For decades, Mario Vargas Llosa has been an icon for authors writing in Spanish. Indeed, many of us have spent time with—better put, plunged into—his novels and collections of essays, trying to elucidate the secret that has carried him to the highest heights an author can attain: the Nobel Prize, hundreds of thousands of faithful readers, and the respect of specialists. I believe that the trick to obtaining all three was the same: work. It seems almost silly to declare this as some sort of discovery, but in all reality, it’s not as simple as it looks: in this case, we must revisit its meaning. When I use the word work to describe the formula that can carry a person to the status of an author worthy of emulation, I am really using a word that does not entirely cover the meaning that I seek to communicate. The work of a writer is not simply to sit down every day in front a writing instrument (be it a computer or a notebook), stringing together sentences, forming paragraphs, and creating a literary text. No; the work of a writer begins much earlier than when he feels like typing or scratching at a paper with pen or pencil; much earlier than when he decides to write this story or that, that he wants to write about a political or religious or purely literary theme. And it will continue on long after the book is ready as an entity independent of him, going from hand to hand and reader to reader, helping to create a universe in their minds that was already boiling with feelings and ideas in the author’s brain. Thus, when I use the word work to describe the secret of what makes Vargas Llosa an author worthy of imitation, I am thinking about that person that made the choice decades ago to dedicate his life, successfully or otherwise, to write books in order to exorcise his demons.
“God made the world in seven days, and it shows”: the Spanish humorist Luis Piedrahíta chose that bit of wit as the title for one of his books. It could just be that the hypothetical creator of the universe left behind too many loose ends that we don’t understand and cosmic answers that aren’t entirely clear; we could consider them design flaws and failed attempts. Without a doubt, however, when we read Conversation in the Cathedral (1969)—whose fiftieth anniversary we now celebrate—we must accept that the author had far more than seven days of work (more like several years’ worth) to complete. The author—any author—the creator of his own paper universe, is powerful, serving as the stand-in for god in his fiction. Just not quite powerful enough to create his own iteration of speed. Vargas Llosa himself has said that it was this novel that made him work the most, and that if he had to choose a favorite, this would be the one. Perhaps this is because he knows that in it, unlike in any other, the concept of the total novel that he so enjoys is totally developed.
Vargas Llosa uses a metaphor to speak about his profession, to explain what it means to write a novel. To me, it seems quite didactically useful:
Writing a novel is a ceremony a bit like a strip tease. Like the girl who, bathed in a shameless spotlight, frees herself of her clothes and reveals her enchanting secrets, bit by bit, the novelist disrobes his privacy in public through his novels. Of course, there are differences. The parts of himself that the novelist reveals are not his enchanting secrets, like the undressed girl, but demons that torture and obsess him, the ugliest part of himself: his nostalgias, his guilts, his resentments. Another difference is that in a strip tease the girl starts off clothed and ends up naked. The trajectory is reversed in the case of the novel: in the beginning, the novelist is naked, but clothed at the end.
(Historia secreta de una novela [Secret history of a novel])
It is strange that an author like Vargas Llosa, who is so precise when expounding upon his ideas about the world and other things, would conceive of the novel as an act of nudity. But if we shed light upon this enigmatic comparison (why does the author end up clothed in his strip tease?) with the ever-sharp incision of a philosopher, we may be able to begin to elucidate an interpretation. Perhaps we can get closer to what the author wanted to say, to that which swarms about the universe of his ideas. In this endeavor, Giorgio Agamben’s reflections on nudity will prove useful to us:
In our culture, nudity is inseparable from theological symbolism. Everyone knows the story of Genesis. According to it, Adam and Eve, after sinning, become aware for the first time that they are naked: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). According to theologians, this does not just happen become of some simplistic, prevailing lack of conscientiousness that sin erased. Before the fall, even without being covered by any sort of human garment, they were not naked: they were covered by the cloth of grace that stuck to them like a glorious habit.
It is in this manner, then, that the author, when he refers to the nudity that leads to writing, is really referring to a process of “covering” an original essence, yanked away when the literary conscience (or the conscience of language) has converted narrative intuition into words. The author—and his characters?—are conscious, in the moment of writing of and being written, respectively, of the fact that they have been presented just as they are. They are then forced to turn to the supreme robe of wordsmithing: rhetoric. It is as though at the same time the writer creates his book, he goes about covering his own narrative art so as to avoid leaving it absolutely nude. That would be as untenable for him as it would be for the reader.
Agamben can serve us further: “Maybe total nudity appears only in Hell, in the bodies of the condemned, irremissibly offered up to the eternal torments of divine justice. In this sense, in Christianity, there is no theology of nudity, but only a theology of clothing.” In this way, read in the light of the Italian philosopher’s thought, Vargas Llosa’s sentence (“in the beginning, the novelist is naked, but clothed at the end”) says much more about his art that we thought, and it is not just creative imagery deployed to grab our attention. The writer hopes to reveal the body of the novel, and in doing so, re-clothes it with itself, with its words. The words of the author, to continue with the celestial analogy, are his seraphim, the “incandescent beings” (as Isodoro defines them in the Etymologiae, VII, 5, 24) that prevent the reader from confronting the true meaning of the language. “These watch over the countenance and the feet of the one seated in the throne of God,” writes Isodoro with beautiful prose and a pinch of the essence of writing, the intermediary between the interpreter and that which must be interpreted. In a different manner, one could think that because Vargas Llosa expresses that the writer is the one making a “strip tease” of covering up, reading would be an intolerable activity and the text would be irremissibly condemned to hell. To which hell? The hell of misunderstanding and madness; the cursed circle of that which lacks all sense and reason. And since the novel is one of the supreme acts of reason—for however romantic it may seem, it is impossible to create irrational literature—it requires a conscious maker that knows how to bring order without being noticed. In fact, they must bring disorder without being noticed. Yes—perhaps god made the world in seven days; because he was powerful or because he was rushed, nobody knows. But without a doubt, a true novelist should dedicate much more time to his universe if he wants it to be transcendent.
