corruption, demagogy"
(349). He is not optimistic, however, and he realizes that the events he
is witnessing are a harbinger of things to come:
"We're at war," Gall says, "and every weapon
"Every weapon counts," [the baron] repeated softly.
"That is a precise definition of the times we're living in, of
the twentieth century that will soon be upon us, Mr. Gall. I'm not
surprised that those madmen think that the end of the world has
The War of the End of the World is a large, multilayered novel with
scores of characters, and it can obviously be read at many levels. It
can be read, for example, as a meditation about the clash of modernity
and backwardness--the Conselheiro, after all, is rebelling against the
very idea of progress. It can also be read, however, as a rejection of a
false dichotomy that has plagued Latin America throughout the twentieth
century: revolutionary violence versus military repression. Neither of
these courses of conduct, Vargas Llosa had come to believe, is the
solution for Latin America's problems. At an even more basic level,
the novel is a plea for tolerance and a rejection of fanaticism and
dogmatic belief in all of its forms: "The Baron recognized that
tone of voice.... The tone of absolute certainty, he thought, the tone
of those who are never assailed by doubts" (245). (6)
By the time this work was published, Vargas Llosa had clearly
crossed the threshold of the open society. The novel was his manifesto.
Settling Scores with the Left: Historia de Mayta
Mayta is the story of a failed insurrection in a small town in the
Peruvian highlands a year before the Cuban Revolution. It is also the
story of the narrator's attempt to reconstruct the
insurrection's history and the background of its leader, Alejandro
Mayta, an idealistic if somewhat ineffectual middle-aged Trotskyite. It
is furthermore an opportunity to reflect, from a distance of several
decades, on the participants' motivations and to illustrate the
subjectivity of memory.
The narrator is a fictional version of Vargas Llosa himself, and he
skillfully adapts the medium of fiction writing to write a story about
the making of a story. Although the story is structured as an
investigation of real events, the investigation's purpose is to
collect materials for a fictionalized version of those same events, and
the result is the very book the reader is reading, itself obviously and
explicitly a work of fiction. This setup means, of course, that we never
really know if the Mayta we are reading about is the "real"
Mayta or the "fictional" Mayta (not even when we actually meet
the "real" Alejandro Mayta toward the end of the story). Mayta
is a literary tour de force and is therefore of interest in its own
right as an experiment in the possibilities of narrative exploration. It
is more than that, however, because it is also a vehicle for the
expression of the author's views (the "real"
author's views) about society and the role of ideology.
Although the investigation pertains to events that occurred in Peru
in the late 1950s, the narration is set in a rather dystopian version of
Peru in the early 1980s. Things were bad enough in the real Peru at the
time: debt crisis, runaway inflation, and rampaging terrorist groups
setting off bombs and murdering at random. The novel's fictional
Peru is, if anything, in even worse straits, as the narrator lets us
know in no uncertain terms. The novel starts and ends with visions of
Lima, the capital city, as a vast garbage dump: "The spectacle of
misery was once limited exclusively to the slums, then it spread
downtown, and now it is the common property of the whole city, even the
exclusive residential neighborhoods" ( 1986b, 4). (7) And
"On all sides, there are mounds of garbage. The people, I suppose,
just throw it out of their houses, resigned, knowing that no city
garbage truck is ever going to pick it up" (309). Peru, in short,
is in deep trouble. The question is, What brought about this dire
Vargas Llosa, we now know, had by the time he wrote this novel
given up on the old Marxist explanations. Mayta and his associates,
though well intentioned, were misled by an inadequate diagnosis of their
country's ills. The novel portrays the leftist cliques of the 1950s
as clueless and irrelevant but harmless enough, and the doctrinal
squabbles in which Mayta engages seem rather ridiculous but not really
When, at one point, a member of a rival Marxist party derisively
describes Mayta's splinter group as "twenty-odd Peruvian
Trots," Mayta replies: "Actually, there are only seven of
Nonetheless, as the story progresses, a case is made that the
underlying premise shared by all of these groups--the idea that
revolutionary violence is the only solution to the country's
problems--had been disastrous for Peru and for Latin America in general.
Mayta's attempted insurrection was a pathetic failure, but by
setting a precedent for the use of violence, "it charted the
process that has ended in what we are all living through now" (59).
Once again "the message is that ideology is an illusion, and an
illusion which leads ultimately to catastrophe" (Martin 1987, 224).
