Books: Cultural Amnesia — Mario Vargas Llosa |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]


Mario Vargas Llosa (b. 1936) is the Latin American writer who best exemplified the course of the relationship between literature and politics in late-twentieth-century Latin America. Raised mainly in Peru, he graduated in Madrid before embarking on a dazzling literary career that took him to many European and American cities and universities, a path as a wandering scholar that he has continued to follow all his life. It was only in 1975 that he spent his first long period as an adult in Peru, when the military dictatorship that had begun in 1968 was still five years from its conclusion. The pattern of his life was to see Latin America’s problems from close up and then reflect on them while he was abroad. The international network of hospitable universities was his second country. Of comparably influential writers—Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez (Vargas Llosa wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on García Márquez)—none, not even the suave Fuentes, was to so glamorously exemplify the new role of the boom-time Latin American writer as world citizen and acknowledged legislator of mankind. Only Octavio Paz can really be talked of in the same breath. All Vargas Llosa’s novels are considerable but the cigar for sheer attractiveness must go to his fifth, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter: one of the best books about bright adolescence in any language, it is up there with The Catcher in the Rye, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grande Meaulnes and Franz Werfel’s Die Abituriententag.

Some of Vargas Llosa’s admirers might say that attractiveness isn’t the real point of his novels, and that they do best when facing the ferocious realities of Latin American politics, especially the horrors generated by the perennial figure (not yet completely out of the picture) of the Strongman. The true strength of Vargas Llosa, however, is undoubtedly in the essay. His collected essays written between 1962 and 1982, Contro viento y marea (Against the Wind and the Tide) come in either three-volume or single-volume form. The single-volume version makes the perfect pocket book for getting up to speed with how the bright baby-boom students of Latin America won their way towards a solid concept of liberal democracy through the miasma generated by the deadly friction between a self-defeating radical activism and a retrograde local nationalism, the latter backed up by U.S. foreign policy at its most witless. The only real progressivism, he convincingly reveals, is from revolution to reform.

For the beginner in Spanish, his essays are an enticing way in, and for the student of politics south of the Rio Grande there could be nothing better, because Vargas Llosa records, step by step, an intellectual odyssey that began on the left and, in the light of experience, steadily headed rightwards as far as reason could go. The nut left enrols him on the nut right, but really it won’t wash. He never lost the humanitarian ideals he learned from his Left Bank heroes (especially Camus, always a good hero to have), and the long mugging he received from reality was delivered largely in the context of practical politics, which he was not afraid to observe from close enough to see the sudden space after people disappeared. Eventually he ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990 and lost to Alberto Fujimori: a throwback strongman with affinities to Rafael Trujillo, the subject of one of Vargas Llosa’s later novels. Though he ended up firmly wedded to the belief that the failed states in Latin America needed double-entry bookkeeping more than they needed any ideology, he has never lost his initial commitment to the rights of the deprived. On the subject of open borders, one of the pet themes of the international left consensus, the classic essay in favour of illegal immigration was written by Vargas Llosa.

One of the many advantages of learning to read Spanish is that a copiously productive writer like Vargas Llosa, who responds to current history, can be read while the history is still current. Despite the turmoil, the anguish and the frequent desperation of his raw material, a Spanish word, hechiceria (witchcraft, charm), and a Spanish phrase, a sus anchas (at one’s ease), both apply exactly to his prose, one of the more encouraging continuities linking two millennia.

* * *
Nationalism is the culture of the uncultivated, and they are legion.

FOR THE NEW century, Australia might well become the world’s ideal nation. As an Australian by birth I can say that with some pride, but also with trepidation, because Australia still has a lesson to learn. Vargas Llosa is the man to teach it. Latin America in the late twentieth century was a tragic laboratory for testing all the wrong ways to think about a national culture. The foreign policy of the United States was never a help. (In Latin America, the United States behaved in the very way that Harold Pinter thinks it has always behaved everywhere.) But the real hindrance came from dreams of cultural autarky on both the left and the right. In a long series of essays that constitutes one of the key political documents of the modern era, Vargas Llosa established that Latin America had no “dependent” cultures which needed to be “emancipated”: either they were already that, simply for being cultures, or else they were folklore.

Speaking across a hundred years, a key contributing figure in Vargas Llosa’s position was the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. Vargas Llosa puts Darío’s cosmopolitanismo vital at the centre of the Latin American cultural upsurge which went on to restore the literature of the Spanish world—a literature in which Vargas Llosa himself, although modestly he does not say so, is yet another key figure. Though personally I would put Octavio Paz first—perhaps because, by accident, I actually did—students who want to make a start with Spanish could do worse than to track Vargas Llosa through his essays. Short pieces of expository prose are the easiest route into a new language anyway, and Vargas Llosa’s have the merit of being argued concretely from point to point, with scarcely a whiff of metaphysics even in his early phase when he was still impressed by the French left. It could be said—there are plenty who say it—that his rejection of the left has made him a cat’s paw of the right, but it is a pretty strange right-wing cat’s paw who favours the idea of unrestricted illegal immigration into Spain. For those of us who like his style, watching it mature into its full fluency over the course of decades has been an unmixed pleasure.

But unmixed pleasure should not imply unmixed agreement. His commitment to the cosmopolitanismo vital has its drawbacks. There is a measure of obscurantism lurking within the enlightenment: a dark angel in the sun, positioning itself for its classic attack. Like the philosopher E. M. Cioran, Vargas Llosa admired Borges for his world citizenship. Unlike Cioran, Vargas Llosa had no self-preserving ulterior motive for putting Borges’s universal prestige above his questionable local politics. But you don’t need a self-preserving ulterior motive to wonder if Borges did not give himself a free pass. In Vargas Llosa’s view—an uncomfortable view we need to hear often if we are interested in politics at all—the Latin American countries which fought dirty wars against their radical insurgents had more reason than our compassion would like to grant them. Forcing the incumbent regimes into a criminal response was always among the insurgents’ aims: a prophecy that could be coerced by terror into fulfilling itself. But to understand all should not mean to forgive all, if forgiving all entails to forget what matters. The obscenities came from both sides, but the obscenities perpetrated by the incumbent power were always the more reprehensible. To do him credit, Vargas Llosa keeps that possibility in mind, in his cultural arguments if not in his political ones. The regimes that dreamed of cultural autonomy were bound to be repressive. It remains a pity that in the case of Argentina, for example, Vargas Llosa has never considered that Borges and the other luminaries in the constellation that formed around Victoria Ocampo’s magazine Sur might have been promoting their cosmopolitanismo vital as a version of that same dream, and thus indulging themselves in a detachment from reality, even while they seemed to be embracing a larger world.

Argentina actually had a national culture which, by Vargas Llosa’s definition, was international because vital: the culture of the tango. But the Sur constellation never really went for the tango, any more than the upper orders did, or, for that matter, the various governments inhabiting the Casa Rosada. (Under the junta, the tango was forbidden because people had to gather to dance it, and gatherings were banned.) Borges, in particular, wanted an Argentina that belonged at the international level, whether or not it belonged to itself at the national level. Until the end of World War II, Argentina and Australia were running in parallel. Today, they separately demonstrate what a luxury it is to be a stable, prosperous, democratic nation with a dependable constitution. Australia is all that and more, and Argentina, after yet another implosion of the civil order, is once again none of it and less. Australia can afford to do without nationalism, because it is a nation. To do without nationalism as a political force, you have first of all to satisfy all the requirements which encourage that force to gather strength: the real subject underlying Vargas Llosa’s essays, even as he continues to present the true perception that liberal democracy is the indispensable state of affairs for any country. But first of all it must be a country, not just an area of conflict.