Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa calls his mornings "absolutely sacred." That is the time he sets aside to sit alone behind the bay windows of his monumental cliff-side mansion in the fashionable Lima district of Barranco and write in longhand at a desk that commands a sweeping view, through the winter mist, of the city's Pacific Ocean coastline.
It doesn't always happen that way. During most of the time that Vargas Llosa spends in Lima, he is scarcely able to keep even his mornings sacred. A near-constant trail of visitors files through the second-floor study. Local television crews record the news that, no, he will not be a candidate for mayor. A women's magazine consults with him on fitness hints. U.S. Sens. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) drop by for an informal briefing on regional politics.
Magazine editors, foreign journalists, beauty pageant promoters, provincial politicians, young writers and old friends all make the pilgrimage. Vargas Llosa is widely recognized on the city's streets and a popular subject for Lima's 13 daily newspapers. His high profile feeds an image of accessibility. "It's become a continual struggle to defend my time," he says.
The demands are more than the early symptoms of a personality cult forming around, as one local journalist puts it, "Latin America's best-looking great novelist." Peru is in one of its worst crises in a generation. It is plagued by Maoist guerrillas whom almost no one supports, natural disasters that no one can prevent, and economic chaos. To much of the capital's well-educated, cosmopolitan and increasingly desperate middle class, Vargas Llosa has become a leading figure of democratic reason. When eight Peruvian journalists covering government operations against the guerrillas were mysteriously killed earlier this year in Peru's remote Andean highlands, touching off a virulent debate about government policy, it was little surprise that Vargas Llosa was chosen to chair the special presidential commission investigating the murder.
"Here, it's considered that a writer, for being a writer, can also be a civic conscience, a person with economic, social and political answers, a model for youth," Vargas Llosa says. "It's curious, but in many parts of Latin America there seems to be a revival of the romantic idea of the artist of the 19th century: a man in some way touched by the gods."
The same has been said, not incidentally, about Vargas Llosa's career as an author. If he has been cast in the role of the 19th-century novelist, it is due at least in part to his success in providing Latin America with its own version of the 19th-century novel. Vargas Llosa earned a reputation as a daring stylist and ambitious narrator 20 years ago with his brilliant, award-winning first novel, "The Time of the Hero." He has since built a massive following in Spain and Latin America, where his sixth novel, "La Guerra del Fin del Mundo" ("The War of the End of the World"), is his best-selling book to date.
With translation nearly complete on "Guerra"--a sprawling reconstruction of a messianic movement in turn-of-the-century Brazil--Vargas Llosa may claim successive hits in the United States and Europe. "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," his comic autobiographical novel of Lima in the 1950s, has become his most popular translation since its release last year.
Vargas Llosa is also a prolific essayist and journalist with stints as the host of a popular television show (a sort of cultural cosmos called "The Tower of Babel"), film director and playwright. At 47, he is rumored as a promising candidate, if not for mayor, then for the Nobel Prize.
Like many of his better known Latin American colleagues, Vargas Llosa secured his literary reputation while an expatriate. At 19, a determined writer and young husband, he held down seven jobs at one time--from radio news director to graveyard statistician--to make ends meet in Lima. The following year he left for Europe, where he spent 18 years in self-imposed exile. Continuing with a string of odd jobs until a literary prize enabled him to live off his earnings as a writer, he shuttled his family among temporary residences in Paris, London and Spain. Although most of Vargas Llosa's novels were written abroad, all but his most recent one are set in Peru.
He returned to Lima for good in 1974 with Patricia, his second wife, and their three children. "Europe formed me in a great part, but I am not now and never will be a European writer," he says. "I was losing contact with Peru. For better or for worse, the defects and virtues of my country are in me."
"Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" was the product of those first years back in the city of his youth. It is a gracefully understated, warm-hearted story of Vargas Llosa's courtship of and marriage to Julia Urquidi, his aunt by marriage and, at 32, a divorce'e 14 years his senior. The scandal caused by the relationship ("I shall put five bullets through you and kill you, like a dog, in the middle of the street," young Mario's father warns him) is skillfully played off the fantastic tales of misdirected passion and psychosis that a radio station colleague of Mario's is turning out as a captivating daily soap opera. The Lima backdrop, in many ways as innocent as the young love, is transformed by the scriptwriter into the scene of an apocalyptic epic that bewilders listeners and eventually drives its author to madness.
