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No living writer is as versatile or as engaging as Mario Vargas Llosa. And so, we more or less expect some "ready-made" studies of his work to spring up in time to meet publishers' demands for instant authority in the face of a hungry public. Unfortunately, Raymond L. Williams' book is one of them.
Mario Vargas Llosa may get its readers to reel off a list of the master's works, but it will not get the readers to think about them. The study begins promisingly with a chapter title that insists on its own energy and devotion: "The History of a Passion." Inexplicable then is the preface that follows, which is more threadbare than an introductory work needs to be and is filled with a kind of conspiracy of facts, as if the dates and events had been transposed to the page from two [End Page 705] or three open encyclopedias close at hand.
The background chapters have exactly this to say about Vargas Llosa's major literary predecessor, José María Arguedas: he and Ciro Alegría were "writers . . . concerned primarily with indigenous themes." So much for the poet of the Quechuas and the politico-cultural axis of Peru's indigenous problem. No word either of Peru's most important political and literary intellectual from before World War Two, Carlos José Mariátegui. How can an anticommunist, cosmopolitan, Peruvian author of such political novels as Conversacióon en la catédral and Historia de Mayta be understood without making more of this crucial prehistory?
The book contains annoying repetitions of argument and phrasing suggestive of hasty editing. Naturally, the book accomplishes something by providing rudimentary background, a useful (and carefully chosen) bibliography, and coherent plot summaries. But if some passages appear more like notes than pages from a published book, others say too clearly what cannot be true. The historical source for Vargas Llosa's character Alejandro Mayta may in fact be, as the Peruvian magazine Caretas claims, Jacinto Rentería; but it is hard to believe that Vargas Llosa was not at least partly thinking of the much more contemporary and close-to-home figure of Hugo Blanco.
More serious is Williams' account of Vargas Llosa's role on the governmental commission to determine the cause of death of eight journalists killed in a small Peruvian village while investigating the revolutionary group, Sendero Luminoso ("Shining Path"). The fact is that open judicial investigations have since revealed that the journalists did not die "primarily out of ignorance or misunderstanding" (as Williams weakly says), but were murdered by the Peruvian government, whose then president, Belaúnde Terry, was a personal friend of Vargas Llosa. Since Vargas Llosa's report from the commission had earlier covered up this information, a very serious questioning of his political integrity ought to have been the issue. It is very curious that Williams does not mention this now well-known scandal.
George McMurray's Spanish American Writing Since 1941 is another matter. Although many now begrudgingly admit the gradual displacement of Euro-fiction, and even actively look to Latin America, few can do more than confidently name a few products of the Latin "boom." McMurray's book, which explores drama and poetry as well as fiction, is a good starting place for those serious enough to get beyond the ritual incantations of the names García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Borges.
In the part of the study concerned with fiction, McMurray first dedicates a four- or five-page overview to each of the most prominent members of the pre-War generation of early innovators (Alejo Carpentier, Miguel Angel Asturias, José María Arguedas, and others). This he follows with similarly close attention to the "Major Figures of the Boom" (Gabriel García M...