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.

Whistleblowers

So it looks like the person who leaked the Amy Robach video about ABC suppressing the Epstein story in the midst of Hillary’s presidential campaign has been fired. This isn’t front-page news while Zelensky’s completely imaginary danger of losing voter support because of investigating Biden is.

Now let’s discuss some more how it’s important to protect whistleblowers.

On Its Way to Communism

Romania-born academic says he recently left his tenured position at Columbia University because the Ivy League school is “on its way toward full blown communism,” according to a Romanian TV interview translated by a Romanian-American immigrant... According to his faculty bio, Serban is an accomplished theater and opera producer who served as the director of the Romanian National Theater and won a Tony Award.

Good for him because he is famous and has someplace to go. But it’s definitely those of us who experienced totalitarianism who are recognizing this before everybody else.

Fateful

The NYTimes is doing more idiotic reporting:

By then, however, Mr. Zelensky’s staffers were already conceding to what seemed to be the inevitable, and making plans for a public announcement about the investigations. It was a fateful decision for a fledgling president elected on an anticorruption platform that included putting an end to politically motivated

investigations.

Yes, it would be so fateful. Zelensky’s 75% support would totally go away if he announced an investigation into an extremely corrupt energy company. Ukrainians hate it when oligarchs get investigated. There are absolutely no problems that Ukrainians have which are more serious than this absolutely ridiculous US squabble.

I’m stunned at the abysmally poor quality of this reporting. I’m even more stunned by the readers who just eat this stuff up unthinkingly.

You Don’t Look Ukrainian

Another funny thing at the talk was that the same lady who was preoccupied with the Jewish question interrupted my talk to inform me that I don’t look very Ukrainian.

“I met some Ukrainian ladies in Chicago,” she said aggressively. “And they all wore mink coats and diamonds.”

“Well, I work for a public university,” I retorted.

Everybody laughed.

Besides, Chicago I understand, but why would anybody wear mink coats in the St Louis climate, even if they could afford them?

It’s funny to realize that a Ukrainian look is associated with ostentatious riches.

What I Liked

What I loved at the Ukraine talk is that everybody was completely on our side from the start. There wasn’t a whiff of Putinoidism in the room.

Back in 2014 and 2015, this was unheard of. Absolutely everybody was against Ukraine and pro-Russia. It was not humanly possible to encounter a single person who wouldn’t spout some Russian propaganda at you. This is a wonderful, wonderful transformation of public opinion.

Of course, Ukrainians deserve part of the credit for working hard to make Ukraine more palatable to the West. Putin deserves some of the credit for being an unrepentant asshole of planetary proportions.

But the Trump-phobia helped, too. To be pro-Putin is to be pro-Trump, and the people who go to these lectures can’t tolerate being perceived this way. Several people came up after the talk to let me know they don’t watch Fox News. I’m thinking it’s like a secret handshake.

I also loved the older people at the talk. The retirees in this country are nothing like our post-soviet retirees. They are not mean, angry, or stupid. To the contrary, these are curious, intelligent, well-informed, happy folks. I can’t imagine any Ukrainian elderly schlepping to a talk about, say, Bolivia.

Can There Be a Jewish Culture?

The Ukraine talk went very well. Everybody was engaged, asked a lot of questions, and people seemed interested in Ukraine outside of the impeachment farce.

The only annoying person was a lady who just couldn’t accept the possibility that non-practicing Jews can exist. (I mentioned that Zelensky is Jewish). She kept interrupting and interrupting with a very rude, “But what is a Jewish culture? How can it be real? There’s no such thing. That’s ridiculous!” Then she offered a bizarre analogy between being Jewish and eating pork steak, whatever that is.

It’s especially bizarre that a black lady had such a hard time understanding the concept of ethnicity and persecution of ethnic minorities.

It’s also interesting that you get this aggressive questioning of how Jews define themselves (which isn’t anybody else’s business but their own, actually) in the US and not in Ukraine.

It’s also interesting that everybody is too polite to ask how Megan Markle is black and AOC “a woman of color” but this kind of protracted public grilling on “I don’t get how you are Jewish, now prove it to me” is ok.

Thankfully, the angry lady had to leave soon because she didn’t want to miss her daily Maddow episode. Seriously, that’s what she said.