Mario Vargas Llosa

updated 04/09/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/09/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Mario Vargas Llosa was a boy, his father caught him writing poetry. That was not considered appropriate for boys in Peru's macho culture, so, to teach his son to be a man, Ernesto Vargas, a middle-class businessman, enrolled him at age 13 in Leoncio Prado Military School.

It proved a useful education, but not in the way his father anticipated. In 1963, at 27, Vargas Llosa—still a writer and, worse, a Communist—wrote his first novel, The Time of the Hero, about corruption and brutality at the Leoncio Prado Military School. The school held a public ceremony to burn 1,000 copies.

Last month there was another ceremony: Vargas Llosa, now 54, was the guest of honor at a lunch for 800 of his former military-school classmates and teachers. Amid liquor and laughter, he warmly reminisced with his fellow alumni, who had gathered to give him their support in Peru's April 8 elections. The former renegade, now a man of the political right, is running for President, which would also make him Commander-in-Chief.

From Communist to conservative, from novelist to politician, the twists of Mario Vargas Llosa's life mirror the fiction that has made him Peru's most celebrated writer. His books resemble those Russian dolls nested one inside the other, written in layers that he peels back one by one to expose his country's decay. His newborn political career may turn out to have a similar structure—a bold impulse to effect radical change becoming compromised and degraded by the corruption and cynicism that pervade Peru.

Vargas Llosa is running for office during the worst crisis in the history of a country perpetually in crisis. The last five years under President Alan García, a young, dynamic social reformer who took office amid high hopes, have brought inflation near a million percent. The country is virtually bankrupt, its one great source of revenue is the sale of coca leaves, and a sprawling government bureaucracy has placed so many controls on private enterprise that most people choose to operate illegally. Lima, which reeks of urine, kerosene and fermenting garbage, was without electricity and water most of last month. Peruvians joke that only two things in the country work: the women's volleyball team (silver medalist at the Seoul Olympics) and the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group bent on wiping out the old order and starting over.

Dressed in a yellow cotton shirt and khaki pants, Vargas Llosa plunges into the winding corridors of Lima's 3 de Febrero market. He is tall and handsome, and the market women, dressed mainly in secondhand T-shirts and old skirts, cluck as he goes by. "Mario, this inflation is killing us," yells a woman. He stops among the tall bags of corn and listens gravely to her story of spiraling prices and black-market deals. "That's why we're working," he says, "to get rid of the corruption and controls and bring you a free market. We want everybody in Peru to own a business. To want to be a proprietor is to want to be modern and free." One old woman hands the candidate a bouquet, others sprinkle him with confetti. But Vargas Llosa is stiff, less interested in hugging children than in trying to explain his economic policies as the TV cameramen jostle with his security guards.

Mingling in a dirty market redolent of garlic does not come naturally to a man accustomed to the salons of Europe. "He's gritting his teeth," says his son Alvaro, 24. "He feels uncomfortable in politics. All his time is spent discussing stupid little things, and he has to answer every question without getting impatient."

Although he has written political novels and essays all his life, running for office had not occurred to Vargas Llosa until July 1987, when the impetuous García announced he would nationalize the country's banks. Vargas Llosa was horrified, convinced it was the first step to totalitarianism. He formed a political group, Libertad, to protest. He called a rally in downtown Lima, expecting to draw a few hundred well-dressed businessmen. "Instead there were 100,000 poor people screaming in favor of freedom," says his wife, Patricia. "That breathed life into the whole thing." By the end of an impassioned speech, Vargas Llosa's candidacy was on its way.

So now he poses for photos with Indians in traditional dress, answers the same questions dozens of times a day and follows all the rules of campaigning. "Hamlet-style doubts produce rich literature," says Vargas Llosa. "But in politics they're not permitted." The polls put him ahead of his three main opponents, but short of the 50 percent total needed to win outright. So he has begun to soften his earlier pronouncements—dire warnings that massive government cutbacks and price hikes can save Peru's economy.

His closest adviser is Patricia, a stylish, sharp-edged woman of 43. "I help him decide whom he sees, what's on his schedule, even his governing platform," she says. But her support came only after a long battle against his candidacy. "I didn't want him to sacrifice his writing for another five years," she says. "And of course, there's the problem of security."

There is always the problem of security. Patricia and Mario, who have two children in addition to Alvaro—Gonzalo, 23, and Morgana, 17—live in an elegant house in Lima's best neighborhood, protected by high walls and about a dozen security guards. Over Saturday lunch, they have just heard that Julian Huamani, a congressional candidate from Vargas Llosa's party, has been killed in Ayacucho, reportedly by the Shining Path. (More than 150 candidates have been assassinated in Peru since 1988; hundreds more have been threatened.) Last year the Shining Path, which is trying to enforce a boycott of the elections, allegedly ambushed Vargas Llosa's campaign plane on the ground in Pucallpa, wounding four people.

