Winner essays
2011- Crossing the threshold into open society: ideology and freedom in the first novels of Mario Vargas Llosa by Julio H. Cole

Crossing the threshold into open society: ideology and freedom in the first novels of Mario Vargas Llosa
by Julio H. Cole
First place
Sixth Essay Contest Caminos de la Libertad

Pragmatism and skepticism are the beginning of a wisdom
that is better than the dreams of the rationalists.
--Stephen Toulmin

If one reads all his work, beginning with his first novels,
one can see that Vargas Llosa has always preferred brilliant
 realists and mocking moderates to utopians and fanatics.
--Orhan Pamuk

I.  Introduction: An Incident in Rosario

On March 28 2008, Mario Vargas Llosa was at a colloquium in Rosario, Argentina with a group of neoliberal politicians and academicians.  That day as they traveled on a bus, they were attacked by a group of “piqueteros” –leftist street protestors– who assaulted the vehicle with sticks and stones.  In a news article published a few days later, the writer confessed he had actually feared for himself and the people with him during the incident:

My fellow travelers and I remained appropriately calm, but I cannot help asking myself what would have happened if before we were rescued from the belligerent “piqueteros” they had thrown a Molotov cocktail inside the bus, or opened the door they were now rattling as they pleased. Would I have been celebrating my 72nd birthday  (because it is my birthday today) pitting my meager physical strength against the overwhelming fury of this brutal mob?

This wasn’t the first time that the Peruvian novelist had been in imminent danger for the audacity to have publicly stated and defended his political convictions. In 1990 during his presidential candidacy in his native Peru, he received several death threats, one of them under circumstances extraordinarily similar to the colorful encounter in Rosario. He described this other incident in A Fish in the Water, his memoire on his campaign experiences:

My grimmest memory of those days is that of my arrival one torrid morning in a settlement between Ignacio Escudero and Cruceta, in the valley of Chira. Armed with sticks, stones and all sorts of weapons to bruise and batter, an infuriated horde of men and women came to meet me, their faces distorted by hatred [...] Half naked [...] bellowing and shouting to keep their courage up, they hurled themselves on the caravan of vehicles as though fighting to save their lives or seeking to immolate themselves, with a rashness and a savagery that said everything about the most inconceivable levels of deterioration to which life for millions of Peruvians had sunk.  What were they attacking? What were they defending themselves from? What phantoms were behind those threatening clubs and knives?

In both cases, the target of the attacks was not the writer himself, but the figure of Vargas Llosa as the voice of a certain social philosophy often labeled “neo-liberalism,” that would more aptly be described as “classical liberalism.” For this reason, the incident in Rosario takes on a certain historic symbolism, since it was apparently brought about by the driver’s mistakenly taking the wrong detour, and driving Vargas Llosa and his party to “Plaza Che Guevara” (so named for a mural commemorating the Cuban-Argentine revolutionary who was born in Rosario), where the crowd had incidentally gathered to protest for something else.

Today, Ernesto “Che” Guevara y Mario Vargas Llosa are emblematic of completely contradictory paradigms.  But part of the symbolism in the incident lies in the fact that this contradiction wasn’t always so.  Indeed, because of his current prominence as a spokesperson for liberalism, it can easily be forgotten that Vargas Llosa once greatly admired Che Guevara as an individual and what he stood for. This is evident, for example, in the praise he once wrote about a canonical text of the revolutionary left: the “Diary” of Che Guevara:

If the Latin American revolution occurs according to the method proposed by Che, following the stages he envisioned, the Diary will be an extraordinary document, a historical account of the most difficult and heroic moment of the continent’s liberation. If the revolution does not occur [...] the Diary will still endure, as a testament to the most generous and most daring individual adventure ever attempted in Latin America.
This was written by Vargas Llosa in 1968, at a stage in his life when he began to rise as an important figure in the Latin American literary “boom”. Like most young intellectuals of his generation, Vargas Llosa was closely identified with left-wing causes, and he greatly admired the Cuban Revolution.  This ideological stance was in part owing to the prevailing climate of opinion among intellectuals at the time, especially in France, where he spent his formative years as a writer. Another two reasons for this were that he had always had a strong antiauthoritarian streak, and that authoritarianism in Latin America had historically been associated with right-wing regimes.

