The Persistence of Memory: A Conversation with Mario Vargas Llosa

The Persistence of Memory: A Conversation with Mario Vargas Llosa

La memoria pertinaz

Miguel Ángel Zapata

Translated to English by Rose Shapiro

Mario Vargas Llosa (Arequipa, Peru, 1936) spends part of every year in Lima, Madrid, Paris, and London. This summer I had the good fortune to meet with him in his house overlooking the sea in Barranco (Lima), where we spoke for a while by the azure sea of the Lima coast. Mario Vargas Llosa is perhaps the most talented contemporary Latin American novelist, and many of his novels are now classics.

Every one of his novels or other writings is a discovery; he never repeats himself. His novelistic oeuvre is evenly masterful, accompanied by a notable body of essays, chronicles, and dramatic works. His most recent book,The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo y Les Miserables (Alfaguara, Madrid, 2004), is a brilliant study ofLes Miserables, from the point of view of a writer who truly knows his craft. Among his works we can mentionThe Bosses, The City and the Dogs, The Green House, Conversation in the Cathedral, Pantaleon and the Visitors, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, The War at the End of the World, The Real Life of Mayta, Who Killed Palomino Molero?, The Storyteller, In Praise of the Stepmother, Death in the Andes, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, The Feast of the Goat, and The Way to Paradise: A Novel. In 2002 he received the Pen/Nabokov Prize, and in 2004 the Premio Grinzane Cavour (Turin, Italia). To listen to Mario is always a great intellectual experience.

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Miguel Ángel Zapata: Mario, with this beautiful view that you have here I could write a poem every day.

Mario Vargas Llosa: Yes, of course, but I couldn’t write a novel a day, although I can certainly progress a little bit every day in whatever novel I am working on.

M. A. Z.: Then you would say quite definitely that the environment—one’s surroundings, nature itself—supports the process of writing and creating?

M. V. LL.: Without a doubt. Yet I also believe that when you are obsessed with a story you write in the same mode regardless of your surroundings. A pleasant environment, like this one for example—a lovely landscape in constant change, because the sea in the morning is not the same as the sea at twilight, not the same as the sea when it is sunny or cloudy—is not only pleasing to me but also stimulating.

M. A. Z.: You live in different countries. How are you able to continue working as you move around?

M. V. LL.: Indeed, my residence changes; I live in Lima, Madrid, London, and Paris. What is stable—rather, what gives great stability to my life— is my work, because I never stop working. I leave Lima and arrive in Paris, and the next day I take up the work where I left it in Lima, and it is the same when I go from Lima to Madrid to Paris or to London. In each city I come to a desk where I have absolutely everything I need to work: diskettes, index cards, the indispensable books that I feel I must take with me wherever I go. My routine is always the same: I begin work in the morning and continue in the afternoon, and this has not changed in a very long time. The truth is that it was a different story when, in addition to writing, I had to work to make a living, but since I have been able to devote all of time to writing my routine is the same. In the morning my work is more creative; in the afternoon I correct, reread, and take notes for the following day’s work. In the afternoon I always do research, which complements the creative work. I respect that routine rigorously. I work during the week on the book I’m writing, and on the weekends I devote my time to writing articles; I write newspaper articles a couple of times a month.

M. A. Z.: What is the point of departure for your writing?

M. V. LL.: Generally speaking, the point of departure is memory; I believe all the stories I have written have been born of some lived experience that has remained in my memory and that becomes an image, fertile ground for imagining a whole structure around it. It’s also true that I have always followed an outline, almost since my first story: I take many notes, I make index cards, and I make some plot sketches before beginning to compose. In order to be able to begin writing I need at least a structure, though perhaps a very general one, for the story. And then I can begin to work. I first produce a draft, which is the part of the work that is hardest for me. As soon as I have it the work is much more pleasant; I can write more confidently, more securely, because I know that the story is there. This has been a constant in what I have written: doing research that will familiarize me with the theme, the situation, the period during which the story takes place.

M. A. Z.: As is the case with your novel about Flora Tristán and Paul Gaugin.

M. V. LL.: No doubt. Of course, that work dealt with historical personalities, but in other cases, although I’m not working with a historical situation, I anyway travel to the places where the story takes place, I read testimonies, newspapers of the period, not with the aim of reproducing a historical truth but rather to feel familiar with, immersed in, the environment in which I want to situate the characters and the story. Then I correct a lot, rewrite a lot. For me, to tell you the truth—this is something José Emilio Pacheco once said, and it seems right on the mark to me—what I like best is not writing but revising. It’s the absolute truth. When I correct and revise what I have already done, that is when I really enjoy writing the most.

M. A. Z.: And when you finish a novel and it’s published, do you read it again? To look for faults, perhaps, I don’t know. . .

M. V. LL.: No. The last time that I read it is in proofs, and after that I try not to read it again, if I can help it. Sometimes when I work with a translator I am obligated to reread in order to correct errors, but in general I don’t like to revisit what I’ve already written and published.