Vargas Llosa himself is quite honest and forthcoming regarding his
own sense of personal responsibility for the ideological delusions he
once shared. This personal mea culpa can be appreciated, for instance,
in the following interview:
[Raymond] Williams: What about that young Peruvian intellectual I
remember from 1966, that Mario Vargas Llosa who publicly supported
guerilla movements as the possibility of change for Peru? How do you see
that Vargas Llosa now?
Vargas Llosa: Well, I was totally engulfed in this collective
enthusiasm that the Cuban Revolution had aroused among us. That was
really the situation. And yes, I clearly recognize my own
responsibility. The problem is that in Peru at that time it was
impossible to imagine that this concept of violence as vehicle for
social change could lead twenty years later to a phenomenon such as
Shining Path. This is abstract violence, blind terror. Consequently, if
you still believe that violence is a solution, you must accept blind
terror. There are intellectuals and artists in Peru who are supporting
violence. (Williams 1987, 205)
Errant Knight of the Liberal Imagination
Vargas Llosa attributes much of his change in outlook to the
influence of Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, both of whom he began to
read and study in earnest in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of the
things he most admires about Berlin is his skepticism regarding claims
to final answers for the world's woes:
A constant in Western thought is the belief that one true answer
exists for every human problem, and that once we find this answer, then
all others must be rejected as mistaken. A complementary idea, as old as
this one, is that most noble and inspiring ideas--justice, freedom,
peace, pleasure, and so on--are compatible with one another. For Isaiah
Berlin, these two beliefs are false, and many of the tragedies that have
befallen humanity can be laid at their doorstep. From this skeptical
base, Berlin produced a number of powerful and original arguments in
favor of freedom of choice and ideological pluralism. (Vargas Llosa
2008, 139) (8)
As for Popper, a famous essay that Vargas Llosa wrote about this
philosopher opens with a very strong statement: "Truth, for Karl
Popper, is not discovered: it is invented" (2008, 160). Even
allowing for "poetic license," this statement seems like an
extreme formulation of what is in fact a very complex and nuanced
theory, although Vargas Llosa makes his case with his customary
elegance. What this essay says about Popper, however, is not as
interesting as what it says about Vargas Llosa himself. The Popperian
emphasis on falsifiability, criticism, and provisional (but never
unconditional) acceptance of scientific hypotheses clearly had an impact
on Vargas Llosa's own understanding of the world:
"Popper's theory of knowledge is the best philosophical
justification for the ethical value that most characterizes democratic
culture: tolerance. If there are no absolute and eternal truths, if the
only way for knowledge to progress is by making and correcting mistakes,
we should all recognize that our own truths may not be right and that
what looks to us like our adversaries' errors may in fact be
correct" (2008, 165-66).
Thus, both Berlinean skepticism and Popperian uncertainty serve as
antidotes to dogmatism and fanaticism, which are two great enemies of
liberty in Vargas Llosa's worldview. The struggle against dogma and
fanaticism is a major theme in his literary oeuvre and a key element in
all of his intellectual and political commitments. As he recently
reiterated in his Nobel lecture,
Mario Vargas Llosa was once described as "the errant knight of
the liberal imagination" (Martin 1987). It is good to know that the
liberal tradition in Spanish letters is still alive and well. It is also
good to know that the Swedish Academy finally did justice to a true
giant of world literature.
Da Cunha, Euclides.  1944. Rebellion in the Backlands [Os
sertoes]. Translated by Samuel Putnam. Chicago: University of Chicago
Guillermoprieto, Alma. 2001. The Bitter Education of Vargas Llosa.
In Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, 155-77. New York:
Kristal, Efrain. 1998. Temptation of the Word: The Novels of Mario
Vargas Llosa. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Martin, Gerald. 1987. Mario Vargas Llosa: Errant Knight of the
Liberal Imagination. In On Modern Latin American Fiction, edited by John
King, 205-33. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Oviedo, Jose Miguel. 1982. Mario Vargas Llosa: La invencion de una
realidad. Barcelona: Seix Barral.
Pamuk, Orhan. 2007. Mario Vargas Llosa and Third World Literature.
In Other Colors: Essays and a Story, 168-73. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Rebaza-Soraluz, Luis. 1997. Demons and Lies: Motivation and Form in
Mario Vargas Llosa (interview). Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no.
