The Peruvian-Spanish writer Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize, welcomed me into his Madrid home ahead of his induction into the prestigious Académie Française. The apartment is a place of enormous spaces, full of light and books. Seven years ago, the acclaimed author abandoned this famous refuge on Flora Street, in the heart of the Spanish capital, to move to an even more famous home in Madrid: a luxury residence in the exclusive area known as Puerta de Hierro, property of the businesswoman and socialite Isabel Preysler, with whom Vargas Llosa was romantically involved until their recent separation. “We had an experience, and it’s over. Now I’m back at home, surrounded by my books,” Vargas Llosa said partway through our interview, laughing as if he were Odysseus returning to Ithaca. “I have no regrets, absolutely none.”
The author of world literature classics like The Time of the Hero, Conversation in the Cathedral, The Green House, The War of the End of the World, and The Feast of the Goat was in a good mood. I asked for wine, and he changed his request: he would also like some wine. Our conversation lasted through the next glass: during an hour and a half, the writer answered every question I put to him, or nearly. The interview took place just a few days before one of the most momentous events in Mario Vargas Llosa’s life: his induction into the Académie Française, becoming the first writer with no original works in French to join the Academy since its founding in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu. The ceremony, which took place on February 9, was a major milestone for a man who in his youth dreamed of Paris, and whose literary style aspired to emulate Gustave Flaubert.
Members of the French Academy are called “the immortals.”
I think being immortal would be extremely boring. Tomorrow, the next day, infinity… No, it is better to die. As late as possible, but to die.
Do you think about posterity? About posthumous fame?
Never in my life. I think about my children, my grandchildren. But I don’t think about my books.
You really never think: ‘This book will be around forever, and so will this one’?
I have books that deserve to outlive me, yes. Conversation in the Cathedral and The War of the End of the World. I worked very hard on those two books. But I don’t think about death. What will happen to my work after I die? I don’t know, I don’t think about those things.
What things do you think about?
None of those. What I detest is the deterioration and decay. Human ruin. It’s such a terrible thing, the worst thing that could happen to me. For example, I have memory problems now. I always had a very lucid memory. I used to remember things, but now I can feel my memory deteriorating. It’s inevitable: I’m 86 years old. There are things I remember more than others, but... Some names, for example: I’ll remember faces, but the names are gone.
Are you nostalgic?
To a certain extent. I remember many things that I now regret are gone. My university years, for example. I remember them so clearly. On the other hand, when I think back to the years immediately after that, I enter a kind of haze. My memories are like clouds that suddenly remind me of very sad, or very happy, events. From my time in Bolivia, I remember Brother Justiniano, who taught us to read. He was a little old Italian man who would make us dance, and who taught us letters and conjunctions. It was wonderful, one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life.
The foundational event of your life: reading.
It changed everything. Suddenly I entered a world that was infinite, unlike Cochabamba, which was a small city. I could travel, and travel in time, too: to the future, to the past. Books meant adventure, always. My mother had forbidden me from reading a book she had on her bedside table. I remember it very clearly: it was a yellow book with blue letters, by Pablo Neruda: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. I remember some verses from the beginning of the book: “My rough peasant’s body digs into you and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.” And I thought: this is sinful, but what’s the sin? I didn’t know what it was, but I knew there was a sin there somewhere.
Tell me about your father. [Vargas Llosa’s father, Ernesto Vargas, was a socially anxious and volatile man who split up with Vargas Llosa’s mother, Dora Llosa, shortly before she gave birth to their son, Mario. Ernesto had kept Dora locked up in the house out of jealousy, while he kept mistresses with whom he fathered other children. For years, Mario was led to believe that his father had died, until the boy turned 10 and his parents got back together].
My relationship with my father got off to a rough start: I discovered that he wasn’t dead. There was never any understanding between us, only a constant, tremendous tension. I guess you could say it was my fault. But he had taken my mother from me, and more than that, he was a very rigid, very stern man. I was drawn to literature as a way to resist his authority.
In your memoir, A Fish in the Water, you write about how your father was bewildered, and really didn’t like, seeing your name appear in newspapers, even major ones like the The New York Times.
He thought that writers and poets were all drunks and faggots: he was horrified. His son was a writer and spent his nights going on wild, drunken binges: that was his idea of what a literary calling involved. So he sent me to the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, because he thought that soldiers and literature were incompatible. But it backfired on him, because it was actually at Leoncio Prado where I first started writing professionally: I would write letters on behalf of servicemen who didn’t know how to respond to their sweethearts. It was a lot of fun, reading all their letters so I could know how to write back.
