La invención de la novela contemporánea: tributo a Mario Vargas Llosa. Edited by Gladys Flores Heredia. Lima: Academia Peruana de la Lengua, Editorial Cátedra Vallejo, Universidad Ricardo Palma, 2016. 589 pages.
Mario Vargas Llosa is undoubtedly among the most prolific authors of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, publishing continuously since beginning his career in the 1960s. From La ciudad y los perros (1963) [The Time of the Hero] to Cinco esquinas (2016) [The Neighborhood], for over half a century the Peruvian Nobel laureate’s literary universe has presented a hermeneutic challenge for critics seeking to attribute meaning to his vastly creative and intellectual work.
The thirty-six articles that comprise La invención de la novela contemporánea: tributo a Mario Vargas [The invention of the contemporary novel: tribute to Mario Vargas Llosa] are organized chronologically by the author’s publications. The “Discurso de apertura” [Opening Remarks] and the first two keynote lectures offer astute reflections on the Peruvian writer’s literary and intellectual work. Ricardo Silva-Santisteban highlights Vargas Llosa’s search to “agotar todos los géneros literarios” [exhaust every literary genre] (11). His all-encompassing aim, together with ingenious insights, give rise to a vast “Sistema narrativo’ [narrative system], according to José Miguel Oviedo. Alonso Cueto suggests that Vargas Llosa’s novels explore the configuration and unraveling of power; as a result, “si Vargas Llosa ve la realidad como una permanente lucha, su corazón… siempre estará del lado de los rebeldes, de los transgresores” [if Vargas Llosa sees reality as a constant struggle, his heart…is always with the rebels, the transgressors] (55). Cueto’s article rightly synthesizes the thematic orientation of Vargas Llosa’s fiction; consequently, variations on this topic appear throughout the volume. Ricardo Sumalavia compares Los cachorros [The Cubs] (1967) and José Donoso’s El lugar sin limites (1966) [Hell Has No Limits]. Both novels address “temas sobre el poder y la sexualidad de acuerdo a planteamientos de la época” [themes of power and sexuality in line with ideas of that time] (173). According to Marie-Madeleine Gladieu, in the great mosaic of humanity in Vargas Llosa’s works, a series of characters, scenes, writing styles and techniques regularly appear. She identifies Los cachorros as a novel in which the young author begins shaping these actors and forms. Finally, for César Ferreira, this narrative explores the code of conduct adolescents encounter as they march toward adulthood. The novella addresses brutal rites of passage contextualized by the emergence of popular culture, the mobilization of conservative values, and the allegorization of history: “en muchas sociedades, como la peruana, las heridas de [la castración de Cuéllar] todavía permanecen abiertas” [in many societies, as in Peru, the wounds of [Cuéllar’s] castration remain open], asserts Ferreira (159).
Vargas Llosa’s two most celebrated novels, Conversación en La Cathedral (1969) [Conversation in the Cathedral] and La guerra del fin del mundo (1981) [The War of the End of the World], were quickly deemed examples of the “total novel.” According to Pedro Novoa, the “total novel” offered a literary model for reflecting on human dramas, both great and small, while also aspiring to “universality” (197). Perhaps this explains why Vargas Llosa’s characters organize their transgressions (Barreto) as resistance to discipline or sabotage of all forms of power and control (Castro García). This trait extends to the author’s female characters (Barraza), who are diversely cast as religious, combative, erotic, sexual, and amatory (239).
If the aforementioned novels address Peruvian and Latin American political history (the Odría dictatorship or the War of Canudos in Brazil), we find more recent events fictionalized in Historia de Mayta (1984) [The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta], Lituma en los andes (1993) [Death in the Andes], La fiesta del chivo (2000) [The Feast of the Goag], and Travesuras de la niña mala (2006) [The Bad Girl]. Paolo de Lima sees images in the first and last of these novels engaging in the historical disqualification of leftist discourses through their association with apocalyptic settings (255). For Emma Aguilar, Lituma’s story exemplifies Vargas Llosa’s use of the grotesque to create meaning in his prose; while Eduardo Huarag suggests that Dominican dictator Rafeal Leónidas Trujillo’s world, its “fictionalization based on historical fact” (304), expresses a desire for “democratic conscience” (295). González Montes explains that Ricardo Somocurcio’s love story follows a linear trajectory and avoids pronounced temporal shifts, yet explores a vast and romantic terrain traversing key cities on three continents (323). Arámbulo bolsters this initial characterization by dividing Vargas Llosa’s narrative into three stages: a formative period of exploration and the search for originality; a second period of greater command and abundance of narrative techniques; and, finally, a postmodern period defined by encounters with mass culture. In the last period, “el autor intenta acceder al mercado amplio de lectores sin rendirse del todo a sus preocupaciones estilísticas, estéticas ni sus obsesiones de larga data, como su apego a la novela total” [the author attempts to access a wider readership without entirely relinquishing his stylistic and esthetic concerns, or his long-held obsessions, like his attachment to the total novel] (342).
Three articles analyzing Vargas Llosa’s dramatic work examine La huida del inca (1952) [The Escape of the Inca], La señorita de Tacna (1981) [The Young Lady from Tacna], Kathie y el hipopótamo (1983) [Kathie and the Hippopotamus], La Chunga (1986) [The Jest], El loco de los balcones (1993) [The Madman of the Balconies], Ojos bonitos, cuadros feos (1996) [Pretty Eyes, Ugly Paintings], and Al pie del Támesis (2008) [On the Banks of the Thames] María-Elvira Luna notes that the author’s theatrical works are like his prose, not only in terms of technique and temporal shifts, but also in terms of their themes; namely, stories of “unfortunate and marginalized beings” (389). According to Rita Rodríguez, Kathie y el hipopótamo articulates Vargas Llosa’s theory of fiction—one he sets forth in several essays. And Lisandro Gómez notes that El loco de los balcones stages “la preocupación por la configuración de Lima en la década de los años noventa” [the concern for the configuration of Lima in the 1990s] (418).
A section of the book is dedicated to the Nobel laureate’s essays, including: “La literatura es fuego” (1967) [Literature is Fire], Contra viento y marea (1983) [Making Waves], La verdad de las mentiras (1990) [The Truth of Lies], El viaje a la ficción (2008) [A Flight into Fiction] and La civilización del espectáculo (2012) [The Civilization of Enlightment]. In my analysis of the “La literatura es fuego,” I revisit assertions of Vargas Llosa’s essay writing that limited their scope to the poetics of his work in this genre. Jorge Valenzuela explains the strong connection between “ficción y libertad” [fiction and freedom] for the author, and Gladys Flores Heredia finds an educational perspective in Vargas Llosa’s work, highlighting the importance he places on literature in the formation of the reader. For his part, Fernández Cozman questions the author’s concept of culture as too ethnocentric, whereas Velázquez suggests that the virtue of Vargas Llosa’s last essay is his attack on “a la omnipotente y omnipresente sociedad del espectáculo [lo cual] constituye un acto ético valioso” 9the omnipotent and omnipresent society of the spectacle [which] constitutes a valuable ethical undertaking] (560).
La invención de la novela contemporánea: tributo a Mario Vargas Llosa is a comprehensive volumen of critical readings. It allows us to review the author’s narrative universe and intellectual production after half a century of reading and re-reading his work.
Javier Morales Mena
Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos
Translated by Amy T. Olen