Skip to content
Congratulations to 2021 Ottaway Award winner Naveen Kishore! Learn more.

History of a Conversion: A Political Profile of Mario Vargas Llosa, Part Two

By Felipe Restrepo Pombo
Translated By Ezra E. Fitz

Part Two of Felipe Restrepo Pombo’s interview with Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa about his latest book, The Call of the Tribe (Alfaguara, 2018), and the writers who influenced not only his fiction but his worldview. This profile originally appeared in Spanish in Gatopardo. Read Part One of the interview.


The day he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Vargas Llosa swore that it would not also represent his funeral. He meant that, after earning the recognition, some laureates become instant classics and no one expects anything from them going forward. And the Peruvian, very much in accordance with his vitality, continued writing with the same intensity as ever. In order to write The Call of the Tribe, he reread dozens of books and conducted two years of intensive research. He worked with precision on each of the essays in which he comments, reviews, and converses with the thinkers on his list: Adam Smith, José Ortega y Gasset, Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, and Jean-François Revel.

“Liberalism has become a dirty word in Latin America,” he tells me. “It has even degenerated into neoliberalism, which is seen as the great mask covering up the exploitation of the poor, the abuse of the great industries. But liberalism is a policy that adapts to circumstances, that can be transformed in the name of pragmatism. Adam Smith said it: the ideal is not always possible, and certain principles must be sacrificed so that they can be adapted to suit reality. Liberalism is flexible and fights for freedom to be the engine that drives social, political, and economic development.”

“One of the authors to whom you dedicate a chapter of your book, Isaiah Berlin, says that certain, contrary political ideas can coexist. How should we understand this?”

“What he proposes is a wonderful thing. We believe that all values can coexist. As the motto of the French Revolution says—liberté, égalité, fraternité. But what would happen if those values run contradictory to one another? You can’t necessarily have equality without restricting certain freedoms. It’s a paradox that we have to confront day in and day out. What Berlin proposes is to look for social compromises. And in those compromises we find civilization.”

“People like Hegel and Wittgenstein exasperated Popper because he believed they used so many words to say so little. Which is a dangerous thing, because words matter. A lot.”

I ask him to show me all the books he used during this period of research. He examines two shelves with both his hands and his eyes. He explains to me that this is not his personal library, that he brought a few of his own volumes with him, but that most of these belonged to Miguel Boyer, who served as Spain’s minister of economy, treasury, and commerce and who was Isabel Preysler’s third husband.

“I’ve found some wonderful oddities here . . . it’s a library rull of scientific and economic texts, but there’s also a lot of literature.”

“All the authors in this book share an interest in moving forward, in fighting against dogmas,” I suggest.

“Berlin, for example, says that economic freedom brings progress but it can also lead to the wolves eating the lambs. As he said, ‘unlimited liberty for factory owners or parents will allow children to be employed in the coal mines.’ I believe in liberalism that is not just an economic doctrine but an idea of progress for all.”

“How flexible is this concept when it comes to both the left and the right?”

“It plays out differently on the two sides. It has similarities with the left when it comes to social democracies, and with the right when it comes to conservative values.”

“Popper believed that philosophy deals with concrete problems, and that notion conflicted with other thinkers of his time, like Wittgenstein. Why?”

“It was a clash between two schools of thoughts. Both were quite valid but also contradictory. Popper argued that philosophy couldn’t just be incomprehensible jargon, that it had to be used to discuss concrete problems. He pointed out that philosophy was becoming a rarified discipline in which laypersons didn’t even have the linguistic tools with which to access its complexities. People like Hegel and Wittgenstein exasperated Popper because he believed they used so many words to say so little. Which is a dangerous thing, because words matter. A lot.”

“Something similar happened with Jean-François Revel, another one of the writers in the book, who also confronted his contemporaries, including Lacan and Derrida, on the grounds that their works were too intricate.”

“Revel was very important to me. He was a public intellectual; his work appeared in newspapers. Without wanting to impoverish his ideas, he was convinced that culture is something that must reach the public, and not be locked away in senseless complexity. From him, I learned the importance of knowing how to reach the general public, of communicating through an accessible discourse. The same with José Ortega y Gasset: much of his literary work was published in newspapers, and people could read it. This is no slight against his writing.”

“Should writers be public figures?”

“They have to understand their time, and know how to communicate their ideas.”


“I've wanted to write a biography of Mario since the early seventies,” says Gerald Martin, “though by the time I finally started the book in 2011 he was, ideologically, a completely different figure from the one to whom I was first attracted. This made the challenge even more interesting!”

Martin is a British researcher and literary critic known for his biographies of García Márquez and Miguel Ángle Asturias. He has taught Latin American literature at a number of universities, and is one of the most respected voices in his field. His book, Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, is considered the definitive biography of the Colombian Nobel laureate. For the past seven years, he has dedicated himself—to the same profound extent as with the previous two books—to Vargas Llosa’s life. And though he is quite reserved when it comes to his work, he suggests that the Peruvian’s political ideas will be a central theme in his new book.

