See studies by S. Castro-Klaren and R. A. Kerr (both: 1990); collection of critical essays ed. by C. Rossman and A. Friedman (1978).
Mario Vargas Llosa, circa 1990.
Learn more about Vargas Llosa, (Jorge) Mario (Pedro) with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa (born March 28, 1936) is a Peruvian writer, politician, journalist, and essayist. Vargas Llosa is one of Latin America's most significant novelists and essayists, and one of the leading authors of his generation. Some critics consider him to have had a larger international impact and world-wide audience than any other writer of the Latin American Boom.
Vargas Llosa rose to fame in the 1960s with novels such as The Time of the Hero (La ciudad y los perros, 1963/1966), The Green House (La casa verde, 1965/1968), and the monumental Conversation in the Cathedral (Conversación en la catedral, 1969/1975). He continues to write prolifically across an array of literary genres, including literary criticism and journalism. His novels include comedies, murder mysteries, historical novels, and political thrillers. Several, such as Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973/1978) and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977/1982), have been adapted as feature films.
Many of Vargas Llosa's works are influenced by the writer's perception of Peruvian society and his own experiences as a native Peruvian. Increasingly, however, he has expanded his range, and tackled themes that arise from other parts of the world. Another change over the course of his career has been a shift from a style and approach associated with literary modernism, to a sometimes playful postmodernism.
Like many Latin American authors, Vargas Llosa has been politically active throughout his career; over the course of his life, he has gradually moved from the political left towards the right. While he initially supported the Cuban revolutionary government of Fidel Castro, Vargas Llosa later became disenchanted. He ran for the Peruvian presidency in 1990 with the center-right Frente Democrático (FREDEMO) coalition, advocating neoliberal reforms. He has subsequently supported moderate conservative candidates.
Vargas Llosa lived with his maternal family in Arequipa until a year after his parents' divorce, when his maternal grandfather was named honorary consul for Peru in Bolivia. With his mother and her family, Vargas Llosa then moved to Cochabamba, Bolivia, where he spent the early years of his childhood. His maternal family, the Llosas, were sustained by his grandfather, who managed a cotton farm. As a child, Vargas Llosa was led to believe that his father had died—his mother and her family did not want to explain that his parents had separated. During the government of Peruvian President José Bustamante y Rivero, Vargas Llosa's maternal grandfather obtained a diplomatic post in the Peruvian coastal city of Piura and the entire family returned to Peru. While in Piura, Vargas Llosa attended elementary school at the religious academy Colegio Salesiano. In 1946, at the age of ten, he moved to Lima and met his father for the first time. His parents re-established their relationship and lived in Magdalena del Mar, a middle-class Lima suburb, during his teenage years. While in Lima, he studied at the Colegio La Salle, a Christian middle school, from 1947 to 1949.
When Vargas Llosa was fourteen, his father sent him to the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Lima. A year before his graduation, Vargas Llosa began working as an amateur journalist for local newspapers. He withdrew from the military academy and finished his studies in Piura, where he worked for the local newspaper, La Industria, and witnessed the theatrical performance of his first dramatic work, La huida del Inca.
In 1953, during the government of Manuel A. Odría, Vargas Llosa enrolled in Lima's National University of San Marcos to study law and literature. He married Julia Urquidi, his maternal uncle's sister-in-law, in 1955 at the age of 19; she was 13 years older. Vargas Llosa began his literary career in earnest in 1957 with the publication of his first short stories, "The Leaders" ("Los jefes") and "The Grandfather" ("El abuelo"), while working for two Peruvian newspapers. Upon his graduation from the National University of San Marcos in 1958, he received a scholarship to study at the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain. In 1960, after his scholarship in Madrid had expired, Vargas Llosa moved to France under the impression that he would receive a scholarship to study there; however, upon arriving in Paris, he learned that his scholarship request was denied. Despite Mario and Julia's unexpected financial status, the couple decided to remain in Paris where he began to write prolifically. Their marriage lasted only a few more years, ending in divorce in 1964. A year later, Vargas Llosa married his first cousin, Patricia Llosa, with whom he had three children: Álvaro Vargas Llosa (born 1966), a writer and editor; Gonzalo (born 1967), a businessman; and Morgana (born 1974), a photographer.
