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

By Felipe Restrepo Pombo
Translated By Ezra E. Fitz

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


Mario Vargas Llosa is feeling good. On this wintry afternoon, a cold yet sunny Monday, he never stops smiling. He good-naturedly describes a bit of confusion he had a few days before: he was expecting to meet some friends at a restaurant in downtown Madrid, but in fact, he had invited them all to his home.

“All morning I was reminding myself not to forget the gathering,” he says between laughs. “I got there early, but I didn’t see anyone. And then they called me to tell me they’d all just arrived at my house. I still can’t explain how something like this could have happened.”

He jokes about his age and about the ailments he occasionally suffers from before moving on to go over the promotional agenda for his new book, The Call of the Tribe, which will be published in the spring by Alfaguara. With surprising vitality—he turns eighty-two this month—the Peruvian has big plans for 2018: his book tour will cover a number of continents. A new book by Vargas Llosa isn’t just any publication, it’s a worldwide event. Even more so in this case, because he’s writing about a topic that always generates debate: his political ideas. He will also be delivering lectures at universities, meeting with statesmen, giving interviews to all sorts of media, appearing as the guest of honor at gala dinners, and accepting awards, among a litany of other commitments. Just reading this itinerary would exhaust any normal person. But he accepts it with pleasure. And, in between, he always finds time to write.

“Always. It may be just a couple of hours, during some down time, in one of my notebooks. It’s very important not to abandon the things I’m working on. If I stop writing for too long, I have a terrible time starting up again.”

He walks over to his desk, which is at the other end of the library where we’ve been talking, and pulls out notebooks of all shapes and sizes. Some are bound in leather, others are more scholastic in design. But all of them, without exception, are filled cover to cover with stylized calligraphy: the handwriting of a diligent student.

“I write by hand. For me, a narrative’s rhythm is like that of handwriting,” he says as he mimics the act of writing on one of the pages.

“What happens with all of these notes?”

“These aren’t notes: they’re manuscripts. I write them down in the morning and then, in the afternoon, I transcribe them.” He puts on his thick black frames and studies one of these notebooks at random. He pauses on a particular page and reads it in full. He smiles again: he seems to have remembered something amusing.

“How do your stories come to be?”

“The starting point is very mysterious: I never know why certain images, preserved by memory, are still so fertile. I’m not sure why they evoke the stories that they do.”

“Do you keep all your files here at your desk?”

“Not many. Almost everything is at Princeton.”

For the past few decades, the prestigious American university has catalogued his archives. As Rubén Gallo notes in his book Conversations at Princeton, in the nineties the university library bought his correspondence, novel drafts, and many other documents. The three hundred and seventy-two containers of materials have been consulted by hundreds of researchers from around the world.

“It’s a room with large metal filing cabinets to protect them from humidity, from any accident, and meticulously organized,” says Vargas Llosa, showing a bit of emotion. “There could be a huge fire and nothing would burn.”

Unraveling Vargas Llosa’s creative process can be a complicated task, even for the most methodical researcher. The first step is an extensive investigation, not unlike that of a historian or sociologist. Early in the process, you have a very general idea of a story. You start hashing out diagrams that detail the trajectories of all the characters. Vargas Llosa draws these diagrams on a page; in fact, he shows me a few that he keeps there next to his notebooks. Then he interlaces these paths and from there, the order and complexity of each chapter is born. The Peruvian is known for being a master of structure. As he’s said many times himself, when it comes to writing, form is fundamental. In regards to his literary technique, form is the structuring and organization of time. He is always clear about where he wants to go, but he enjoys the twists and turns. According to him, this complexity gives greater depth to stories that would otherwise be purely anecdotal. In his conversations with Gallo, he calls it a “natural calling for the labyrinth.”

Giving sense, giving intention to this first draft is the element of writing he enjoys the most: plucking the work from amid the chaos.

It is at this point in the process that the writing can begin. He works on a first draft which he describes as being like magma: chaotic and without form order. There he delineates events, scenes, and situations, some of which are repeated or narrated from different points of view. Certain chapters may not yet be well defined and remain mere intuitions for now. Once this version is complete, he polishes it like a slab of marble. Giving sense, giving intention to this first draft is the element of writing he enjoys the most: plucking the work from amid the chaos. From there, he works through five versions of each book, each with variations that can range from reconstructing a paragraph to rewriting an entire chapter.

