The ballot-box or the box-office?

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Mario Vargas Llosa, like God, has a certain quality of ubiquity. And like God, too, his sense of place is not entirely easy to pin down. He seems at home in the United States, in France and in Spain; he writes almost exclusively about Peru and, as he settles deep into a comfortable beige sofa in his spacious Knightsbridge flat, announces, 'I am always very glad to be in London.'

Has he settled, then, in London? 'Well, I am in London now,' he replies. On Wednesday, he will be in Paris, in his role as juror for the literary prize, the Prix Novembre. Last week he was in Chile. And he recently took Spanish nationality as an adjunct to his Peruvian citizenship, just in case he is deprived of the latter by the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori, his rival in the 1990 presidential election campaign.

Why Spanish nationality? 'Because I feel very closely linked to Spain. Not just because of the language, but for family reasons. But I have been lecturing in the United States and will be lecturing again next year in Georgetown. But I am very happy to have London as my centro de operaciones.'

Vargas Llosa's most recent London literary event was the opening last Friday at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill of his play, The Madman of the Balconies. It is the story of an old Italian professor of fine art who crusades to save the magnificent colonial balconies of Lima from the developers, an allegory of the battle between the past and the promise of the future, between culture and progress.

'It's about an actual contemporary issue,' he says. 'About how to deal with the past in societies which are trying to move.' The main character is based on a real Lima personality from the Fifties. 'He is an idealist but at the same time he is a very practical man. I wanted to create a story around a man who impressed me very much in the Fifties. He was more or less like the hero of my play - an old Italian teacher of art who organised a campaign to rescue the old balconies of Lima. He became a kind of folk hero. He was unsuccessful but because he was colourful and operatic the media gave him publicity. He was very romantic, but at the same time rather pathetic because nobody paid any attention to him.

'The play is about balconies, but it could be about anything . . . primitive archaic cultures. What do you do with the cultures of the Amazon region, for example? Do you try to preserve them on their own terms? Are they incompatible with modernity and progress? There are no answers, no examples we can follow, so we have to invent them.' He did not try to resolve the dilemma in the play. 'I just wanted to present the arguments - and to tell a story.'

The London opening is the world premiere of the play, though it was not planned that way. It was to have been produced in Lima. 'Alonso Alegria, who is a very good director, had started to look for sponsors,' Vargas Llosa explains. 'And he got some promises. But then the coup came. And as I was a very severe critic of the coup and the entrepreneurs supported the dictatorship very enthusiastically, the sponsorship collapsed.'

It is one of the curious dichotomies of Mario Vargas Llosa's life and work that he has lived more outside his country than in it, but his work to date, with the exception of The War at the End of the World, has all been set in Peru. It's a phenomenon he recognises, but cannot explain.

'I don't write about Peru as a matter of principle,' he laughs. 'I don't think a writer has to write about his country. But somehow I had all my most neuralgic experiences in Peru. I am still surprised that the memories and the images that are more fertile or encouraging to fantasy are centred in Peru. I am passionately against any kind of nationalism and I think that I am very cosmopolitan in my ways of life and thinking. But when I write, the Peruvian experiences are the ones that always recur.'

Living there, for the time being at least, is out of the question: he has been too outspoken a critic of President Fujimori. And though the memory of his presidential bid is now an uncomfortable one, he remains passionately interested in the politics of his native country. 'Did you see what happened in the referendum yesterday?' he asks. 'There was nearly 50 per cent against the new constitution.' The referendum was called to approve a constitution that gives the president what Vargas Llosa calls 'imperial powers' and to provide for his re-election.

'The opposition was not allowed to campaign and there was massive official propaganda for a 'yes' vote,' he says. 'The army had total control of the infrastructure and in spite of that, 48 per cent voted 'no'. So the myth of the regime's popularity has collapsed.'

Despite his continued interest in politics, he has resolved that he will never again be drawn into the role of the professional politician.

'I didn't have an appetite for political power. I did it because I thought I could solve some Peruvian problems. And in that sense it was a waste of time. I didn't solve anything. I lost three years of my life and the result was another dictatorship. So I don't think it was a worthwhile experience.'

'As a writer, well, there is no such thing as a bad experience for a writer and in this sense it was very instructive. I learnt a lot about Peru, about politics. But I wouldn't repeat it. I think a writer serves his country better writing than doing practical politics - unless he has the appetite for it.'

Now, he prefers to pursue politics by other means - by writing and lecturing. He is working on a novel about Flora Tristan, a 19th-century social agitator who came from France and lived in Peru. He follows a routine that he established when he first came to London in the Sixties - he works at home in the morning and, at 2pm, heads for the British Library Reading Room, where he stays until it closes. 'I love the reading room,' he says. 'I don't know what I shall do when it closes.'

London, he says, is the place where he works most easily. 'It's one of the big advantages that you can have privacy here. You can be anonymous - which is wonderful. It's not possible in Peru - and not even in Spain. In Spain, writers are pushed to participate in so many things. In London writers are considered much less important.' He bursts out laughing. 'It's great,' he says, grinning from ear to ear. 'You can live your own life.'

'The Madman of the Balconies' is at the Gate, W11 (071-229 0706)

(Photograph omitted)