Llosa’s new novel is impressive in its dexterity as it traces political themes and tells of troubled lives in Lima. But is it a great work?
Lima: Mario Vargas Llosa, recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, is one of the world’s most acclaimed writers. Many think he is the greatest of all living Latin American authors since Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who passed away in April 2014.
But Vargas Llosa is not just a famous writer. He has another side to him. He is a politician who contested and lost the Presidential elections in Peru in 1990.
In his latest novel, it is the politician who is finally more on display than the writer. Cinco Esquinas (“Five Corners”) was released in March this year – coincidentally the same month that the writer turned 80.
The writer as politician
In April 2016, the first round of presidential elections took place in Peru. In his characteristic style, Vargas Llosa spoke out against the leading candidate Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, who defeated him in 1990. In no uncertain terms he voiced his support for Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, better known in Peru by his acronym, PPK. When the results of the first round showed that Keiko and PPK would have a face off in the runoff elections, he was quick to once again pronounce PPK his choice as President.
Vargas Llosa has time and again publicly expressed his disdain for what he calls the dictatorial policies of his former political rival, which will surely be followed by his successor. Not unexpectedly, his criticism has drawn many a sharp riposte from Fujimori, who has called upon him to settle in Peru before expressing his views on the country. Vargas Llosa has been living in Spain since the 1990s.
This recent clash only highlights the political nature of Vargas Llosa’s being and writing. In his memoir A Fish in the Water (1993), he tells the story of the formation of the Democratic Front and his run for President in 1990. Vargas Llosa was disillusioned by the role of the state in the economy and instead wanted free market reform to liberate Peru and Peruvians. This ambition was thwarted by the then unknown Alberto Fujimori.
Now, 26 years after the 1990 elections, Vargas Llosa returns to that theme in Five Corners. The title reflects the book’s attempt to capture the feel of the troubled parts of Lima at that time, those parts that were home to criminals, prostitutes and wheelers and dealers of all kinds. For Vargas Llosa, the book is a mural of Peruvian society as it was then.
Vargas Llosa has not yet come to Peru to promote the book, perhaps because the country is in the midst of the presidential elections (although it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him there just before the run-off elections on June 5, 2016, in order to endorse PPK).
The book strings together three themes: politics, corruption and yellow journalism. Vargas Llosa uses the glue of eroticism to bind them together, in a way that only he can, using colloquialisms to give an intimate quality to the sensual and sexual. Any other writer indulging in such vivid descriptions would easily be accused of vulgarity, or even pornography.
Look back in anger
While the book is yet to be published in English, the Spanish original hit the stands in March 2016 and is already a bestseller in many Latin American countries.
Reading Vargas Llosa in the original is a true delight, although, admittedly, a dictionary is required for fully understanding those words known as Peruvianismos that are truly Peruvian in meaning and usage. The noted Chilean writer and film director Alberto Fuguet, in a review for the magazine Que Pasa, noted that the book is so fast-paced and suspenseful, it does not appear to have been written by a man in his 80s. In many ways, as it captures the events of the last years of Alberto Fujimori’s controversial regime, the book reads as a thriller.
Vargas Llosa minces no words, in either naming his rivals or his graphic descriptions of the licentious. He clearly names Fujimori and his henchman Vladimir Montesinos as villains. In doing so, one could call the book partly factual. While the plot and protagonists may be fictional, it is not hard to imagine that many such tales would have been daily fare during Fujimori’s turbulent final days in power.
Speaking at an event in Chile on April 29, Vargas Llosa said that he wanted to create a story around events that had impacted him greatly, so he wrote about how Montesinos used tabloid journalism to “fix” his political adversaries.
