- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

P eruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has won international acclaim for novels such as “The Feast of the Goat,” “The Storyteller,” “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” and, most recently, “The Bad Girl.” He also ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990 (Alberto K. Fujimori won), and if his latest book is any measure, his interest in politics has not waned.

Once an ardent socialist who supported the goals of Fidel Castro, the writer’s politics took a Thatcherite turn in the 1980s that caused him some grief from former allies on the left. But, more than any political endeavor, he will be remembered for his prolific writing career which, in addition to 11 novels, includes numerous plays, short stories and essays.

In “Wellsprings,” his latest collection, politics and art converge. In seven essays in which he ostensibly seeks the source of his continued interest in human nature, stories and, yes, politics, Mr. Vargas Llosa ponders the thinkers, teachers and ideas that mean the most to him. It is a glimpse into the workings of a marvelous mind and an instructive adventure besides.

Mr. Vargas Llosa opens the collection with observations about Cervantes, the 16th-century literary giant and his creations for the ages: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Mr. Vargas Llosa calls this first chapter “Four Centuries of Don Quixote,” and in it he writes:

“It is easy to forget, in the midst of all this critical acclaim, that Cervantes was a person like all of us, faced with the pitfalls of an uncertain destiny, whose work was not conceived miraculously or by chance but was achieved through determination, hard work, craftsmanship and patience.”

Mr. Vargas Llosa also makes the argument here that in addition to craftsmanship, one ought to appreciate the abstract world of art, thought and imagery, the very vital components that are required to participate in life and literature.

“When I was a student, I had a passion for Sartre, and firmly believed in his notion that the writer’s commitment was to his own times and to the society in which he lived, that ‘words were actions,’ and that through writing a man or woman could influence history. Today such ideas seem naive and even tedious - we live in an age of smug skepticism about the power of literature as well as history - but in the 1950s the notion that the world could be changed for the better, and that literature should contribute to this, struck many of us as both persuasive and exciting.”

But while Sartre soon became “boring” for Mr. Vargas Llosa, his discovery of the work of Jorge Luis Borges would become a beacon for him. Moreover, for many Latin American writers, he writes, Borges’ work would “dispel a kind of inferiority complex … that kept us imprisoned in a provincial outlook.”

Moving from the ways in which literature sustains us, Mr. Vargas Llosa moves forward to take on larger social issues, mainly observations about minority peoples in Spain and his native Peru (the Catalans and Basques in the former, the indigenous Indians in the latter). In the process, he cautions about nationalism that does not take into account the contributions of diverse cultures. Latin America, he observes is made up of two cultures, “one Western and modern, the other aboriginal and archaic,” and it is this blend, he suggests, that explains the existence of surrealism in Latin American fiction.

But it is when Mr. Vargas Llosa reaches the chapter in which he describes the professor of history who walked him through the myths and imagery that gird Peruvian fiction that the writer’s personal warmth is evident. Here is how he describes his mentor of long ago: “His name was Raul Porras Barrenechea. He was a small, pot-bellied man, with a large forehead and a pair of blue eyes that became impregnated with malice every time he mocked someone. He was the most brilliant teacher I have ever had.”

Mr. Vargas Llosa here gives the political theorist Ortega y Gasset, a misunderstood radical and political philosopher his due, and continues with discussions of philosopher Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin, reserving for the latter his highest praise. He also slyly notes that “Isaiah Berlin is so persuasive that, when we read him, we are even inclined to believe that talent and virtue go together. But is this the case?”

In the end, it is the gaze of this graceful writer who, by shedding a light on what’s inspired him, offers a gift to all who care about what fiction, philosophy and politics can do. And as much as readers will value what he has to say about how we humans cope with our turbulent world, it is what he knows about literature that, above all else, makes this little book sing - starting with “Don Quixote.”

“We can draw innumerable ideas and lessons from this novel, which is now four centuries old. However, its most magical and enduring feature continues to be that odd pair riding through its pages, brow-beaten, absurd, colorful, funny, tender, moving, indefatigable, who reveal to us, with each adventure, the marvelous abundance of the imagination in recreating human lives.”


By Mario Vargas Llosa

Harvard University Press, $17.95, 200 pages

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