 “He suffered a tremendous blow with his election defeat in 1990 but by 1998, when Octavio Paz died, and still twelve years before he won the Nobel Prize, he was the most prestigious public intellectual in the Spanish-speaking world and he has remained the dominant figure to this day,” he says.


On July 28, 1987, Vargas Llosa looked on as Alan García, then president of Peru, on the radio, announced his decision to nationalize the country’s entire financial system, including banks, fiscal corporations, and insurance companies. This move created an unexpected twist in the journalist’s life. Vargas Llosa was already one of the most recognized writers in the world and spent most of his life in Europe. He was always in touch with Peru through his articles, his television appearances, and above all through great friends like the painter Fernando de Szyszlo. But García’s announcement forced him to connect in yet another way: to rebel, again, against the established power. He published an article in the El Comercio newspaper explaining why he disagreed with the decision and calling for a protest in favor of private property rights. It would become one of the largest political events in Peru’s history. After that, there was only one way to go: in August of that same year, he founded the Freedom Movement and became a presidential candidate for the Democratic Front. His plan was to radically reform Peruvian society and turn it into a liberal democracy.

The adventure into politics was an intense and exhausting disappointment. Vargas Llosa set out to run a clean campaign, one focused on discussing the problems that needed to be solved. His opponent, Alberto Fujimori, however, had a different strategy. “Of course, telling the truth in politics makes you immensely vulnerable, because if your adversary doesn’t respect those rules of the game, you can be overwhelmed by smear campaigns,” Vargas Llosa writes in Conversations at Princeton. Fujimori’s supporters effectively began to defame him. They accused him of representing the oligarchy, of being a candidate who would betray the poor as soon as he was elected. They even used his literary works against him. The writer remembers how he turned on the television one day and saw a panel of experts, hired by his opponents, reading from his books. The moderator referenced some “degenerate and perverse” excerpts from the novel In Praise of the Stepmother. “What sort of mind could come up with such things?” ranted one of the guest psychologists. “Of course he’s a degenerate. He’s a typical lifelong degenerate.” By this time, Vargas Llosa had already won the Rómulo Gallegos and Príncipe de Asturias prizes, among others.

The discrediting tactics proved effective, and despite leading in the early polls, Vargas Llosa lost in a runoff. One year later, Enrique Ghersi, his campaign director, wrote in the magazine Estudios Públicos that the defeat was due to “pride and even arrogance in Vargas Llosa’s candidacy, the liberal platform being rejected by the people, a lack of political experience leading to a campaign strategy that was ‘too transparent,’ and an electoral alliance with traditional parties which put their independence in doubt.” Others claim the reason could have been a certain naïveté on the part of Vargas Llosa in not wanting to confront Fujimori.

“Being uncomfortable or made to look bad has never bothered him. Like when he went to Mexico and called the PRI a perfect dictatorship. Or during the presidential campaign, when he criticized former friends and called out whomever he thought needed to be called out. He has been very consistent when facing situations he considers unjust,” says Ricardo Cayuela. “He never gives up his freedom of opinion.”

Cayuela, a writer and publisher, was in charge of interviewing Vargas Llosa when he travelled to Mexico to promote A Fish in the Water. Since then, the two have maintained a close relationship, and Cayuela, who is now the editorial director of Random House Mexico, is in charge of publishing his books in that country. A Fish in the Water was Vargas Llosa’s attempt to explain (to himself) what happened during his failed incursion into politics. “I wanted to attest, as objectively as possible, to what my political experience had been, so I started writing a chronicle of those three years on the campaign trail. As I was moving along, I realized that such a book would give a very partial and inaccurate testimony . . . Then I thought about making a counterpoint between the campaign and my childhood years.”

“Vargas Llosa is an intellectual who isn’t afraid of changing his mind,” says Pilar Reyes. “He seems to think that if reality changes, so should the way we think about it.”

After losing the election, Vargas Llosa returned to Spain. Facing harassment by the Fujimori administration, the Spanish government granted him citizenship. He remained in voluntary exile, and from that position he criticized the president harshly.

Some Peruvians saw this as an act of treason. In 2000, he returned to Lima to launch the monumental novel The Feast of the Goat. In it, Vargas Llosa narrates the dictatorship of Leónidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. But he took the opportunity to talk about authoritarian and dictatorial governments in general: “The terrible thing about dictators is that, yes, they are like us. We’re cut from the same cloth, they come from the same place we all do, and they behave like ordinary human beings until they come to power. And power is what brings out the monster.” At that time, Fujimori’s government already amounted to a civil dictatorship.

Since then, many of his critics insist that Vargas Llosa has become a right-wing radical, and what’s more, that the quality of his writing has diminished.

“To me, there are two very significant moments in his body of work,” Cayuela says. “The first runs from The Time of the Hero to Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. This is the stage where he fed off the memories of his youth. It was very autobiographical. Then comes the stage that runs from The War of the End of the World to Five Corners. During this second period, he reinvents himself in order to investigate the subjects that fascinate him.”

