Christine Toomey. A Journey through Latin American Politics and Literature

My first encounter with Mario Vargas Llosa took the form of a precarious journey into the domain of cocaine barons and Maoist terrorists in the remote northeast foothills of the Andes in the Spring of 1989. For months I had been negotiating to interview this lion of Latin American literature, who had then just launched his bid to become president of Peru. But on the eve of our first planned meeting in Lima I had fallen ill with a raging fever and been unable to drag myself out of my hotel room.

By the time the fever subsided the great man of letters was, I was informed, planning to depart the Peruvian capital. I was given the flight number of the plane he was expected to take north to city of Tarapoto in the High Amazon region and instructed to meet him on board. But scanning every seat on that flight for his distinctive and distinguished features I quickly realised he had not made it.  

When I finally arrived at the hotel where I believed he would be staying in Tarapoto a member of his entourage informed me Vargas Llosa had chosen to charter a private plane north rather than take the commercial flight after receiving a tip-off that this scheduled plane could be targeted by terrorists; it did not seem this information had been passed on to any of its passengers.

But then Peru at that time was on the verge of anarchy. One third of the country was under a permanent state of emergency as Shining Path guerrillas escalated their insurgency, exploding bombs daily in the capital and, in remote villages, rounding up entire communities and slitting their throats. Then, as now, some rebel factions were forming close alliances with powerful cocaine traffickers in certain areas including the High Amazon.

Nevertheless I was not feeling best disposed as I sat jostled next to Vargas Llosa in the back seat of a truck in stifling jungle heat the next morning as we made our way to Tarapoto’s central cinema where he was scheduled to give a political address. But I was intrigued. I wanted to know what had made this most urbane of men abandon his traditional London writing perch - row E of the Reading Room of the British Museum – and throw himself headlong into the political turmoil of his beleaguered native land.

By then Vargas Llosa’s reputation as one of the most eminent authors of his generation was long established. As one of the leading protagonists of the Latin American Boom in literature of the 1960s and 1970s several of his most popular early novels such as The Time of the Hero and Conversation in The Cathedral dealt with political and social themes.

Before leaving Lima I had managed to speak with a close friend of Vargas Llosa’s who confided “Mario is like a guy who loves soccer and has written all about it but has never played. Now he’s being asked to be captain of the team and lead the team to the World Cup.”

As we travelled together Vargas Llosa spoke with passion about his fears for his native country. He explained his decision to enter the political fray came when inflation in Peru hit 2000% and the then incumbent socialist President Alan Garcia attempted to nationalise the banking sector after defaulting on $15billion of foreign debt.

In the midst of this chaos, and on the strength of his literary fame, Vargas Llosa returned to Peru, founded a movement called Libertad and started touring provincial cities and shanty towns giving political speeches in opposition to Garcia, by then a semi-recluse openly described by Peru’s medical profession as “clinically unbalanced”. “Politics is not my vocation but I feel a moral and civic obligation prompted by the quite extraordinary circumstances in Peru,” he explained as we travelled to Tarapoto. “The alternative to change here would mean a descent into hell.”

I watched as Vargas Llosa, immaculately dressed in a striped cotton shirt, sharply pressed trousers and dapper straw hat, then stepped out of the truck to be immediately swamped by townspeople clutching at his sleeve and throwing their arms around the literary idol.

When he eventually lost the election to populist Alberto Fujimori, who in his turn did usher in a new kind of hell of organised corruption and human rights violations in Peru, Vargas Llosa returned to London and the quiet of the British Museum. He later penned his memoir El pez en el agua covering both his childhood and early writing career in Europe together with his reflections on his brief political career. He has continued writing fiction and non-fiction enjoying worldwide popularity ever since, returning to the theme of politics with his thriller The Feast of the Goat

Political turmoil is a theme running through the literature of many writers associated with the Latin American “boom” including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortazar.  The widespread success of their work owed much to the boost they received by reaching global audiences through translation and publication in many different countries.

In the last few decades much of the work of such authors have been published first in Spain, where Vargas Llosa lived as a young man and where he still spends part of the year. Quite a turnaround from the early years of their success. In the sixties and seventies it was Latin America’s flourishing publishing houses that were frequently the first to publish books by Spanish authors, whose work was subject to strict censorship during the Franco era. Such books were then smuggled from Argentina and Mexico onto the black market in Spain.

But when deep economic crises in Latin America in the late seventies and eighties coincided with the restoration of democracy in Spain the situation was reversed. Not only were Spanish publishers able to freely publish Spanish authors once again they also started replacing Latin American publishers in publishing authors of the Latin American “boom” amongst many others. Until eventually several Latin American publishing houses, like Argentina’s Emecé Editores and Editorial Sudamericana, were bought by those in Spain.

Yet for decades Latin American literature overshadowed that of Spain’s domestic authors, to the extent that when Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind became Spain’s first worldwide best-seller in 2001 it was assumed by many he must be from Latin America. But the fortunes of Spanish authors are now vastly improved with the rich variety of their work evident amongst the many books submitted by a cross-section of Spanish publishers and agents for consideration by this year’s panel of New Spanish Books.

Still, as my fellow panellists and I met, initially to draw up the long list of books to be submitted for reader’s reports, I couldn’t help but be naturally drawn to those penned by Latin American authors published by Spanish publishers or represented by Spanish literary agents. Amongst them were two novels - El Navegante Dormido by Cuba’s Abilio Estevez and Todo Nada by the young Mexican writer Brenda Lozano – also a collection of essays on current Latin American writing entitled Errancia y Escritura focusing on themes of diaspora, exile and nomadism by Argentina’s Celina Manzoni, and a children’s book El Complot de los Romanticos by one of Mexico’s leading novelists, poets and playwrights Carmen Boullosa.

I was struck by how each of these works explored journeys, both literally in the case of the books by Manzoni and Boullosa and into the past in the case of the two novels. Ultimately, of the dozen or so books short-listed by the panel this year, amongst these books written by Latin American authors only the two novels by Estevez and Lozano were chosen as it was felt they stood the best chance of attracting a following outside the Spanish speaking world.

Looking back at my cuttings file I see the article I wrote about Vargas Llosa’s bid for the Pervian presidency, though run at some length, appeared tucked towards the end of the foreign news section in The Sunday Times, for which I have worked for over twenty years and was then Latin America correspondent. No matter how fascinating I found each twist and turn in the fortunes of the twenty-one countries that made up my beat on and off for nearly six years, news about Latin America was always a hard sell.

With events in Europe taking a dramatic turn, as the Soviet Union unravelled and the Berlin Wall fell, I was eventually posted as a correspondent to Paris and then Berlin before returning to London to cover foreign affairs as a feature writer. But my heart has continued to hanker after those twenty-one countries far to the west and over the years I have returned whenever possible to write about some of the most striking dramas, many political, that continue to unfold there. I have also undertaken my own journey into fiction writing territory by embarking on a novel set in Latin America based on the region’s tumultuous political events.

While Spanish authors may now equal those from Latin America in the publishing world’s current popularity stakes, this region of Earth stretching from Mexico’s Rio Grande in the north to Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego in the far south continues to provide particularly rich inspiration for a writer’s imagination.