M. A. Z.: But perhaps you’ve read a fragment and thought that you would have liked to change a section of the novel, as was the case with Valéry, Juan Ramón Jimenez, and now with Pacheco, whose brilliant poetry is in a continual state of revision.

M. V. LL.: Of course, that has happened to me often, and it is one of the reasons I don’t like to reread my own work once it’s published. Every time that I reread my own work I wonder whether I could have worked on the story a little bit more.

M. A. Z.: What are your favorite books?

M. V. LL.: Well, here we go. They would be Madame Bovary, several of Flaubert; I would also choose Faulkner’s Light in August and perhaps Sanctuary, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Balzac’sScenes from a Courtesan’s Life, Joyce’s Ulysses, Cervantes’s Quixote, and Tirant lo Blanc, which was very important to me because it gave me the idea of the novel as a totality, a world unto itself. Well, I could choose hundreds of titles.

M. A. Z.: Do you read poetry?

M. V. LL.: I do. I tend to reread many of the authors who have most impressed me, starting with Rubén Darío, who is these days not so often read and who I still think remains the father, the magical master, of true poetry in Spanish. I also reread Neruda, whom I loved in my youth, and Baudelaire, perhaps the poet I admire most among all poets. I like Eliot very much, not only as a poet but also as an essayist.

M. A. Z.: So Baudelaire has moved you greatly; poetry also influences prose writers.

M. V. LL.: Yes, Baudelaire, most definitely, but also all the authors I have read and who have moved me and caused me to think deeply, who have greatly influenced who I am, my sensibility. But, now, how could one follow in the footsteps of an author like Joseph Conrad? In fact, right now I’m rereading Conrad.

M. A. Z.: Which works of his are you rereading?

M. V. LL.: Last year I reread Lord Jim, which struck me as a masterpiece, extraordinary; but, on the other hand, I picked up Nostromo, and I find it a description of a Latin America full of quaintness, clichés, and commonplaces. It’s the first time that one of Conrad’s novels has disappointed me.

M. A. Z.: Do you still feel the same way about José María Arguedas as you did in your book La utopía arcaica?

M. V. LL.: Yes. I believe that Arguedas was an extraordinary case in Peruvian literature, because of his roots in two cultures, both of which he came to know and experience profoundly, from within. This gave him a vision of Peru that only with great difficulty do other Peruvian writers accomplish, since they lack that experience of two worlds. I think Arguedas wrote a great novel, Los ríos profundos, into which he poured his experience of two cultures, the vision of a self-sufficient world created from a historical and social reality but utterly transformed into art, thanks to a language, a sensibility. I don’t think he achieved the perfection of Los ríos profundos in his later work, although he wrote some very lovely stories. In those novels he failed not for literary reasons but for sociological and ethnological ones, as is the case with El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo.

M. A. Z.: A novel he never finished…

M. V. LL.: He left it almost finished, and in all of his work Arguedas shows himself to be a writer who clearly wants to represent a state of affairs very graphically. Certainly, he is the Peruvian writer that I have read and reread most often. Arguedas is interesting not only as a writer but also as a uniquely positioned witness to the drama of our country—the drama of discovered and conquered cultures— and of the bipolarity of Peruvian society, and his testimony is genuine and authentic. Arguedas has meaning for Peru that goes beyond the purely literary.

M. A. Z.: Let’s speak for a bit now about fiction and autobiography. In Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter or in El hablador do you appear as a camouflaged character?

M. V. LL.: No. Sometimes someone appears who has my name and in other ways takes advantage of experiences that I have had, but he always appears in a context and living experiences that are much more diverse than those I have had, such that none of my novels is exclusively autobiographical, not even the one that most seems to be, which is Aunt Julia. Sure, in that case I took advantage of a moment in my own life, but even in the story of Varguitas, who would have liked to have been a writer, there is much more imagination that personal memory. Autobiography is a literary resource, as in El hablador.

M. A. Z.: How do you transform this aspect; that is, how do you make the autobiographical into the literary?

M. V. LL.: Biographical facts are subsumed in imagined, or, as you put it, transformed facts. In the end, that which is imagined wins out. Now, if you are asking me whether literature has an autobiographical source, I would say so; I can’t help but believe that the point of departure is always memory: you get images from memory, images that have been with you a long time, and that is the primary material with which a writer works. But it is a primary material from which you depart in order to create a world. I don’t think this experience is very different from that of the poet. The poet also starts from memory, from an experience of life, of people, of reality as it is constructed in remembrance.

M. A. Z.: Let’s turn to the critics of your work. Whom would you mention as those who have hit the mark in their approaches to your writing?