Not long ago I saw the documentary about the process that carried Vargas Llosa along toward his first novel, The City and the Dogs. An author’s beginnings are always very exciting and almost always hard. We know practically everything about Vargas Llosa’s, and almost everyone has an opinion of him, whether they have read him or not, known him or not, studied him or not. On top of these considerations, while I was watching this documentary, a thought persisted in my head: the true legacy of a writer are his books. They are his footprint, his contribution, his efforts, and his offerings to make us better or worse. Absolutely everything else is superfluous. Literature: that is where the revolution is for a writer. Perhaps that is why Carlos says to Santiago Zavala: “You should have dedicated yourself to literature instead of revolution, Zavalita,” because he knows (the author, that is) that his guerilla is on the page and his victory there will always be greater than on the battlefield, where bullets, and not words, impose reason. As Luis Enrique Pérez-Oramas wrote not long ago, “we know that art never changes the world, but it inexorably and forever fixes its truths.” That is the novelist’s true triumph.
In Conversation in the Cathedral, Vargas Llosa achieves one of literature’s most difficult feats: he condenses the universe into a small space, watches it, and gives it an explanation (though the explanation will be diffuse and porous—it’s better that way). It may just be a boutade, but I believe the novel is too short for the cosmos it contains. If we depart from the obvious point that the total novel must contain the totality, the weight of an extension lacks sense or drives us mad, like the story told by Borges in which the emperor wanted such an exact map of his empire that it ended up being the size of the empire. A total novel could have a single page, like the Ecuadorian Humberto Salvador’s En la ciudad he perdido una novella [In the city I have lost a novel]; just over a hundred, as Jorge Zalemea masterfully puts forth in El gran Burundún Burundá ha muerto [The great Burundún Burundá has died]; or be a practically unnavigable river like Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe, Adam Buenosayres by Leopoldo Marechal, or House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. Vargas Llosa’s novel could find its place among the group of “normal” or “short” total novels, like The Magic Mountain, Hopscotch, and Radetsky March. But we already know that “short” or “normal” are useless adjectives when it comes to describing the total novel because their totality depends on the author’s skill at condensing into a single verbal territory multiple elements of the universe that he wants to compress, as though he were trying to change the file format to .zip. We find this compression at its height not in novels, but in the (very) short stories, “The Broken Tooth” by Pedro Emilio Coll and “The Continuity of Parks” by Julio Cortázar, perfect examples of the Moebius loop that is the universe.
Vargas Llosa, retelling the years of Odría’s dictatorship and all of his abominations; telling a sort of bildungsroman through Santiago Zavala’s discovery of life’s hard knocks and his simultaneous encounters with sex, love, the deformed (or multifarious) image of his father, bohemianism and ideological conflict; telling of the moral decomposition and hypocrisy of Fermín Zavala; laying bare the racist and classist society in which the characters exist; and knitting together all of these elements using narrative techniques that move the prose on one side towards cubism in its pretense of exposing the fullest image of reality, revealing its every side and ridge. On the other side, there is an apparently perilous serialism that situates the elements of the narration, making the structured ending seem confusing even though it obeys a rhythm that can only be perceived when the reader allows him or herself to be placed in the “tonality” of the novel. The musical spirit of the text—it is understood as an avant-garde musicality—evinces itself in the insistent use of the leitmotiv, now famous, whose first appearance is represented in eight words: “at what precise moment had Peru fucked itself?” It is significant—but probably not consciously done—that there are exactly eight words with a distant kinship to the western diatonic scale: the sentence is an octave. Is this how the “normal” order is superimposed, or is it founded in an alternate order, an other, mysterious order? Metaphorical exposition here can lead to much fruitful reflection. In any case, the reiteration of this idea—how, because the county “is fucked,” all of the characters are, too, Santiago Zavala the first among them, going about searching for when and how this disgraced state befell him—serves as a common thread and central pillar of the novel’s structure. Without this phrase, much of the novel’s logic would be irreparably damaged. One must still get close to Vargas Llosa’s novel to verify the point to which the whole work is a grand symphonic pattern of verbal rhythms that set the scene for a vision of his country. Beyond the technique that belies this novel’s structure (it is famous for the rotation of the dialogues to give the sensation of simultaneity, to create a “lasting present”), I am more interested in the final meaning that the author seeks with his book. It is that which he tries to touch and which, perhaps, because the author ends up dressed in his work, he doesn’t quite manage to complete. Wouldn’t one of the keys to understanding the deep function of the resources and narrative techniques which he relies upon in the novel be found here?
Writing’s supreme success is to touch, for a brief moment, the sublime.
A total novel like Conversation in the Cathedral is many things at once; pessimist and secure in the future; reflexive and passionate; solemn and surprisingly humorous; full of spiritual secretions; all because it is a world and how the world must be. And its characters, like the dogs in the novel that are trapped by the dogcatcher with no discrimination between street dogs and domesticated ones, are worth a sol each; whoever has luck like Batuque de Zavala survives, while the rest are condemned to die, beaten. Because they are fucked, just like Peru; and, in total, that’s what writing a novel has always been about, right?
El Escorial, July 1, 2019
Read in the summer course, “Fifty years of Conversation in the Cathedral,” Universidad Computense – Cátedra Vargas Llosa
Translated by Michael Redzich