Alfaguara, 2016, 300 pp., $19.95
The literary world was abuzz this past October when the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, one of Dylan’s predecessors, happened to be in Berlin days after the Dylan selection promoting the release of the German-language edition of his new political-cum-crime thriller novel, Cinco Esquinas (“Five Corners”).
Vargas Llosa told an audience in Berlin that he was dismayed at the most recent Nobel selection. “I am an admirer of Bob Dylan as a singer. I like his songs very much. I don’t think he is a great writer. I think the Nobel for Literature is for writers, not for singers.” One wonders whether Vargas Llosa didn’t realize Dylan is a lyricist as well as a vocalist. Then again, his reaction to the pick may have had more to do with Vargas Llosa’s disdain for mass entertainment. Just days before he accepted his own Nobel in Stockholm in December 2010, he heaped particular scorn on an entertainment industry that, in his estimation, was nurturing not art, but a culture of “banalization, frivolization, and superficiality.”
Vargas Llosa was right about that—as right about it as he was wrong about Dylan. But his comments, from one Nobel laureate about another, won’t cast a shadow over Vargas Llosa’s achievement with Cinco Esquinas. This 19th of Vargas Llosa’s novels proves the observation that there are truths about human social and political nature that are best told in fiction. What Joseph Conrad achieved in Nostromo (1904) in describing the ways of Latin American parts of the not-yet-named Third World, Vargas Llosa matches in describing 1990s Peru under the strongman (but democratically elected) President Alberto Fujimori and his Rasputin-like palace adviser Vladimiro Montesinos. With Cinco Esquinas, Vargas Llosa returns us to Limeño (as residents of the capital are called) politics and Peruvian class fissures with a mastery that would impress even the Latin American Boom writer cohort of the 1960s and 1970s that included Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel García Márquez. As the last living member of that group, Vargas Llosa does not disappoint, even if we have to patiently wait for the English translation.
I had the scandalously pleasant perquisite of spending this past fall semester in the majestic colonial city of Arequipa in southern Peru. Nestled below a trifecta of volcanoes that each scratch the sky at more than 18,000 feet, Arequipa is known as the “ciudad blanca,” not for the majestic snow-capped Andes mountains that surround it, but for the type of volcanic rock building stones (locals call it sillar) used for the city’s colonial architecture. Arequipa also happens to be where Vargas Llosa, an only child, was born in 1936. But after the age of one he spent his childhood first with his mother in Bolivia, then in the northern desert city of Piura, and, by the age of 11, in Lima. (He initially believed that his father had died, when in reality his dad had ditched the family soon after Mario was born.)
Arequipa is perhaps the most Texas-like part of Peru. Here, defiantly independent-minded Arequipeños will tell you that they would rather die than live in Lima, the chaotic, bone-freezing, fog-shrouded coastal capital of 11 million. Each time I’m here with a clutch of Davidson College students, I teach a seminar on Latin American political novels that makes much use of Vargas Llosa titles like The Time of the Hero, Conversation in the Cathedral, The Feast of the Goat, The War of the End of the World, and The Dream of the Celt) as well as A Fish in the Water, his bittersweet but wise memoir penned after being trounced (he had been the prohibitive favorite) by a theretofore anonymous political neophyte named Alberto Fujimori in his native land’s 1990 presidential election. The background for the memoir, and the reality it mirrored, consisted of the previous half dozen or so years of Peruvian mayhem and heartbreak.
Known for posterity as the Lost Decade, the 1980s was a horrific time for Latin America’s hyperinflationary economies—a time in which millions of already desperate citizens were tossed into even greater misery. Perhaps no country epitomized the economic armageddon more than Peru; and no year could compete in terms of ignominy with 1987, the worst in Peru’s modern history. In addition to a scorching drought, the industrial sector was reduced to a “handful of manufacturers of cement, hairpins, and Inca Kola, more or less,” described redoubtable correspondent Alma Guillermoprieto. The country was teetering on extinction. Unemployment had soared beyond 50 percent and poverty was about 40 percent, with extreme poverty hitting a quarter of the population. Inflation was running around 8,000 percent on an annual basis; GDP for the year was a whopping negative 15 percent.
