Little Viper

Lorna Scott Fox

Some time in 1970 or 1971, I was picking boring books at random off my employer’s shelf – I was an au pair in Barcelona – when I opened a novel that had me laughing, and transfixed, by the bottom of the first page. My ignorance meant that I was one of the few people to discover One Hundred Years of Solitude without all that baggage of pleasures foretold. I was excited, and on learning that this was not simply one book, but part of the Latin American boom, I decided to study these works at university. Two authors gradually displaced the overripe, over-imitated Márquez from the top of my list: Julio Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa. The first constructed a dream of Buenos Aires and Paris, balancing paper-thin speculations in a bubble of eternal studenthood. The second couldn’t have been more different. A pungent brutality steeped the many voices in sexualised politics; and there was a cruel numbness that seemed the condition, somehow, of being Peruvian – I’ve been afraid of visiting that country ever since.

Vargas Llosa’s The City and the Dogs and Conversation in the Cathedral are two of the most painfully demanding and rewarding books to have been written about the articulations of violence, power and sex in Latin America before the advent of the half-baked democracies, in which militarism and imperialism have merely taken up a more discreet place. But if President Fujimori of Peru and other Latin American heads of state have done little to deserve the plaudits they receive from interested parties such as the US, the new conjuncture has certainly muffled the reverberations of the ‘boom’. Latin American writers have given up the suavity of the public intellectuel in favour of a more chastened position, each is at loggerheads with the others, diminished by the fragmentation of the politics that, except for Cortázar, they so effectively ploughed into literature. The withdrawn Guillermo Cabrera Infante feels persecuted for his anti-Castroism, a victim of liberal consensus. His great novel about life under Batista, Three Trapped Tigers, had innocently looked forward to a dramatic political change, and it is ironic that a recent issue of Time magazine praised the book as a study of oppression in revolutionary Cuba. García Márquez, on the other hand, lost at least as many admirers as Cabrera Infante for his continuing (some thought self-interested) loyalty to Castro after the show-trial of the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla in 1971. And Octavio Paz forced many readers to make an awkward distinction between his political views and his writing when, late in life and in the name of order, he became a member of the putrid Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party. Paz had turned into a crotchety despot, who famously ejected Vargas Llosa from his symposium of handpicked conservative intellectuals for calling the Mexican regime a ‘perfect dictatorship’. Vargas Llosa himself ran for the presidency in Peru in 1990, only to see his neo-liberal coalition Fredemo – an offshoot of the anti-nationalisation movement – trounced by Fujimori, who went on to apply all his opponent’s prescriptions in a far more uncivilised manner. Vargas Llosa retreated to London and to novels like this one, in between despairing explorations of the endemic, almost spiritual character of Peruvian violence, such as Death in the Andes (1993).

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