Nevertheless, as the years went by Vargas Llosa became convinced that armed revolution was not a real option for improving social conditions in Latin America, and that gradual reform within a functioning democratic polity was the only way to achieve social justice. Other, more knowledgeable authors have already discussed and explained the events and personal circumstances behind this transition: his disenchantment with the Cuban Revolution, his gradual departure from left-wing politics, and later approach to democratic and liberal ideals.  There remain, however, a few loose ends to be clarified once Vargas Llosa’s definitive biography is written and published—a project for which his distinction with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 will undoubtedly garner major impulse. Yet this essay is not intended to plow though these same furrows, as we cannot contribute any new material or data, but to examine how some of the author’s novels of the time reflect his intellectual transition. Such an analysis should not only provide a better grasp of the novels themselves, but a privileged perspective to better understand what that great champion of liberalism, Vargas Llosa himself understands as liberalism.

II. Zavalita’s Question

Some critics propose that Vargas Llosa’s ideological transition can already be observed in the sharp contrast between the somber tone of his novels of the 1960s which established his literary reputation [La ciudad y los perros (1963; The Time of the Hero, 1966); La casa verde (1966; The Green House, 1968), and Conversación en La Catedral (1969; Conversation in the Cathedral, 1975)] and the humor in his novels of the 1970s: Pantaleón y las visitadoras (1973; Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, 1978), and very especially, La tía Julia y el escribidor (1977; Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, 1982). Critic Balmiro Omaña has been the most insistent about this contrast, and points out that “the worlds narrated in his first three novels are different from those in his later works. This is noticeable [...] change undergone by the writer due to his new ideological positions.”  According to Omaña:

In his initial stage chaotic, corrupted, immoral, false, annihilating worlds prevail. These worlds offer no solutions nor hope [...] Where violence would seem boundless [...] and people are perverted to bestiality or total frustration [...] The city is a hypocritical, irresponsible, void, violent, depraved macro cosmos [...] No matter how hard his characters follow different paths in the pursuit of fulfillment, none of these paths will lead to success, because all of them only end in failure. Everything ends in failure because the country is sick, debased. There is no hope, only degradation. Students, journalists, governments, industrialists, workers, household staff, prostitutes, they all degrade themselves.

By contrast – Omaña contends– the novels of the 1970s reflect “[…] a notion of a world in which it is no longer important to challenge the values —or lack thereof— of a society still as corrupted and corrupting as before. Neither does it decry the dominant classes, or criticize the operation of social institutions. Prevalent now is a conception of the world that bears a certain complacency towards the status quo, which remains as chaotic as before”.

The pessimism Omaña attributes to Vargas Llosa’s first novels is especially accentuated in Conversation in the Cathedral, in which the pursuit of power in a corrupt society plays center stage. The novel is built upon a long conversation between Santiago Zavala (“Zavalita”) and Ambrosio, formerly the driver of Fermín Zavala, who is Santiago’s father and a prominent businessman and politician. The conversation takes place in 1963 at “The Cathedral”, a sleazy bar in downtown Lima. For the most part it consists in a reconstruction of events that occurred many years before, during the dictatorship of Manuel Odría.  In the opening paragraph of the novel, Zavalita is leaving the offices of La Crónica, the daily in Lima where he works, to go to lunch. He looks upon the street and is suddenly overtaken by a question that torments him from that point onward: “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?”

The other main character, Cayo Bermúdez, is a ruthless, conniving, high-ranking official in Odría’s government, based upon a an actual person, Alejandro Esparza Zañartu, who was head of State Security during the dictatorship. Vargas Llosa visited Esparza as part of a delegation sent to intercede in favor of a group of students arrested for participating in subversive activity:

He was a man of small build, fiftyish, dull and boring. He seemed to be looking at us through water– not listening to us at all. He let us speak –as we trembled– and when we had finished, he simply stared at us. He did not utter a word, as if mocking our confusion. Next, he opened a drawer in his desk and produced a few editions of Cahuide, a tiny mimeographed newspaper we published clandestinely, and in which we naturally wrote against him. “I know which ones of you have written these articles, where you gather to print them, and what you’re up to in your cells.” And yes, he most certainly appeared endowed with omniscience. Yet, all the while he gave the deplorable impression of being pitifully mediocre. He made grammatical mistakes when he expressed himself and his intellectual destitution was blatant. As I observed him during this interview, I had the first inkling of a novel that I would write fifteen years later: Conversation in the Cathedral. In it, I wanted to describe the effects that a dictatorship of the likes of the Odriist “octennial” had on the everyday lives of people: their schooling, work, loves, dreams and ambitions [...] When the book saw the light, the former Director of Government –by then retired from politics and dedicated to philanthropy– remarked: “Had Vargas Llosa come to see me, I would have had much more interesting things to tell him about.”