The tale revolves around how a journalist Rolando Garro, with the cooperation of none other than Montesinos, uses the power of tabloid journalism to destroy people’s lives. He goes too far, however, when he starts blackmailing Enrique Cárdenas, a doyen of the industry, and infuriates his handler. In the end, salvation comes through the conscience of another journalist Julieta Leguizamón, an understudy of Rolando Garro. Perhaps through this move, Vargas Llosa is taking sides and his soft corner for journalists (for he began his career as one) scores over his disdain for authoritarian politicians. So, yellow journalism finds redemption.
The storyline of intrigue and sinister political power play is interspersed with smaller stories about the erotic, decadent Limeñan elite, two women Chabela and Marisa and their sexual discovery in one another, for instance.
A question of style
The book is written in a style typical of Vargas Llosa. Thomas Mallon wrote in his piece ‘Restless Realism’ for the New Yorker, of Vargas Llosa’s Discreet Hero when it was published in English, that the “the novel is driven, and sometimes strangled, by a technique that the young Vargas Llosa developed partly through the influence of what he has called the ‘communicating vessels’ of [Flaubert’s] Madame Bovary and Faulkner’s The Wild Palms.”
This technique consists of “the braiding of multiple episodes, or… dialogues, on the same page, an alternation designed to squeeze in as much irony and resonance as the contrasting materials can produce.” According to Mallon, the effect is “often more soupy than symphonic” as Vargas Llosa lets “contrast, not continuity, be the ruling principle of composition: the complete change of place, milieu, mood, subject, and characters.”
This trademark style finds full form in Five Corners, to the extent that one of the chapters is titled Un Remolino (“A Whirlpool”). In this chapter, each paragraph relates to a different sub-plot, which creates the literary equivalent of a maelstrom.
But is Five Corners one of Vargas Llosa’s greats?
Many critics have their reservations.
Josep Maria Nadal Suau, writing in the El Cultural literary magazine of the Spanish daily El Mundo, is categorical when he says that “Five Corners is an average novel… [I]t works but it is not memorable.” Elaborating, he notes: “this novel continues to be a good example of good structure and… rhythm… [But] I don’t think it succeeds in portraying really interesting characters.”
As Nadal Suau points out, Vargas Llosa describes novels as “symbolic assassination[s] of reality.” Five Corners validates this statement in the sense that it embodies an act of revenge against Fujimori and his executive acts, giving an alternate version of reality.
Nadal Suau also examines if the book has “late style.” Reflecting on this subject of Edward Said’s book of the same title, Edward Rothstein wrote:
“What artist does not yearn, some day, to possess a ‘late style’? A late style would reflect a life of learning, the wisdom that comes from experience, the sadness that comes from wisdom and a mastery of craft that has nothing left to prove. It might recapitulate a life’s themes, reflect on questions answered and allude to others beyond understanding. But even if that kind of culminating style is not granted to an artist, observers want to discern it. We want to be reassured that there really is something progressive about human understanding. We want to feel that in a final confrontation with mortality, something profound takes place. When the end is near, we want there to be a sign of this in the work itself, some proof of accumulated insight.”
Given his stature, one would expect Vargas Llosa’s latest book to demonstrate “late style.” But Nadal Suau finds no sign of it.
In an earlier critique of Vargas Llosa, Mallon wrote that “his books ignore none of Peru’s clashing, kaleidoscopic elements, but his vision, sometimes explicit and more often artistically indirect, is at bottom a gentlemanly, non-millenarian one, desirous of peace and pluralism, secularly hopeful of decency and democratic norms.”
According to Mallon, Vargas Llosa himself acknowledges that “scope and ambition are as important in a novel as stylistic dexterity and narrative strategy.” A new book by Vargas Llosa is undoubtedly a momentous happening, both from the literary and the commercial point of view. But does Five Corners demonstrate scope and ambition along with dexterity and narrative strategy?
Reading Five Corners, one has to agrees with Mallon. The book is an engrossing read and one that elicits sympathy for the author’s vision. But in the end, it perhaps lacks scope and ambition.
Sandeep Chakravorty is Ambassador of India to Peru and Bolivia.