Approaching 80, Mario Vargas Llosa tells Tim Martin of his unabated hunger to change the world through fiction.
Aged 78 and with the Nobel Prize for Literature behind him, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has now begun an acting career. Or has he? “No, no no!” he laughs delightedly, rocking on the sofa of his rented apartment in Knightsbridge. “My acting career is already over! But what an incredible, rich experience – I’ve never had so much fear in my life! Ah ha ha!”
What a delightful laugh he has: a joyous, anarchic, room-filling noise so infectious that, days after our meeting on a grey spring afternoon, I find myself giggling helplessly as I listen to the transcript.
Our conversation about his latest novel, The Discreet Hero, is well off track by now; instead, we’ve started discussing his appearance on stage in Madrid earlier this year in Los cuentos de la peste, his own “very free” adaptation of some stories in Bocaccio’s Decameron.
Then Vargas Llosa fixes me with suddenly serious amber eyes, and the laughter is gone. “I think everybody, or the great majority of human beings, have this aspiration to become other, to live a different identity at least for a while,” he says. “For someone like myself, who has spent all his life writing fictions, to become a fictitious character was… a fantastic experience.”
He looks grave, transported. And there, I think, is the personality that wrote the books: one in which a subversive comic sense and appetite for the ridiculous jostle with an intense, statesmanlike seriousness about the business of being alive.
Both impulses are strongly at work in The Discreet Hero, the latest of more than 40 books of fiction, stories, essays and plays in a career that shows no sign of flagging. It is partly a social novel, written against the backdrop of the new middle class that has arisen in Latin America in the past two decades. But it’s also a fascinatingly chaotic ramble of a book, which begins with the blackmail of a small businessman and soon hares off across a sprawling landscape of dramatic consequence – unlikely marriages, desperate lust, family betrayal, personal tragedy – that spans the society of contemporary Peru.
It is extremely funny and, at times, deeply weird, with a sequence of haunted subplots (clairvoyant predictions, ghostly visions) of which its author is quietly proud. A young attendant even stopped him in Tate Britain, he says, to ask about one of them. “He wanted to know if it was a ghost or a real person!” he says. “I said – ha, ha! – I don’t know! It depends on you!”
The book’s germ came from a story Vargas Llosa read in a newspaper. “In a city in the north,” he explains, “a small entrepreneur of very humble origins, running a transport enterprise, published in a newspaper an advertisement addressed to the local mafia, saying, ‘I want you to know that I am not going to pay the money you are asking me: you can do anything, but this is a public position, and I won’t accept your blackmail.’”
Vargas Llosa shrugs when I ask him what became of the man – “That was the only real information I had about the character I invented” – but the story found its way unaltered into The Discreet Hero, whose protagonist, Felicíto Yanaqué, raises just such a challenge to the anonymous gangsters bombarding him with threatening demands. Against his story Vargas Llosa sets that of the prosperous, literature-obsessed insurance clerk Don Rigoberto, who becomes embroiled in a complicated question of inheritance when his ageing boss gets married to the housekeeper. “There’s also a kind of earthquake in his life,” Vargas Llosa explains. “And in both cases it’s their relationship with their children that provokes the crisis.”
This novel of ordinary life and small-town melodrama deliberately shuns the political sweep of earlier novels such as Conversations in the Cathedral and The War at the End of the World. “When I was young,” Vargas Llosa nods, “I was influenced a lot by Sartre and Camus. Sartre said that wars were acts, and that with literature you could produce changes in history. Now, I don’t think literature doesn’t produce changes, but I think the social and political effect of literature is much less controllable than I thought. I thought that you could really direct the effect by writing in a certain way and about certain subjects. Now I think that was completely wrong.”
“But I don’t think literature has no effect,” he goes on. “I think its most important one for me is to develop a critical attitude in readers, in very general terms. I think if you’re impregnated with good literature, with good culture, you’re much more difficult to manipulate, and you’re much more aware of the dangers that powers represent. So in that sense, I still believe in committed literature, but not, let’s say, in a dogmatic or sectarian way.”
Instead, this strangely optimistic novel circles around the oddnesses of life and ageing, and allows Vargas Llosa to return to a few characters whose stories continue to attract him. There’s the copper Lituma, who “whenever I start a novel, appears and offers his services”; there’s also Don Rigoberto, a frustrated figure whose passion “is art, music, books, but who has worked all his life in a commercial enterprise”.
Vargas Llosa is fascinated by Rigoberto, whose observations about the state of contemporary culture sometimes mirror his own comments in interviews, but he resists my suggestion that the character is purely a figure for the author. “In a sense he’s a tragic kind of person,” he says. “He had his passion for culture, but no artistic vocation. He’s a dilettante. In a big society he could have found a place to share this affinity with culture and art; in Peru, that’s much more difficult.”
“I remember when I was young,” he continues, “to have a literary or artistic vocation was really dramatic, because you were so isolated from the common world. You felt that you were marginal, and if you dared to try to organise your life around your vocation, you knew you’d be completely segregated. This is changing now, particularly in bigger countries – even in Lima, now, you can be a painter, a musician or a poet; it’s difficult but not impossible. But then,” he shrugs, “it seemed so unrealistic. Probably Don Rigoberto is a character built out of this idea.”
Although The Discreet Hero is a contemporary novel, its action mostly takes place in zones apart from the technologised, information-age world. Vargas Llosa keeps a weather eye on developments – rather strikingly, there’s a museum devoted to him in his hometown in which the great writer appears in holographic form to visitors – but he has misgivings about the direction culture is taking.
“One very positive aspect is that censorship is now practically impossible,” he says. “But on the other hand, you have such a mass of information about everything that qualification disappears completely, and everything is equally measured. The function of the critic was very important in establishing categories and hierarchies of information, but now critics don’t exist at all. That was one of the important contributions of the novel, once, too. But now the novels that are read are purely entertainment – well done, very polished, with a very effective technique – but not literature, just entertainment.”
Hasn’t he ever read a superficial novel? “Ha, ha!” he says. “Sometimes I might. Sometimes they’re very well done. I like serials — I like House of Cards, it’s fantastic, very entertaining. But it doesn’t remain in the mind. It doesn’t produce positive effects in political terms, in ideological terms. My impression is that this extraordinary digital revolution is producing also an extraordinary confusion.”
Even so, he is determined to keep engaging with the world. He keeps up a regular newspaper column in El Pais, has several projects cooking – “I don’t have a lack of projects, I have a lack of time!” – and, as he approaches 80, shows little inclination to slow down. “Well,” he says, “I think what is important is to be alive until the end. Not to be defeated in life. I think it’s very painful and very sad, people who feel defeated before time and lose the idea of doing things. That is something that terrifies me.
“Not death,” he clarifies. “Death I think is all right, you know? It’s a natural ending of everything. But I think it’s very important to be alive until the last moment. It’s important that death seem to be just an accident.”
He nods judiciously. “So I keep making projects, planning many different things. This is a way of being alive, and taking advantage of the fantastic possibilities that life offers.”