Home ] Up ] [ Lecture on Vargas Llosa ] La casa verde ]

Mario Vargas Llosa: SP 12 Lecture 2002

by Robert Ruz




Critical Biography


Education. During the 1950s he attended the Colegio Militar Leoncio Prado in Lima (3º y 4º de secundaria) [these experiences influenced La ciudad y los perros]; he studied 5º de secundaria at the Colegio San Miguel in Piura, in northern Peru [some of these experiences are included in La casa verde]; he studied Letras and Derecho at the Universidad Nacional de San Marcos, which was a centre of student activity and was under surveillance by General Odría’s police; his university days became part of Conversación en la catedral and El hablador. Early work while at school and university. In Lima he worked as a library assistant at the elitist Club Nacional in downtown Lima, where he browsed its well-stocked French section, especially Zola, Flaubert and Marquis de Sade. [Vargas Llosa later wrote on Flaubert and credited him with influencing his narrative structure, and erotic writing characterises some of his more recent work, such as Los cuadernos de Don Rigoberto.] He worked on and off as a reporter and wrote short stories, including ‘Los jefes’.


Marriages, first two novels and early political work. In 1955 he married his ‘aunt’ (political aunt) Julia Urquidi when he was 19 years old. Peruvian law required a minimum age of 21, so he was ‘secretly’ married in Chincha, as portrayed in La tía Julia y el escribidor and his memoirs El pez en el agua. La ciudad y los perrros, his first novel, won the Premio Biblioteca Breve and was published in 1963. He was also divorced from ‘Aunt Julia’ in 1963, marrying his cousin Patricia Llosa in 1965. In 1965 he published La casa verde and won Latin America’s most prestigious literary award in 1967, the Premio Rómulo Gallegos. In his acceptance speech he countered any suggestion that he was becoming an accepted literary figure:


[A]       Las mismas sociedades que exiliaron y rechazaron al escritor pueden pensar ahora que conviene asimilarlo, integrarlo, conferirle una especie de estatuto oficial. […] Advertirles que la literatura es fuego, que ella significa inconformismo y rebelión, que la razón de ser del escritor es la protesta, la contradicción y la crítica. (Contra viento y marea, I, 178)


His profile as a (then) left-wing intellectual was high: between 1965 and 1971 he collaborated with the Premio Casa de las Américas, Fidel Castro and his (then) friend García Márquez.


Late 1960s and 1970s: academic work and novelistic production. He was visiting scholar or lecturer at a number of institutions (including London, Washington State, Columbia and Cambridge in 1977). In 1971 he received his PhD from the Complutense and it was published the same year as García Márquez: historia de un deicidio. In 1975 he was made a member of the Academia Peruana de la Lengua. He published critical works, including Carta de batalla por Tirant lo blanc (1971) and La orgía perpetua (1975), in which he discusses his debt to Flaubert. He published important novels: Conversación en la catedral (1969), Pantaleón y las visitadoras (1973) and La tía Julia y el escribidor (1977).


Cultural and political work in 1980s. In 1981 he published the play La señorita de Tacna and started making a series of television programmes on cultural themes called La torre de Babel. His first major political participation was when he chaired the Comisión de Investigación de Uchuraccay into the alleged murder of eight journalists by senderistas. Published novels: La guerra del fin del mundo (1981), play Kathie y el hipopótamo (1983), Historia de Mayta (1984), ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (1986), El hablador (1987), Elogio de la madrastra (1987). He won Príncipe de Asturias (1986).


Right-wing politics in the 1990s and post-election 1990s. Stood for president in 1990 (as part of the right-wing coalition FREDMO) against Alberto Fujimori and lost. He has since continued a prolific journalistic and academic career. He has written for El País, La nación (Buenos Aires), Le monde, Caretas (Lima), El nacional (Caracas), New York Times. He has lectured at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and in 1992 took up the Robert Kennedy Chair at Harvard University, where he received a PhD Honoris Causa in 1999. He published Lituma en los Andes in 1993 (Premio Planeta), Los cuadernos de Don Rigoberto (1997) and La fiesta del chivo (2000). His latest novel is El paraiso en la otra esquina, which deals with the life of Flora Tristán, who was born in Arequipa and became a well-known French feminist. He was awarded the Cervantes (1994), the Menéndez y Pelayo (1999). In 1995 he was made a member of the Real Academia Española.


