Interview With Mario Vargas Llosa

November 2002By Comments

PERUVIAN WRITER MARIO VARGAS LLOSA will be in Houston November 11, as a guest for the Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. The novelist, literary critic, playwright, and essayist is considered to be one of the greatest Spanish American writers of our century. His works include the novels The Green House, Conversation in the Cathedral, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, In Praise of the Stepmother, and The Feast of the Goat. The author talks to us about his upcoming visit, his latest novel, and his passion for literature. In November you will be coming to Houston for the Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.

Mario Vargas Llosa: That’s right—to do some readings, chat with students, and to talk, well, mostly about my books, about what I do, about literature. Will you be reading from anything specifically?

MVLL: Well, I had thought to read from my last novel published in the United States, The Feast of the Goat. And also talk about the novel that I have just finished, El paraíso en la otra esquina (Paradise on the Other Corner). Would you tell us a little of what this new novel is about?

MVLL: It is a novel about utopia—social and artistic utopia—which was an important idea in nineteenth century Europe. It still is in some ways, in certain circles, but in the nineteenth century there were many utopian movements…for reform, of society, and for world reconstruction. One of the novel’s main characters is Flora Tristán, who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century and who was connected to the utopian movements of the period—Saint-Simon, Fourier—but what was original about her is that she fought for women’s rights and tried to incorporate the fight against discrimination into the political agendas of these utopian movements. In a way, she could be considered one of the great pioneers of what would later become feminism. And she was also the grandmother of Paul Gauguin. The other main character.

MVLL: Yes. Paul Gauguin is very interesting because, in his own way, he was a utopian too. Not a social utopian, but rather a utopian in the artistic sphere. He believed in a society of beauty, in which art would be not just the expression of a small group of creators and critics and collectors, but rather everyone’s activity, of society together…something which he believed existed in more primitive societies. That is why he spent his last days in Tahiti, in Polynesia, where he went to find that earthly paradise which he thought primitive societies represented, from an art and beauty standpoint. The novel is not a book of history, but it does use two historical figures and describes the world of utopia—the positive and negative parts. So how did the idea for this novel come about?

MVLL: The idea came about for a simple reason: Flora Tristán was the daughter of a Peruvian. She was French and lived most of her life in France, but she did, however, spend a year in Peru, in 1833. She left a fascinating book about the country, titled Peregrinations of a Pariah, describing what life was like in a South American republic that had just come out of colonialism and was still impregnated with colonial life. It was an interesting experience for her, because it was after that trip that she became a great social agitator. Gauguin too. He spent his first seven years of life in Peru, with his maternal family. He saw many prehispanic objects and fabrics there, and something from those images appears later in his work. It is interesting how figures from the fabrics, from the huacos, from the Incas and pre-Incas, imprinted themselves so deeply in his imagination. When he went to Tahiti to look for traces of a Maori civilization and couldn’t find any, he had to invent them, and he invented them based on the memories he had of Peruvian motifs. All that made me extremely curious; I was intrigued by these characters. That’s how the idea for this novel came about. When does it come out?

MVLL: This next year, probably between January and February. So what, would you say, is the recipe for a good novel?

MVLL: Well, I think there are no recipes. A good novel is a conjunction of many factors, the main of which is without a doubt, hard work. There are many things behind a good novel, but in particular there is a lot of work—a lot of patience, a lot of stubbornness, and a critical spirit. It has been said that the secret to a masterpiece is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. In the past you have quoted Flaubert, saying that literature is a way of life.

MVLL: Ah, I completely believe that—literature for me is a way of life. That’s probably true of all writers or all artists. I think in the end this kind of activity absorbs one in such a way that it becomes one’s way of life. I couldn’t imagine any other way of living, outside of books, outside my work. Which doesn’t mean I am not interested in other things, of course—I am interested in many things. But the center, the crux, is always literature. Well, changing topic slightly. You also write columns for the Spanish newspaper El País. How did that come about?

MVLL: Well, the reason is that even though what I enjoy most is literature, I would not want to live only in a world of fiction, cut off from the rest of life. No—I want to always have a foot in the street, to be inmersed in the activities of my contemporaries, in the times, in the place where I live. That is what journalism represents. Journalism is a way of voicing opinion, of participating in the political, social, or cultural debate. And that is what I do—these articles are a bridge with the rest of society, and it is a way for me to maintain contact with daily life, with history in the making. Journalism has been very important for me—for a long time I made my living as a journalist, and it also serves as a source of ideas. Many of the things I have written I would not have written without the experience of being a journalist. In your latest article you wrote that for you “the world is a handkerchief” (a Spanish expression meaning that the world is a small place), and that what you love is the interaction of races and traditions.

MVLL: Yes. That is one of the things I like so much about the United States. It is an open country, a country that has been made through the contributions of all races and cultures, and that has enabled their coexistence in the midst of such diversity. North American society could not have reached its current state of high development and modernity had it not been an open society. I think that, today, that kind of openness to the world, that integration with the world, is crucial for development. That is a big debate in Europe right now—there are people with a lot of prejudice, a lot of fear of the unknown. They think that immigration is a danger, when really it is a solution. This is an interesting issue, because it will be a central question of our time. And finally, have you ever been to Texas?

MVLL: Once, many years ago. So I am looking forward to going back very much. And I know that Houston has some great museums. And you’ll get to see that Texas is a whole culture in and of itself.

MVLL: A culture, precisely, of many influences. It will be a fascinating experience, I’m sure.

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