By Mario Vargas Llosa.
Edited and translated by John King.
pp. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $
iterature is a form of permanent insurrection,'' said Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer, in a essay called ''Literature Is Fire.'' ''Its mission is to arouse, to disturb, to alarm, to keep men in a constant state of dissatisfaction with themselves.'' He was at that time a phenomenon: a year-old writer who, with only two novels to his name, had become a major figure in the so-called boom in Latin American literature.
Three decades later, Vargas Llosa is a writer whose inventiveness and ambition have yielded 11 novels, including ''Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter'' () and ''The War of the End of the World'' (), as well as an assortment of short stories, plays, critical studies and essays.
Until now, the essays have been largely unavailable in English, but a substantial collection embracing three decades of work has just been published. ''Making Waves,'' edited and translated by John King, is a diverse and representative volume that allows us, for the first time, to trace this enigmatic, often brilliant writer's controversial, occasionally baffling intellectual journey.
The controversial part has to do with Vargas Llosa's politics, which in the 's veered to the right. From the outside, it looked as if he had gone from Marx to Mrs. Thatcher in the twinkling of an eye, from a firebrand socialist to the free marketeer who ran for the presidency of Peru in but lost, much to everyone's surprise, to a relatively unknown challenger, Alberto K. Fujimori. This ideological turn did not, of course, endear Vargas Llosa to his former comrades in letters. Was his call for writers ''to arouse, to disturb, to alarm'' mere blandishment?
If one reads ''Literature Is Fire'' more closely, one begins to understand. The young Mario Vargas Llosa stated clearly that ''dogma, censorship and arbitrary acts are also mortal enemies of progress and human dignity,'' noting that ''the road to truth is not always smooth and straight.'' Like other Latin American writers in the late 50's and the 60's, he applauded Fidel Castro, but by he had come to reject the Cuban model. This was made clear in several open letters, one of which is reprinted here. It concerns the imprisonment of the poet Heberto Padilla and the subsequent coercion of certain prominent Cuban intellectuals to back Fidel: ''To force comrades, with methods repugnant to human dignity, to accuse themselves of imaginary betrayals and sign letters in which even the syntax seems to be that of the police, is the negation of everything that made me embrace, from the first day, the cause of the Cuban revolution: its decision to fight for justice without losing respect for individuals.''
A similar resistance to the brutal aspect of state socialism can be found in ''Socialism and the Tanks,'' written shortly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in Vargas Llosa wrote: ''The sending of Soviet tanks into Prague to suppress a movement of socialist democratization is as much to be condemned as the dispatching of American marines to Santo Domingo to stamp out by violence a popular uprising against a military dictatorship and an unjust social system.''
''Making Waves'' is fascinating, in part, because one can follow the twists and turns of the writer's mind as he tries, again and again, to find a balance between social justice and individual freedom, searching for models and arguments everywhere from Sartre and Camus to Isaiah Berlin. In ''The Mandarin'' (), Vargas Llosa reconsidered his youthful attachment to Sartre: ''One could say that he was full of contradictions, that his passion often caused him to be unjust and yet, at the same time, there was always a basic generosity and moral honesty in his attitudes and ideas that made him, with all his mistakes and political naivete, respectable.'' In a strange way, this might also be taken as a description of the essayist himself. As he grappled with the complex political realities of South America, he moved inexorably from a naive utopianism to a version of liberalism that involves a commitment to the free market and a passionate attachment to individual liberty.
This classic liberalism includes a belief in pluralism, and here Isaiah Berlin proved an astute guide. In a major reformulation of his principles, Vargas Llosa wrote in
''Reading Isaiah Berlin, I have come to see clearly something that I had intuited in a confused way. That real progress, which has withered or overthrown the barbarous practices and institutions that were the source of infinite suffering for man, and has established more civilized relations and styles of life, has always been achieved through a partial, heterodox and deformed application of social theories.''
The descent of Mario Vargas Llosa into the crude, exhilarating world of everyday politics in the late 80's has been fully described in his memoir, ''A Fish in the Water'' (). But one is able to comprehend that plunge more fully having tracked his gradual movement toward liberal pragmatism.
A fair number of the essays in this collection deal with the complex negotiations that occur between fact and fiction. ''Only literature has the techniques and powers to distill this delicate elixir of life: the truth hidden in the heart of human lies,'' he says in ''The Truth of Lies.'' He insists on keeping literature and history in separate compartments, seeing this as ''a prerogative of open societies.'' For him, a ''closed society'' is one where governments can force writers to heel to an interpretation of the facts that legitimizes a given regime.
On the other hand, when writers are allowed to produce an alternative vision, ''literature extends human life, adding the dimension that fuels the life deep within us -- that impalpable and fleeting but precious life that we only live through lies.'' While this is nicely phrased, Karl Popper's terminology sounds oddly outdated in the post-cold-war era, where ''open'' and ''closed'' seem inadequate in the face of such well-managed fantasies as the New World Order. How does one, for example, deal with the endless ''fictions'' thrown up -- by ''open'' societies -- as historical truth?