Introduction to two texts. I have chosen two texts which consider aspects of the Amazonian region and – more importantly - show very different narrative strategies. La casa verde was published in 1965; El hablador in 1987. It is my aim to look at two moments in Vargas Llosa’s active writing life and look at the continuity and rupture between the two texts. The novels share a focus on the relations between indigenous cultures and the westernised culture and economy of Peru; the novels are, on one level, about cultural encounters and outside characters (Jum, Bonifacia, El hablador). What is of interest here, however, is the shift in narrative technique, though it is important to remember that Vargas Llosa is still writing. La casa verde is fragmented over hundreds of pages, with shifting points of view and story lines, while El hablador is set out in a chronological way, with two main ‘plot’ lines and substantial use of a first person narration.


La casa verde


Context and Background

    The novel is based on Vargas Llosa’s personal experiences of growing up in Piura and on research carried out in (Parisian) libraries. In an interview with the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska (1969, 14-15) – Antología mínima de Mario Vargas Llosa - Vargas Llosa recalls his fifth grade in Piura and getting to know a green brothel on the edge of town; he also recounts his discovery of the Upper Marañón rainforest, his dismay at the ‘civilising’ attempts of the Spanish nuns, and mentions that he met an Aguaruna girl who told him of a Japanese feudal lord who lived on an island, with complete disregard for the law. These elements appear in the novel, yet the rainforest is not the central focus. Vargas Llosa researched the flora and fauna of the rainforest in Parisian libraries; in his La historia secreta de una novela (which discusses the writing of La casa verde) he criticises ‘Amazonian novels’ for foregrounding intricate descriptions of the rainforest – see Vargas Llosa (1971, 62). In La casa verde his aims centre on the imaginative possibilities of fiction, structure, dialogue, perception rather than description.



    The novel covers the lives of three generations and thirty-four characters. It is set in three very different locations (the novel was to be two novels): Piura, Santa María de Nieva and Upper Marañón rainforest. I’ll try, for the sake of clarity here, to divide the novel into three stories:


Bonifacia’s story: Bonifacia, an Aguaruna girl kidnapped at the start of the novel by nuns and soldiers on a ‘civilising’ expedition, later frees fellow captives from the convent in Santa María de Nieva and is expelled. She marries a sergeant (Lituma) and returns with him to his native Piura, to an area known as the Mangachería. Bonifacia is renamed la selvática. In a gambling game, Lituma kills a local landowner and is sentenced to ten years in jail in Lima. Bonifacia is raped by Lituma’s friends and becomes a prostitute for La Chunga, supporting Lituma when he is freed. Anselmo’s story: Toñita’s family, in a journey across the dessert near Piura, is set upon by bandits and killed. Toñita is rescued by washerwoman Juana Baura but is left blind, deaf and mute. She is kidnapped by Anselmo, raped, forced lo live with him and dies giving birth to a girl, La Chunga. Anselmo and La Chunga run the casa verde, rebuilding it after it is burnt down by locals. Fushía’s story connects with the last stages of the rubber boom. Fleeing the police, Fushía is taken downstream (Upper Marañón) by his friend Aquilino to get to the San Pablo leper colony; he is allowed to tell his story. He had arrived in Iquitos having escaped from prison in Brazil and worked for Reátegui, from whom he learnt how to do illegal trade. He set himself up on a remote island, forcing the local Huambisa tribe to help him and trafficking rubber until leprosy struck.



A carefully planned and controlled narrative structure creates effects of fragmentation and discontinuity. There are four sections (sections 1 and 3 have four chapters; sections 2 and 4 have three) and an epilogue. La ciudad y los perros also has an organised structure (two parts, both with eight chapters) and contains frequent changes of scene, disturbances of the narrative sequence, shifts of perspective and style which make the story of boyhood rivalry at the Leoncio Prado Academy a challenge to read. In La casa verde the reader is also challenged, forced to jump from one story to another, picking up new plot lines and leaving others in the midst of their development. An ‘objective’ view of characters’ actions (with infrequent use of an omniscient narrator and different views of the same event by different characters) is counter pointed by a subjective view (using interior monologue, dialogue, ‘assimilated dialogue’) and mythical versions of characters/places.


