Saturday, March 10, 2018


Mario Vargas Llosa, on the composition of his 1969 novel Conversación en La Catedral, which is set in Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel Odría (1948-1956):
I knew that I wanted to write a novel about the dictatorship of Odría, which was more corrupt and corrupting than violent, although there was violence as well. The story that I wanted to tell was how a dictatorship of that nature infiltrates itself into private life in order to destroy relationships between parents and children, to destroy a vocation, to frustrate people. I wanted to show how a dictatorship winds up demoralizing even those who have a good core, who have natural decency. If a good person wants to advance in that world, he finds himself obliged to make moral, civic, and political concessions. I wanted to relate how that affected all levels of society: the oligarchy, the tiny middle-class sector, but also the popular sectors. I was interested in portraying a society in which political dictatorship has an effect on activities that are at the furthest remove from politics: family life, professional life, people's vocations. The political infects everything and creates a kind of deviation within the hearts of families and the citizens themselves that would never have existed without the corrupting force of political power.
The passage above is from Conversación en Princeton con Rubén Gallo, a book that presents a series of discussions carried out a few years ago between Vargas Llosa, Professor Rubén Gallo, and a group of Princeton University students. The bulk of the book is made up of detailed exchanges revolving around four of Vargas Llosa's novels and his memoir A Fish in the Water. The book was published in 2017 and hasn't appeared yet in English (it undoubtedly will at some point), so the above rough translation is mine.

Vargas Llosa, now in his eighties, has had a long career as a novelist, critic, and politician (he ran unsuccessfully for president of Peru in 1990), and there have been ups and downs along the way. All of that is a story for another day, but he remains intellectually a force to be reckoned with, even, or perhaps especially, when I think he is wrong.

Conversación en La Catedral, which is readily available in an imperfect but readable English version by Gregory Rabassa, is Vargas Llosa's third, and I believe longest, novel. There's no "cathedral," except as the name of a bar in Lima where the long conversation that serves as a framing device takes place. One party in this dialogue is Santiago Zavalla, a thirty-something déclassé journalist from an upper-middle-class family; the other is his family's former chauffeur, Ambrosio, whom he has just run into by chance. The narration is largely made up of an intricate web of flashbacks, and the characters range widely over Peru's social classes (though not its Quechua- or Aymara-speakers). Vargas Llosa deliberately uses techniques that keep the reader off-balance, interspersing scenes that take place years apart, sometimes in the same paragraph or sentence, so that seeming non sequiturs uttered in one chapter may not take on full significance until much later. The bewilderment the reader experiences, at least initially, is not unintended by the author, who has referred to the book as a rompecabezas: a jigsaw-puzzle. He has said that its writing caused him the most difficulty of any of his books, but it may well be his greatest achievement.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

“The political infects everything”: as with so much else these days, his observation seems like a comment on current events.