Against the Tide

A Fish in the Water: A Memoir.
by Mario Vargas Llosa.
Translated by Helen Lane. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 532 pp. $25.00.

Throughout most of Spanish America, from Argentina to Mexico, the people of one country after another proudly and fatalistically lay claim to having the basest politicians, the most egotistical entrepreneurs, and, sooner or later, the harshest military and guerrilleros. This pessimistic conceit shapes civic attitudes and even civic conduct. The more Latin Americans believe that their particular sociopolitical system is beyond redemption, the more the gente decente—the decent people—come to equate civility with apathy. They may eschew state handouts and bribes, and they may try not to harm others in the course of their business affairs, but they also never take personal risks for something greater than self or family.

This was Peru’s condition in the late 1980’s, when the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa—internationally famous and at the peak of his creative powers—assumed the leadership of the Freedom Movement, a mass of “decent people” exhausted by the statist demagoguery that had passed for public policy under the presidency of the socialist Alan Garcia. Against the protestations of his wife, Patricia, an implacable voice for common sense (and later for conscience), Vargas Llosa took a risk for community. He became a presidential candidate.

The candidate set out to transform the patronage character of the state, to “moralize” politics, and to make government responsive to the needs of the powerless. He set out, in short, to change Peruvian political culture. To this end, he appealed to a wide range of social groups, from middle-class professionals to peasants to the inhabitants of pueblos jovenes—the poor neighborhoods that grow ceaselessly in the periphery of Peru’s capital city of Lima and which go by the name, at once paradoxical and thoroughly appropriate, of “young towns.”

The mounting of this collective defiance against corrupt power—it ended in electoral defeat—is the theme of Vargas Llosa’s memoir, A Fish in the Water. But equally central to the book is the story of his own life. Throughout the book, autobiographical chapters, beginning with childhood, alternate with chapters discussing Peruvian politics, the Freedom Movement, and Vargas Llosa’s presidential candidacy. Rather than detracting from the narrative’s fluidity, this alternating structure, with its shifts in tone and style, adds to the intriguing quality of the book.

The “political” chapters of A Fish in the Water read like the diary of an astute social critic who, for reasons he does not fully comprehend, has also become the protagonist of the events he observes.

In this dual role of critic and protagonist, Vargas Llosa tells us about the petty maneuvers and diversionary tactics not only of his adversaries but especially of his allies. (Eventually, Vargas Llosa was disappointed even by some of his closest collaborators, particularly the brilliant but vain Hernando de Soto.) He also describes the excruciating frustration of having to deal with political bosses in Peru’s distant regions—characters with pencil-thin mustaches who in flowery speeches pledged unconditional loyalty to Vargas Llosa’s movement exactly, and with the same degree of sincerity, as they had done to other political movements in the past. It was these infinitely elastic orators who undermined one of Vargas Llosa’s implausible reformist projects: to hold primary elections within his own movement in the midst of a national campaign.

Beyond the immediate machinations of his allies, and beyond the schemes of remote regional bosses, Vargas Llosa also had to contend with the iron circle of the elites. On both the Left and the Right, these elites sought to preserve, and to justify the preservation of, a massive state. Where the Left appealed to the rhetoric of redistribution, the Right appealed to the rhetoric of mercantilism. In criticizing their shared devotion to statism, Vargas Llosa came in for attacks from both sides, with APRA, Peru’s traditional leftist-populist party (and the party of Alan Garcia), labeling him a “pornographic slanderer” and an atheist.

Ultimately, Vargas Llosa had to undergo the cruelest revelation of all: namely, that political ideas, no matter how persuasive, are not as important in Peru as the carnet—the identification card issued to every party militant. On that ID, the party (literally) stamps its seals: signs of approbation which attest to the bearer’s political virtue and entitle him to rewards should the party attain power. Put another way, Vargas Llosa came face to face with an ancient truth, not just about Peru but about Spanish America: ever since the Conquest, political identity has remained a matter of dignified opportunism.



This brings us to a puzzle: how could this Peruvian, who knows his country so intimately, have been so clueless as to what it held in store for him? After all, and contrary to the allegations of detractors who saw him as “alien,” his life had been intensely Peruvian. Although he spent his earliest years in Bolivia, his childhood innocence and happiness, as well as his entire world view, were a garden lovingly tended by a family, indeed a clan, steeped in Peruvian traditions. More importantly, as he approached adolescence he returned to his native Peru, where his experiences took him into the soul of the nation.

These experiences are related in the autobiographical chapters which unfold like a novel-in-the-making—a novel rife with characters, including the author himself. There, we learn that, on his maternal side, Vargas Llosa belongs to an upper-class Peruvian family. As a very little boy, he is told that his father is dead. But then the elder Vargas Llosa suddenly reappears on the scene. Feeling inferior to his wife—he was not, in fact, her social equal—he lashes out at her; she, cowed by fright and by passionate love for him, endures all. The boy, too, becomes the butt of his father’s rage, and soon his prayers for his supposedly dead papa turn to hateful, rancorous fantasies about “that man.”

Later, as a cadet at the military academy which his austere father hopes will turn him into a real man, the young Mario lives in a Peru writ small: a callous institution of hazings and drills where he is surrounded by Indians, mestizos, blacks, and mulattoes, all filled with resentment toward “whiteys” like himself. At the tender age of sixteen, he becomes a journalist for the newspaper La Crónica, and is often assigned to the “red page,” covering prostitutes, criminals, transvestites, and corpses.

It is in Peru, and as a Peruvian, that the young Vargas Llosa learns the strictures of courtly love in a traditional society, and the rebelliousness of university life. And it is in Peru and as a Peruvian, too, that he discovers literature and its ghost, politics. Finally, it is as a Peruvian that he moves from the standard leftism of the literary world to a new position—rare among Latin American intellectuals (and indeed intellectuals everywhere)—closely resembling the one known in the U.S. as neoconservatism.



Undoubtedly, then, Mario Vargas Llosa was a thorough Peruvian when he became a presidential candidate. So why was he as unprepared as any foreigner for what befell him? And—a better question—why did he run in the first place? After all, for an acclaimed novelist who was always in demand in Europe and the United States, the opportunity cost of this mission of redemption was extraordinarily high.

Both questions have the same answer, which can be gleaned from this memoir. Vargas Llosa carried within him the image of his maternal grandfather, a kind and honorable man with whom he had lived until the advent of his resurrected father. It was in the image of this old man that Vargas Llosa saw the good Peru, the Peru that might become a paragon of rectitude. Evidently this dream more than compensated for the costs of political struggle. But it also rendered Vargas Llosa an innocent in his own land.

Reflecting on his defeat to Alberto Fujimori, Vargas Llosa puts much stock in what he sees as a tactical error: the decision to ally his new Freedom Movement with the discredited Popular Action and Christian Popular parties. This assessment is probably accurate, but as an explanation it is also partial. Could it be that those Peruvians were right after all who felt that Vargas Llosa was not a “true” Peruvian—in the sense that, unlike them, he was in the fight only because he chose to be, and always retained the singular power to extricate himself from their web of hopelessness? If so, then Vargas Llosa’s gift to them—voluntarily choosing to share in their collective struggle—was also the gesture that wounded him deeply.

Such is Peru. Such are the mysteries that extend well beyond its confines. To learn important lessons about both, one need only read this haunting memoir by the man who was free to stay or to go.

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