restricted access Vargas Llosa Among the Postmodernists
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Reviewed by
M. Keith Booker. Vargas Llosa Among the Postmodernists. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1994. 239 pp. No price given.

This study of the fiction of Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is in eight chapters, each presenting a reading of one of Vargas Llosa’s novels. Two chapters present parallel discussions: one juxtaposes Vargas Llosa’s The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight; the other discusses Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter in the context of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler—comparative choices based upon criteria that are not made explicit. A Postscript and an Appendix provide “some published views” on modernism and postmodernism, material that would seem logically to belong at the beginning, not the end, of this study. An analytical index and a bibliography of Vargas Llosa’s books (if not all of his articles and essays) would have been helpful to the serious student of Vargas Llosa’s work, but the author does not provide them.

Throughout, Vargas Llosa’s novels are tested against a handful of characteristics of modernism and postmodernism presented as givens. Postmodernism is skeptical, modernism “intends to comment profoundly on reality through art”; postmodernism displays a “loss of faith,” modernism presumably still believes; postmodernism accepts fragmentation, modernism’s center still holds, and so on. Not surprisingly, these categories constantly collapse upon each other.

Consider this example: “On the surface, Captain Pantoja and The Green House would seem to reverse the typical suggestion that modernist works are more concerned with psychological depth than are postmodernist ones. Whereas the earlier (presumably modernist) book eschews subjectivism (in the sense of depth psychology) completely, the later one does at least gesture toward an exploration of the psychologies of individual characters, especially of Pantoja himself. This apparent inversion is rather deceiving, however.” (41–42) The critic goes on to invert the inversion, and the novels are lost in the process. One more example will serve to underline my frustration:

Indeed, The War of the End of the World seems to involve a relatively straightforward representation of action in the mode of nineteenth-century narrative, while indicating a distinctively modernist intention to comment profoundly on reality [End Page 875] through art and investing the whole enterprise with a postmodernist textuality and irony. But these three different attitudes cannot peacefully coexist, and the postmodernist approach inherently wins out, since both the realist and the modernist approaches require a serious dedication to certain ideas that is radically undermined by the skepticism of postmodernism.

(88–89)

And so it goes: distinctions are created in order to be undone; categories have a way of proving to be their opposite; dichotomies proliferate and disappear. Vargas Llosa is a modernist, a postmodernist, both and neither. I agree with Booker’s conclusion, of course, for it is hardly surprising that Eurocentric critical taxonomies are likely to prove inadequate when applied to Vargas Llosa’s wonderfully various work. The trouble is that the application of these categories does not yield specific insights into Vargas Llosa’s fiction so much as draw attention to the inadequacy of the critical categories themselves, none of which fits well enough to yield insights into Vargas Llosa’s fiction.

The circularity of the foregoing sentence suggests the problem with this book in its entirety. Booker never fully commits his attention either to postmodernism or to Vargas Llosa. He does not question why we should want to locate Vargas Llosa “among the postmodernists”‘ in the first place, nor does he argue for the importance of distinguishing (as he spends considerable time doing) which of Vargas Llosa’s novels are modernist and which postmodernist. Nor does he pause to wonder whether postmodernism can be automatically transferred to Latin American fiction, given its origins in the critical theory and cultural practice of late capitalist structures in Europe and the U.S. Unfortunately, Vargas Llosa’s work is never situated in the Peruvian history and culture of which it is in part a product.

I do not mean to imply that postmodernist categories are necessarily inapplicable to Latin American cultural production, but that the categories must...