OVER the past 30 years, Mario Vargas Llosa has written some of the best novels to come out of Latin America. From The Time of the Hero, which castigated the cruelty and stupidity of military life, to the political analysis of Conversation in the Cathedral, or the wildly comic Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, the breadth of his imagination has won him avid readers in many countries. And as he became an international figure, living in Paris, London or the United States, Vargas Llosa started to wonder why Peru was not so much a developing country as one that was underdeveloping, falling apart before his eyes.
In Britain, Vargas Llosa discovered Thatcherism. He was an eager convert to the belief that state interference in national economies choked growth and individual freedom. When in the late 1980s a populist president wanted to nationalise the banking system, Vargas Llosa returned to Peru and gathered all the opposition groups around him, forcing the measure to be abandoned. This success turned him into a full-time politician; the 1990 presidential elections soon beckoned.
For several months, it seemed that nothing could stop him becoming president. In the mould of Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Vargas Llosa saw himself ushering in a brave new world which would ally literature and politics in a creative, liberating way. Then, all of a sudden, an unknown Peruvian of Japanese parents, Alberto Fujimori, came on the scene. The Fujimori phenomenon meant that he overtook the neo-liberal in shining armour in the decisive round of the presidential elections: Vargas Llosa packed his bags and left for France the next day.
The 20 chapters of A Fish in the Water alternate between Vargas Llosa's political experiences in those three years at the end of the 1980s and his life up to 1958, when he left Peru for Paris at the age of 22 to pursue his career as a writer. Taken together, they provide an absorbing picture not only of the growth of a rapaciously inquisitive intellectual, but a fascinating portrait of Peru over the past 30 years, with many of the same qualities - intelligence, an eye for detail, bursts of humour and anger - that are so memorable in his novels.
Vargas Llosa describes the provincial Peru of his childhood as a warm, inviting place where the only cold presence was that of his father. The book begins with his shock at discovering, at the age of 10, that his father was not dead, as he had believed, but merely living a separate life. Even though his parents got together again, the harsh, anguished relationship between his father and the rest of the family threatened to blight his whole childhood.
Vargas Llosa sought refuge from this unhappiness in the imaginary world of books, and from the age of 15 he began working in newspapers, carrying out historical research, even cataloguing the graves in a Lima cemetery. Although he presents this as arising from his desperate economic situation - especially after his marriage at 19 to his aunt - such a hectic need to prove himself reads like a desperate attempt to win the attention and affection of his disapproving father.
Eventually, it was also this self-help attitude which gave rise to his mature political philosophy. In this sense, it is a shame that Vargas Llosa's narrative breaks off just when his discovery of the world outside Peru begins, so that we are robbed of much of the process leading up to his decision to embrace politics, and the reasons why he came to believe that his success as a writer meant he was destined to become the political saviour of his country.
Whether or not one agrees with his diagnosis of Peruvian political reality, one cannot help but admire the courage with which Vargas Llosa put himself on the line to defend it. His analysis that Peruvians were fed up with old-style corrupt politicians was right; but since he had allied himself with two of the traditional parties, and since he appeared to many alienated Peruvians of the interior like a typical white intellectual from the capital with little experience of the life of the majority of his suffering countrymen, he was gazumped by the 'little Chinaman' Fujimori. Then, after the elections, came the final irony: Fujimori himself, though he had given no inkling of it in his manifestos, immediately began to implement the privatisations and public austerity programme that Vargas Llosa had been preaching.
It is clear that Vargas Llosa still cannnot really believe it. His resentment shows, and mars the book. He comes close to saying that Peruvians do not deserve a democratic vote. He dismisses Fujimori as an old-style autocrat for closing down Congress and taking near-dictatorial powers to force through his reforms and fight terrorism, but is not convincing in his own explanations of how he would have done things differently. Above all, A Fish in the Water makes his political odyssey seem like another challenge he set himself (to satisfy the missing father?) rather than an attempt to serve his country. It is easy to be dismissive of politicians, but perhaps the art of the possible, when honestly engaged in, demands just as much selfless devotion as literature.
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