Vargas Llosa wants to go to Huamani's funeral, but the only plane available is too small to accommodate security guards. "Peru doesn't need another hero," Patricia says sharply. "We need flesh-and-blood people alive to solve problems." But another plane is found, and Vargas Llosa flies to Ayacucho to bow his head with the dead candidate's mother, a peasant. "I am very conscious of the risk for myself and my family—the possibility of kidnapping or assassination," he says. "I knew it would be part of running for office. But it is important to act as if we live in a civilized country."

Vargas Llosa, a man of extraordinary discipline and ambition, was also a boy of extraordinary discipline and ambition. His parents separated when he was born, and he was raised mainly by his mother's parents, moving from Peru to Bolivia and back. When he was 10, his parents remarried, and he joined them in Lima. But after two years of military school, he moved with his grandfather to Piura. By that time, "he had already published stories and poems in Lima's newspapers," says Javier Silva Ruete, his best boyhood friend. "He's very rational, someone who analyzes things, decides what he wants and then works hard to get it."

What he wanted was to write, but he also set out to change the world. Instead of going to the Catholic University, where boys from good families went, he chose to study law at San Marcos University, a free school dominated by students from Peru's working class. There he joined a Communist Party cell. "What brought me to Marxism was my indignation over injustice," he says. But he soon broke with party members over his love for "decadent" literature, including French novels and medieval tales.

At 19, penniless, he scandalized his family by marrying his 29-year-old aunt by marriage, Julia Urquidi. (Years later he wrote a comic novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.) His father threatened him with a pistol when he heard the news. Vargas Llosa took Julia to Europe, where at one point he was working seven different jobs—among them teaching Spanish at Berlitz—to support his new wife and his writing. In 1965 his first cousin (and Julia's niece) Patricia Llosa came to study in Paris. Shortly thereafter, Vargas Llosa divorced Julia to marry Patricia, whom he had known since childhood. "Our families have always been extremely close," says Patricia. "There is almost a tribal tradition."

In Paris, Vargas Llosa quickly became part of the "Boom," an explosion of leftist Latin American writers led by Gabriel García Márquez. Vargas Llosa was a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre's and championed the Cuban revolution. "Cuba created the idea that democratic socialism could come to Latin America," he says, "that the problem of poverty and backwardness could be solved." Throughout the '60s he traveled often to Havana and made fiery speeches defending Fidel Castro.

Today he smiles at the old Vargas Llosa. "Little by little I began to see the reality," he says. "Cuba was authoritarianism. The symptoms were there from the beginning, but we had too many illusions. We didn't want to see." The breaking point was Castro's 1971 imprisonment of Vargas Llosa's friend Heberto Padilla, a poet and critic of the regime.

"It was a very difficult time for him," recalls Abelardo Oquendo, a university professor in Lima who was Vargas Llosa's closest friend in the '60s. "The left tried to paint him as an enemy of revolution. And all of a sudden the upper class was inviting him to speak. The right had nicer clothes, better receptions, prettier women. As the sector of his former friends, the left, closed to him, another sector was opening." Vargas Llosa first broke with the left, then, having lost faith in social democracy, with the center. By the early 1980s, he was touting the free-market policies of Britain's Margaret Thatcher with the same conviction with which he had espoused Castroism.

Vargas Llosa, who also lived in Barcelona and London before returning to Peru in 1974, is now well-off and has little in common with most of his countrymen. "He wants Peru to become modern, but when he says modern he means European," says Oquendo. "He's convinced he can apply his ideas and Peru will change." Blanca Varela, a Latin-culture expert who is a longtime friend of Vargas Llosa, is doubtful. "Peru has never seen efficient, honest government," she says. "Not that the presidents are corrupt. It's the groups that surround them and bring them to power. Mario is working with a lot of people he doesn't particularly care for. He is trying to change them."

This is the most troubling of the contradictions that Vargas Llosa must ignore as he seeks the Presidency: The supporters who now embrace his notions of modernity are largely the same wealthy businessmen and landowners who have kept Peru in a feudal state. And though he has always defended human rights, one of his principal advisers is retired Gen. Sinecio Jarama, under whom hundreds of people allegedly were tortured and dozens disappeared. "I had nothing to do with that government," Vargas Llosa says, as if he will somehow be able to reform the brutal military that he described so well in his novels. "I wish politics could be a debate about ideas, but in practice it is full of intrigues and maneuvers. I can only try to change things."

Yet the pessimistic message of Vargas Llosa's 10 novels is that, in Peru, idealism always crumbles into resignation or corruption—he once called the country "an incurable disease." The challenge facing Mario Vargas Llosa the politician is to avoid ending up as a Mario Vargas Llosa character, skewered by the very ironies he has mastered so well as a writer.

From Our Partners