HONG KONG — On the way to the airport in early 1990, I saw a strange face among the profusion and confusion of election posters. Not a European grandee, or indigenous Indian, or mestizo, or mulatto. It was more like Chinese, but surely not in this heart of Latin America.
Who is that? I asked Mario, the front-runner in the presidential race. Oh, just one of the many candidates who are opposing me, he declared loftily — no one to be interested in.
Others in the entourage called the candidate “El Chino” or “Chinaman,” a term of affection as well as disparagement.
Poor Mario got a rude awakening when he came out on top in the first round of voting, but without an overall majority. He was forced into a runoff against the very opponent to whom he had not given a chance. The opponent won handsomely.
Ah, the cruel winds and tides of history. Mario Vargas Llosa went back to being a writer and political critic, for which he was at last awarded, at age 74, the Nobel Prize in literature.
Alberto Fujimori became president and, later, torturer of Peru, using his democratic power ruthlessly and corruptly. Not only did Fujimori steal the economic policies of Vargas Llosa and implement them in more extreme form, but within two years he conducted a self-coup — not a coup against himself but one that removed everyone else, including opposition, press and parliament, from their positions, except Fujimori and the military.
Vargas Llosa’s wife Patricia had tried hard to dissuade her husband from running for president; she did not like the death threats or the dangerous chaos. The candidate eventually conceded that she was right; but looking back he said he had been lured by “the adventure, the illusion of living an experience of excitement and risk, of writing the great novel in real life.”
I followed the campaigning Mario Vargas Llosa for a week in 1990 through northern Peru gaining fascinating insights into the candidate and his country. Vargas Llosa had already published brilliant, highly varied novels that marked him out as a potential Nobel Prize winner. Was he wrong to believe that he might help in a political reawakening of poor Peru? His victory would have saved Peru the pain that Fujimori inflicted. Would it have caused a different pain?
The country was in a mess, a modest word for its wretched plight. The populist Alan Garcia, president again today, presided over chaos. Inflation reached 6,932.4 percent in January 1991, and was 2.2 million percent in the five years to 1990. The economy plummeted and unemployment reached more than 50 percent. Crime was rampant in big cities like Lima, the capital, and lawlessness ruled outside. Swaths of Peru were under the control of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist guerrillas, who killed an estimated 20,000 people in the 12 years to 1992. Other rebels of the Marxist-Leninist Tumac Amaro Revolutionary Army also did their best to disrupt society, and infamously in 1996 raided the Japanese embassy in Lima and took 400 people hostage.
“Do not put you arm out of the car even in central Lima,” a Catholic priest advised. “Bandits will steal your watch.” “But I’ll be OK, I wear my watch on my right wrist.” “They’re smarter than you. They’ll prick your left arm, and as you reach across to rub the pain, they’ll rip your watch from you.”
The government had its own thugs too, and we got a taste of their mindlessness when some attacked and threw stones at Vargas Llosa’s convoy, but only hitting the rear vehicle and breaking a window next to me. Never trust newspaper reporting: front page banner headlines of the local paper the next day claimed that foreign journalist Rafferty had been “gravely wounded” in the attack by “los Buffalos”; as I told the British foreign office when they called in alarm, it was a mere scratch and not worth a hospital visit.
Peru, a fascinating ethnically mixed country with a thin coastal strip reaching inwards to the high Andean mountain spine and then down to the jungles of the Amazon, had been run into the ground by corrupt and inept demagogic civilian governments after a succession of corrupt and inept military dictatorships.
Back in 1969, Vargas Llosa’s “Conversation in the Cathedral” begins with the question: “En que momento se habia jodido el Peru? (At what moment, did Peru lose all hope, screw itself up?”
By the time of Alan Garcia, Vargas Llosa claimed that in his childhood Peru was poor and backward, but it had become “poorer still and in many regions poverty-stricken, a country that was going back to inhuman patterns of existence.”
But it was still a surprise to watch this clearly abstemious fellow, whatever his steamy adolescence and early years as a crime reporter, mixing with the election crowds. He was OK when he finally got up on his platform and warmed to his theme of restoring hope and dignity to Peru, but getting there through the crowds was a constant inner battle. Vargas Llosa later admitted that “I had to accomplish miracles to conceal my dislike for that sort of semi-hysterical pushing and pulling, kissing, pinching and pawing.”
His obvious European ancestry in a country where about half of the population was indigenous Indians, another 35 percent were mestizos and only 15 percent were white Europeans also made him stick out like a sore thumb, even though he did have a scattering of indigenous people and even some Japanese in his camp. The only occasion where I saw him really let go was after lunch in a small northern town when he and his close entourage danced, and Vargas Llosa changed from the robotic candidate to a human being giving an impression of enjoying himself.
