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Must-read South American authors: Mario Vargas Llosa

Published June 23, 2015 by Nick Dall

If you’re planning a trip to Peru I’d seriously recommend getting your hands on something by the Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. He may not tell you where to find the best ceviche, but he provides insights into Peru which no guidebook can match.
His fame
In the US people like Miley Cyrus, Tiger Woods and Kim Kardashian grab the headlines but in South American chefs, authors, architects and poets share at least a little of the limelight with football players and telenovela stars.
Mario-Vargas-llosa
Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian national hero, but – as he himself said – “A writer must never turn into a statue.” He has certainly walked the talk. In a career which has so far spanned more than half a century, he was written nearly twenty novels, about fifteen works of non-fiction, ten plays and countless essays and articles. I haven’t read them all, but some of his novels are among my favourites and they never fail to evoke memories of Peru.
My favourite light read
aunt juliaAunt Julia and the scriptwriter is a charming book. It’s based on Vargas Llosa’s real-life marriage to his aunt, when he was eighteen and she was about thirty, but – both parties agree – it is still very much a novel. The love story between Julia and Mario is padded by interchapters based on the radio soap operas written by Camacho, the scriptwriter of the title.
Often when authors employ such a structure one finds oneself favouring one storyline over the other, but with this book they are both equally absorbing. I think it is because the true hero (or heroine?) of this book is Lima of the fifties, in all her glory and all her gore. The soap opera episodes are fantastical, involving as they do Jehovah’s Witnesses, policemen and prostitutes, and Camacho himself is a bigoted character whose hatred of Argentines is almost offensive.  But Lima is a many-faceted city, and the sweetness and light of Mario and Julia’s love story would not do it justice…the interchapters provide a much needed dose of grimy reality.
My favourite heavy read
death in the andesDeath in the Andes is set in a desperate and desolate Andean town and tells the story of Lituma, the policeman from Piura, who struggles to solve a murder in this small mining community. Neither he nor the reader is ever quite sure whether the crime was committed by terrucos from the Shining Path or if it can be attributed to something more sinister: the huaycos, or spirits of the mountain, who seek retribution for the desecration of their souls by the mining companies.
In spite of the very serious subject matter, Death in the Andes does have occasional comic moments. It offers great insight into the politics of Peru in the 1980s and sheds light not only on the Maoists, but also on the disenfranchised mountain people who did not stand to benefit from either the Shining Path or the government. The interweaving of pre-Colombian mythology into the narrative makes it a magical-realist novel, although this is a magic which is far less dazzling and a lot creepier than anything  Gabriel Garcia Marquez ever dished up.
Further reading
Vargas Llosa wrote reams, but I think these two books are a great place to start if you’re planning a trip to Peru. If, like I was, you’re done with them before you even get on the plane then I’d advise you to try his debut novel, The Time of the Hero (which gives such an accurate portrayal of a military academy in Lima that it was banned by the military government of the time), before moving onto the epics, Conversations in the Cathedral and The War of the End of the World. Or, if Aunt Julia was more your cup of tea there’s always The Bad Girl. Whatever you read, you won’t be disappointed, and you will find out a lot about Peru while you’re at it.