In your books and interviews, you sometimes let slip an observation: “How was I able to do so much?” You were always reading, writing, going out, traveling. Is this because for writers like yourself, writing is an almost unconscious activity, something like breathing?
No, not at all. I suffered a lot in my writing, and at the same time, I was always trying to improve. My style was very primitive. I needed to improve it, but working at the newspaper made this impossible, because articles had to be filed immediately. I’ve struggled a lot with style. And when I sat down to write, I would tell myself: you need to cut down on the adjectives. That’s the key: no adjectives.
“I have always tried to have the prose serve the story, rather than the story serve the prose.”
Let the characters come out, let them live on their own terms. It was always very important to me that the people not get in the way of the language, but also that the language should serve the people who live in a novel. That was always my obsession. Not now, not anymore. But my obsession when I was writing my first novels was to not give language priority over the lives of the characters.
The great discovery of my life. I am the writer I am because of him. You know, Flaubert tricked his father, inventing an illness – he said he saw lights and had episodes of fainting – to avoid resigning to his father’s wishes and pursuing a liberal profession. His father was a doctor, a hospital director, and he eventually gave in and had Flaubert locked up in a house in a small town (Croisset), and it was there that Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary. It took him five years, writing every day. I...
I thought about what it meant to be a writer in a country like Peru, which had no publishers and hardly any bookstores. That’s why I dreamed of going to France. And what’s funny is that when I finally did go to France, suddenly the French were all starting to read Latin American literature. They were reading Borges, Cortázar, Fuentes, and then García Márquez. In Paris, I began to feel like a Peruvian, a Latin American, and I discovered that borders were artificial: what made Peru different from Colombia or Bolivia? Nothing, absolutely nothing. They all had the same problems: military coups, for example, which had been Bolívar’s nightmare.
What did you do when you first arrived in Paris?
The night I arrived, I went to a very famous bookstore, La Joie de Lire [The Joy of Reading], which was open until midnight, and I bought a copy of Madame Bovary. I spent half the night reading it. I was floored: the language was so exact, so precise, so elegant, and at the same time very functional.
What were you going through in Peru?
I always wanted to be a writer, but in Peru, I fell into a pit of anguish, and it was Sartre who pulled me out. When I enrolled in the Alliance Française, I immediately subscribed to two French magazines, the same year I entered university. Sartre was a powerful force, he convinced you, he told you: you might be from a small country in Africa where everyone is illiterate, but you can still denounce that, you can still write about that. I was a very faithful follower of Sartre, until I read, at some point in the 1960s, that he had told two African writers: “You have to make the revolution before you can make literature.” To me, that felt like a betrayal, and I began distancing myself from him.
I don’t know whether to describe it as maturing or evolving, but many people who start out with Sartre end up closer to Camus.
Yes. Camus didn’t have the same formal education that Sartre had. He hadn’t read what Sartre had read, but he was much more realistic. I met him once. They told me he would be at a theater in Paris, on one of the Grands Boulevards, and that I could go see him at noon. I brought a little magazine we used to publish in Peru called Literatura, a small publication with very few pages. He was with María Casares [a Spanish-born actress who had a successful career in France]. I tried to speak to them in French and he replied to me in Spanish. We spoke for a while, and then a few months later he died in a car accident. He was very nice, very polite.
The publisher Pilar Reyes said of Javier Marías, when that author died, that if he had a first paragraph, he had a novel.
For me, it’s very important to know how a story ends. Before I begin, I take a lot of notes, I make outlines that I’ll ignore later, but which serve me well. I do it all on index cards. I think a lot before I start writing. I need to be clear about what I’m setting out to do. I remember one afternoon in Paris…
The first Latin American writer I met there was [Julio] Cortázar. We would go on walks together all the time. One day he said to me: “I have to work on Rayuela [Hopscotch] this afternoon, and I have no idea what will happen.” This was completely inconceivable to me! “What do you do? You just sit down at the typewriter and…?” I asked him. “Yes, I sit down and start, with my fingers, just like that, and my memory starts working,” he told me. I was in awe. I always did so much work before I starting writing!
The Cortázars lived very modestly. They had nothing, a few small rooms near a square. They eventually moved into a bigger apartment in the 14th arrondissement. But their first apartment was very modest.
“When we were very poor and very happy,” Hemingway wrote of Paris.
I dreamed of Paris, I watched French movies in Lima, and I read; more than anything, I read, and much of it in French. But my most important discovery was Flaubert. That was what convinced me I needed to dedicate myself to literature, as Flaubert had: to work every phrase, every word, to read out loud and feel the text flow, to make it dazzle. And, above all, to be horrified of adjectives.