La casa verde, as well as La tía Julia y el escribidor and El hablador, is an exploration of the nature of writing, literature and the limits of narrative – it is about form above all. However, we might add that in La casa verde form and content are linked: the breakdown and discontinuity of chronology reflect economic and political destabilisation.


As a second novel, La casa verde is much more ambitious than La ciudad y los perros, yet continues in the same mould. La casa verde displays some of the qualities of modern writing (identified by theorist Ihab Hassan (1982, 267-268): form, purpose, hierarchy, finished work, clear boundaries in terms of design. Vargas Llosa continued these qualities in Conversación en la catedral; his first ‘postmodern’ novel was La tía Julia y el escribidor, and we will later be contrasting La casa verde’s modern structure with the postmodern elements of El hablador


Simultaneity, primacy of present, assimilated dialogue

Time and space are fragmented: events occurring in different times and places are juxtaposed, producing the illusion of simultaneity, yet this also means the characters’ lives are marked by discontinuity. Fragmentation creates ambiguity; the notion of linear chronology is destroyed and the discontinuous nature of events produces a primacy of the present. An example is the opening of the novel, the scene in which the nuns and soldiers kidnap the Aguaruna girls. In the first sentence, economy and precision create the illusion of an unmediated presence; there is a focus on action, rather than minute description of the rainforest. The second sentence sets the sensory value of the hot, seemingly endless Amazon forest.


[B]       EL SARGENTO echa una ojeada a la Madre Patrocinio y el moscardón sigue allí. La lancha cabecea sobre las aguas turbias, entre dos murallas de árboles que exhalan un vaho quemante, pegajoso. [...] Estos selváticos no eran normales, ¿por qué no sudaban como los demás cristianos? Tiesa en la popa, la Madre Angélica está con los ojos cerrados, en su rostro hay lo menos mil arrugas, a ratos saca una puntita de lengua, sorbe el sudor del bigote y escupe. (La casa verde, 9)


The opening also highlights an important and recurrent technique of assimilated dialogue: dialogue is incorporated, without quotation marks, into the flow of the narrative. This allows for economy of narrative and there is a constant shift of point of view: on the first page the point of view shifts eight times. Dialogue is assimilated into dialogue; it is often difficult to know who the point of view belongs to: this has been termed ‘telescoped dialogue’ (eg by R. L. Williams). Each character tells the story from their flawed, insufficient and self-motivated point of view, creating considerable ambiguity. For example:


[C]       -¿Y que llevabas entonces en esa maleta, Fushía? –dijo Aquilino.

-Mapas de la Amazonía, señor Reátegui –dijo don Fabio-. Enormes, como los que hay en el cuartel. Los clavó en su cuarto y decía es para saber por dónde sacaremos la madera. Había hecho rayas y anotaciones en brasileño, vea qué raro.

-No tiene nada de raro, don Fabio –dijo Fushía-. Además de la madera, también me interesa el comercio. Y a veces es útil tener contactos con los indígenas. Por eso marqué las tribus.

-Hasta las del Marañón y las Ucayali, don Julio –dijo don Fabio-, y yo pensaba qué hombre de empresa, hará una buena pareja con el señor Reátegui. (50-51)

[Fushía-Aquilino, Fabio-Reátegui, Fushía-Fabio]


Time, montage

The novel operates in different times: the story regarding the green house is in the distant past, Bonifacia’s story in the near past and Fushía’s in a near present. Moreover, Vargas Llosa uses montage of time and versions of the same story to expose the many sides of a given fragment of reality.  Time is fragmented and there are shifts between present and future, often using the present tense alone:


[D]       ¿No ves cómo de todo las madres dicen ya te salió el salvaje? –dijo Bonifacia-. ¿No ves cómo dicen ya estás comiendo con las manos, pagana? Me daba vergüenza, Madre.

