On Mario Vargas Llosa's memoir

(The Common Review, 2012)

When I'm in the mood to reread a book by Mario Vargas Llosa, I usually reach for the memoir he published in 1993, A Fish in the Water. Expertly translated by the late Helen Lane, the book has a curious architecture: two storylines unfold in alternating chapters. In the hands of a second-rate literary technician, this would be a deadly narrative strategy, but Vargas Llosa achieves a seamless fusion.

The first narrative chronicles his journey to manhood, his political formation, and his path to the writer's vocation in a Peru that, as he wrote in his early novel Conversation in the Cathedral, had "fucked itself up." The second is an account of his mad quest for the presidency of his country in 1990. His wife, Patricia, resists his political ambitions: "Can it be that you don't know what it means to go into politics in this country?" Following his defeat by Alberto Fujimori, Vargas Llosa realizes the folly of it all. Politics, he discovers, "has little to do with ideas, values, and imagination." Rather, it "consists almost exclusively of maneuvers, intrigues, plots, paranoias, betrayals, a great deal of calculation, no little cynicism, and every variety of con game."

But there is nothing cynical about the way he unfurls the story of his youth. The vanished Lima of the 1950s is beautifully evoked in all its gritty tumult, and people long deceased are brought to life with virtuosity and precision. There is his grandfather Pedro: "the kindest and most generous man I have ever known and I often have recourse to the memory of him when I feel overcome with despair for the species and inclined to believe that, all things considered, humanity is nothing but trash." There is Professor Raul Porras Barrenechea, whose class on the "Sources of Peruvian History" ignites Vargas Llosa's imagination: "Pintsized, potbellied, dressed in mourning–for the death, that year, of his mother–with a very broad forehead, blue eyes boiling over with irony and lapels covered with dandruff, Porras Barrenechea turned into a giant on the little classroom dais." There is Becerrita, who edited the crime page of La Crónica newspaper, where Vargas Llosa labors in the summer of 1952: "it sufficed to see him and hear him, with his vitriolic little eyes . . . his shiny suits, pressed countless times, reeking of tobacco and sweat, with lapels full of grease spots, and the microscopic knot in his filthy tie, to surmise that Becerrita was a citizen of Hell, that the underworld haunts of the city held no secrets for him."

Vargas Llosa's fiction has always been distinguished by an immersion in and engagement with politics, history, and ideas that is rare in contemporary novels, and A Fish in the Water is very much an intellectual autobiography. For four years in the 1950s he assisted Porras Barrenechea with research for a book on the conquest of Peru. In the bachelor professor's old house on Calle Colina, enveloped by a noisy cluster of disciples and luminaries and sustained by an interminable supply of cigarettes and hot chocolate, he devoured texts that caught fire in his hands. They concerned the myths and legends of the conquest: "the Seven Cities of Cíbola, the Kingdom of the Great Paititi, the marvels of El Dorado, the land of the Amazons." In those pages, Vargas Llosa discovered "a most unusual mixture of fantasy and realism, of unbridled imagination and fierce verisimilitude"–the same qualities that would anchor his magnificent oeuvre in the decades to come.