Peru's Living Legend: Mario Vargas Llosa

  • Peru's only Nobel Prize winner. 

  • True great of Latin American literature, still writing today. 

  • Has had fascinating political journey accompanying his literary work. 

Born in the southern city of Arequipa in 1936, Mario Vargas Llosa stands as one of the lions of modern Latin American literature, alongside Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez and Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes.

In 2010, he became the first Peruvian to win a Nobel Prize - for Literature - which solidified his position as a literary great and a national hero

Mario Vargas Llosa - Peru's Living Legend - Receiving Award.jpg

However, while his artistic legacy is assured, his forays into the murky world of Peruvian politics have been more controversial

The politics is a natural outgrowth of his starkly realistic writing, novels and essays that often dwell on the plight of ordinary people and the trials and tribulations of everyday life.

Many of Vargas Llosa’s formative years were spent in the northern coastal city of Piura, where he attended elementary school and worked as a young journalist in the 1950s.

La ciudad y los perros (The Time of the Hero), his first novel, published in 1963, was a scathing portrayal of the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Lima, which he had attended as a teenager. It upset the generals who dominated Peruvian politics at that time, but was nonetheless a great success, converting Vargas Llosa into a young literary star.

His next novel, La casa verde (The Green House), published in 1965, was set in both Piura and the Peruvian Amazon around Iquitos. It was a critical and financial success throughout Latin America.

Many of Vargas Llosa's stories take place in Peruvian locations, reflecting his own peripatetic youth; but he has also successfully shifted the action to other Latin American countries, such as 1984's La guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World), set in late 19th-Century Brazil; and 2000's La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat) which used the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic as its background. 

Vargas Llosa’s writing has always had underlying social or political themes. Like many middle-class, Latin American intellectuals of the 1960s, he was attracted to Marxism and the Cuban Revolution as a young man. But in 1971, he publicly split with the Cuban leadership and gradually moved to the right of the political spectrum.

He entered active politics in the 1980s when he helped found the Movimiento Libertad (Liberty Movement) political party. This espoused ‘liberalism’, a belief in free trade, minimal government interference and subsidies, and the power of private enterprise and the free market to generate wealth, to the benefit of all citizens.

Mario Vargas Llosa with now-disgraced Alberto Fujimori.

Mario Vargas Llosa with now-disgraced Alberto Fujimori.

He lost the presidential election of 1990 to Alberto Fujimori, despite having been expected to win after the first round of voting. His opponent tarred him with the label of representing the traditional, white ruling class, who would hurt poorer voters through promised austerity measures; and yet, having won, Fujimori adopted the very same economic policies.

Scarred from this experience, Vargas Llosa has spent most of his time since 1990 outside of Peru, firstly in London, and now Madrid. Nonetheless, he has continued to be an active commentator on political goings-on in Peru.

An underlying theme of his comments and allegiances has been a simmering resentment towards the Fujimori family, along with the political party they have created. 

Despite being over 80, he continues to write and advocate his views on Liberalism. His latest book, La Llamada de la Tribu (The Call of the Tribe) is an 'intellectual autobiography' which examines seven writers who have influenced his political outlook. He is keen to distance himself from the conservatism of 'Neo-Liberalism', but remains a fan of both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan

Whatever his politics, a trip to Peru will only be enhanced by reading one or more of Vargas Llosa's classics. His work shows a deep understanding of the flawed workings of his native country, and how this impacts upon its citizens.