“I’ve worked with Mario for twenty years,” says Pilar Reyes, the literary director of his Spanish publisher Alfaguara, a few days later. We’re sitting in a restaurant in Madrid. “I’ve been his publisher since The Dream of the Celt, in 2010, and his original editor and his publisher in Colombia since 1998.”

“Is it true that you have several versions of each book?”

“What Mario delivers is a finalized manuscript. That’s no surprise. What is, though, is the handwritten versions in his notebooks, of which I have several. They’re amazingly clean, too.”

Vargas Llosa’s discipline is legendary: it’s not unlike that of an athlete. Those who know him will attest to his strict precision and perfectionism. He has no time whatsoever for alcohol or sleepless nights. In that sense, he is a direct disciple of Gustave Flaubert, the French novelist who believed more in hard work than he did in inspiration. Vargas Llosa is a professional who adheres to a strict working schedule. He begins writing at ten in the morning, locked in his study to block out any distractions, taking no calls and answering no emails. At one o’clock in the afternoon, he pauses to have lunch and check up on the news. After his break, he returns to his desk to clean up the pages he wrote that morning. There is a legend that his fingerprints have been erased by so many years of typing.

At night, if he has no other commitments, he spends his time reading or watching movies or television shows.

“Right now I love this particular series called The Man in the High Castle. It’s quite good, have you seen it? I’m already halfway through the second season.”

He walks to one of the shelves in the library in search of a book on World War II. He finds it and scans it intently. He seems to be fueling his other fire—his gifted mind—which must hold millions of literary, political, historical, and social references. It takes a well-trained memory to store so much data. A few tenuous rays of light filter in through the window.


I arrived early for our first meeting, which was the previous Friday, so I had time to take a short stroll around the neighborhood. The home is located on the outskirts of Madrid, in Puerta de Hierro: a residential area with sizeable homes protected by stone walls or fences and crisscrossed by parks. The writer spent most of his time in his apartment in the heart of the Spanish capital before moving into the home of Isabel Preysler. Since their relationship began in 2016, the couple has been under constant siege from the press. I imagine they much prefer the privacy of this quiet Madrid suburb.

After passing through an iron gate, under the watchful eye of cameras, I walk along a path lined by pine trees. At the home’s primary entrance, I am met by a butler who invites me in. I pass through several lavish rooms with high ceilings and regal decor before reaching the main library. There are books everywhere, on subjects ranging from art, economics, and history to classic works of literature. I’m struck by a particular bookcase containing nothing but biographies of US presidents, arranged in chronological order from Washington to Obama. The walls are hung with works of contemporary art that contrast with the classic and antique furniture. Above the fireplace is an oil portrait of Ms. Preysler. I can’t help but feel as if she’s following me with her eyes.

Vargas Llosa enters and greets me warmly. The image I had drawn in my mind—of a solemn figure—swiftly vanishes. Much to the contrary, he is a man of impeccable and endearing manners, dressed in a light, button-down shirt, cardigan, blue corduroy trousers, and leather loafers. He walks assuredly, confidently: he has the air of a golden age Hollywood actor. I recognize some of the movements I’ve seen previously, on television or at a conference: the way he crosses his arms while he listens, or how he rubs his chin when he responds. His white hair is combed back impeccably. Before we begin, he checks a few messages on his cell phone. He’s shocked by a breaking news headline: apparently, in a meeting, Donald Trump had referred to Haiti as a “shithole country.”

“Never before has the United States had such a disgraceful president,” he says with his perfect diction and imposing tone of voice. “Fortunately, unlike what could happen in an underdeveloped country, the United States has institutions that seem to work and are putting up an admirable fight. But he will leave a disastrous legacy: for the time being, the United States has lost its position of leadership in the West.”

“In your new book, you write that some nineteenth-century thinkers warned about the emergence of leaders like Trump.”

“Yes, hence the title. The call to tribalism is about the return to nationalism. A notion that has been summed up all too well in Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric. This is the racist and nationalist concept that argues it is a privilege to belong to a certain country. And that this country is, in some way, better than all the rest.”

“The call to tribalism is also a willingness to retreat from and even reject the foreigner,” I suggest.

