THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
The famous novelist on politics, and how writing can change the course of history.
BY EMILY PARKER
Saturday, June 23, 2007 12:01 a.m.
LIMA, Peru--"This is a story that often repeated itself," Mario Vargas Llosa says. "If a father was a businessman, he was a man who had to be complicit with the dictatorship. It was the only way to prosper, right? And what happens is that the son discovers it, the son is young, restless, idealistic, believes in justice and liberty, and he finds out that his vile father is serving a dictatorship that assassinates, incarcerates, censors and is corrupted to the bone."
Mr. Vargas Llosa could have plucked this scenario from his personal recollections of living under dictatorial rule in Peru. But he tells this story to make a more universal point: Dictatorships poison everything in their grasp, from political institutions right down to relationships between fathers and sons.
Mr. Vargas Llosa's bold ideas and expressive language may make him one of Latin America's finest writers--"Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," "The Time of the Hero" and "Conversation in the Cathedral" are just a few of his classic works--but those same traits didn't necessarily serve him well at the polls. After running for president of Peru in 1990 and losing to Alberto Fujimori, Mr. Vargas Llosa decided to devote his full attention to writing. He now lives in Lima for about three months of the year, spending the rest of his time in Europe.
"I am not going to participate in professional politics again," he says. And he doesn't have to. Mr. Vargas Llosa has found an effective way to expose the destructive nature of dictatorships, while underscoring the importance of individual liberty and free will. He just picks up his pen. "Words are acts," he says, echoing Jean-Paul Sartre. "Through writing, one can change history."
During the 1990 presidential campaign Mr. Varga Llosa emphasized the need for a market economy, privatization, free trade, and above all, the dissemination of private property. He didn't exactly receive a welcome reception. "It was a very different era, because to speak of private property, private enterprise, the market--it was sacrilegious," he says. "I was fairly vulnerable in that campaign," he continues, "because I didn't lie. I said exactly what we were going to do. It was a question of principle and also . . . I thought it would be impossible to do liberal, radical reforms without having the mandate to do them."
Now, almost 20 years later, the landscape looks very different. Mr. Vargas Llosa explains that he was propelled into politics when then-president Alan García, at the time a socialist and a populist, attempted to nationalize the banks. Today he is running the country again, but "now, the same Alan García is the champion of capitalism in Peru!" Mr. Vargas Llosa laughs merrily. "It's funny, no?"
"We have a big problem with Chávez," Mr. Vargas Llosa admits. "He's a demagogue and a 19th century socialist. He is a destabilizing force for democracy in Latin America, but what he thought would be so easy hasn't been so easy. There has been a lot of resistance."
One of Mr. Chávez's major errors was his refusal last month to renew the license of popular Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV. "International hostility was enormous," Mr. Vargas Llosa notes. "For me, most important was that the protests in Venezuela were very strong, in particular the sectors that were once very sympathetic to him, for example the students in the Central University of Venezuela, not only the students in the private universities."
It is such infringements of free speech that highlight why in places like Latin America, reading a good novel can be much more than just a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. "I think in countries where basic problems are still unresolved, where a society remains so traumatized by deep conflicts--as in Latin America or in Third World countries in general--the novel is not only a form of entertainment, but it substitutes for something that these societies are not accustomed to seeing--information, for example," Mr. Vargas Llosa says. "If you live in a country where there is nothing comparable to free information, often literature becomes the only way to be more or less informed about what's going on." Literature can also be a form of resistance, perhaps the only way to express discontent in the absence of political parties.
This all sounds true enough, but in a dictatorship, wouldn't literature be censored as well? "In undeveloped countries, censorship doesn't reach that point of subtlety, as it did in Spain for example," Mr. Vargas Llosa explains. "Because in undeveloped countries, the dictators are, well, functioning illiterates that don't think that literature can be dangerous."
To give one example, Mr. Vargas Llosa's first novel, "The Time of the Hero," about life at a military school in Lima, was burned publicly in Peru by a military dictatorship in the 1960s. But the authorities apparently didn't find the book enough of a political threat to ban it outright, and in the end it was Mr. Vargas Llosa who reaped the benefits of the public burning. "It became a best seller!" He exclaims, laughing.
Mr. Vargas Llosa discovered that this phenomenon was hardly limited to Latin America. "I went to Iraq after the invasion," he tells me. "When I heard stories about the sons of Saddam Hussein, it seemed like I was in the Dominican Republic, hearing stories about the sons of Trujillo! That women would be taken from the street, put in automobiles and simply presented like objects. . . . The phenomenon was very similar, even with such different cultures and religions." He concludes: "Brutality takes the same form in dictatorial regimes."
Did this mean that Mr. Vargas Llosa supported the invasion of Iraq? "I was against it at the beginning," he says. But then he went to Iraq and heard accounts of life under Saddam Hussein. "Because there has been so much opposition to the war, already one forgets that this was one of the most monstrous dictatorships that humanity has ever seen, comparable to that of Hitler, or Stalin." He changed his mind about the invasion: "Iraq is better without Saddam Hussein than with Saddam Hussein. Without a doubt."
Mr. Vargas Llosa's broad, visceral hatred of dictatorships in part stems from personal experience, in particular growing up in 1950s Peru under the dictatorship of Manuel Odría. "All the political parties were prohibited, there was strict censorship of radio and the press," he explains. "The university had many professors in exile and many student prisoners . . . this is the atmosphere in which a boy of my generation entered adulthood."
This period is the backdrop for "Conversation in the Cathedral," which Mr. Vargas Llosa said would be the work that he would rescue from a fire. The brilliant, four-volume novel rarely addresses Odría directly, rather zooming in on relationships between ordinary Peruvians from all levels of society. With unembellished prose, Mr. Vargas Llosa plunges you right into the heart of a nation without hope. "It's a novel in which I wanted to show what I lived through in through in those years, how the dictatorship didn't limit itself to censorship or prohibiting political life, no!" Mr. Vargas Llosa tells me. "The dictatorship created a system that impregnated every act of life."
And herein lies the power of Mr. Vargas Llosa's work: He finds that tyranny takes its toll in places we hadn't even thought to look. As for the value of freedom, perhaps he puts it best in "The Feast of the Goat": "It must be nice. Your cup of coffee or glass of rum must taste better, the smoke of your cigar, a swim in the ocean on a hot day, the movie you see on Saturday, the merengue on the radio, everything must leave a more pleasurable sensation in your body and spirit when you had what Trujillo had taken away from Dominicans 31 years ago: free will."
Ms. Parker is an assistant editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal.
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