Las trae de la mano desde la despensa y, en el umbral de su angosta habitación, les indica que esperen. (La casa verde, 85)


One of the principal techniques of the novel is the displacement or repetition of a single event, allowing the reader to gain more knowledge of a previous event or react to it in a new way. For example, Bonifacia’s story at the mission in Santa María de Nieva has not been fully developed when it is already revealed that she has become a prostitute known as la selvática in Piura. This technique of montage has been described by Vargas Llosa in terms of ‘cajas chinas’ – each episode casts light on another, providing clarification, or forcing reassessment. [See Carta de batalla, 38-41]



Critics such as Castro-Klarén (1990, 58) have commented that characters lack depth and are secondary to structure and point of view in terms of importance. For others, such as Williams (1986, 48), multiple viewpoints add depth to the characters. As well as having melodramatic story lines - with love, passion, betrayals, fights, escapes - characterisation is complicit with certain types for Jose Miguel Oviedo:


[E]       [Los] grandes caracteres de la novela de aventuras están dados plenamente en La casa verde: lo mítico (la historia de Anselmo, Antonia y la fundación del antro), lo popular (los Inconquistables y la Manganchería), lo romántico-exótico (el Sargento y Bonifacia), lo heroico (Jum por un lado, Fushía por el otro). (Mario Vargas Llosa: la invención de una realidad, 144-145)


Of the thirty-four characters, Anselmo and Fushía are developed to a certain degree. For example, we read Fushía’s confessions about betraying two people to escape from jail in Brazil at the beginning of the novel but we also learn that he is the victim of economic and political circumstances beyond his control – he becomes a rather pathetic figure. We can add that multiple viewpoints create ambiguous characterisation and that Vargas Llosa’s main concern was with using form to create a complex picture of a part of Peruvian reality. This ties in with the ideas of Dick Gerdes (1985, 68), for whom characterisation is created in a ‘radically different way’ – through use of different viewpoints (balancing the objective and the subjective), conjecture, speculation: there is a balance between social complexity and individual choice.


Points of view, multi-faceted reality

The novel is linked to historical events and has a political edge (as claimed by Vargas Llosa in his acceptance speech): the novel represents, on one level, a denunciation of the abuse of the indigenous peoples by official Lima-based Peru and by rubber merchants. His neo-realist presentation of socio-political concerns becomes increasingly complex in his early work: from La ciudad y los perros to La casa verde to Conversación en la catedral. However, in contrast with La ciudad y los perros, there is a complex and ambiguous interplay between fiction, reality and myth. Anselmo is an enigmatic, mythical figure [‘Se llamaba Anselmo y decía ser peruano, pero nadie logró reconocer la procedencia de su acento’ (54, 55)] and los inconquistables, with their virile, macho and violent camaraderie become a legend. The green house itself, which was once destroyed, also operates on the level of myth and is symbolic of repressed collective sexuality: green suggests lush fertility, yet is set in the barren desert. It also represents a symbol of economic and sexual exploitation.


Vargas Llosa attempts to present a multi-faceted reality with the impression of impartiality - without authorial comment. The novel presents many layers of discourses from different geographic areas and social spheres: as well as ‘telescoped dialogue’, there is conventional dialogue, an omniscient third person narrator (eg in descriptions of the house), use of a second person narrator. Vargas Llosa’s aim was to offer a multi-faceted view of Peruvian reality with multiple viewpoints (La ciudad y los perros also): ‘las grandes novelas no mutilan la realidad, sino que lo ensanchan; no sólo son novedosas, sino que dan un testimonio nuevo, son totalizadoras’ (see Standish 1982, 16) [F]

He also claimed at the time that the novel should aim at self-sufficiency and an illusion of authority: ‘esos mundos justificados por sí mismos, como independientes de todo elemento ajeno, de todo ser extraño, como lo sería el autor’ (see Standish 1982, 19) [G]


These modern elements change radically with La tía Julia y el escribidor and El hablador, where the author is present in the first person  – typical of postmodern narration. With multiple viewpoints the reader of La casa verde plays a significant role in creating meaning. The subjective multiple viewpoints – which include characters’ self-deception - challenge interpretation and in this respect La casa verde is also about narration and the role of the writer in society – the central themes of Vargas Llosa’s Rómulo Gallegos speech and of El hablador.


El hablador


Structure and Plot

While viewing an exhibition in Florence, the autobiographical narrator (Vargas Llosa) sees a photograph of the Machiguenga people he had visited in the Amazon twenty years earlier. At this point the novel goes back to the narrator’s university days at San Marcos in Lima and his friendship with Saúl Zurata, a student doing research on the Machiguengas. The narrator recalls that Saúl was doubly disadvantaged because he was Jewish and had a large purple birthmark on his face, for which he was given the nickname mascarita.


