Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa
Image: Getty

It is just before the main course that Mario Vargas Llosa suggests we change the subject. Early spring sunshine is splashing across the white tablecloth, but our conversation has suddenly taken a dark turn. We are discussing, in Spanish, the news of the day. US President Donald Trump has promulgated, by tweet, the militarisation of the Mexican border, and I ask the Nobel Prize-winning novelist if Trump reminds him of the Latin American populists and demagogues he has spent a lifetime writing about.

"Trump is so third world-esque. Who would have thought that the US would succumb to such demagoguery?" he replies. "As for the Republicans, well, it used to be the party of institutions and responsibility. The lowering of its trousers under Trump, as the Spanish saying goes, has been quite a thing to see." A horrible image flits through my mind. "Shall we talk about happier things, though? It’s important to be optimistic. There is much to be optimistic about." He chuckles, a deep rumble.

Age has mellowed the humour of Vargas Llosa. Now 82, he is known throughout the world for the extraordinary quality of his prose, his versatility as a writer, and his political engagement. A thinker who has battled all his life for democracy, the free market and personal liberty, he even ran as a candidate for the Peruvian presidency in 1990, losing a tight race to the subsequent dictator and human-rights abuser Alberto Fujimori — the antithesis of everything Vargas Llosa supports.

Yet I had slightly dragged my feet as I walked through the pigeon-pecked, stone-flagged plazas of central Madrid to the Basque restaurant he had chosen. The Hispanic world’s most celebrated living intellectual has a reputation for arrogance. His writing is hyper-realistic, and often takes a sour view of human nature. Taut and sardonic, much of it is suffused with a sense of the chilling fogs and courtly malice that I associate with Lima — legacy of colonial Spain’s vice-royalty. "I write because I am not happy. I write because it is a way of struggling against unhappiness," he once remarked.

My unease fades, though, as soon as I push open the heavy wooden door to Casa Julián de Tolosa, an old-school eatery. Inside is restfully quiet; for some, 2.30pm is still early for Spanish lunch, and most of the tables are empty. Cream-painted walls and wood panels lend the room the feel of a book, a first edition, perhaps, and it would look fusty were it not so classically elegant — like Vargas Llosa himself.

‘AMOUR FOU’

He is already sitting in the far corner. Alert and straight-backed, he is spry in a grey-blue jacket, salmon shirt and red tie. Rather than a forbidding Grand Old Man of Spanish letters, he even looks jolly. Is it love? Three years ago, Vargas Llosa left his wife of 50 years for Isabel Preysler, the Philippines-born socialite whose first husband was pop star Julio Iglesias. Many have wondered how Vargas Llosa, author of Notes on the Death of Culture (2015), a collection of essays that rails against celebrities and media spectacle, could suffer to appear so frequently in the pages of Hola magazine, as he since has. Yet Vargas Llosa, a man of great passions, has described the romance as an "amour fou" and said that he has never been happier.

"How nice — what a pleasure," he says warmly, standing to greet me. We pick at olives, sausage and thin-cut ham already laid out on the table, and exchange pleasantries. "But hombre! Why is your Spanish so good?" he flatters me, but with genuine curiosity. I explain that I grew up speaking the language. "Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first," he says. "What do you like to eat? And to drink? The house wine is excellent."

The maître d’ arrives, an attractive and vivacious woman. She blows a kiss across the table. "Don Mario, how nice to see you again." (The restaurant, he explains, is a favourite haunt near his old apartment, now converted into a library since he moved to Preysler’s house, a mansion on the outskirts of Madrid that she built with her deceased third husband Miguel Boyer, the former economy minister.) We order red bean soup to start, and a house specialty, chuletón, a thick-cut bone-in steak, to share for the entrée. We dither over the sides — the white asparagus is not in season — and settle for slow-roasted red peppers and fresh Romaine lettuce hearts. The wine arrives. He insists I taste it — a rich and smooth Rioja. We chink glasses. "Salud!"

CRUELTIES AND CORRUPTIONS

Vargas Llosa is renowned for his discipline as a writer, and is still prolific. A translation of his latest novel, The Neighbourhood, has just been published in English, while a collection of essays on classical liberal thought, La llamada de la tribu (The Call of the Tribe), came out in March.

Even so, it is poignant to spend time with the last survivor of the Latin American Boom, a literary movement that reinvented the novel in our time. Author of more than 50 books, he has ranged from comic romps and erotic novels, such as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977), to chilling studies of the psychology of power. The Feast of the Goat (2000), perhaps his most famous book, explores the cruelties and corruptions of personal integrity that happen under dictatorship.

A corrupt democracy is better than a non-corrupt dictatorship — it leaves such a legacy of poison

This is a recurring theme in all his writing and, as told in his 1993 memoir, A Fish in the Water, one propelled by intense personal struggle. Its cause can be traced to a central event: the appearance, when he was 10 years old, of a father he had been told was dead. It was a terrible re-appearance. His father, Ernesto, was a macho and a bully who hit his wife, beat his son, and sent him away, aged 14, to the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Lima. The way I understand it, writing subsequently became a way for Vargas Llosa to confront both Latin America’s unfortunate realities and exorcise his own personal anguish — apparently successfully.

"The US may have fallen for demagoguery, but Latin America is enjoying a democratic wave," he says with obvious relish — and not just because the soup, comforting and warm, has arrived. "The appeal of military rule has gone. Nobody supports that any more, neither the US nor local elites." He clasps his left hand into a fist as he speaks. "Socialism also no longer has any real traction... All the region, Cuba and Venezuela aside, are now practising democracies... faulty and imperfect, but democracies. This is a great step forward."