As if the country needed another cancerous threat, the pernicious Maoist guerrilla insurgency, the Shining Path, led by the Arequipa province-born academic philosopher Abimael Guzmán, expanded its dominion in the vast Andean countryside. The prospect that Guzmán’s swelling provincial insurgency might eventually seize Lima was not all that far-fetched. The Shining Path’s war chest was filled by proceeds from cocaine production, the country’s top export.
Peru’s President at the time was Alan García, the brilliant orator whom the adoring press called the “Kennedy of Latin America” for his youth (35 when he took office). In a fit of economic folly, García responded to the country’s meltdown by making another blunder: In 1987 he nationalized the banking sector.
For Vargas Llosa, who by now had spent three decades in Europe teaching, translating, and writing numerous novels, García’s incompetent demagoguery was too much. Soon thereafter, Vargas Llosa made a political speech—his first—that resonated with many Peruvians and led to his becoming a presidential candidate in the 1990 election. For Vargas Llosa, the “Peru of my childhood was a poor and backward country,” but now under García’s watch it had become “poorer still and in many regions wretchedly poverty-stricken, a country that was going to inhuman patterns of existence.”
But who was this mainly expat novelist who dared claim that he could save his country? Had Vargas Llosa’s literary imagination gotten away from him? To understand Vargas Llosa’s decision to joust with politics armed only with a keyboard, it is important to go back several decades to a literal biography, which in this case leads us to the personally revealing and politically timeless A Fish in the Water.
Before Vargas Llosa came to tilt his lance against Latin American strongmen like Fujimori or Argentina’s Juan Perón well before him, he had directed his anger toward his imperious father. Ernesto Vargas Llosa came back into Mario’s life when he was ten. After Ernesto set up house again with his wife in Piura, Mario spent the next ten years nursing a visceral hatred of his father. From Ernesto’s perspective, his son was worthy of ridicule and contempt for his bookish, “eccentric, bohemian” ways. The only thing worse—and this could have meant Mario’s banishment—was if Mario had been gay. (He wasn’t.)
With the family now living in a middle-class barrio in Lima, Ernesto sent Mario, then 14, to a military school—the Leoncio Prado Military Academy. While he only lasted two years there, the military academy, with all its social and racial classes from across Peru, was a veritable school of life for Vargas Llosa. It is also the setting of Vargas Llosa’s precocious first novel, La Ciudad y los Perros (the English translation is the painfully awkward The Time of the Hero). Published in 1963, the book was so searing that the military ceremoniously torched hundreds of copies at the very same Leoncio Prado, a self-indulgent tantrum that turned out to be not unhelpful for this budding novelist’s exposure.
Vargas Llosa’s post-Leoncio Prado adolescence included stints as a “cub reporter” for a Lima daily, where he covered the city’s down-and-outs: whores, drunks, and grisly murders of passion or (non) payment—all of it, years later, would appear in his fiction. Before he had hit the age of twenty, he was writing for Lima literary magazines. And, in what also became a novel—the rip-roaring Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter—he started dating and married his “Aunt” Julia—his uncle’s sister-in-law who was then in her early thirties.
With Peru under the dictatorship of General Manuel Odría—eight brutal years that Peruvians call the “ochenia de Odría”—and now a student at the public University of San Marco, Vargas Llosa plunged into the cauldron of subversive and even armed leftist politics that captivated so many middle- and upper-class Latin American youth—or what historian Enrique Krauze called the guerrilla universitaria. In Mario’s case, Communist Party student recruiters fed him and a couple of buddies a “diet of Marx, Engels, and Lenin,” and invited them to join the cause. And while he opted to be a sympathizer rather than a member, he still had to pick a pseudonym: So he became Comrade Alberto. Yet his communist sympathies could never compete with his insatiable ambitions to become a great writer, and this, he knew, required leaving his native land for Europe:
I then understood one of the most dramatic expressions of underdevelopment. There was practically no way in which an intellectual of a country such as Peru was able to work, to earn his living, to publish, in a manner of speaking to live as an intellectual without adopting revolutionary gestures, rendering homage to the socialist ideology, and demonstrating in his public acts—his writing and his civic activities—that he belongs to the left. To get to be editor-in-chief of a publication, to be promoted to higher academic rate, to obtain fellowships, travel grants, invitations with expenses paid, it was necessary for him to prove that he was identified with the myths and symbols of the revolutionary and socialist establishment. Anyone who failed to heed the invisible watchword was condemned to the wilderness: marginalization and professional frustration.