Vargas Llosa, Mario.  1984. The War of the End of the World.
Translated by Helen R. Lane. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
--. 1986a. Contra viento y marea. Vol. 1. Barcelona: Seix Barral.
--.  1986b. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. Translated by
Alfred MacAdam. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
--. 1991. A Writer's Reality. Edited by Myron I. Lichtblau.
Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.
--.  1994. A Fish in the Water: A Memoir. Translated by Helen
R. Lane. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
--. 1996. Making Waves: Essays. Edited by John King. London:
--. 2004. The Language of Passion: Selected Commentary. New York:
--. 2007. Touchstones: Essays in Literature, Art, and Politics.
Edited by John King. London: Faber and Faber.
--. 2008. Wellsprings. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
--. 2010. Nobel Lecture: In Praise of Reading and Fiction. December
7. Translated by Edith Grossman. Available at:
Williams, Raymond L. 1987. The Boom Twenty Years Later: An
Interview with Mario Vargas Llosa. Latin American Literary Review 15,
no. 29: 201-6.
(1.) All of Vargas Llosa's fictional works are available in
English translation, but most of his critical work is not. To date,
three essay collections by Vargas Llosa have been published in English
(1996, 2004, and 2007), and more will almost certainly follow as a
result of the Nobel award. In addition, he has published in English two
nonfiction books based on university lectures (1991 and 2008).
(2.) On the events and circumstances that explain Vargas
Llosa's gradual disenchantment with Cuban socialism and his
strained relations with the Latin American Left during this stage of his
career (late 1960s and early 1970s), see Krista1 1998, 69-98.
(3.) For an extremely insightful review of this work, see
(4.) Subsequent citations to The War of the End of the World are to
the  1984 translation and are given as parenthetical page
(5.) Slavery in Brazil had been abolished by the monarchy in 1888.
(6.) The novel can also be read, of course, as simply a good story,
an interpretation that at least one of its characters--namely, the
Midget, a member of a traveling circus who makes a living by reciting
popular legends of medieval romance and adventure--would prefer. Asked
about the moral significance of one of his tales, he replies
defensively: "I don't know, I don't know.... It's
not in the story. It's not my fault, don't hurt me. I'm
just the storyteller" (557).
(7.) Subsequent citations to The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta are
to the  1986b translation and are given as parenthetical page
(8.) On Berlin, see also Vargas Llosa 2007, 225-36.
Julio H. Cole is a professor of economics at the Universidad
Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala.
Many young people, many intellectuals, many avant-garde politicians
were using ideology, were using these political ideas that presumed
to describe reality ... and were, in fact, adding to reality a
purely imaginary world. It seemed to me strange that this fiction
... was a major source of violence and brutality in Latin America;
that these sometimes elaborate and complex ideological
constructions in which one society was described and then another
ideal society was also described as a goal to be reached through
revolution ... were, in fact, a mechanism that was destroying our
societies and creating major obstacles to real progress. (1991,
when the journalist arrives in Canudos and discovers the truth of
the matter, so different from what he thought when he wrote his
dispatches from Bahia, he is almost literally blind: his eyeglasses
are shattered and he moves around groping among shadows ... that
is, he cannot see the physical reality that he alone appears to
understand better than anyone.... [This depiction] serves to
illustrate one of the novel's great themes: the inability to see
without ideological lenses and understand reality as a chiaroscuro
that defies our rational concepts. The drama of Canudos is the
blindness of the human spirit, which refuses to accept that which
does not fit into the mold of its convictions or prejudices,
inventing [instead] a reality fit to measure. (1982, 650-51, my
[O]urs is the age of fanatics, of suicide terrorists, an ancient
species convinced that by killing they earn heaven, that the blood
of innocents washes away collective affronts, corrects injustices,
and imposes truth on false beliefs. Every day, all over the world,
countless victims are sacrificed by those who feel they possess
absolute truths. With the collapse of totalitarian empires, we
believed that living together, peace, pluralism, and human rights
would gain the ascendancy and the world would leave behind
holocausts, genocides, invasions, and wars of extermination. None
of that has occurred. New forms of barbarism flourish, incited by
fanaticism, and with the proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction, we cannot overlook the fact that any small faction of
crazed redeemers may one day provoke a nuclear cataclysm. We have
to thwart them, confront them, and defeat them. (2010, 3)