Eight chapters: the first and the last are set in Florence and are brief, framing; the other six are 30-40 pages long. Moves on from La casa verde’s use of episodes to a more readable format – a format first used in La tía Julia y el escribidor. The novel has two main narratives which are clearly separated in chapters – and this eclectic technique is a key postmodern feature also used in La tía Julia y el escribidor. The novel alternates chapters in Lima centred on the friendship with Saúl with chapters in which an hablador tells about the Machiguengas’ cosmology, their health rituals, hallucinatory dreams, their fishing and cultivation of yucca, their reasons for endlessly roaming in the Pucallpa region. In the end the two strands come together with the disappearance of Saúl from Lima and the admission by the narrator that the hablador must be Saúl. It would appear that Saúl feigned his own disappearance in Lima to join the Machiguengas and that he is the hablador.


There are three narrative levels: one is Vargas Llosa the novelist considering novel writing in Florence; the second is the narrator of the novel (Vargas Llosa) recalling his university days and the third is the hablador telling stories.


Narrative Style: Orality and Literacy

El Hablador is explicitly about narration and the social function of the writer – like La tía Julia y el escribidor and much more so than La casa verde. It is about a novelist in the process of writing about a story-teller in the process of telling stories. There is a dichotomy between the literary narrator and (the illusion of) an oral narrator. The literary narrator gives us intricate descriptions of the rainforest as he visits to research his novel that we are reading (highly self-conscious):


En ciertos lugares, en canoas indígenas, a través de delgados caños de aguas sumergidas bajo una vegetación tan intricada que en pleno día, parecía de noche. La fuerza y la soledad de la Naturaleza – los altísimos árboles,  las tersas lagunas, los ríos inmutables – sugerían un mundo recién creado, virgen de hombres, un paraíso vegetal y animal. (71) [A]


[Ironic given the fact that the Machiguengas are forced to flee.] In the case of the hablador, emphasis is placed on the communal activity of story-telling; story-telling/literature as performance and the language is characterised by short sentences and noun clauses, mixing of tenses and confusion of time adverbs and chronology.


Las cosas que uno menos creería, hablan…Los huesos, las espinas. Los guijarros, los bejucos. Las matitas y las hojas que están brotando. El alacrán. La fila de hormigas que arrastra el moscardón al hormiguero. La mariposa con arcoiris en las alas. El picaflor. Habla el ratón trepado en la rama y hablan los círculos del agua…Todos tienen algo que contar. (127) [B]


This stylistic dichotomy reflects socio-political concerns. The orality/literacy dichotomy forms a metaphor for the rift in Peruvian society between the non-indigenous, Spanish speaking, Lima-based and the indigenous other, non-Spanish speaking. This split was particularly prominent in the 1930s, when it was debated whether to include the non-Spanish in the cultural and political agenda of the country (indianismo, indigenismo). José María Arguedas’ novel El zorro de arriba, el zorro de abajo (1971) is a precedent for Vargas Llosa’s work in that the novelist and anthropologist includes Quechua orality and myth into the novel. It should be noted, however, that Vargas Llosa worked from secondary sources and the story-telling is based on fiction rather than an attempt to depict reality. The Machiguengas’ world is not the product of anthropological research but a mix of information, fiction and myth. Vargas Llosa plays with the fact that he can encroach on other forms of writing without sacrificing his creative freedom. The novelist is all-powerful, as can be noted at the final point when the author decides the story-teller is to be Saúl.


Machiguengas/Amazon; ‘Voice’ and Assimilation

The ongoing discussion between Vargas Llosa and Saúl focuses on a central issue in Peruvian history: the assimilation of the Machiguengas and other peoples to the economy and history of colonised Peru. This goes back to the arguments of the Peruvian Marxist critic José Carlos Mariátegui in the 1930s: he argued for the non-Spanish to be included as part of the official culture of Peru and for the indigenous to be given a political voice. Only in 1968, with the ‘revolutionary’ military government of Velasco, did Quechua become an official language.

An interesting feature of the book is that the narrator’s heavy-handed approach to the Machiguengas in his arguments with Saúl develops as the narrator returns to visit the rainforest later in life.


