A reader’s guide to the Nobel Laureate.
Drawn from the author’s days as a cadet in a Peruvian military academy, this sophisticated and sensitive coming-of-age tale made Mario Vargas Llosa’s name internationally–and earned him the ire of the military brass who saw themselves reflected in an unflattering light (some claimed that the writer must have been in the pay of the Ecuadorian government).
Vargas Llosa’s haunting study of one of Latin America’s most brutal dictatorships–Rafael Trujillo’s iron-fisted reign over the Dominican Republic–comes brilliantly packaged in the story of Urania Cabral’s return to the city where she was once a victim of the regime’s monstrosity. Part of the author’s mastery is the way he builds suspense out of a foregone conclusion, Trujillo’s eventual and long-deserved end, but the balance is in his insistence that his readers look the evidence of human cruelty in the eye.
Ricardo Somocurcio is a teenager in Lima when he meets Lily, a heart-stopping young woman he will pursue, in various guises, throughout the rest of his life, and around the world. The “Bad Girl” of the title pops up again in the tumult of 1960s Paris, and then again in London and Tokyo, transforming each time but always maintaining her mysterious hold on Ricardo. In the decades-spanning, globe-spinning story, a youthful era of revolutionary hope gives way to the disappointments of age, but Vargas Llosa’s spellbinding tale of an elusive love is powered by a winning nostalgia.
While his symphonic novel The War at the End of the World is generally acclaimed as his masterpiece, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, an extraordinarily entertaining comedy about a young man’s heady love affair with his divorced aunt, which unfolds at a radio station under the influence of a soap opera’s manic scriptwriter, is sheer delight. If you’ve never read this great author, start here. (Fun fact: the story of the affair was based in part on the author’s real-life courtship of his first wife, Julia, who was his uncle’s sister-in-law, and 13 years his senior.)
In this fascinating, fable-like novel, a figure in a photograph of indigenous Amazonian forest-dwellers seems, to the surprised narrator, to actually be none other than an old schoolmate, apparently transformed into a fully-fledged member of an isolated and threatened tribe. The story of Saul Zurtaus unfolds in an act of simultaneous memory and imagination, and weaves in the myths of the endangered Machiguenga tribe itself. The result is at once seductive and sobering, a meditation on the modern world’s willful erasure of its origins
The most brutal civil war in Brazil’s history is the focus of this epic novel. In a remote region of 19th-Century Bahia, battle lines sprung up between local communities (led by a millenarian cult) and the newly-installed Republican government. In the resulting siege, the devastation of the town of Canudos was complete. Drawing his cast of characters from all sides of this conflict, Vargas Llosa created a historical saga Salman Rushdie has called “a modern tragedy on the grand scale.”
(Editor’s note: yes, we know — we call this feature “Five Books”, and that makes six. But it was hard enough getting the list down to just these…)