Mario Vargas Llosa has written a fine novel, political and unstintingly pessimistic, a dire collation of the fiasco of a single Peruvian life with the chronic mismanagement and distempers of Peru. As narrative, it may be complicatedly told, with much canny transiting between present and past, but the formal ingenuities work to the one end, of delivering a full and unhappy report on the way things have been or are in the novelist’s homeland.
Outwardly, the story is a minor one, of an absurd, almost a one-man coup that fizzles obscurely out – an ironic contraction of the populous and lethal events of Vargas Llosa’s previous novel, The War at the End of the World. That mighty adventure, of the passionate, doomed secession from a secular regime of many hundreds of God-thirsty millenarians, happened in historical fact in Brazil and happened ninety years ago: a subject too ample and high-minded for today. With Mayta Vargas Llosa returns to his own country and his own adult lifetime, to the years since the late Fifties when the sudden idolatry of Fidel Castro brought new political imaginings and a new geopolitical glamour to Latin America. Here, nothing ample, nothing high-minded: this novel has only the muddle and grubby dissembling of the contemporary. Where the inspired Counsellor of the earlier book led a ragged multitude to ruin and convulsed a nation, Mayta can find no one to lead and ends as a citizen of quite grievous inconsequence. It is as if Vargas Llosa were recanting from the epic gratifications of his excursus into history and facing severely up to the local commonplaces of an economic, social and cultural slough.
History comes into this book only mockingly. Its Spanish title was La Historia de Mayta, but Vargas Llosa’s translator – not named, which is bad, but a small kindness in this instance, for he or she has done a sadly casual job – has quite thrown away the duplicity of that wording, with the crassly unduplicitous ‘real life of ...’ Vargas Llosa’s question is: is this the history of Mayta, or is it just a story? Is it what really happened to him, or only what may have happened? Spanish is a language where the one term historia serves what we hope are the two incompatible ends of naming both ‘history’ and ‘story’, and Peru a country that has terrible trouble, according to Vargas Llosa, in even seeing that those ends are incompatible. Mayta is a story all right, and ostentatiously so, because the writing or gathering of it is a main part of the plot. But the novelist doing the gathering, the writer-within-the-novel, isn’t persuaded by what he tells; he doubts, he wonders, he assumes that a lot of what he gets told about Mayta by his fellow-countrymen is made up. This self-sabotaging narration, however, is not here some gratuitous chic, learnt in Paris: it is an indigenous form of realism, because Peru is like that: ‘Since it is impossible to know what’s really happening, we Peruvians lie, invent, take refuge in illusion. Because of these strange circumstances, Peruvian life, a life in which so few actually do read, has become literary.’ So Mayta is a story within History, an intimate possibility yielded by the feckless and mendacious condition of Peru.
The narration is devious but never obscure, as its smooth elisions between past and present establish the unhappy continuities – or worse, the degenerations – of Peruvian history, and rise at one moment to a sly cohabitation of narrator with hero within the same first-person pronoun, to mark a certain sympathy for the vapid but unfortunate Mayta, as well perhaps as the novelist’s temptation to identify still with his own earlier hopes for social change. Vargas Llosa’s narrator, who could well be himself, can’t tell the story of Mayta in any unequivocal way: he can only do his best to recover it from the accounts of those who had a part in it. He is twenty-five years too late to know it immediately, for it was in the early Castro years that Mayta, with Cuba and the glorious despatch of Batista to inspire him, planned his foolish, insubstantial sedition. Then, the narrator of the book had been in exile in Europe, in Paris, learning the arts of fiction that now stand him in such fine if ambiguous stead, and there at his café table he read a single laconic paragraph in Le Monde about this ephemeral insurrection. He was taken with the event, not because it suited him ideologically, but for the human, or novelist’s, reason that its leader seemed to have the name of someone he had been at school with: but it is only now, in the early Eighties, that he has tried to learn what actually happened, by questioning everyone he can find who then knew Mayta and, ultimately, Mayta himself. But these several perspectives don’t converge on a coherent person or a coherent set of events; none of the people he talks with – Mayta’s estranged wife, his male lover, his fellow-Trots in Lima – has any commitment to the truth; they have changed, have aged, have become either nothing or else sleekly conformist; their past is what they now need to imagine that it was and Mayta himself a figment, casually or cynically reinterpretable in the service of some private mythology.
But if Mayta can’t be reconstructed as he was, Peru can, with the lesson that twenty-five years ago it was a generally better place than it is now. The novel begins and ends on the same image, of Lima’s garbage, spilling noisomely down over the cliff in the smart districts of the city, a token of the wholesale moral as well as tangible pollution. And with the garbage, there are other innovations: cocaine, shanty towns, muggers, death squads. Politically, Vargas Llosa makes things more lurid by supposing that the country has just been invaded, by an alliance of Russians, Bolivians and Cubans, an apocalyptic, mockingly-inflated realisation of the fear of being drawn into some ultimate confrontation of super-powers, as calls go up for the Marines to be asked to step in. Peru as the cockpit where the values of East and West will finally be fought out: this seems like the last word in self-aggrandisement, in unrealism, in the higher passivity, with the country’s problems going unattended as politicians mouth their fantasies.