Si el precio del desarollo y la industrialización, para los dieciseís millones de peruanos, era que esos pocos millares de calatos tuvieran que cortarse el pelo, lavarse los tatuajes y volverse mestizos –o, para usar la más odiada palabra del etnólogo: aculturarse -, pues, ¿qué remedio? (28) [C]


This becomes:


Los machiguengas se hallaban en pleno proceso de aculturación: la Biblia, escuelas bilingues, un líder evangelista, la propiedad privada, el valor del dinero, el comercio, sin duda ropas occidentales…¿Había sido todo eso para el bien? (157) [D]


This more sensitive approach to the Machiguengas also builds on the critique of the exploitation of the Huambisa in La casa verde. Vargas Llosa outlines the lives of the Machiguenga people: the rainforest is filled with signals which indicate the presence of little devils trying to harm one of the group; they believe it is their duty to keep moving to aid the sun rise and set and to avoid the viracochas - Peruvians who come to recruit labour. For O’Bryan-Knight (1995, 75), the novel represents ‘an ethnography of an Amazon population, the Machiguenga’. However, this misses the point, as mentioned earlier, that the novel is primarily about the imaginative possibilities of fiction – story-telling - even though there is a more sensitive approach being used.


Vargas Llosa’s autobiographical position, ridiculing Saúl’s ‘leave them alone’ argument is counter pointed by the intertwining narrative, which shows the Machiguenga culture to be self-sufficient and highly civilised and also by the growing suspicion that Saúl is the outsider pretending to be the hablador. Saúl (like Arguedas!) is the anthropologist who renders the Machiguenga discourse and memory in an orderly fashion and in Spanish. The underlying suspicion is also that there are no habladores but that the discourse is the cultural construct of the anthropologist and of Vargas Llosa.


We need to consider the question of voice: postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak warns that ‘you cannot consider all other subjects and that you should look at your own subjective investment [in the narrative]’ (1990, 29). She separates ‘speaking for’ and ‘speaking as’. ‘Speaking as’ means the critic is representative of a position and for Spivak the critic should distance himself/herself from this and adopt a multiplicity of positions, without necessarily ‘speaking for’ either (1990, 60). Perhaps La casa verde is more successful in this sense because it offers an ambiguous, fragmented view.

In this novel, the Machiguengas’ ideas are translated into Western discourse: the apparently unmediated, oral performance of the hablador is the written Spanish translation of the performance of the non-Machiguenga Saúl. Though we are initially given the illusion that a Machiguenga hablador is speaking, we discover that there is a form of ventriloquy in process. While the novel is, on one level, a discussion of the exploitative assimilation of the Amazon peoples, on another level it is itself an assimilation of the other into the Spanish-speaking self of the novel. This argument can be strengthened further by looking outside the novel: in his campaign to be president in the 1990s Peruvian elections, Vargas Llosa argued that progress was only possible with the ‘modernisation’ of the Indian peoples.


El hablador: narration and fiction

The hablador’s role is to visit the scattered groups and to maintain the ethnic group’s identity and continuity; he is the collective memory of the Machiguengas. He is a mythical figure with no name or identity. He questions the nature of story-telling: nearly every story ends with ‘Eso es, al menos, lo que yo he sabido’. This fact casts doubt on the narrative process, on story-telling and autobiography – a central issue raised in La tía Julia y el escribidor.


The more explicit presence of Vargas Llosa in El hablador reflects a play between fiction and reality that Ihab Hassan considers characteristic of the postmodern. Vargas Llosa has also commented on this importance of autobiographical presence:


[E]       Yo creo que todas las novelas son autobiográficas y que sólo pueden ser autobiográficas [...] y que la habilidad del escritor, del novelista, no está en crear propiamente sino en disimular, en enmascarar, en disfrazar lo que hay de personal en lo que escribe. (La verdad de las mentiras: ensayos sobre la novela moderna, 17)


The narrative technique of El hablador allows for less freedom of reading when compared to La casa verde. La casa verde’s fragmented, multiple viewpoints allow the reader to be part of the creative process – to create meaning. El hablador has a clearer presentation and the autobiographical presence serves to impinge on and control the reader’s understanding. An example of this is the story of Jum: in La casa verde, Jum’s story is tied up with Fushía’s and is open-ended and ambiguous. In El hablador the novel proposes that the only way forward for Jum is to continue with the cooperative (El hablador, 75).


