When asked his idea of paradise, Mario Vargas Llosa answered simply: “Writing!” For writing has been a lifelong focus for this internationally renowned Peruvian novelist, playwright, essayist, journalist and literary critic.
One of the world’s most outstanding contemporary authors, Vargas Llosa has helped revitalize the Latin American novel by painting a vivid portrait of life in his continent. In his memoir, A Fish in the Water (1993), Vargas Llosa, 68, describes his peripatetic life as a child, as he moved from his native Arequipa, to Bolivia and back to Piura and Lima in Peru.
He began writing verse as small boy and devoured books by such childhood heroes as Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne. He has confessed that, while at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy from 1950 to 1951, he spent most of his time reading and writing. “From an early age, I had the ability to live in a world of fantasy, to recreate make-believe stories,” he says.
Extensive academic career
Vargas Llosa’s academic life and early career as a writer were intertwined. In 1952, while still at school, he wrote his prize-winning first play, The Inca’s Escape, and became determined to devote himself to writing and teaching. He studied law and literature at the University of San Marcos in Lima from 1953 to 1958, at the same time working as a print and broadcast journalist and co-editing two literary journals. In 1959, he left Peru for Madrid’s Complutense University, taking a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Letters in 1971.
Vargas Llosa lived in Paris in the 1960s, which he felt was conducive to being a serious writer. He began teaching in France, then in England, and has worked as a visiting professor at leading universities in the United States and Europe.
Peru under the microscope
Vargas Llosa began writing short stories in the mid-1950s and, in 1963, penned his first novel, The Time of the Hero. A microcosm of Peruvian society, the book immediately attracted international attention. The Green House (1966), like much of his work, was inspired by the formative experiences of his youth.
Numerous novels have followed over the years, including Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977), The War of the End of the World (1981), The Real Life of Alejandro Mayata (1984), The Feast of the Goat (2000), and, most recently, The Way to Paradise (2003). He has also earned praise for his essays on politics and literary figures such as Flaubert and Camus, as well as Sartre, whose writings affected him profoundly.
Translated into more than 30 languages, Vargas Llosa’s works use a variety of avant-garde techniques to create an “aesthetic double of the real world”. Although, as in much Peruvian fiction, social protest features in his writing, he never compromises artistic aims for ideological propaganda. Vargas Llosa’s quest for political reform led him to run, unsuccessfully, for the presidency of Peru in 1990.
The recipient of many honours, from a Peruvian Congressional Medal of Honour (1981) to the Légion d’honneur (1985), the Prince of Asturias Prize (1986), Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1987), the Cervantes Prize (1994) and the National Book Critics Circle Award (USA, 1998), Vargas Llosa does not envisage slowing down. “I have many more projects than time,” he says.