Vargas Llosa simply could not compromise his ideas and words—could not become what he acerbically coined “El intelectual barato” (“the cut-rate intellectual”)—and still live with himself.
At some point during his time in Europe, Vargas Llosa stopped believing in communism. A good part of this was due to his frustration with intellectual life back in Lima and then the highly public break from other Latin American and Western intellectuals over Fidel Castro’s persecution of Cuban poet Heberto Padilla. While he had been an enthusiastic supporter of Castro’s leftist revolution that shocked the world in 1959, Vargas Llosa was dismayed at and awakened by what happened to Padilla, a man who had “mildly satirized” the Cuban leader in some of his work. A few years later Padilla was thrown into prison and was forced to read a trumped up statement, an account of his “demented” acts of betrayal “against the morals of the true intellectual” and, what is worse, “against the revolution itself.”
For Vargas Llosa, that Padilla believed in the revolution and intended his art to help mend its errant ways was categorical proof that Castro’s regime was verging on tyranny. “To force comrades, with methods repugnant to human dignity, to accuse themselves of imaginary betrayals and sign letters in which even the syntax seems to be that of the police, is the negation of everything that made me embrace, from the first day, the cause of the Cuban revolution: its decision to fight for justice without losing respect for individuals.” García Márquez, by contrast, justified Havana’s actions as necessary measures in the face of relentless North American imperialism. For Gabo, Castro’s revolution was so indispensable that “it didn’t matter if they hanged all us writers.”
A glaring omission from Vargas Llosa’s 1994 memoir is how and why, after breaking with the orthodox global literary left over Castro, within a decade he had become an equally orthodox advocate of Thatcherite neoliberalism, even echoing Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s simplistic but intuitive “Road to Serfdom” thesis that resonated in conservative intellectual circles in Great Britain and America. Now, Alan García’s economic statism (for Hayek it was the Nazis) was the existential threat. And the tonic, Vargas Llosa preached, was hyper-libertarianism packaged as “radical liberalism”—the free market with a happy face. As Vargas Llosa explained, his governing manifesto—the Freedom Agenda—was a prudent approach to dismantle “privileges, government handouts, protectionism, and state control, opening up the world and creating a free society in which everyone would have access to the market and live under the protection of the law.” In a nutshell, his radical capitalist democrats would “modernize Peru’s political culture, opposing both socialist collectivism and mercantilist capitalism by putting forward a liberal policy.” Was Vargas Llosa aware that he had abandoned one utopia—Marxism—for one similar to those espoused by Ayn Rand, Charles Koch, or the Wall Street Journal editorial page?
Octavio Paz presumably wasn’t the only literary friend who warned the politically neophyte Vargas Llosa that his flip was bound to flop, and that intellectuals should abjure politics, but he wouldn’t listen. What Paz understood, perhaps, was that the kind of imagination it takes to write novels is more child-like than the one shaped by the subtle savagery of authoritarian politics.
Vargas Llosa’s naive ambition was to rid his country of the scourges of terrorism, hyperinflation, and even racism that had it on the verge of becoming a failed state—or falling under the spell of a Khmer Rouge-like Shining Path. The “chaotic and thrilling” 1990 election was ready-made for an academic lecture on the passions, vanities, and absurdities of Latin American politics. Vargas Llosa was forced to endure all sorts of political and personal shananigans and indignities. Thomas Mallon deftly described but some of these:
…lies about his finances, threats to his life, and attacks on the supposed depravity of his books: [His erotic novel] In Praise of the Stepmother was read, one chapter per day, during prime time on government-run television. Slender and elegant, the author-candidate looked more patrician than he actually was, and couldn’t overcome a cool, Kennedyesque refusal to be carried on his supporters’ shoulders, [in Vargas Llosa’s words] “a ridiculous custom of Peruvian politicians in imitation of bullfighters.”