The supremacy of the verb.
That’s how I wrote The Time of the Hero, The Green House, and Conversation in the Cathedral. I tend to think that the first important novel I wrote was Conversation in the Cathedral. It’s a novel that does more than The Time of the Hero or The Green House. It’s more solid, more complex. It goes beyond just describing Peru’s major problems.
What gave you the idea for it?
I went to this shelter to retrieve a little dog named Batuque, and I saw these two Black men beating these dogs to death. They were putting the dogs in a bag and beating them. I left and went to a little cafe to get a beer; the cafe was called La Catedral. That was where the idea for the story came to me – the story of a boy who meets his father’s chauffeur in a café; a boy who works as a journalist and comes to discover that his father is gay, which in those days, in Peru, was a terrible thing. To be gay was a shameful thing. The boy tries to figure out if the chauffeur is sleeping with his father. They have a very difficult relationship. And that’s the whole novel, all of it. A conversation that surfaces throughout the different chapters. Writing it took a major toll on me.
Was there something Freudian there?
No, at that time I don’t think I had read Freud.
In the novel, the young journalist tries to figure out if his father is homosexual. In your life, the father of the young journalist is suspicious of his son’s sexuality because his son is a writer.
Ah, yes, I suppose it’s possible. The boy never confirms it, but he is tormented by his suspicions.
In 2000, when you published The Feast of the Goat, García Márquez reportedly said, after reading the book: “You shouldn’t do something like this to an old man like me.” In the sense that you were both supposed to have already left behind the golden age of your great works.
I went to the Dominican Republic for the first time in my life to make a documentary. It had been years since Trujillo had been assassinated, and people were beginning to talk, to say things, and one of those things stuck with me: they said that peasants had given their daughters away to Trujillo, as gifts. I thought it was just a typical Latin American exaggeration. But then I started asking around. I spoke with an officer who had served with Trujillo’s elite security detail. A Dominican of Arab descent, Khalil Haché, very nice, an old man now, retired from the army. We became good friends, and I asked him: “When Trujillo would tour the country, is it true the campesinos would give him their daughters as gifts?” And he told me, “Yes, and it was a huge problem for the boss, because he didn’t know what to do with them! He couldn’t just give them back to their parents.”
Were they young girls?
They were young girls! And the campesinos would just hand them over to Trujillo! That’s when I decided to write the Trujillo novel. And it took me more than three years. Working on it was terrible. So much talk about Trujillo’s sex life. The work involved going back and forth to the Dominican Republic, reading old newspapers from the era like Listín Diario. Trujillo was only interested in news about frivolous activities. He was never interested in serious things, just parties, going to lunch, dinner, having tea. The director of Listín Diario, an old man who had already retired at that point, told me: “We had a hell of a time figuring out what to do, because the distinguished gentleman’s ‘distinguished’ status had to be taken away when he fell.” Then he was just “Mr. So-and-so.” That was how the victims themselves found out they had fallen into disgrace: in the pages of the society section.
Earlier, when you were talking about adjectives, it made me think of García Márquez, who uses them quite a lot.
I was a big supporter of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I wrote a number of texts about the book [one of them, García Márquez: Story of a Deicide, is a monumental essay on the Colombian author that began as Vargas Llosa’s doctoral thesis at the Complutense University of Madrid]. Actually, I met García Márquez through letters. I was living in England and he was in Mexico. And we would write to each other. We even tried writing a novel, about the war between Peru and Colombia, which had taken place in the jungles of the Amazon, in Leticia, Colombia.
The two of you together?
Yes, we wanted to write a novel, the two of us together, but it was impossible, because García Márquez knew much more about that war and for me it was all a blur. We wrote a lot of letters to each other that are now at Princeton.
Then you went to Barcelona?
I would have stayed in England, because I like to teach. But one day, Carmen Balcells [Vargas Llosa’s literary agent, who died in 2015] came and kicked open my door, bearing gifts for my children, and she told me: “You’re leaving this afternoon for Barcelona.” “Are you crazy?” I said. “What are you talking about? I have two kids to take care of.” And she said: “You’ll earn the same as you make at the university if you go to Barcelona.” Carmen Balcells was someone you had to either listen to or kill, there was no middle ground. So I gave in. My boss at the university told me: “You’re going to live off your royalties? You’re crazy! Nobody lives off their royalties, nobody! Most people have to pay to even be published!” So I said: “Well, I’m crazy, but if I want to stay, I’ll have to kill Carmen Balcells, and that would be even crazier.” And so we left for Barcelona.