The city has changed a great deal since then. The comfortable Miraflores district where Vargas Llosa grew up is still largely an insular collection of family friends and crowded cafe's, broken up by high rises and rush-hour traffic but still an elite center that makes Lima seem one of the smallest big cities in South America. It is the rest of Peru that has moved closer.
The capital's affluent neighborhoods have become surrounded by shantytowns (the most recently constructed are commonly called "invasions") that house almost half of the city's 5 million residents. The bewildering guerrilla war being fought in the central Andes, a region of the country more foreign to many Miraflores residents than Miami, is upsetting the young democratic government that the majority of Peruvians support. Vargas Llosa, in his work as much as in his public life, is a symbol for a middle class in great need of one.
"I have written about the middle class in Peru not only out of a genuine fascination with it, but because it is of course where I grew up," Vargas Llosa says. "I've tried in my work not to see it 'represented,' but transformed, with our world recreated in all its complexities."
Vargas Llosa's upstairs study is a large, elegant room decorated with modern, white furniture and paintings from Latin America's best-known contemporary artists. A butler serves Scotch. Shelves are lined with editions of Flaubert, Dickens, Hugo, Melville and Faulkner, authors Vargas Llosa first read as a teen-ager. He says they are still among the principal models for his work.
"I envy and admire them for the great novelistic ambition to create such numerous and diverse worlds, like reality itself," he says. "With 'Moby Dick,' 'War and Peace,' 'The Human Comedy' of Balzac, one gets the sense that their authors are competing with God in the creation of worlds infinitely large and infinitely small at the same time.
"With the novel, my temptation has always been to manage something similar for my own time. That's why I admire Faulkner. I think his work is the maximum equivalent in our era of those great novelistic constructions of the 19th century. To so many Latin American writers, Faulkner was a revelation."
One of the results of the revelation was the nearly simultaneous leap to literary prominence of a handful of young Latin American writers during the 1960s, kicked off by the publication of "The Time of the Hero" and capped a few years later by the release of Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude." The movement was given the critical tag "El Boom." While in many parts of the developed world, says Vargas Llosa, "the best literature is a literature of the catacombs, having become largely intellectual, aseptic, and out of touch with the great public," mass audiences in Latin America have been watching as their history and myths become the subject of panoramic novels.
"The novel consists implicitly of a kind of god-killing," Vargas Llosa says. "From our perspective, we have tried to come closest to that impossible idea of the total novel."
Although Latin American authors have enjoyed a similar artistic perspective (Vargas Llosa's doctoral dissertation was titled: "Garcia Marquez: History of a God-Killer"), they have become divided over other issues. Vargas Llosa's once-warm personal relationship with Garcia Marquez, dating back to time they shared in Europe, has received considerable media attention since 1976, when Vargas Llosa KO'd his Colombian colleague outside a Mexico City theater. Although reports circulated relating the incident to a remark Garcia Marquez had made to Patricia Vargas Llosa, the fight was widely attributed to a falling out between the two authors over political issues.
The rift has since deepened. Once a self-defined Marxist and early enthusiast of the Cuban revolution, Vargas Llosa's public attitude shifted after his return to Lima in 1974. Never a fan of military governments (copies of "The Time of the Hero" were burned by the Peruvian army shortly after the book's release), he became disenchanted with the left-wing military regime ruling Peru during the 1970s. Today, he is a strong critic of what he sees as totalitarian solutions from both the left and the right.
The criticism often includes his colleagues. "Unfortunately, I'm not very optimistic about the position of intellectuals in Latin America," he says. "I think many of them are seduced by rigidly dogmatic stands. Although they are not accustomed to pick up a rifle or throw bombs from their studies, they foment and defend the violence. I think they are greatly responsible for this vicious cycle of repression, chaos and subversion in Latin America."
Resolving the region's problems, he says, will involve "fighting the enormous economic imbalances within certain legality, preventing any one minority from imposing its own truth. The change has to be dynamic, but dictatorships have never been the solution."
His own position has made Vargas Llosa a man in the middle. The answer he sees in his public life, and through novels, is to unify the diverse and frequently opposing elements of Peruvian society, making coexistence possible.
"I think that the writer has a responsibility above all in countries like ours," he says. "Here, we are privileged people."