By Michael Booth
I wish that I could go back fifteen years, remove the white button down shirt, sharply knotted tie, and black and white nametag. If only I could divest myself of that self-assured and impenetrable fanaticism of my youthful religious fervor. I would not step onto an airplane in the harsh Utah winter of January 2001, and some fourteen hours later step out onto the runway of an arid and warm summer in Lima, Peru. I would change that dogmatic mindset, that facile though wholly unintended childish impertinence. I would not, with my spine erect, my step certain, and my thoughts centered on converting others to a religious truth, set foot on the land of the Incas, the Andes, and the Amazon, with the intention of saving souls.
Recently, while reading the Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, I was again reminded of that regretful mistake in life when I confused ideological fiction for reality. Mayta, a Trotskyist militant involved in the philosophical factionalism of the left, is confronted with contradictions in his ideological certainty, his worldview on the nature of things, and his politics, while staging a revolution. The internal dialogue of Mayta, when threatened by the reality of the failed revolution, reminded me all too well of the years when I battled in my own head the contradictory evidence I seemed to encounter everywhere. This theme of confusing imagination and reality is central to the book, and is also brilliantly embodied in the character of the narrator, who appears to be Llosa himself. The reader is anchored by this objective voice, but in the end discovers the fiction within the fiction, and loses all grounding that anything real is being told.
A similar but somewhat different realization occurred while reading The War of the End of the World. I saw in my younger self the dogmatic certainty of the anarchist phrenologist, Galileo Gall, intent on bringing revolution and enlightenment to Brazil. The phrenologist had his cosmology, his explanation of history and the future via socialist doctrines, his prophet of truth, Franz Joseph Gall, and his supernatural abilities of reading personality and character via the morphology of the skull. I had the revealed truths of a U.S. borne evangelical-protestant variation on prophecy via Joseph Smith, the explanation of history and the future via biblical texts, the supernaturalism and authority of a priesthood, and the imaginary ability to see what others could not via gifts of the Holy Spirit. Galileo Gall is only one of many fanatics in The War of the End of the World, all of whom come into explosive conflict due to their inability to communicate their contradictory worldviews to the other.
This fascination with fanaticism and ideology, and the incommensurability of various worldviews, are the themes that originally drew me to Mario Vargas Llosa. The War of the End of the World was the first of his books that I read. I had discovered it on the shelves of a small gift shop in El Chalten, Argentina. Just days before, my lovely wife and I were married high in the mountains of Patagonia amidst the brilliant sunrise illuminating Mount Fitz Roy, the most striking, rugged, and majestic landscape I have ever known. As a Patagonian storm of epic proportions relegated us to the hotel for four days, I found myself awaking early to enjoy a mornings of breathtaking views, and to lose myself entirely in the story of Canudos, Brazil, as the army of the Republic attempted to crush a religious uprising in the late 1800’s. I will likely never read the War of the End of the World again, though I am often tempted. The experience was too wonderful, too perfect of a literary adventure to dare risk reacquainting myself with its pages. In my opinion it is a masterpiece, the likes of which are met in authors like Dumas, Zola, Dostoevsky, and Galdos. It is modern, with a stroke of literary realism, but it is also classic with its mastery of narrative, its appeal to both intellectual and popular audiences, its handling of time and chronology, its treatment of moral, political, and ethical matters, and its completely coherent structure and system of storytelling.
Something has changed in my taste for literature while reading Mario Vargas Llosa over the last two years. I have become more engaged with the problems of my own time, my own culture, my own ideological paradoxes and history, and I have realized how appropriate fiction is for conveying what is so difficult to state outright. Fiction can show, without ever telling, and it can transmute the unspeakable as an experience for the reader. I had seen glimpses of this in Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O’Brien, Erich Remarque, and Elie Wiesel, authors who turned their experiences as witnesses to the horrific depths of human depravity and cruelty into fictional narratives, conveying to the reader a world so difficult to imagine from the events, facts, and statistics of wartime and genocide. In praise of Reading and Fiction, the speech given by Llosa while receiving the Nobel Prize, is a treatise on this art of combining fiction and the real, as well as the importance of the novel to our world.
It is through reading fiction that I have also become more purposefully interested in non-fiction. Compelled by Llosa, I engaged the opus of Karl Popper, both in terms of political theory and the philosophy and logic of scientific discovery and justification. Engaging Popper meant engaging others like Plato, Hegel, Marx, and Hume. The currents of Popperian thought on the importance of intellectual criticism, of the flaws in historicism, and on political piecemeal engineering, are present in Lossa’s fiction and non-fiction, along with a Sarteian commitment to action through words and political endeavors. I believe one cannot understand Lossa’s politics, many of which are discussed in A Fish in the Water, Notes on the Death of Culture, and Touchstones, without reading the philosophers who influenced him.
In Llosa there are so many elements and themes that it is difficult to explain the body of his writing. There is the unapologetic and very realistic way in which violence and power are portrayed, crucial elements in the Feast of the Goat, Conversations in the Cathedral, and Death in the Andes. A story about ethnic and class intolerance engaged in a reciprocal struggle of power gets played out in a detective novel, Who Killed Palomino Molero? Machismo gets turned on its head to reveal its absurdities, it pain, its hopelessness in an international love story, The Bad Girl. Art and eroticism compliment each other beautifully in the written word and fantasy, In Praise of the Stepmother, and a historical character is both a great humanist, but simultaneously caught in the spell of violent nationalism in the Dream of the Celt.
Such formidable content is complimented by equally influential form and style. Llosa experiments with time by flashing scenes of the past into the present dialogue or narration. The location and timeline of a story can first appear disconnected, but slowly take on coherence; the narration and method becoming a character that changes in rhythm with what is told. In Captain Pentoja and the Secret Service, Llosa tells much of the story through the small details that follow the spoken dialogue of characters, a method that is not just a device for trying something new and original for the sake of literary art, but a vehicle for relaying information that is intermingled with traditional storytelling perspectives and techniques. In The Green House, two different versions of the same location, happening at different times, intermingle. A character, Jum, existing in a parallel narrative, is never directly seen by the reader, but known about only through the references that other characters make. In Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, autobiographical anecdotes are intermingled with soap operas, yet the soap operas themselves reveal the internal world of their author, Pedro Camacho, who’s psychic stability is deteriorating. In The Time of the Hero, three student cadets are in love with the same women, though the framing and perspective of events confuses this so that the reader does not fully see it until the end of the novel. Style, structure, and content are brought together masterfully, and to the reader seamlessly and coherently, making the presence of such strategies invisible while reading, but discernible when reflecting.
Fifteen years have passed since I set foot in Peru. The zealous flame of Mormon fanaticism has long been extinct, as well as any belief in its doctrines. Yet there has remained a desire to understand what I did not know, to learn rather to intrude, to take what is offered rather than to demand to be received. Mario Vargas Llosa has been an integral part of this intellectual reconciliation with the past, and a voice that continues to fascinate me in the present