In 1965, Vargas Llosa followed The Time of the Hero with The Green House (La casa verde), about a brothel called "The Green House" and how its quasi-mythical presence affects the lives of the characters. The main plot follows Bonifacia, a girl who is about to receive the vows of the church, and her transformation into la Selvatica, the best-known prostitute of "The Green House". The novel immediately received an enthusiastic critical reception, confirming Vargas Llosa as an important voice of Latin American narrative. The Green House won the first edition of the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize in 1967, contending with works by veteran Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti and by Gabriel García Márquez. This novel alone accumulated enough awards to place the author among the leading figures of the Latin American Boom. Some critics still consider The Green House to be Vargas Llosa's finest and most important achievement. Indeed, Latin American literary critic Gerald Martin suggests that The Green House is "one of the greatest novels to have emerged from Latin America".
Vargas Llosa's third novel, Conversation in the Cathedral (Conversación en la catedral), was published in 1969, when he was 33. This ambitious narrative is the story of Santiago Zavala, the son of a minister, and Ambrosio, his chauffeur. A random meeting at a dog pound leads the pair to a riveting conversation at a nearby bar known as "The Cathedral". During the encounter, Zavala searches for the truth about his father's role in the murder of a notorious Peruvian underworld figure, shedding light on the workings of a dictatorship along the way. Unfortunately for Zavala, his quest results in a dead end with no answers and no sign of a better future. The novel attacks the dictatorial government of Odría by showing how a dictatorship controls and destroys lives. The persistent theme of hopelessness makes Conversation in the Cathedral Vargas Llosa's most bitter novel.
Following the monumental work Conversation in the Cathedral, Vargas Llosa's output shifted away from more serious themes such as politics and problems with society. Latin American literary scholar Raymond L. Williams describes this phase in his writing career as "the discovery of humor". His first attempt at a satirical novel was Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (Pantaleón y las visitadoras), published in 1973. This short, comic novel offers vignettes of dialogues and documents about the Peruvian armed forces and a corps of prostitutes assigned to visit military outposts in remote jungle areas. These plot elements are similar to Vargas Llosa's earlier novel The Green House; it is just that the form has changed. As such, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service is essentially a parody of both The Green House and the literary approach that novel represents. Vargas Llosa's motivation to write the novel came from actually witnessing prostitutes being hired by the Peruvian Army and brought to serve soldiers in the jungle.
From 1974 to 1987, Vargas Llosa focused on his writing, but also took the time to pursue other endeavors. In 1975, he co-directed a motion-picture adaptation of his novel, Captain Pantoja and the Secret Service. Following that unsuccessful production, he was elected President of the International PEN, a worldwide association of writers. During this time, Vargas Llosa constantly travelled to speak at conferences organized by internationally renowned institutions, such as the University of Jerusalem and the University of Cambridge.
In 1977, Vargas Llosa published Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (La tía Julia y el escribidor), based in part on his marriage to his first wife, Julia Urquidi, to whom he dedicated the novel. She later wrote a memoir, Lo que Varguitas no dijo (What Little Vargas Didn't Say), in which she gives her personal account of their relationship. She states that Vargas Llosa's account exaggerates many negative points in their courtship and marriage while minimizing her role of assisting his literary career. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is considered one of the most striking examples of how the language and imagery of popular culture can be used in literature. The novel was adapted in 1990 into a Hollywood feature film, Tune in Tomorrow.
After completing The War of the End of the World, Vargas Llosa began to write novels that were significantly shorter than many of his earlier books. In 1983, he finished The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (Historia de Mayta, 1984). The novel focuses on a leftist insurrection that took place on May 29, 1962 in the Andean city of Jauja. Later the same year, during the Sendero Luminoso uprising, Vargas Llosa was asked by the Peruvian President Fernando Belaúnde Terry to join the Investigatory Commission, a task force to inquire into the horrific massacre of eight journalists at the hands of the villagers of Uchuraccay. The Commission's main purpose was to investigate the murders in order to provide information regarding the incident to the public. Following his involvement with the Investigatory Commission, Vargas Llosa published a series of articles to defend his position in the affair. In 1986, he completed his next novel, Who Killed Palomino Molero (¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero?), which he began writing shortly after the end of the Uchuraccay investigation. Though the plot of this mystery novel is similar to the tragic events at Uchuraccay, literary critic Roy Boland points out that it was not an attempt to reconstruct the murders, but rather a "literary exorcism" of Vargas Llosa's own experiences during the commission. The experience also inspired one of Vargas Llosa's later novels, Death in the Andes (Lituma en los Andes), originally published in 1993 in Barcelona.