Another was the opposition’s venom against Vargas Llosa for his putative atheism. He recalled how one television spot asked viewers, “Peruvian! Do you want an atheist in the office of president of Peru” while displaying a hideous face (his) that “looked like the incarnation and the prelude of every sort of iniquity.” (Peru 1990’s resemblance to the United States 2016 is powerful, depressing evidence bolstering the “Latin Americanization” or “Banana Republicanization” of the American politic thesis.)
Enjoying a solid lead for almost the entire campaign, Vargas Llosa ran into the electoral buzz saw that was Alberto Fujimori just weeks before the first round of voting. A political unknown who had been rector of the Agrarian University of Peru, Fujimori cannily exploited an electoral legal quirk that allowed someone approved for the senate election to file simultaneously for the presidential campaign. What Fujimori had in droves, though, was personal moxie that allowed him to wage a tireless campaign despite having barely a cent in his campaign chest. The upper class media mercilessly mocked El Chino—a generic term for Asians—as well as his unintentionally quirky slogan of Honesty, Technology, and Work. The weakness of this attack was that, while a majority of Peruvian voters were either ethnically or culturally mestizo or Indian (and not of the minority Asian immigrant community), they were turned off by the racist onslaught aimed at El Chino, and so developed an affection for him.
What’s more, the moneyed elites’ visceral bigotry and racism rallied behind Vargas Llosa’s movement; the candidate himself was rattled by this support. By the April 8 first-round vote, García’s ruling party had lined up behind El Chino, making Fujimori’s embryonic campaign penniless no more. Vargas Llosa beat out Fujimori in the first round—28 to 25 percent—but the head-to-head second round outcome was now effectively cemented, given how the myriad other parties would invariably support Fujimori. Only dire warnings from friends and advisers that his dropping out might spark a military putsch dissuaded Vargas Llosa from skipping the second round. On June 10, 1990, as expected, Fujimori won the second round in an almost 24 point landslide over the novelist-cum-politician.
And so the Peruvian novelist’s ephemeral and humiliating venture into politics was over. Reeling from this bruising campaign, Vargas Llosa found refuge in books, writing, and returning to the Old World that had now become all but his entire world. Vargas Llosa being Vargas Llosa, most assumed the searing presidential gambit would result in a novel. What emerged was his aforementioned memoir, A Fish in the Water, a tome that can teach a budding student of politics far more viscerally than any political science 101 textbook:
I made a depressing discovery…that real politics, not the kind that one reads and writes about, thinks about and imagines (the only sort I was acquainted with) but politics as lived and practiced day by day, has little to do with ideas, values, and imagination, with teleological visions—the ideal society we would like to create—and, to put it bluntly, little to do with generosity, solidarity, and idealism. It consists almost exclusively of maneuvers, intrigues, plots, paranoias, betrayals, a great deal of calculation, no little cynicism, and every variety of con game. Because what really gets the professional politician, whether of the center, the left, or the right, moving, what excites him and keeps him going is power, attaining it, remaining in it, or returning to it as soon as possible. There are exceptions, of course, but they are just that: exceptions. Many politicians begin their careers impelled by altruistic sentiments—changing society, attaining justice, fostering development, bringing morality into public life. But along the way, in the petty, pedestrian practice of day-to-day politics, these fine objectives become, little by little, mere clichés of the speeches and statements of the public persona they acquire, which in the end makes them all but indistinguishable from each other.
Vargas Llosa admitted that it would not be true to say that he loved Peru. In fact, he wrote, “I often loathe it.” In his estimation, his calling was not to be a Peruvian chauvinist as so many national political figures in 20th century reflexively embraced, but a “cosmopolitan and an expatriate who has always detested nationalism.” Indeed, Vargas Llosa had left Peru to pursue the dream of being a writer for a living, and basically never lived in Peru again other than to run for President. For Mario, the “tortuous rancor” and manias represented the “psychology of Peruvians” that his father Ernesto so ragingly manifested. But for enough Peruvians, his willed foreignness more than counterbalanced Fujimori’s Asian foreignness.
Vladimoro Lenin Ilich Montesinos Torres was born in 1946, also in Arequipa, to parents of Greek origin. To name a child that way means either that the parents were devout communists or that they had a very strange sense of humor. In any event, still not twenty years of age in 1965, Montesinos graduated as a military cadet from the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas in the Panama Canal Zone. The following year he graduated from a military school near Lima. Montesinos became a middle-ranking military officer in the 1970s, but in 1977 he was sentenced to 12 months in prison after being convicted of, ironically enough, selling intelligence about Soviet weapons sales to Peru to U.S. sources, maybe the CIA. Upon leaving prison, Montesinos began a new profession—and this is where he started being called “El Doctor”—in Lima as a private drug attorney with Colombian drug kingpins among his well-heeled clients.
When the “unknown mathematician” Fujimori threw his hat into the 1990 presidential campaign, he came to know a shady lawyer who helped him with a delicate tax fraud issue. Lore has it that Montesinos also fixed Fujimori’s vexing campaign problem—by using a dubious birth certificate—to prove that Fujimori had been born in Peru, not Japan, thus making him eligible to run. Apparently, Fujimori had a real “birther” problem.
After taking office in 1990, Fujimori brought Montesinos into his inner political circle, making him the effective chief of the military intelligence agency. Montesinos was instrumental in the ultimately successful effort to use relentless intelligence work to hunt down the Shining Path’s leadership, including Guzmán, whom they nabbed not in a remote indigenous mountain hamlet but in a middle class neighborhood in Lima. What Montesinos was weaving at the time was a “vast web” of illicit operations, graft, gun running, and drug trafficking, which allowed him to amass more than $250 million in Swiss, U.S., and Cayman Islands banks.
With the existential threat of the Shining Path eliminated, Montesinos then unleashed the force of the state spy agency against Fujimori’s political and media adversaries. One of Montesinos’ signature moves—and so deftly depicted in Cinco Esquinas—was to bribe anyone and everyone “who could be useful to the president.” One thing that amazed Peruvians subsequently was how little money it often took for Montesinos to buy politicians and the media. By 2000, the little free press still left standing had dubbed the President/Rasputin phenomenon: “Monte-Chino.” (When I first heard the term I thought they were referring to an Italian red.) Montesinos did not simply control the state intelligence apparatus for his own enrichment and his boss’s political expediency, but also the media, military, and courts.
Tellingly, in the novel El Doctor instructs one of his compromised prensa chicha (Peruvian slang for sensationalist tabloid, some or all of which were controlled by Monte-Chino in this era) reporters—the irrepressible young reporter nicknamed La Retaquita—how to do her job now that she was working for him. “I’ll tell you whom to investigate, whom to defend, and, above all, whom to screw. To screw those who want to screw Peru.” And that’s just about what she did. In one instance, an uncooperative Congressman suddenly is, through the Retaquita’s printed “exposé,” implicated in a rape and homosexuality scandal.
In 2000 intelligence emerged that Montesinos was behind Fujimori’s illegal attempt at a third term in office, and the Monte-Chino conspiracy began to unravel. By September 2001 Fujimori called for new elections that he would not contest and committed to tearing down Montesinos’s intelligence network. Montesinos had disappeared that October as Fujimori’s regime imploded under ferocious domestic and international attacks.
Fujimori’s sudden announcements came on the heels of the sensational leaked “Vladi-videos” that showed El Doctor bribing members of Congress to ditch the opposition and join Fujimori’s congressional coalition. In the ensuing weeks and months, hundreds of “Vladi-videos” surfaced showing Montesinos and his associates bribing a wide range of Peruvians. Fujimori received Montesinos’s resignation but applauded him for his service to Peru. The beleaguered President also announced the dissolution of the military intelligence agency. Within days, Fujimori vanished and later turned up in, where else?, Panama claiming political asylum; the scandal also eventually precipitated Fujimori’s resignation as a citizen from his ancestral home of Japan, by fax, soon thereafter.
While it would be churlish to give away the plot, Cinco Esquinas is a partial roman à clef, as El Doctor is unmistakably Montesinos. Yet Fujimori—who is almost invisible in the book, which perhaps reveals Vargas Llosa’s sense that his Rasputin is the real mover and terror in this farce—is referred to by his actual name. Given that he was safely ensconced back in Europe by the time the Monte-Chino metastasized, we’ll be curious to know how much of these depictions reflect Vargas Llosa’s own sense of the actual history as opposed to something more allegorical. Yet from everything we know about Monte-Chino through sundry judicial cases, Vargas Llosa might, if anything, have underplayed the wicked pair’s corruption and paranoia.
As much as the politics, Cinco Esquinas excels at portraying the enormous social and economic class gaps between the gritty working and middle classes and the Limeño leisure class with its gaggle of servants, chauffeurs, weekend shopping sprees, and promiscuous sex trips to their apartments (that also have maids and doormen) on Brickell Avenue in Miami. When I started to feel myself superior to these materialistic, upper-class Peruvian snobs, I needed only look around my Arequipa apartment and see my maid doing my dishes and laundry. The benefits of a low-wage society for people of high wages is what makes life so easy for those privileged Limeños in tony enclaves like Miraflores and San Isidro—or for yours truly in the upscale, sillar-walled colonial barrio of Yanahuara in Arequipa. Cinco Esquinas is also replete with graphic sexual scenes, many homoerotic, that will undoubtedly be received more enthusiastically by readers in Brooklyn, London, and Madrid than they are here in the deeply Roman Catholic Arequipa. But maybe this is also merely another way that Vargas Llosa is trying to move his country a little bit more toward the modernity and cosmopolitanism that lies at the heart of his being—for which the Peruvian people rejected him at the ballot box.
Michael Greenberg wrote earlier this year that Vargas Llosa’s fiction is about “fanaticism, social desperation, power, and sex.” And of all of these, it could wind up being his relentless and eternal depiction of politics that ensures that Vargas Llosa’s literature will still be relevant decades or even centuries from now. Quite easily his best political novel, The Feast of the Goat chronicles Dominican Republic strongman Rafael Trujillo’s three-decade long dictatorship and in so doing gives the reader a chilling sense of the physical and psychological power of “state terror when it is embodied in a single man.” Published in 2000, one can see how Vargas Llosa’s inimitable portrayal of Trujillo’s pathologies and machinations in The Feast of the Goat could be a thinly veiled allegory for the erstwhile ascension of the Monte-Chino dictatorship.
When the Nobel committee awarded the 2010 prize to Vargas Llosa, it cited his “cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” Cinco Esquinas is but the next iteration of Vargas Llosa’s unparalleled ability to examine these eternal maladies of the human condition through literature. It is worth remembering that, as Vargas Llosa earlier explained, “good literature always ends up showing those who read it…the inevitable limitation of all power to fulfill human aspirations and desires.” Given this storied track record of not bowing to authority, we would probably be wise not to ignore Vargas Llosa’s admonishments of the power of the contemporary entertainment industry. But perhaps we should also wonder how Vargas Llosa reconciles his admirable fear of Hollywood’s bastardization of art with his radical libertarianism.
Vargas Llosa opens up his fantastic yet deeply depressing 1963 novel Conversation in the Cathedral, set in the wretched Odría oncenio, with the memorable line, “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” He never really answered the question, however. Now that he has eviscerated El Doctor in Cinco Esquinas, maybe he would date the fuck-up to the 1990s. But when an eighty-year-old novelist is capable of writing a scorching novel about the dictatorial regime that came into power after it unexpectedly but decisively defeated the same novelist in a presidential election, we suspect that we won’t get a definitive answer to that question—at least not yet. What we have instead, with the arrival of Cinco Esquinas, is, in effect, an instance of art imitating life imitating art.
Given Vargas Llosa’s scores of novels that confront political ambition and moral decay, it is no surprise that he pursued this exceptionally personal angle on the abuse of political power. The real question is what comes next, in the twentieth novel: He certainly will not be at a loss for raw material on the theme. Perhaps it will be about Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela or Putin’s Russia. If it is, God forbid, about the United States, we should be anything but surprised given what we knew about the winning candidate’s folie de grandeur and slavish retinue of cut-rate intellectuals and prensa chicha propagandists that would make Monte-Chino blush.