I want to agree with his optimism about Latin America, and I think I do. Even so, the region faces a marathon of presidential elections this year. Like everywhere else, tempers are high, emotions strong, the anti-establishment mood prevalent and populist candidates are leading polls. I ask if we could take a whistle-stop tour of how he sees things.

He sweeps a lock of silver hair off his forehead. He is optimistic about Brazil, despite the profoundly disruptive Lava Jato ("Car Wash") probe that has seen dozens of senior politicians and business leaders tried and convicted for corruption (including, most controversially, two days after our lunch, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva). "The anti-corruption movement is profoundly democratic. A monument should be built to those valiant judges!" he exclaims.

What about Venezuela? "It’s tragic. Venezuela’s only positive is that it shows the rest of the region where not to go." Argentina is one sign of this hopeful change. "Peronism is on its back heels." But how about his native Peru, where Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, or PPK, resigned from the presidency in March amid corruption allegations? "PPK’s ending was sad... Still, Peruvian democracy remains alive. The vice-president has stepped up, legitimately. A corrupt democracy is better than a non-corrupt dictatorship — it leaves such a legacy of poison."

LEFTIST LEANINGS 

Vargas Llosa was not always such a committed liberal. He had a youthful enthusiasm for the Cuban revolution but broke with Havana in the early 1970s. "I felt like a defrocked priest — liberated but lost. Until I moved to London." There, during the Margaret Thatcher years, he re-forged his political compass, reading deeply Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and Isaiah Berlin. Such classic liberalism, even among fans of his fiction, often jars in a part of the world where leftist views are still taken as a badge of intellectual honour. Yet nor is he quite a standard-bearer for the conservative right. His controversial endorsement of Ollanta Humala almost certainly swung Peru’s 2011 election towards the leftist leader and against Keiko Fujimori, daughter of his arch-enemy. He also supports Colombia’s peace process with Marxist guerrillas.

The theme of drug-fuelled violence and how to best confront it brings us to Mexico, which faces an existential presidential election on July 1. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, an old-fashioned nationalist and self-regarding patriarch of the type that Vargas Llosa loathes, is leading the polls. Running against him is the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI), which Vargas Llosa famously described as "the perfect dictatorship". Which, I ask, would he vote for?

"Mexico’s terrible violence and corruption are due to lingering toxins from the PRI," he says, weighing the lesser evil. "But, holding my nose, I think I would vote for its candidate. López Obrador represents a terrible step backwards." He slaps his forehead. "I can’t believe I said that. Me, choose the PRI! Of course, there is also a third choice, [the centre-right candidate] Ricardo Anaya. He’s young and smart."

Whereupon the conversation segues north to the US border and Trump. He suggests we change the subject and, happily, our steak arrives. I offer to take the bone, blackened from a good charring, leaving the tender filet to my guest. It is delicious: Spanish meat, slow-cooked over a live fire, for some reason does not enjoy the same reputation as Argentine, Brazilian or US beef. I also refill our wine glasses; the house Rioja really is very good. The conversation settles into an easy flow as we turn to literature.

He tells me, encouragingly, that he still finds writing difficult and that his first drafts always leave him feeling inadequate. "Even your newspaper columns?" I ask. Vargas Llosa’s first job was as a 15-year-old cub reporter covering Lima’s gruesome crime beat for El Comercio, and he has written a regular column for El País, the Spanish newspaper, for more than 20 years. "Yes, even those. But I like journalism. It is what I have always done. It allows you to meet other tribes, which was especially important for me in the small middle-class world of my Lima youth."

The maître d’ suddenly re-appears, looking agitated. "Don Mario, sorry to interrupt. The two Colombian ladies sitting over there insisted I deliver a message. They want you to know how much they enjoy your books." He thanks her for the compliment and nods at their table, four down from ours. The courtesy of his manners, like his discipline for work, is well-known: Hugh Thomas, the Hispanist, once told me that Vargas Llosa was "the most charming" of the Boom generation of Latin American writers.

Apropos of the Colombians’ flirtatious tribute, though, I ask about the eroticism that runs through much of his writing — from the love letters and pornographic tales he wrote for fellow cadets at military school in return for cigarettes, to his latest novel, a thriller set in Lima during the dark years of Fujimori when the wives of two rich businessmen end up in bed during a curfew. "Well, you know how it is in Latin America. Eroticism is unavoidable just walking down the street."

THE PRICE OF LOVE

The steak is cleared, and we order arroz con leche and two espressos. "It’s such a good dessert," he says, sprinkling cinnamon on top. "It’s so good a dish, in fact, that the French, Spanish and Portuguese consider it their own." We each spoon from the shared plate until the rice pudding is finished, and I ask him the question that I have left for last.

I am sympathetic to the force of an amour fou, I tell him, yet how does he suffer the paparazzi and home-decor spreads that he hates so much and have now become part of his new life? "Well if you understand amour fou, then you have experienced it and know," he teases me. "Love always comes with tests. Otherwise, it is not love. Tests make it stronger. They help to forge love. But love always comes with a price. Everything comes with a price."

"Even literature?" I ask. "No. Literature, especially reading, has only brought me satisfaction," he murmurs.

He tells me he is starting a new novel, and I wonder if he will ever stop writing, as Philip Roth did as he approached 80. "Writing is what I do. It is my life," he replies immediately. "To be alive but dead is the worst possible thing, although it happens to many people." He then bows his head low to the table in a gesture of the abundant grace and humanity that I had not expected to see two hours earlier. "In fact, I hope to die writing."

This article was originally published by The Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times 2018.

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