Through the vehicle of the hablador, the narrator reflects on the nature of story-telling and he also shows interest in other story-tellers, such as the Brazilian trovero; their existence confirms to Vargas Llosa that story-telling fulfils a primal need and their social function validates his own. Their invention of stories and the communication of them are mirrored by the creativity of Vargas Llosa the novelist:


[Un contador de historias] está cumpliendo una función parecida a la que yo cumplo en esta sociedad que vivo: fabular, contar historias, entretener y, al mismo tiempo, también comunicar algo que viene de otras partes. See http://www.geocities.com/boomlatino/vobra07.html, interview with Vargas Llosa on the writing of El hablador. [F]


This blend of myth, fantasy and reality might allow for the possibility of considering ‘magical realism’. If we consider the definition of the term offered by Alejo Carpentier, we can see why El hablador is often listed as a novel with elements of ‘magical realism’. ‘Lo real maravilloso’ was a term introduced by Alejo Carpentier in his prologue to El reino de este mundo. The Cuban novelist was searching for a concept broad enough to accommodate both the events of everyday life and the fabulous nature of Latin American geography and history. However, El hablador has a different focus: whereas, typically, magical realism has fantastic events incorporated in the novel in an unassuming way, El hablador explicitly explores the nature of story-telling and elaborating. Vargas Llosa doesn’t incorporate fantastic elements into the narrative without acknowledging the part played by the narrator in making them fantastic. The novel is about the fantastic possibilities of story-telling rather than the fantastic elements of Amazon reality, and for this reason magical realism seems an inappropriate tag.


Entertainment, Critique

In the above quotation, Vargas Llosa says his function is to entertain. This ties in with a move in his fiction towards popular culture (and a shift from el boom to el posboom). Note, however, that Vargas Llosa still writes. La tía Julia y el escribidor tries to bridge the gap between elitist and mass culture (all episodes have the same status initially at least) and overtly rejects metanarrative with use of an eclectic format (mix of chronicle, ‘mock’ autobiography, realist novel and parody of romantic novel, use of radionovela). Just as La tía Julia y el escribidor has stereotypical soap opera episodes interpolated with the episodes of Marito/Camacho, the hablador’s story-telling is interpolated with episodes which discuss the rift in Peruvian society. The pleasure of reading about the melodramatic soap operas is matched here by the pleasures of the hablador’s stories, which blend myth, fantasy and reality – a blend which is designed to captivate the reader.


Some critics have lamented the shift towards more accessible and enjoyable formats in Vargas Llosa. Joseph Sommers finds increasing frivolity in Vargas Llosa’s fiction after 1963: ‘There is a shift toward a conception of the novel as entertainment instead of a challenge’ – see Naomi Lindstrom 1998, 31. [G]

Vargas Llosa himself addresses the question of high and low culture in La tía Julia y el escribidor, suggesting there are no lines to be drawn between the writer of soap opera (supposedly low culture) and the prize-winning novelist (high culture):


¿Por qué esos personajes que se servían de la literatura como adorno o pretexto iban a ser más escritores que Pedro Camacho, quien sólo vivía para escribir? ¿Por qué ellos habian leído (o, la menos, sabían que deberían haber leído) a Proust, a Faulkner, a Joyce, y Pedro Camacho era poco más que un analfabeto? (La tía Julia y el escribidor, 235-236) [H]


Vargas Llosa does much more than entertain in both La tía Julia y el escribidor and El hablador. We can bring in Linda Hutcheon’s (1989, 13) idea of ‘complicitous critique’ taken from her book The Politics of Postmodernism. Vargas Llosa focuses on the pleasures of story-telling in El hablador and at the same time offers critique: he questions the status of literature and popular culture (at the forefront of Peruvian culture today) and discusses the problematic relationship between the different cultures of Peru. The importance of politics continues throughout Vargas Llosa’s work and does not decrease. With a shift towards more accessible narrative formats - visible from La casa verde to El habladorVargas Llosa tries to balance socio-political critique and pleasures of the text. My final question: is El hablador less successful than La casa verde in bringing these issues to the attention of the reader?


