Some Mario Vargas Llosa books

(actualisé le ) by Ray

The Cubs and other stories (1959) [1]

This was Mario Vargas Llosa’s first published story, about growing up and learning about life on the streets in Lima, a theme he developed extensively in his impressive first full-length novel The Time of the Hero (La ville et les chiens). Darned interesting.

The Time of the Hero (1963) [2]

His first novel, a superb Bildungsroman (novel about the growing-up-and-learning experience on the model of Goethe’s Werther) centred on the learning-about-life experiences of a young boy in an elite military academy that I found to be as effective as the reference work for me on that theme, Ernst von Solomon’s memorable The Cadets, which had a (distinctly grimmer) First World War setting. Here there is a lighter touch, but the discipline and the hardships and the punishments and the adventurous escapades are all there as well as the gathering political and military storm clouds, carried along nicely with just about never a dull moment by the author’s already smooth, easy style and natural story-telling gifts.

The Green House (1966) [3]

Set in the Amazonian region of Peru, this early and not entirely successful (to my way of thinking) novel experiments with the difficult parallel-dialogues-by-unnamed-speakers technique that he later used so extensively in Conversations in The Cathedral. On the same Amazonian theme, I recommend rather the brilliant Captain Pantoja and the Special Service for the lighter side and the profound and moving The Man Who Speaks for the darker side.

Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973) [4]

The young and competent Captain Pantoja is sent by the Peruvian high command to sort out a serious problem of morale among the troops in the army garrisons on the Amazonian frontier, who have been excessively venting their sexual frustrations on the local women. This is a very funny book by an immense writer, in an original and very effective staccato style with dialogues where you have to figure out by the context just who is talking - a technique later used extensively if not excessively by Vargas Llosa in his ambitious Conversations in the Cathedral. The subject - frontier life in the Amazonian jungle - is more than first-rate and Vargas Llosa just cannot help bringing in larger socio-religious factors that put things in a big perspective. I LOVED this brilliant book by the author of the masterful The Feast of the Goat.

Conversation in The Cathedral (1975) [5]

This was Mario Vargas Llosa’s most ambitious work to date, where he experimented with an original conversation-only technique without identification of the speakers that he had already used in Captain Pantoja and in The Green House and which he used here systematically throughout. The Cathedral of the title is not a church but the name of a bar where the protagonists meet to talk about one another and about their past and present exploits, so the reader really has to concentrate hard to have a chance of understanding just what is going on. It is hard going, but it does all fit together towards the very effective and quite moving end.

Having shown what he can do (and this is a writer who really can do anything) and how effective this technique can be to provide insight into the protagonists’ mindsets (do we not only really get to know people via their conversation?) Vargas Llosa moved on to other things and basically dropped this demanding technique, although there are echoes of it in some of his later works.

The War of the End of the World (1981) [6]

A sensitive, very powerful fictionalized account of the massive uprising in the north-east of Brazil at the end of the 19th Century that rocked that giant country to its foundations. Vargas Llosa recreates the atmosphere of those times and the attitudes and mentalities of the actors in this epic drama by a combination of expressive language - this man is a master of words - using very many untranslatable Brazilian terms (the large glossary of these terms at the end of the book is an essential part of the book), stylistic techniques experimented in his earlier works for getting ever deeper into the minds of his protagonists, and an art of narration that literally leaves you breathless.

This is the kind of book that you put down with regret and with tears in your eyes. It is a masterpiece.

The Real Life of Alexander Mayta (1985) [7]

This is the only Mario Vargas Llosa book that I have read so far in English, and the first one that I found to be rather flat and lacking the usual VL sparkle: perhaps his Spanish translates better into French? The subject matter is (of course, with a writer of this calibre) interesting - the struggle of a Troskyist militant to exist politically in the urban Lima of the fifties - but the hero is such a loser and his way of expressing himself and of thinking about his ideas and ideals is so simplistic that I ran out of patience well before the end.

There are, though, several layers of significance to the story, not least of which is the vivid portrayal of life in the left-wing political milieu in post-WW2 Peru. This is by far the most political of Vargas Llosa’s books, which may explain why many (including the dearly beloved person who kindly offered it to me) think highly of it, but I would certainly not recommend it as an introduction to this exceptionally gifted, world-class writer - start rather with Captain Pantoja or Death in the Andes, before moving on to the heights of The War of the End of the World or The Feast of the Goat.

Who Killed Palomino Molero? (1986) [8]

This is not a murder mystery, this is a story about power and integrity written with the mix of compassion, humour, brilliance and psychological insight that is Vargas Llosa’s trademark. You will read this book in no time and wish it were three times as long - but then the further adventures of the central character, the somewhat too-upright sergeant Lituma, are recounted in the superb sequel Death in the Andes, so not to worry.

The Storyteller (1987) [9]

A striking story set in the Amazonian tropics of Peru on the powerful theme of the tragedy of the inexorable extinction of the native languages and cultures of that vast region, brilliantly told. Mario Vargas Llosa reveals yet another major aspect of that far-off country - and of his talent.

A book one just cannot forget.

Death in the Andes (1993) [10]

This is a vague sequel to Who Killed Palomino Molero, in that it recounts the experiences of the excellent Sargent Lituma now exiled to a remote outpost in the mountains of southern Peru during the atrocious "Shining Path" maoist uprising. The skill, subtlety, humour and psychological insight of Varga Llosa’s pen are put brilliantly to work throughout this superb story with impressively large overtones.

The Feast of the Goat (2000) [11]

This was my introduction to the works of this immensely talented author of Peruvian origins. It is a brilliant and powerful study of a modern totalitarian state with a Latin American veneer and a universal core of terror and thought control and cult of the personality, the thirty-one-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic from 1930 when he took power (with the help of the US of A, natch) to 1961, when he was assassinated. With finesse and artistry, Vargas Llosa takes us into the minds of all of the actors in this drama: the enclosed world of this in many ways typical totalitarian state is progressively seen through the eyes of the police chiefs, of the middle-level officials, of the collaborators, of the citizens forced to collaborate in order to survive, of the rare opponents and even through the eyes of the exceptionally capable and charismatic dictator himself - a man with a spellbinding aura of personal magnetism and power whose gaze (he stares out at you from the dust-cover so that you can judge for yourself) no one was ever able to withstand.

The writing is so clean and sharp, the structure is so original and effective, the psychology of each of the successive narrators is so effortlessly and effectively portrayed, the basic existential quandary - the quasi-impossibility of resistance to an efficient totalitarianism from the inside - is so powerful and so significant, the story itself is so gripping that I was captivated and enthralled and moved from start to end by this brilliant and masterful book, many of whose scenes are forever burnt into my mind.


[1Les chiots, Folio, 84 p.

[2La Ville et les chiens, Folio, 530 p.

[3La Maison Verte, L’Imaginaire Gallimard,
419 p.

[4Pantaléon et les visiteuses, Folio, 313 p.

[5Conversation à La Cathédrale, Gallimard, 564 p.

[6La Guerre de la fin du monde, Gallimard, 558 p.

[7Vintage International, 310p.

[8Qui a tué Palomino Molero ?, Folio, 190 p.

[9L’Homme qui parla, Folio, 279 p.

[10Lituma dans les Andes, Folio, 358 p.

[11La Fête du bouc, Gallimard nrf, 604 p.