“When faced with the unfamiliar, progress, and change, there is a kind of insecurity that makes people want to return to a tribal idea: the illusion of a closed community that has never existed. That mirage is what gives rise to totalitarianism and populism.”

“The resurgence isn’t taking place only in the United States, it’s happening all over the world . . .”

“Even in Europe, which was a generous, inclusive, progressive project. If any continent seemed shielded against it, it was Europe, and yet now just look how that old ghost is returning, in Hungary, in Poland.”

“In England as well.”

“This is the same sense of nationalism that has been the source of all the great wars and tragedies throughout the history of mankind. It’s incredible to see it reemerge in places like England. I lived in London for many years, and I never would have imagined that this sort of demagogy could win out. I remember watching Boris Johnson on television before the Brexit vote, assuring voters that British tax money was being used to finance bullfighting in Spain. It’s absurd.”

“There is a kind of insecurity that makes people want to return to a tribal idea: the illusion of a closed community that has never existed. That mirage is what gives rise to totalitarianism and populism.”

Vargas Llosa wrote this latest novel over the past two years, but—as he writes in the prologue—the idea took root some time ago. Back in the 1990s, he read Edmund Wilson’s influential book To the Finland Station. Wilson recounts the evolution of socialism from the time the historian Jules Michelet first proposed it until the day when Lenin arrived at the Finlyandsky Rail Station in St. Petersburg, Russia, to lead the October Revolution. The Peruvian writer found himself seduced by this possibility: narrating the trajectory of an idea. That was how he decided to tell, through his reading of seven of his favorite authors, how he, himself, became a liberal thinker. It was also the best way he could think of for creating his own intellectual and political autobiography.

“Most of those authors were off-limits to my generation. We grew up on a continent plagued by military dictatorships or very fragile democracies. Plus, there was the explicit support of the United States. When I was young, it was hard not to be on the left. If you had the slightest bit of sensitivity, you had to be on that side. But then the left pushed you toward a sectarian and dogmatic Marxism.”

“And on top of that, there was the excitement of the Cuban revolution.”

“That was exciting, it was the next big thing. Today, it’s hard to imagine what that revolution, born of progressive idealists, stirred within us. And beyond just that, they fought their way up from nothing to become a popular movement. That was a tremendous boost to the young leftists of that time.”

“Did it represent hope to you?”

“I remember the spectacle when I went to Havana in 1962. It was unforgettable. Seeing the people in the streets was so moving. I remember thinking that I identified with this cause because of the people.”

“But you grew disenchanted?”

“My break with Cuba came later in the sixties when the UMAPs—the concentration camps for counterrevolutionaries, intellectuals, and homosexuals—were created. It was a flagrant injustice, and I wrote a letter to Fidel Castro in protest. That was when I started to have my doubts. Then came the Padilla case. That was the breaking point.”

“Were you surprised?”

“I couldn’t support the Cuban model anymore. I felt like a priest who hangs up his habit: I felt orphaned, but I also felt a lot of freedom. That was when I started looking to these authors. They gave me a new perspective.”

“A sort of intellectual transformation?”

“Yes, it was a political conversion.”


“The guiding principal in Vargas Llosa’s life is freedom. He’s fought against each and every form of submission. He abhors authoritarianism and those who wield absolute power,” Sergio Vilela tells me from Lima. “He has always rebelled against whatever authority he considered abusive.”

Vilela, the Peruvian writer and publisher, knows Vargas Llosa’s life better than perhaps anyone else. In 2011, he published Cadet Vargas Llosa, a book in which he traces the origins of the novels back to the Peruvian’s life story. He also covered the 2010 Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm for the magazine Etiqueta Negra.

“If you look closely, you’ll see that he’s stood up to the powerful establishment, to dictators, to his own father, to Fujimori and Alan García,” he said. “I believe that the force that motivates him is the search for new battles, new adventures, wherever he can find them.”

Vargas Llosa has said many times that he became a writer as a means of defying his father. Until he was ten, he thought he was an orphan. But then, in the summer of 1947, his mother took him to meet his father. The relationship between the two of them was disastrous from the start. Vargas Llosa had grown up in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in a loving family, but when he returned to Piura, in Peru, he encountered an entirely different reality. “His father forbade him from visiting the family, seeing his friends, even from writing. He would beat him to a pulp on a whim,” wrote Leila Guerriero in her 2013 profile for El País. Vargas Llosa himself confirms this fact in the same piece: “I think that, if my father hadn’t been so dissatisfied with the idea of me writing, I wouldn’t have had the character to persevere in such a vocation.” That act of primal rebellion would come to define his ultimate destiny.