(Selected) Bibliography



1.      Los jefes (Editorial Lumen, n.d.) [f. p. 1959]

2.      La ciudad y los perros (Seix Barral, 1963) [f. p. 1963]

3.      La casa verde (Seix Barral, 1967) [f. p. 1965]

4.      Los cachorros (Bristol Classical Press, 2001) [f. p. 1967]

5.      Conversación en la catedral (Seix Barral, 1969) [f. p. 1969]

6.      Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Seix Barral, 1992) [f. p. 1973]

7.      La tía Julia y el escribidor (Faber, 1983) [f. p. 1977]

8.      La guerra del fin del mundo (Seix Barral, 1981) [f. p. 1981]

9.      Historia de Mayta (Seix Barral, 1985) [f. p. 1984]

10.  ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (Seix Barral, 1986) [f. p. 1986]

11.  El hablador (Seix Barral, 1987) [f. p. 1987]

12.  Elogio de la madrastra (Tusquets, 1989) [f. p. 1988]

13.  Lituma en los Andes (Planeta, 1993) [f. p. 1993]

14.  Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto (Alfaguara, 1997) [f. p. 1997]

15.  La fiesta del chivo (Aguilar, 2000) [f. p. 2000]


Essays and Autobiography

1.      García Márquez: historia de un deicidio (Seix Barral, 1971)

2.      El combate imaginario. Las cartas de batalla de Joanot Martorell (Seix Barral, 1971)

3.      La historia secreta de una novela (Tusquets, 1971)

4.      La orgía perpetua: Flaubert y “Madame Bovary” (Seix Barral, 1975)

5.      Entre Sartre y Camus (Ediciones Huracán, 1981)

6.      Contra viento y marea (1962-1982) (Seix Barral, 1983)

7.      Contra viento y marea. Volumen II (1972-1983) (Seix Barral, 1986)

8.      Contra viento y marea. Volumen III (1964-1988) (Seix Barral, 1990)

9.      La verdad de las mentiras: Ensayos sobre la novela moderna (Alfaguara, 1990)

10.  Carta de batalla por Tirant lo Blanc (Seix Barral, 1991)

11.  El pez en el agua. Memorias (Seix Barral, 1993)

12.  Desafíos a la libertad (Aguilar, 1994)

13.  La utopía arcaica: José María Arguedas y las ficciones del indigenismo (FCE, 1996)

14.  Cartas a un joven novelista (Planeta, 1997)

15.  El lenguaje de la pasión (Aguilar, 2001)


On Vargas Llosa

1.      Castro-Klarén, S. 1990. Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa, Columbia: Univeristy of South Carolina

2.      Durán, V. M. 1994. A Marxist Readiing of Fuentes, Vargas Llosa and Puig, New York: Lanham

3.      Gerdes, D. 1985. Mario Vargas Llosa, Boston: Twayne World Author Series

4.      Giacoman, H. F and Oviedo, J. M. 1972. Homenaje a Mario Vargas Llosa, Madrid: Las Américas

5.      O’Bryan-Knight, J. 1995. The Story of the Story-teller, Amsterdam: Rodopi

6.      Oviedo, J. M. 1977. Mario Vargas Llosa: la invención de una realidad, Barcelona: Seix Barral

7.      Poniatowska, E. 1969. Antología mínima de Mario Vargas Llosa, Buenos Aires: Editorial Tiempo Contemporáneo

8.      Standish, P. 1982. La ciudad y los perros, London: Grant & Cutler

9.      Valdez Moses, M. 1995. The novel and the globalisation of culture, New York: OUP

10.  Williams, R. L. 1986. Mario Vargas Llosa, New York: Ungar



1.      Arguedas, J. M. 2000. El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press

2.      Hassan, I. 1982. The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature, London: University of Wisconsin Press

3.      Hutcheon, L. 1989. The Politics of Postmodernism, London: Routledge

4.      Lindstrom, N. 1998. The Social Conscience of Latin American Writing, Austin: University of Texas Press

5.      Spivak, G. 1990. The Post-colonial Critic, London: Routledge


Internet Resources


http://www.clubcultura.com/clubliteratura/clubescritores/vargasllosa  [very good site, which claims to be the ‘página oficial’]


http://www.geocities.com/Paris/2102/index.html  [very wide-ranging; some errors]


http://sololiteratura.com/vargasllosaprincipal.htm [useful links on Vargas Llosa and many other Latin American writers]


http://www.andes.missouri.edu/andes/literatura/ [online journal on Peruvian culture]


http://lanic.utexas.edu/la/peru/ [primary site for research resources relating to Peru]


http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk/spanish/SP12/Vargas/cvquot.htm [our Dept of Spanish page]


© Robert Ruz, 2002


Home ] Up ] [ Lecture on Vargas Llosa ] La casa verde ]