I lived there for five wonderful years. It was in Barcelona – thanks to Carmen Balcells and Carlos Barral [the Spanish poet and publisher, who died in 1989] – that all the Latin American and Spanish writers who had spent the previous 40 years turning their backs on each other were finally reunited. Spanish publishers started publishing Latin American authors. Barcelona was different in those days. There weren’t any separatists: those were just little old men that no one paid any attention to. The great dream of the Catalonians was to build a new society, a free society, a democracy. Spaniards went to Barcelona to feel like Europeans. Barcelona had a tremendous cultural vibrancy. All of the great publishers were in Barcelona. It never crossed my mind that independence would become so popular, much less so important. I remember how impressed I was when I started seeing Latin Americans showing up – young men, young women, all very young – who arrived just as we had gone to Paris, because Barcelona was where you had to be, where you had to get published, where you went to find a publisher to get behind you. Barcelona was on fire; it had a tremendous international richness, and Latin Americans were flooding the city. I was very moved by that. I worked, too. I wrote Captain Pantoja and the Special Service and some other books, I don’t remember which.
Why did you leave?
Because in the end, everyone left. Gacía Márquez left for Mexico. And Patricia was pregnant. I was very worried. So we left for Peru. Besides, my language was beginning to lose its Peruvian flavor. And that was what I wrote: I wrote Peruvian. We left on a boat: it was a wonderful trip; we stopped in a lot of different places.
I read a headline by Jaime Bayly in the Peruvian weekly Caretas: “It will be 300 years before Peruvians have another genius of Vargas Llosa’s stature.”
Oh yeah? Bayly said that? Okay [laughing].
In the next two months, he’ll be publishing a book titled Los genios (The Geniuses).
And who are the geniuses?
You and García Márquez.
Ah, okay! [laughing]. I didn’t know that.
[On February 12, 1976, Gabriel García Márquez spotted Mario Vargas Llosa, who he had not seen for some time, at a theater in Mexico City. He went over to great his friend, and Vargas Llosa promptly sucker punched him in the face – the most famous, and mysterious, punch in the history of world literature: both men refused to ever talk about it, and the incident ended their friendship forever]. What could end a friendship as intimate as the one you had with García Márquez for so many years?
Women, plain and simple.
There’s been a lot of speculation over the years. I guess we’ll see what Bayly has to say in his book.
That book will be a pile of lies. Horrible, I’m sure.
In recent years, you’ve taken a side in several elections, almost always the losing side.
I take sides because that’s the lesson and legacy of Sartre: always take a side. I took a side against the last president we had in Peru. I heard him talking about how we need to end mining in Peru, so that the ecology thing would work better. The idea of ending mining in Peru is ridiculous, it makes absolutely no sense. If Peru is going to grow and develop at all, it will be through mining: our mountains have an incredible wealth of minerals. My God, that guy, what a character. No wonder he tried to stage a coup. This country voted for him, but immediately got cold feet and then tried to get him out, and he ended up attempting a coup without even talking to the military, who are the only ones who know anything about how to stage a coup! [laughing]
In 2006, when you were 70 years old, you said you had finally published your first romance novel, The Bad Girl. What took you so long?
Some of my other works have love stories, but they’re secondary to the crux of the novel, which is always more important than whatever love story is in it. The themes weren’t there.
How does one escape the traps of the tabloids?
By not making any public statements. I haven’t made any statements about Isabel [Preysler, Vargas Llosa’s ex-partner]. And for a month I had journalists standing in my doorway from 7am. I would go out for a walk and they’d be there, waiting.
For a few years now, you’ve been living in the “civilization of the spectacle” that you denounced in your essay and…
[Laughing] I’m not going to talk about Isabel, not a word.
But the experience…
The experience was wonderful, but not literary. It can’t be made into a novel, not that.
You can’t use it?
No, not at all. Absolutely not. I’ve finished a novel about Peruvian music, about the Peruvian waltz.
You don’t think a Nobel laureate dating a famous socialite like Isabel Preysler is an interesting subject for a writer?
No, I’m not going to write a novel about that, no way. And I’m not going to talk about her.
But you must admit that those two worlds…
Yes, they’re two very different worlds, very separate. But whatever. We had an experience, and it’s over. Now I’m back at home, surrounded by my books
Speaking with Juan Cruz in an interview for EL PAÍS in 2015, you said: “Who could have guessed that [at 80 years old] I’d be living with such passion, and organizing my life as if I were going to live forever.”
I’m not going to talk about that [laughing].
Do you have any regrets?
“I have no regrets, absolutely none.”
Translated by Max Granger