In the prologue to The Call of the Tribe, Vargas Llosa talks about discovering politics for the first time at the age of twelve, in October of 1948, when General Manuel Apolinario Odeía overthrew President Luis Bustamante y Rivero, who was a relative on his mother’s side of the family. After the military coup, his aversion to abusive father figures was transferred to dictators. In 1952, he read Out of the Night by Jan Valtin, which reaffirmed his concerns about social inequality in his country. Next came his second act of disobedience: his parents wanted him to study at the Universidad Católica, where all the children of wealthy Lima families went, but Vargas Llosa chose to enroll at the Universidad de San Marcos to study literature and law. He came in contact with young communist organizations and joined the Grupo Cahuide. During those formative years, he read Marx, Engels, and Lenin. However, he looked with some skepticism upon the dogmatism of Peru’s communists. He was much more interested in reading Jean-Paul Sartre, who served, for much of Vargas Llosa’s youth, as something of a model.

“Experiencing journalism was quite instructive: it taught me a lot about the reality of a nation that was more complex, much more bitter, much more violent than I had seen up to that point.”

In 1954, he couldn’t tolerate the sectarianism among his comrades and left the Cahuide. That same year, he married Julia Urquidi and worked as an editor for the newspaper La Crónica, an experience that served as a source of inspiration for one of his great works, Conversation in the Cathedral. This experience with journalism was influential: “I was discovering a country I didn’t fully know. In that sense, experiencing journalism was quite instructive: it taught me a lot about the reality of a nation that was more complex, much more bitter, much more violent than I had seen up to that point,” he says in Conversations at Princeton. He also traveled several times to the Peruvian Amazon: trips which, in turn, became the seeds of such novels as The Green House and Captain Pantoja and the Special Service.

In the fifties, he moved to Europe with the goal of becoming a great novelist. He went to Madrid first and then to Paris where, as Guerriero says, “He unloaded meat and vegetable trucks in the Les Halles market and collected old newspapers to resell door-to-door until he finally got a job teaching Spanish at the Berlitz schools, and, later, as a journalist with Agence France-Presse and Radio France Internationale.” During that time, he wrote The Time of the Hero, in which he narrates the brutality he endured during his time at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy. The novel was rejected by several presses before being published by Seix Barral. The Time of the Hero elevated its author to a global celebrity and became one of the founding works of the Latin American literary boom.

In 1970, the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla was arrested on charges of collaborating with the CIA. A group of intellectuals—including Vargas Llosa, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Juan and Luis Goytisolo, and Susan Sontag—sent a letter protesting this arrest. Castro reacted violently, accusing the intellectuals of being agents of capitalism and barring them from entering Cuba “for an indefinite and infinite” period of time. This incident also meant the end of close friendships Vargas Llosa had with writers like Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez. The story has been told, time and time again, of how he punched his Colombian friend in the face and refused to allow his own book, García Márquez: History of a Deicide, to be reprinted.

His disenchantment extended to the Soviet model and even to Sartre. This was especially so when he read an interview in which the French author told Le Monde that literature carried no weight when it came to the grim reality of the world. “How could he say that? This was the person who made us believe that writing was a form of action, that words were acts, that writing influenced history,” he writes in The Call of the Tribe. Vargas Llosa returned to Albert Camus, who had split with Sartre for the same reason, thus reinforcing his own decision.

His new status—that of having been exiled by the left—gave him absolute freedom. He moved to England with his second wife, Patricia Llosa. There, he began to closely follow the local political scene. He became a professor at the University of London and bore witness to the reforms undertaken by Margaret Thatcher’s government.

“She was a conservative politician, but from a social and economic point of view, she was a liberal,” he said. “Thatcher’s government was a liberal revolution: the country began to grow and flourish.”

Around this same time, Vargas Llosa reread Adam Smith, Friedrich von Hayek, and Karl Popper. Without a doubt, these three writers would help chart the course of his new liberal thinking: a journey that, a couple of decades later, would lead him onto the battlefield of Peruvian politics.


Read Part Two 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 16, 2018   Copyright 2018 Felipe Restrepo Pombo

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