It would be almost 20 years before Vargas Llosa wrote another major work: The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo), a political thriller, was published in 2000 (and in English in 2001). According to Williams, it is Vargas Llosa's most complete and most ambitious novel since The War of the End of the World. Based on the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, who governed the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961, the novel has three main strands: one concerns Urania Cabral, the daughter of a former politician and Trujillo loyalist, who returns for the first time since leaving the Dominican Republic after Trujillo's assassination 30 years earlier; the second concentrates on the assassination itself, the conspirators who carry it out, and its consequences; and the third and final strand deals with Trujillo himself in scenes from the end of his regime. The book quickly received positive reviews in Spain and Latin America, and has had a significant impact in Latin America, being regarded as one of Vargas Llosa's best works.
In 2006, Vargas Llosa wrote The Bad Girl (Travesuras de la niña mala), which journalist Kathryn Harrison approvingly argues is a rewrite (rather than simply a recycling) of the French modernist Gustave Flaubert's classic novel Madame Bovary (1856). In Vargas Llosa's version, the plot relates the decades-long obsession of its narrator, a Peruvian expatriate, with a woman with whom he first fell in love when both were teenagers.
Like many other Latin American intellectuals, Vargas Llosa was initially a supporter of the Cuban revolutionary government of Fidel Castro. He studied Marxism in depth as a university student and was later persuaded by communist ideals after the success of the Cuban Revolution. Gradually, Vargas Llosa came to believe that Cuban socialism was incompatible with what he considered to be general liberties and freedoms. The official rupture between the writer and the policies of the Cuban government occurred with the so-called Padilla Affair, when Fidel Castro imprisoned the poet Herberto Padilla. Vargas Llosa, along with other intellectuals of the time, wrote to Castro protesting against the Cuban political system and the imprisonment of the artist. Vargas Llosa has identified himself with neoliberalism rather than extreme left-wing political ideologies ever since. Since he relinquished his earlier leftism, he has opposed both left- and right-wing authoritarian regimes.
With his appointment to the Investigatory Commission in 1983 he experienced what literary critic Jean Franco calls "the most uncomfortable event in [his] political career". Unfortunately for Vargas Llosa, his involvement with the Investigatory Commission led to immediate negative reactions and defamation from the Peruvian press; many suggested that the massacre was a conspiracy to keep the journalists from reporting the presence of government paramilitary forces in Uchuraccay. The commission concluded that it was the indigenous villagers who had been responsible for the killings; for Vargas Llosa the incident showed "how vulnerable democracy is in Latin America and how easily it dies under dictatorships of the right and left". These conclusions, and Vargas Llosa personally, came under intense criticism: anthropologist Enrique Mayer, for instance, accused him of "paternalism", while fellow anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori criticized him for his ignorance of the Andean world. Vargas Llosa was accused of actively colluding in a government cover-up of army involvement in the massacre. Latin American literature scholar Misha Kokotovic summarizes that the novelist was charged with seeing "indigenous cultures as a 'primitive' obstacle to the full realization of his Western model of modernity". Shocked both by the atrocity itself and then by the reaction his report had provoked, Vargas Llosa responded that his critics were apparently more concerned with his report than with the hundreds of peasants who would later die at the hands of the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla organization.
Over the course of the decade, Vargas Llosa became known for his staunch neoliberal views. In 1987, he helped form and soon became a leader of the Movimiento Libertad. The following year his party entered a coalition with the parties of Peru's two principal conservative politicians at the time, ex-president Fernando Belaúnde Terry (of the Popular Action party) and Luis Bedoya Reyes (of the Partido Popular Cristiano), to form the tripartite center-right coalition known as Frente Democrático (FREDEMO). He ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990 as the candidate of the FREDEMO coalition. He proposed a drastic economic austerity program that frightened most of the country's poor; this program emphasized the need for privatization, a market economy, free trade, and most importantly, the dissemination of private property. During the campaign, his opponents read racy passages from his novels over the radio in an apparent attempt to shock voters. Although he won the first round with 34% of the vote, Vargas Llosa was defeated by a then-unknown agricultural engineer, Alberto Fujimori, in the subsequent run-off. Vargas Llosa included an account of his run for the presidency in the memoir A Fish in the Water (El pez en el agua, 1993). Since his political defeat, he has focused mainly on his writing, with only an occasional political involvement.
Vargas Llosa has mainly lived in London since the 1990s, but spends roughly three months of the year in Peru. Vargas Llosa also acquired Spanish citizenship in 1993; he frequently visits Spain for various conferences and enjoys vacationing there. In 1994 he was elected a member of the Real Academia Española (Spanish Royal Academy) and has been involved in the country's political arena. In February 2008 he stopped supporting the Partido Popular in favor of the recently created Union, Progress and Democracy, claiming that certain conservative views held by the former party are at odds with his classical liberal beliefs. His political ideologies appear in the book Política razonable, written with Fernando Savater, Rosa Díez, Álvaro Pombo, Albert Boadella and Carlos Martínez Gorriarán. He continues to write, both journalism and fiction, and to travel extensively. He has also taught as a visiting professor at a number of prominent universities.
Vargas Llosa's style encompasses historical material as well as his own personal experiences. For example, in his first novel, The Time of the Hero, his own experiences at the Leoncio Prado military school informed his depiction of the corrupt social institution which mocked the moral standards it was supposed to uphold. Furthermore, the corruption of the book's school is a reflection of the corruption of Peruvian society at the time the novel was written. Vargas Llosa frequently uses his writing to challenge the inadequacies of society, such as demoralization and oppression by those in political power towards those who challenge this power. One of the main themes he has explored in his writing is the individual's struggle for freedom within an oppressive reality. For example, his two-volume novel Conversation in the Cathedral is based on the tyrannical dictatorship of Peruvian President Manuel A. Odría. The protagonist, Santiago, rebels against the suffocating dictatorship by participating in the subversive activities of leftist political groups. In addition to themes such as corruption and oppression, Vargas Llosa's second novel, The Green House, explores "a denunciation of Peru's basic institutions", dealing with issues of abuse and exploitation of the workers in the brothel by corrupt military officers.
Many of Vargas Llosa's earlier novels were set in Peru, while in more recent work he has expanded to other regions of Latin America, such as Brazil and the Dominican Republic. His responsibilities as a writer and lecturer have allowed him to travel frequently and led to settings for his novels in regions outside of Peru. The War of the End of the World was his first major work set outside Peru. Though the plot deals with historical events of the Canudos revolt against the Brazilian government, the novel is not based directly on historical fact; rather, its main inspiration is the non-fiction account of those events published by Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha in 1902. The Feast of the Goat, based on the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, takes place in the Dominican Republic; in preparation for this novel, Vargas Llosa undertook a comprehensive study of Dominican history. The novel was characteristically realist, and Vargas Llosa underscores that he "respected the basic facts, [. . .] I have not exaggerated", but at the same time he points out "It's a novel, not a history book, so I took many, many liberties.
One of Vargas Llosa's more recent novels, The Way to Paradise (El paraíso en la otra esquina), is set largely in France and Tahiti. Based on the biography of former social reformer Flora Tristan, it demonstrates how Flora and Paul Gauguin were unable to find paradise, but were still able to inspire followers to keep working towards a socialist utopia. Unfortunately, Vargas Llosa was not as successful in transforming these historical figures into fiction. Some critics, such as Barbara Mujica, argue that The Way to Paradise lacks the "audacity, energy, political vision, and narrative genius" that was present in his previous works.
Vargas Llosa's first literary influences were relatively obscure Peruvian writers such as Martín Adán, Carlos Oquendo de Amat, and César Moro. As a young writer, he looked to these revolutionary novelists in search of new narrative structures and techniques in order to delineate a more contemporary, multifaceted experience of urban Peru. He was looking for a style different from the traditional descriptions of land and rural life made famous by Peru's foremost novelist at the time, José María Arguedas. Vargas Llosa wrote of Arguedas's work that it was "an example of old-fashioned regionalism that had already exhausted its imaginary possibilities". Although he did not share Arguedas's passion for indigenous reality, Vargas Llosa admired and respected the novelist for his contributions to Peruvian literature. Indeed, he has published a book-length study on his work, La utopía arcaica (1996).
Rather than restrict himself to Peruvian literature, Vargas Llosa also looked abroad for literary inspiration. Two French figures, existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and novelist Gustave Flaubert, influenced both his technique and style. Sartre's influence is most prevalent in Vargas Llosa's extensive use of conversation. The epigraph of The Time of the Hero, his first novel, is also taken directly from Sartre's work. Flaubert's artistic independence—his novels' disregard of reality and morals—has always been admired by Vargas Llosa, who wrote a book-length study of Flaubert's aesthetics, The Perpetual Orgy. In his analysis of Flaubert, Vargas Llosa questions the revolutionary power of literature in a political setting; this is in contrast to his earlier view that "literature is an act of rebellion", thus marking a transition in Vargas Llosa's aesthetic beliefs.
One of Vargas Llosa's favourite novelists, and arguably the most influential on his writing career, is the American William Faulkner. Vargas Llosa considers Faulkner "the writer who perfected the methods of the modern novel". Both writers' styles include intricate changes in time and narration. In The Time of the Hero, for example, aspects of Vargas Llosa's plot, his main character's development and his use of narrative time are influenced by his favourite Faulkner novel, Light in August.
In addition to the studis of Arguedas and Flaubert, Vargas Llosa has written literary criticisms of other authors that he has admired, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, and Jean Paul Sartre. The main goals of his non-fiction works are to acknowledge the influence of these authors on his writing, and to recognize a connection between himself and the other writers; critic Sara Castro-Klarén argues that he offers little systematic analysis of these authors' literary techniques. In The Perpetual Orgy, for example, he discusses the relationship between his own aesthetics and Flaubert's, rather than focusing on Flaubert's alone.
Mario Vargas Llosa is considered a major Latin American writer, alongside other greats such as Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. In his book The New Novel in Latin America (La Nueva Novela), Fuentes offers an in-depth literary criticism of the positive influence Vargas Llosa's work has had on Latin American literature. Indeed, for the literary critic Gerald Martin, writing in 1987, Vargas Llosa was "perhaps the most successful [. . . and] certainly the most controversial Latin American novelist of the past twenty-five years".
Most of Vargas Llosa's narratives have been translated into multiple languages, marking his international critical success. Vargas Llosa is also noted for his substantial contribution to journalism, an accomplishment characteristic of few other Latin American writers. He is recognized among those who have most consciously promoted literature in general, and more specifically the novel itself, as avenues for meaningful commentary about life. During his prolific career, he has written more than a dozen novels and many other books and stories, and, for decades, he has been a voice for Latin American literature. He has won numerous awards for his writing, from the 1959 Premio Leopoldo Alas and the 1962 Premio Biblioteca Breve to the 1993 Premio Planeta (for Death in the Andes) and the Jerusalem Prize in 1995. The most important distinction he has received is probably the 1994 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, usually considered the most important accolade in Spanish-language literature and awarded to authors whose "work has contributed to enrich, in a notable way, the literary patrimony of the Spanish language".
A number of Vargas Llosa's works have been adapted for the screen, including The Time of the Hero and Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (both by the distinguished Peruvian director Francisco Lombardi) and The Feast of the Goat (by Vargas Llosa's cousin, Luis Llosa). Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was turned into the English-language film, Tune in Tomorrow. The Feast of the Goat has also been adapted as a theatrical play by Jorge Alí Triana, a Colombian playwright and director.
Vargas Llosa's essays and journalism have been collected as Contra viento y marea, issued in three volumes (1983, 1986, and 1990). A selection has been edited by John King and translated and published as Making Waves.