At first glance, Mario Vargas Llosa’s novels seem like a one-man miscellany of subjects and styles: There are harrowing narratives based on historical events like Rafael Trujillo’s tyrannical rule over the Dominican Republic (“The Feast of the Goat”) and a 19th-century religious uprising in the backlands of Brazil (“The War of the End of the World”).
There are also some delightfully inventive post-modernist confections: an antic, comic portrait of an obsessive writer, who cranks out 10 half-hour soap opera scripts a day (“Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter”); a Chinese puzzle box of a detective story that begins with a gruesome murder in 1950s Peru (“Who Killed Palomino Molero?”), and a suspenseful, “Groundhog Day”-like improvisation upon Flaubert’s classic “Madame Bovary” (“The Bad Girl”).
Two related themes, however, thread their way through all of Mr. Vargas Llosa’s novels: a fascination with the human craving for freedom (be it political, social or creative) and the liberation conferred by art and imagination. Indeed, storytelling itself remains a central concern in the author’s work, in both his taste for willfully complicated narratives and his philosophical preoccupation with the ways in which subjectivity acts as a distorting prism for our apprehension of the world.
In “Who Killed Palomino Molero?” we learn that a police officer’s own sentimental proclivities may be warping his assessment of the prime suspects in the killing of a handsome young singer. And in “The Storyteller,” we learn that a saintly, disfigured student has become the official storyteller for a primitive rainforest tribe and the repository of its collective memory — or at least that is the tale he tells.
As for “The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta,” it features an assortment of characters recounting their memories of a little-known Trotskyist revolutionary — their sometimes clashing, sometimes converging reminiscences creating a glittering collage that reads like a combination of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and an oral history by Studs Terkel. By the end of the novel, the reader sees that there is not one Alejandro Mayta, but many: Mayta the die-hard romantic, equally eager to worship God and Marx; Mayta the professional revolutionary, adept at manipulating younger comrades; and Mayta the damaged idealist, disillusioned by the factionalism and infighting of the left.
Although Mr. Vargas Llosa is that increasingly rare bird — an all-around man of letters who has written criticism, journalism and plays as well as fiction — the towering achievements of his career remain two novels published some two decades apart. One is a comedic masterpiece, the other a devastating historical tragedy.
“Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,” published in the United States in 1982, is the semiautobiographical story of the apprenticeship of a young would-be writer named Mario and the two people who loom over his coming of age: his sexy Aunt Julia, whom he courts and marries; and his eccentric friend, Pedro Camacho, a genius writer of radio plays and the creator of dozens of soap opera characters, whose stories all begin to dangerously intertwine and overlap with increasingly farcical results.
While “Aunt Julia” focuses on the private world of romance and creativity, “The Feast of the Goat” (published here in 2001) tackles the big public sphere of politics. Based on events during and immediately after the three-decade rule of Rafael Trujillo over the Dominican Republic, the book not only pushed the boundaries of traditional historical fiction, but also joined Gabriel García Márquez’s “Autumn of the Patriarch” and Augusto Roa Bastos’s “I the Supreme” in that select pantheon of classic Latin American novels dissecting the hydraulics and consequences of absolute power.
Trujillo is described by one character as “the devil,” who had inflicted more suffering on the country than it had sustained “in its history of Haitian occupation, Spanish and American invasions, civil wars, battles among factions and caudillos, and in all the catastrophes — earthquakes, hurricanes — that had assailed Dominicans from the sky, the sea, or the center of the earth.”
Whether a novel is based on historical fact or autobiographical experiences or leaps full-blown from the brow of its creator, Mr. Vargas Llosa has suggested, it performs a vital function: it remakes “reality — embellishing it or diminishing it” through the magic of words, he wrote in an essay in The New York Times Book Review in 1984.
“The lies in novels are not gratuitous — they fill in the insufficiencies of life,” he wrote. “Thus, when life seems full and absolute, and men, out of an all-consuming faith, are resigned to their destinies, novels perform no service at all. Religious cultures produce poetry and theater, not novels. Fiction is an art of societies in which faith is undergoing some sort of crisis, in which it’s necessary to believe in something, in which the unitarian, trusting and absolute vision has been supplanted by a shattered one and an uncertainty about the world we inhabit and the afterworld.”