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."
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.