M. V. LL.: David Gallagher wrote an essay about Conversation in the Cathedral that really surprised me; what I remember most of all is the idea—I think it’s more or less like this—that that novel shows that power is dirty and that every time the novel dealt with the theme of power its prose style itself became dirty; that is, he pointed out that the all aspects of the novel in some ways reflect what the novel is trying to argue. Also José Miguel Oviedo has made some very serious and rigorous analyses of, above all, structures and techniques in my work, and I have learned a lot from his approaches. Finally, Efraín Kristal’s book was a revelation for me. He reads practically all of the books that I have said influenced me and finds in those books many sources and models that I have in some way used in my work. It is one of the books that has interested me most and been most instructive in terms of showing me how I proceed; and it taught me that as much as one works rationally and systematically on one’s stories, as I do, one does not have the necessary critical distance to know exactly what one is doing on paper.

M. A. Z.: What can you say about the Peruvian poets who interest you and whom you read?

M. V. LL.: Vallejo, of course. And César Moro, of whom I was an early reader, back when no one knew who he was. I started reading him upon his death, inspired by a very dramatic essay by André Coyné, and since that moment I began looking for his work, and I even helped published some of his unpublished work. I have been a very devoted reader of Peruvian poetry, during all the years I have lived in Peru, and a very enthusiastic one, as well. For instance, I wrote an essay about our great poet Carlos Germán Belli.

M. A. Z.: A few words about politics in Peru. Do you agree that President Toledo should be allowed to finish his term in office (as the constitution mandates), or should we listen to his enemies, those who do not want him to finish his term?

M. V. LL.: Yes, I believe he should finish his term and that the constitutional terms of office should be maintained. We have a very fragile democracy, and the worst way to preserve it is to change the rules of the game, or to change the procedures that are fundamental to a democracy. Now, while there are many reasons to criticize this government, there have also been many indisputably good moves, ones that no one recognizes— for example, the situation of Peru with respect to the rest of Latin America—. Peru has likely been the country that has progressed the most in the past few years in terms of economic development.

M. A. Z.: What do you think of the recent taking of the police station of Andahuayalas by Antauro Humala and the etnocaceristas?

M. V. LL.: It is a display of primitivism, of underdevelopment, and of stupidity. It involves only a small group. Unfortunately, there is such a hostile climate, with so much belligerence towards the government and established institutions, that in the wake of Humala we find considerable animosity, which turns out to be very deceptive. The surveys indicate that Humala has 34% to 40% support in Peru; I don’t believe it. What happens is that discontent finds a way to manifest itself, and thus we see its identification with extreme nationalism, racism, and other of Humala’s idiocies.

M. A. Z.: That group and others have had a lot to say recently about Chile’s penetration in Peru…

M. V. LL.: I think the worst thing we could do is to fall into the anti-Chile rhetoric that a group of ill-intentioned demagogues is spouting, because generally those who rail against Chile are those who are committed to the dictatorship of Fujimori, many of them accused of thievery and corruption. Most certainly, that business is a smokescreen so that in the ensuing chaos they might be able to get away with their own mischief. The War of the Pacific happened a long time ago, and the worst thing we could do is to keep looking to that unfortunate war, in which of course Peru and Bolivia were the sacrificial lambs. Wars that were fought a century ago must not create enmity between peoples; wars are often conflicts created by governments or by the interests that are the only ones who benefit from these conflicts; the people are always those who pay.

M. A. Z.: Nationalism is one of the worst defects, don’t you think?

M. V. LL.: Of course. Nationalism, in its various forms, has impoverished us and made us more underdeveloped, and it has therefore been the reason regional treaties have never worked in spite of the great efforts to create pacts or common markets. We must combat nationalism. It is a blessing that not only Chilean but also Brazilian, Colombian, and Ecuadorian capital is coming to Peru, to develop our sources of wealth, since in the end the rules of the game are set not by them but by our governments. Now, if the government is inept and corrupt, naturally those investments are coming to Peru under very unfavourable conditions. Therefore we must demand transparency and honesty of our government.

M. A. Z.: This government has not been transparent.

M. V. LL.: Of course not. I think there are, unfortunately, many corrupt people in this government, and I think one of Toledo’s most serious errors was to surround himself with untrustworthy people. It is one of the things that have most damaged his popular image and that has allowed his enemies to attack his administration. Among those untrustworthy people are of course many corrupt characters from Fujimori’s administration, who moreover have control over the media and who are full of poison and hate and who try to create chaos by all means possible in order to evade condemnation and the rule of law.

M. A. Z.: What literary project are you pursuing now?

M. V. LL.: I am in the midst of writing a novel, which I started after finishing my essay on Victor Hugo.

M. A. Z.: What is it about?

M. V. LL.: It’s a novel that is constructed as a series of short stories; every chapter is a story that can be read independently and, at the same time, as a chapter of a novel that encompasses all the stories. Each one of these stories occurs in a different city and a different period, which indeed allows me to make use of my own experience of the cities in which I have lived—but other than that it’s not at all autobiographical—.

M. A. Z.: Do you already have a title for it?

M. V. LL.: Yes. Travesuras de la niña mala. Do you like it?

M. A. Z.: I love it. It would be perhaps the first title of yours to manifest your discourse on the erotic.

M. V. LL.: It’s a provisional title, of course, but there we are…

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