Vargas Llosa is perhaps at his best on particular writers, himself included. There is an entertaining piece on Hemingway as memoirist, a shrewd critique of Joyce's ''Dubliners,'' a workmanlike reconsideration of Dos Passos' ''Manhattan Transfer'' and two sharp essays on Faulkner. ''Faulkner's world was really not his alone,'' he suggests. ''It was ours.'' He finds stunning parallels between Faulkner's Mississippi and the world of the Latin American novel, including ''violence, heat, greed, an untamable nature which seems to reflect instincts that people do not try to keep in check.''
Some of the finest moments in the book are in those essays where the novelist speaks in the first person, taking us back to his childhood in Peru and Bolivia in ''The Country of a Thousand Faces,'' to his days as a graduate student in Madrid in ''When Madrid Was a Village,'' and to his years of self-imposed exile in Paris -- a subject that recurs in many of these pieces. In all, Vargas Llosa offers a detailed road map of his imaginative world in ''Making Waves,'' and readers of his fiction can only be grateful.
Jay Parini's fifth novel, ''Benjamin's Crossing,'' has just been published. He teaches literature at Middlebury College.
More on Mario Vargas Llosa
From the Archives of The New York Times
You cant win; If you tell lies people will distrust you. If you tell the truth people will dislike you. Oscar Wilde
This and other illuminating quotes about that fundamental human trait the ability to be dishonest welcome you at the website connected to the upcoming film (Dis)honesty The Truth About Lies, directed by Yael Melamede. But the first thing that pops up is a question: Have you lied today?
That introduction sets the tone personal, confrontational and thought-provoking which also define this smart, accessible film. Focusing on the work of Duke professor Dan Ariely, (Dis)honesty smoothly navigates its way between Arielys engaging lecturing, fascinating social experiments and revealing interviews with people who have lied in major ways and paid the cost. Im still processing the notion that humans are inclined toward dishonesty as we become more distant from each other and analogue transactions like hard currency, thanks to the digitization of, well, everything.
The range of liars who are interviewed a cheating wife, inside traders, a basketball referee, an admissions officer, a protective mother is impressive and disarming because they seem so normal, and their slides into the dishonesty abyss seem so relatable.
And Ariely so eloquently elaborates on his analysis of why and how we lie, that viewers should come out of watching this changed people. That was certainly the case for director Melamede, with whom I had the following email exchange.
Doc Soup Man: How did you come to making (Dis)honesty?
Yael Melamede, director of (Dis)honesty The Truth About Lies: I was working with Dan Ariely on a TV project just as his book on dishonesty was coming out – The Honest Truth About Dishonesty – How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves. Dan had been doing a lot of experiments in the lab environment and thought it would be interesting to interview people who had been dishonest, which seemed immediately interesting to me.
In the spring of , we brought in about 10 people over the course of a weekend a judge, some lawyers, an actor and a number of people from other walks of life who had gone to jail and/or lost everything because of their lies. We were most taken by the stories of those whose lives had fallen apart.
Their stories were incredibly human and relatable. They gave us tremendous insight into the dishonesty we see all around us. The interviews lasted around hours and they were very intense and often emotional. They were gripping and very affecting and encouraged us to keep talking to people. We learned that most of the people that got into serious trouble were influenced by many of the same factors that Dan studies in the lab.
I felt that these stories shed light on the kinds of stories we see in the media all the time but were much more truthful and complex. If we look at the biggest crises of our time, most of them have dishonesty at their core the financial crisis, the Iraq War(s), the NSA privacy scandal, Lance Armstrong, the Atlanta cheating scandal, to name just a few and the consequences are huge. If we can better understand dishonesty, hopefully we can do a better job of recognizing it and doing something about it our own as well as that of others.
Doc Soup Man: Have you been much of a liar in your own life?
Yael Melamede: I wouldnt say that Im a big liar but I definitely have an issue with authority and am suspicious of too many rules. I think that when rules get too complicated, it is a sign that they arent well designed, effective or useful. In the process of making this film, I have certainly become much more honest.
I tell people that I feel that I am a human experiment. I have become more honest not because I consciously decided it was the best thing to do but because I have been thinking about it all the time through the work and that lines up with Dans research. Its now the lens through which I look at the world.
Dans research suggests that being reminded about honesty makes people act better in my own experience, thats been very true.
Doc Soup Man: Following Janet Malcolms lead on this, Id say that documentary filmmaking is a series of little lies stitched together to make a greater truth. Would you agree? How do you reconcile that?
Yael Melamede: The editing process in particular allows for a great deal of trickery. You can put words in peoples mouths, you can change the meaning of what people said, you can do all kinds of things that the audience cant see. As filmmakers, we have the potential and the power to lie and manipulate a lot, which is why we have a tremendous responsibility not to.
The issue of trust between filmmaker and subject, as well as between filmmaker and viewer, is extremely important and we do real damage to our profession and ourselves individually if we break that trust.
Doc Soup Man: Could you describe in which way(s) you were dishonest with Dan Ariely in making the film?
Yael Melamede: I think that the only way in which I was dishonest with Dan was by not sharing my anxieties about the film with him I think thats a pretty lame answer, honestly.
Doc Soup Man: In what way is this film dishonest with its viewers?
Yael Melamede: Not that Im aware of, but I could be engaged in self-deception!
(Dis)honesty is now playing at the IFC Center in New York City and is available on iTunes. The film will also be airing on CNBC on May 28,
Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POVs documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs!
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen