SABERS AND UTOPIAS
Visions of Latin America
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by Anna Kushner
260 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by Edith Grossman
244 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.
What to make of the tireless Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, candidate for president of his country in 1990, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 and, at age 81, still a vivid presence on the world stage? He is the only surviving member of the so-called “Boom” generation of Latin American novelists of the 1960s — an extraordinary group that included Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia, Julio Cortázar of Argentina, José Donoso of Chile and Carlos Fuentes of Mexico. Through some rare alchemy of the moment, they managed, as writers, to conjure the Bolivarian ideal of a unified Latin America that the fractious reality of politics could never achieve. Their popularity in Europe and the United States gave millions of Latin Americans the sense that they were part of a borderless, highly original culture that produced more than just caudillos, guerrilleros and boleros. It also paved the way for older writers, like Jorge Luis Borges, and younger ones, like Roberto Bolaño, to gain recognition abroad.
Vargas Llosa is the most overtly political of the Boom writers. His most admired novel, “The War of the End of the World” (1981), is about a provincial uprising in Brazil in the late 19th century that resulted in the slaughter of more than 15,000 peasants. The novel examines the dangers of utopian fanaticism, as well as the destructiveness of an out-of-touch government that imagines a threat to its existence where there isn’t one — a deadly misunderstanding between rulers and the ruled. His other major political novel, “Feast of the Goat” (2000), is a terrifying study of how a dictator with absolute power (Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, in this case) can colonize even the intimate lives of his countrymen, stifling the private freedom to enjoy, to appreciate, to reason and, finally, to love.
Vargas Llosa has also had a prolific career as a journalist and public intellectual; “Sabers and Utopias” is his 25th volume of nonfiction. An absorbing collection of essays and newspaper columns about Latin American politics and culture, it has the feel of a definitive position paper. Written over a period of 35 years, these pieces express, above all, his wish that Latin Americans would finally come to their senses and embrace that most unfairly (in his view) maligned of political doctrines: liberalism.
The rudimentary nature of his economic argument has not served him well. He acknowledges the danger “of powerful multinational companies operating, unrestrained, in all corners of the earth.” But his antidote is nothing more than a vague endorsement of “fair laws and strong governments.” In his previous book of essays, “Notes on the Death of Culture,” he bemoaned rampant consumerism as the death of serious art and thought, yet in “Sabers and Utopias” he ignores the fact that the lifeblood of giant manufacturers is not the creation of wealth for people who most need it, but cheap labor and ever-expanding markets. His attachment to a pure 18th-century European liberalism sometimes blinds him to present-day realities that must be reckoned with for liberalism to survive.