His message may have seemed eminently sensible for a writer who had made the journey from Marxist admiration for Fidel Castro to disillusionment with the disastrous economics and the political repression that communism brings. (I spoke at length later to Vargas Llosa just back from a resurgent China, and he pointed out that Beijing had deviated far from economic communism.)
But his decision to run for the presidency of Peru as an admirer of Margaret Thatcher’s economics was a dangerously calculated gamble with the electorate and a breaking point with Latin American commentators on the left. Richard Gott, the leftist former Latin America correspondent and literary editor of The Guardian, said that Vargas Llosa was “a wonderful novelist, but a hopeless, dangerous politician.”
The critic Alberto Manguel compared him to a “sightless photographer. . . blind to the human reality that his lens had so powerfully captured. It seems as if the politician has never read the writer.”
More dangerously, Vargas Llosa built his electoral platform on the claim to be different from the corrupt old politicians. But his Thatcherite neo-Liberal economic “shock therapy” policies, holding up Hong Kong and Taiwan as progressive models, left many audiences blank. And when he spoke to Peru’s labor confederation about the evils of job security inhibiting investment, it was surreal.
Gradually, Vargas Llosa was seen edging closer to the old rightwing parties and their allies in business. His foreign consultant Mark Malloch Brown understood that, “To most Peruvians, it marked a betrayal. . . He had bartered away his most precious asset, his independence.”
In a revealing passage in his book about the election “A Fish in the Water,” Vargas Llosa vividly illustrates the gap between him and the voters he was trying to appeal to as he campaigned at Piura: “Armed with sticks and stones and all sorts of weapons to bruise and batter, an infuriated horde of men and women came to greet me, their faces distorted by hatred. . . Half naked, with very long hair and fingernails, never touched by a pair of scissors, surrounded by emaciated children with swollen bellies, bellowing and shouting to keep their courage up, they hurled themselves on the caravan of vehicles as though fighting to save their lives or seeking to immolate themselves, with a rashness and savagery that said everything about the almost inconceivable levels of deterioration to which life for millions of Peruvians had sunk.
“What were they attacking? What were they defending themselves from? What phantoms were behind those threatening clubs and knives? In the wretched village there was no water, no light, no work, no medical post, and the little school hadn’t been open for years because it has no teacher. What harm could I have done them, when they no longer had anything to lose, even if the famous ‘shock’ proved to be as apocalyptic as propaganda made it out to be? . . . I made several attempts to talk to them over a loudspeaker, but the outcries and the contention made such a din that I was forced to give up.”
The savior was rejected by his own ungrateful wretches of people, and victory went to the unknown, unqualified Fujimori, who had promised nothing but promptly stole Vargas Llosa’s economic clothes. He went further and changed the constitution to establish his dictatorship. Other governments acquiesced in Fujimori’s increasingly wretched and corrupt dictatorship and Japan gave him shelter and citizenship when he fled from his misdeeds.
Vargas Llosa left Peru for Spain and returned to writing, both novels and also biting newspaper articles. The Nobel committee in awarding the prize spoke of “his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.”
Some critics complain that since getting involved in politics, Vargas Llosa has turned from being a novelist to a political essayist. David L Ulin, a book critic with the Los Angeles Times, claimed “he hasn’t published a truly significant literary work since 1981’s ‘The War at the End of the World.’ ” This is an unduly harsh judgment. Most critics count Vargas Llosa’s “The Feast of the Goat,” his 2000 portrait of the tyranny of Rafael Trujillo, the bloody dictator of the Dominican Republic, as one his best works. Moreover, to describe “The Bad Girl” his 2006 novel as “an updating of sorts of ‘Madame Bovary,’ ” is a major injustice.
Vargas Llosa as a writer though has two aspects. As a novelist, he is a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize, and certainly more memorable for more major works than his two predecessors, whose names I have completely forgotten (Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio and Herta Mueller). Try the comic masterpiece “Aunt Julie and the Scriptwriter” or “The Time of the Hero,” the savage story about bullying and violence in the military academy, or “The Feast of the Goat” or “The Bad Girl.”
His prose may not be as poetic as, say his former friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez, about whom he wrote his doctoral thesis, but he is a superb storyteller without equal. Moreover, his novels offer a great variety of themes and treatment, sometimes playful, sometimes deep and dark, but always round a central theme of the human struggle for freedom.
He has boldly criticized dictators of both left and right, and fell out of love with Thatcher because she was too nationalistic. He distrusts “the idea that you can build a paradise here in history. That idea of a perfect society lies behind monsters like the Taliban. When you want paradise you first produce extraordinary idealism. But at some time, you produce hell.”
Peru has picked itself up under a new democracy, now led by an older and wiser Alan Garcia, who praised the awarding of the Nobel Prize as a triumph for “the visionary intelligence of Mario Vargas Llosa and his libertarian and democratic ideals.” But writers can only rail against the corrupt club of governments; you can see the temptation to try to DO something.