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Mario Vargos Llosa | Biography

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Adventurous Early Life

Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa's work examines power, violence, political corruption, and the potential for social change in Latin America. He's known for his experimental writing style.

He was born Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa on March 28, 1936, in Arequipa, Peru. Young Vargas Llosa lived with his mother's wealthy family until, at age 11, his estranged father, Ernesto Vargas, returned and took control of his son's life. Ernesto Vargas was frequently violent, and young Vargas Llosa used reading as an escape from his home life.

When Vargas Llosa was 14, his father sent him to the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Peru's capital city, Lima. The students represented a variety of races and social classes, and Vargas Llosa described the school as "an explosive climate where everyone was prejudiced." To him the school's diversity and conflict provided an example of "Peruvian society in miniature," since the country has always had a high mixture of peoples and cultures. With machismo, or strongly masculine culture in Latin America, Vargas Llosa hid his literary inclinations.

At 15 Vargas Llosa started working as a night reporter for the Lima newspaper La Crónica. His work uncovered an underworld of crime in the city, which inspired plotlines in his later novels. In 1955 Vargas Llosa enrolled at the University of San Marcos in Lima, known at the time for the "atheists and communists" in its student body. Vargas Llosa studied law and literature while continuing to work as a journalist. He briefly joined a Communist movement (advocating for a form of government where the state controls the means of production) and wrote for a Marxist journal (referring to the work of German political philosopher Karl Marx whose ideas formed the basis of communism). As a student during the Peruvian dictatorship of General Manuel Odría (1948–56), he kept his political activities secret.

Joining the Latin American "Boom"

The oppression of the Odría dictatorship and widespread poverty in Peru made Vargas Llosa decide to live in Europe for a time, and he left Peru in 1958 for Madrid, Spain. He had already been writing plays and short stories, which appeared in Peruvian literary publications. At the University of Madrid he wrote his doctoral thesis on Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. In 1959 Vargas Llosa moved to Paris, France, and joined a community of other Latin Americans in Europe, including Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar. While working for a Parisian film and television network, Vargas Llosa met Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, as well as other Latin American writers. For many Latin American intellectuals at the time, Paris was a center of cultural attraction and activity.

The 1960s and 1970s gave literature its Latin American "boom" period, of which Vargas Llosa was at the forefront. The "boom" writers were known for their playful and stylistically adventurous work. Novelists like Cortázar and García Márquez wrote highly ambitious, visionary novels called "total novels," which looked at all aspects of a country's society and history and often blended reality with fantasy and illusion.

Vargas Llosa's first novel, The Time of the Hero (1963), based on his experiences of cruelty in military school, won him instant acclaim. In fact many of his novels contain autobiographical elements. Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) drew inspiration from the stories about Peru's criminal underground he uncovered as a journalist. Vargas Llosa's eight-year marriage to his older relative by marriage, Julia Urquidi, inspired Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977). Vargas Llosa's own ambition was to write a "total novel" about Peru, and the country as shown in his works is imaginative, colorful, and intriguing. His novels experiment with multiple viewpoints and invisible narrators. He cited American writer William Faulkner and French novelist Gustave Flaubert as particular inspirations. Vargas Llosa's critical essay "The Perpetual Orgy" (1975) examines Flaubert's famous novel of romantic decay Madame Bovary (1856).

The Storyteller and Conflict in Latin America

Though he considered Spain a second homeland, Vargas Llosa returned to Peru in 1974. Remaining a student of Peruvian affairs and critical of colonialism's (the practice of one country exercising political control over another) impact on the nation, he viewed colonizers, from the ancient Inca and later Spanish empires all the way to 20th-century industrial development, as endangering the indigenous native Indian populations. In a 1986 lecture Vargas Llosa criticized "Westernized Latin Americans" for imitating "the worst habits of our forebears" rather than finding the right balance of cultures.

His novel The Storyteller (1987) addresses colonialism directly. A blend of fiction, folkloric mythology, autobiography, and anthropology, The Storyteller imagines a Peruvian scholar who becomes fascinated with the Machiguengas, an indigenous Indian people in the Amazon jungle of eastern Peru. The novel addresses the environmental and cultural destruction Vargas Llosa observed in Peru and references the Amazon "rubber boom" of the late 19th century—when European developers turned jungle trees into manufacturing material—as a devastating time for Amazon tribes. Vargas Llosa has also produced a documentary film about the Machiguengas.

Vargas Llosa himself was far from sure what the solution was to the destruction of indigenous cultures. Though he wanted indigenous values and practices to survive, he claimed this ideal hadn't yet been reached by any society. The solution, he believed, usually involved "a sacrifice—the elimination of the primitive or archaic." The novel debates whether indigenous cultures should be sacrificed for economic growth, the potential effects on the country of such development, and the preservation of both European and South American influences.

Vargas Llosa was also very concerned about the impact of terrorism and religious extremism on the country, about tumultuous events during much of the 20th century, and took on Latin American political situations directly in other novels. Death in the Andes (1993) is based on the 1983 killing of eight journalists in Peru. The War of the End of the World (1981) is centered on political conflict in Brazil. The Feast of the Goat (2000) is a fictional portrait of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.

Political Activities and Run for Peruvian Presidency

Vargas Llosa is known for his political activities as well as his writing. When he returned to Peru in 1974, he embarked on a political career, leading eventually to a run for the Peruvian presidency. He believed Latin American writers had more social obligations to their countries than European writers did in their older cultures.

By the 1980s Vargas Llosa had moved from leftist politics to outspoken political conservativism, working to curb the violence of the rebel group responsible for the eight journalists' deaths in 1983. In 1987 he opposed then-President Alan García's financial plans for Peru and grew increasingly concerned about terrorism, inflation, and political corruption. By 1990 Vargas Llosa himself was running for president on the Democratic Front coalition's ticket. He claimed he entered politics because "something should be done to preserve a fragile democratic system which was collapsing." The nation, he felt, suffered from mistrust, prejudice, and a lack of unity. Despite a strong start to his campaign, Vargas Llosa barely lost to engineer Alberto Fujimori, who went on to serve as president until 2000. Vargas Llosa has since said his candidacy was a learning experience, not a defeat, and believes he's a writer not a politician. "When I write literature," he wrote in A Writer's Reality (1991), "I concentrate on ... something larger than politics."

He won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature and the 1994 Cervantes Prize. In 1993 he became a citizen of Spain.

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