In Mayta’s time life was more benign socially and less drastic politically. Mayta himself is a well-meaning kind of revolutionary, a far cry from the unprincipled savagery of the Sendero Luminoso of today. He is an innocent, an ascetic, whose revolutionary designs are adult versions of the religious emotion and pity for the starving he had felt as a boy. That revolutionary politics are a corruption of such virtuous and useful benevolence is one thing the novel makes very clear, coming down bitterly on figures like the Nicaraguan poet-priest-politico Ernesto Cardenal for their demagoguery, all the more culpably empty for being set against the pestilence of the slums. Mayta himself is too pure to be effective. He needs guns but he knows nothing about using them, so depends on the experience of his one significant recruit, a young army officer; he needs transport, but he has never learnt to drive. Worse yet is that he knows nothing at all about the very people he trusts are going to be his following, the Indians, the textbook proletariat. He is a city boy, but to get his Indians he can only go up into the high places, to the valley of Jauja, legendary long ago for its abundance, now deprived and forbidding. Coming from the coast, Mayta can’t stand the altitude, and his hopes of revolution are set back further by headaches and mountain sickness. He raises no Indians, nor anyone else. He is in the end a political orphan. To the handful of modish, self-indulgent radicals in Lima he is an adventurer and so a menace: fissile to the last, they expel him. Up in the mountains he is a gauche and contemptible alien. To the Civil Guard who finally put him down, he is a bandit whom it is hardly worth shooting and who is instead jailed. In his lonely impasse, Mayta reflects the divisions and ineffectualities of the whole country.
Political martyrdom would have been too spectacular a fate for him; he has come rather to a painful nonentity. The narrator finds him still alive in Lima. He has gone through prison, he has a job in an ice-cream parlour, but he does not remember his revolutionary time too well, he is old, he is unhealthy and he dreams now not of changing Peru but of getting out of it, to a country where he might find more money and a better job. His blankness of spirit, and the sardonic comedown of the work he has found to do, are a last negation of his uncertain identity. Mayta is deluded and an irrelevance; his ideals have gone to waste, in a country held terminally back, it seems, by its ignorance of itself and its weakness for cheap rhetoric. In Mayta Mario Vargas Llosa bends his very high skills as a maker of fiction to the serious political purpose of showing how only a modest truthfulness can save.
That is an irony that would be altogether lost, to be sure, on the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a hothead impatient with the political moderation and decent meliorism that are what Vargas Llosa would ask for. He likes to call not for changes but for Change, the big one, some vague but redemptive coup and escape into a harmonious future from the demeaningly violent, narrow cycle of Colombian history – a cycle briskly summarised and intelligently integrated with Garcia Marquez’s fiction in Stephen Minta’s useful book.
The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor is not a new Garcia Marquez novella, but a piece of journalism dating back thirty years, so styleless and so topical it is a mystery why anyone thought it worth putting at this late date into English (the translation has been soundly done). In 1955, when he was a young journalist in Bogota, Garcia Marquez ghosted this story of a Colombian sailor who had been washed overboard with a number of others from a destroyer in the Caribbean, had lasted ten days on a raft without food or water, and had then swum a mile or more ashore in Colombia, to be lionised as the one survivor of the disaster, and then forgotten. Ten days adrift became 14 in print: the story is spun out through that many instalments, with whatever suspense – will the plane see him? will the sharks get him? – and graphic particularities – nibbling visiting-cards when extra-hungry, carving into a seagull with his keys – can be found to animate it. But all these years on, it is a pretty dead affair.
But then it’s not the sailor’s story any more, it is Garcia Marquez’s. Only in 1970, after he had published One Hundred Years of Solitude and had himself become a celebrity, was this elderly serial made into a book and added to his oeuvre. On taking possession, Garcia Marquez also made it more political, explaining in a preface that the original publication led eventually to the newspaper it appeared in being closed down by the dictator of the day, Pinilla. What Pinilla didn’t like was the revelation that men were lost overboard because the destroyer had an unstable deck cargo of contraband consumer durables, fridges radios and the like bought on a refit in the United States. Good Colombian sailors never would, was the government line, so the good Colombian sailor who had admitted that they did was no longer a hero. He didn’t fall into an unmerited obscurity, Garcia Marquez insists: he was pushed. In any case, by the time the survivor’s story passed from journalism into literature, Garcia Marquez was too famous not to be the one who mattered. He says that he regrets this: ‘I find it depressing that the publishers are not so much interested in the merit of the story as in the name of the author, which, to my sorrow, is also that of a fashionable writer.’ Cant which is as offensive as anything to be heard in Mayta’s Peru.