The vision of Vargas Llosa; acclaimed novelist casting himself as the candidate for president

By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 26, 1989; 12:00 AM

LIMA, PERU -- Demonios. It is a useful metaphor, this image of demons. How else to describe a country so far gone, so torn apart by violence and misery? The beggars on Lima's street corners seem to multiply overnight, each day more desperate, more achingly pitiful. Shantytowns sprawl farther into the dry hills, great dusty half-finished urbs breeding hunger and revolution. Maoist guerrillas surge; the hapless state withers, unable even to print enough passports for the multitudes who want out. What logic can explain Peru? What force but demons?

Now comes the exorcist.

Mario Vargas Llosa would be president of Peru. One of the most acclaimed novelists of our time, oft-rumored candidate for the Nobel Prize, urbane man of the First World who happened to be born in the Third and suffers it "like a disease" -- this unlikely patrician savior says he would bring reason, order; he would drive out the hordes of demons laying waste his native land.

But first he must exorcise his own: "I live now in a certain schizophrenia. I am convinced that in literature, in art in general, the total personality should intervene. Your ideas but also your instincts, your reason but also your irrationality -- your ideas but also your demons, everything that comes from the darkest aspect of personality. I think I write my novels that way. But in politics I think this is very, very dangerous.

"If you want to succeed in politics, you must repress all these demons, you must repress irrationality, you must put everything at the service of reason, of ideas, of rationality, of common sense. I try very hard to act within these limits. But it's very difficult."

At first it smacks of the effete. Just back from a tour of Europe and a few weeks at his house in London, the famous, handsome 52-year-old author sits in his comfortable office at the headquarters of Libertad, the political movement he heads, examining his inner turmoil with carefully chosen words in an almost flawless English. All around him, Peru disintegrates.

Political adversaries smirk at his neophyte innocence and the obvious gulf between him and most of his countrymen. They tap-dance expertly, almost gleefully, around the word "dilettante."

What other serious political pretender in any country has written a tract on Flaubert in which he proclaimed his love for Emma Bovary? Or has a new novel in the bookstores, "Elogio de la Madrasta" ("Praise of the Stepmother"), replete with scenes of heavy petting between stepmother and stepson, recently excerpted -- to raised eyebrows -- in a Lima news weekly?

Vargas Llosa has written elegantly of the internal, and the erotic. His best-known novel outside Latin America, "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," tells of his romance with and marriage to a much older aunt, which ended in divorce. His "The Green House" was an exercise in the distinctive, if now a bit dated, Latin style called "magical realism," an ethereal romp through a spirit-possessed jungle whorehouse.

What could be more irrelevant in today's Peru than the elegant and the erotic, with so many preoccupied each day with food and shelter?

But things are not so simple. Those smirking opponents, one by one, have learned that to underestimate Vargas Llosa is a mistake. President Alan Garcia learned the lesson nearly two years ago, when he launched a populist attempt to nationalize the banks and saw Vargas Llosa lead a populist campaign of his own that derailed the measure. Former Lima mayor Alfonso Barrantes is learning it now, as Vargas Llosa sticks to him at the top of the polls anticipating next year's presidential vote.

He cannot be dismissed as simply the darling of the country-club set. True, Libertad's offices have a Junior League ambience -- lots of two-toned pumps and monogrammed cuffs -- but in Peru these days the rich are statistically insignificant as a voting bloc. The middle class too, increasingly, as the economy continues to slide.

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© 1989 The Washington Post Company