Book Notes: Vargas Llosa’s Tiempos recios

The good news I can report after finishing Vargas Llosa’s most recent novel is that he hasn’t lost his gift. His previous two novels were really bad, and I’d started to worry. This is one of my favorite writers and pretty much the only Latin American writer of the old guard I enjoy reading. So it was great relief to recognize Vargas Llosa’s incomparable voice in this novel.

“He’s back!” I kept yelling as I ran around my house in agitation. “Finally, he’s back!” I usually take a little sprint after reading a particularly good paragraph in a book.

What I didn’t like about the novel is that there are whole parts where the writer retells history books in a plodding, boring way. I understand that he’s trying to make the subject matter palatable to foreigners because he’s one of the two and a half Hispanic authors guaranteed to be read in translation. But I’d just rather he wrote literature because there are crowds of historians and only a handful literary geniuses in the world.

Vargas Llosa is coming to the closing stage of his life (and I hope this stage lasts for many decades). He’s trying to answer the question of why, throughout his long life, nothing has gotten better in Latin America. Violence, poverty, outlandish forms of cruelty, failing democracies, extreme corruption – it’s all still there. Yes, the military dictatorships of the twentieth century are mostly gone. But now it’s all gangs and cartels instead of juntas that torture, rape and devastate, and how is that better?

Vargas Llosa’s answer to this question is that Latin America only started chasing after the idiotic fantasy of socialism because the US frustrated its early attempts at creating functioning democracies. And that fantasy ended up plunging the region into decades of civil wars. He’s right to a degree but then again, there’s Mexico that has had no dictatorship or civil war in 100 years. And so what? It’s now doing worse than Argentina that had a Junta in the early eighties. And none of what’s happening in Mexico is about the fantasy of socialism.

As entertaining as the game of “blame the Americans” is, it gets to a point when it becomes self-defeating. But Vargas Llosa’s writing is so good that it’s unimportant to what extent his explanation of Latin America’s problems is correct. Hey, my country is also always in a bad place but we don’t have a Vargas Llosa. Or a Castellanos Moya, or a Jorge Volpi. It’s been a century since we had any. Latin America redeems itself through its contribution to what really matters about humanity. In the Russian-speaking world, we don’t even have that. Which is pretty much why I study Hispanic culture. I’m trying to figure out why some people who constantly screw up can create great art in enormous quantities while other constant screwups aren’t even great at that.

So yeah, it’s a good novel. And I don’t think Vargas Llosa is incorrect in his conclusions either. I just think it’s only part of the truth. But it’s the part he writes about really well.