“A lot of people say that his work has lost its vigor over the years. What’s your opinion on that?”

“I disagree,” Cayuela tells me. “I don’t think there’s a writer alive today with so many masterworks in print.”

Vargas Llosa has not lost his discipline when it comes to writing, nor his drive to defend the political causes in which he believes, whether it’s from the perspective of journalist or even by participating in events. In October of 2017, he took part in the Barcelona march, though he was on the side of unity with Spain, and delivered an enthusiastic speech that recalled his days as a presidential candidate.

“Vargas Llosa is an intellectual who isn’t afraid of changing his mind,” says Pilar Reyes. “He seems to think that if reality changes, so should the way we think about it.”

“Is showing that change part of the point of The Call of the Tribe?” I ask.

“He has left a clear trace of how his ideas have evolved, and that is a gesture of tremendous courage and intellectual responsibility.”


“I’m in debt to Vargas Llosa for many hours of joyful reading,” says Gabriela Alemán, an Ecuadorian author. “Some of them, like Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and Captain Pantoja and the Special Service make me look at the continent and its people and laugh. The War of the World, on the other hand, was a challenging and amazing read; I read it three times, one after the other. It fell into my hands during that Pleistocene era when we lived without the Internet and I discovered an entire universe: the Brazilian northeast, a place of popular religiosity where the State squared off against a territory that considered itself independent.”

“What do you think of his more recent novels?”

“I stick with the older ones, up to The Feast of the Goat. There are so many of them, and they’re so good,” says Alemán, who has become one of the most acclaimed literary voices from a generation that grew up during the consecration of Vargas Llosa.


When we meet a second time, night is already beginning to fall during our second meeting. But Vargas Llosa is not tired. After so many hours of conversation, his responses are still crystal clear; he speaks with the logical order of an already edited text.

In one of the chapters in The Call of the Tribe, he cites an essay by Isaiah Berlin dedicated to Tolstoy, in which he divides intellectuals into two categories. According to the Latvian philosopher, there are the hedgehogs, who have one fixed thought throughout their lives and study one single great concept, and the foxes, who go back and forth between differing ideas. When considering the totality of the Peruvian’s oeuvre, it seems obvious that he’s a fox.

“To which of Berlin’s two categories do you belong?”

“I think I’m a fox,” he says, laughing. “And like all the foxes, I’m a bit envious of the hedgehogs. Because having a conviction, even a fanatical one, makes your life easier. Nevertheless: that’s quite a subtle distinction.”

“For this book, you focus only on essayists and philosophers. Have you ever thought about writing another autobiographical work about the novelists who have influenced you?”

“Yes, of course, but in a certain sense I’ve already done that. I’ve written essays on Flaubert, Victor Hugo, García Márquez, William Faulkner. On a recent trip I read The Sound and the Fury for the third time, in English. I enjoyed this reading more than the previous ones. The same thing happened with Les Misérables, which I read while I was attending the military academy. Many years later, I was asked to write the prologue to a new translation, and I was astounded: as a child, I thought it was an adventure novel, but then I understood that it was a defense—and a very Catholic one—of forgiving what’s evil.”

“It’s clear that reading is a pleasure to you,” I respond, “but what do you find most enjoyable about being a writer?”

“There is a part of the writing process that I find to be quite difficult. I don’t have much fun with the first few drafts. It’s a battle against insecurity: I feel like I’m just awful. The pleasures and joy of writing come during the later drafts. I like it when I can let my intuition run free, because the very story itself may have some surprises in store for me.”

“What have you learned from all these years of writing?”

“The eloquence of silence. In an essay, clarity—communicating the ideas—is paramount. That’s the transparency that Popper is asking for. On the other hand, with a novel, it’s density that matters: it darkens things, and you narrate your way through the darkness. Sometimes, in a story, the most important thing is what’s not being said.”

“The horizon seems dark, but I’m optimistic. I truly believe that Latin America is much better today than it was during my youth.”

We walk together toward the entrance room and the stairs, where the photographer is waiting for him to take some portraits. And there, in front of the camera, emerges the legendary Vargas Llosa: the emblematic intellectual with the intense look. The cold outside is dry and intense, but Vargas Llosa is not bothered. We chat briefly about some of the current issues affecting the continent: the peace process in Colombia, the presidential elections in Mexico, and Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s pardoning of Fujimori.

“You have no idea how angry I am about that,” he says. “He betrayed the voters, and I wrote about it for El País.”

“Is there anything that can heal Latin America?”

“The horizon seems dark, but I’m optimistic. I truly believe that Latin America is much better today than it was during my youth.”

We walk across the yard. An icy gust of wind hits us in the back. The branches of the bare trees sway from side to side; dry leaves fall across the surface of the pool. Vargas Llosa combs his hair with the palm of his hand and smiles again. 


Read Part One of “History of a Conversion: A Political Profile of Mario Vargas Llosa”

Discover the next generation of Peruvian writers in the September 2015 issue of Words Without Borders

Published Mar 19, 2018   Copyright 2018 Felipe Restrepo Pombo

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.