A more detailed description of this expansive novel would exceed the scope of this brief essay. It will suffice to underscore that Conversation in the Cathedral is profoundly pessimistic– almost to a metaphysical degree. Rossman summarizes this very well:

Conversation in The Cathedral depicts a society founded on greed and special privilege, and maintained by coercion and duplicity. It is a world of profound prejudices and inequities, divided by social class, wealth, education, skin color, and geography. In the Peru of Conversation ideals inevitably wither in the face of reality, convictions decay into cynicism, love is thwarted, and everything tends toward the mediocrity that Don Fermín despises […] On the other hand, the worst people only too readily prosper. Vargas Llosa resists the sentimentality of even a hint of poetic justice. The Zavala family, after some rough times during the reign of Cayo Bermúdez, continues to get richer. Cayo himself returns to Lima at the end of the novel. He lives permanently in the United States, now, but also has a plush estate in Chaclacayo, complete with swimming pool and vast gardens. Queta [a secondary character] registers the orthodox outrage: “He'll pay for it someday,” she says. “You can't be such a shit and live so happily (p. 664).” But Queta is wrong. You can; and that is precisely the point of the novel. There is, as Santiago says, “no solution.”

III.  The Novels of the 1970s: discovering humor

Without question an important feature in Vargas Llosa’s novels of the 1970s that sets them apart from those in his first creative stage is what he has described himself as the “discovery of humor”.  Indeed, one does not have to be a leftist intellectual to appreciate the contrast between Conversation in the Cathedral –a serious novel, absolutely bereft of any humor at all–, and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a humorous, beaming novel with very few elements of social critique.

Although it is a work of fiction, Aunt Julia contains autobiographic undertones from the time when a nineteen year-old Vargas Llosa married his first wife (“aunt” Julia), ten years his senior.   Chapters of this romance are interspersed with episodes from a radio soap opera by a demented scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho who, like Julia, is a native of Bolivia. The story takes place in the mid 1950s the same historical period as Conversation (i.e., under the Odría government), but never shares its pessimism. In fact both novels would appear to describe different realities. Most of the humor in Aunt Julia comes from young “Varguitas’” attempts to woo Julia, an older woman to the point that as Ellen McCracken points out the autobiographical chapters eventually begin to resemble Camacho’s outrageous radio shows. This story even ends happily for a change: the suitor wins his lady’s hand, and “Varguitas” becomes a world-renown writer.

Vargas Llosa’s other post-Conversation novel, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, contains much more social commentary than Aunt Julia, in addition to much more humor. The story about Pantaleón Pantoja, a logistics officer in the Peruvian army, tells of his orders to clandestinely furnish the soldiers deployed in the remote Peruvian Amazon with the services of a group of prostitutes. The inherently comical situation becomes even more so because of the absolute seriousness with which Pantoja takes on his mission and the formal bureaucratic language he uses to report its progress. Pantoja is the perfect official and bureaucrat. The contrast between his honest commitment and the absurdity of his mission makes for a hilarious novel.

Left-wing critics of Vargas Llosa contend that the upbeat tone in the novels of this second stage could reflect his “embourgeoisement”, although his political statements of the time show no evidence of the kind.  Efraín Kristal is probably right in his view that these novels reflect a transition in Vargas Llosa’s political ideology; a shift from his openly pro-socialist position in the 1970’s to a much more subdued stance that remained critical of many aspects of the left, without completely rejecting it:

[…] For Vargas Llosa the 1970s represented a time of political ambivalence: he felt uncomfortable with socialism, but unprepared to abandon it [...] [In] Pantoja and the Special Service, just as in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, he allowed vague and funny portrayals of political matters. Vargas Llosa felt insecure about his own political convictions and therefore not yet ready to establish a direct link between fanticism and utopia, nor to explore any subject matter that would have clashed with his waning conviction that capitalism had to be erradicated in favor of socialism.

When the time came to write his next two novels, however, he was already prepared to establish the “direct link” Kristal wrote about.

IV. The War of the End of the World

Before The War of the End of the World (1981), all of Vargas Llosa’s novels had been set in Peru. In fact the writer had frequently stated he felt incapable of writing about any other place. His following novel, however, proved otherwise and there are many who consider The War, Vargas Llosa’s best work. He, in fact describes it as “my favorite”.   The War of the End of the World is not only set in another place, but in another historical time as well. It is a literary version of a true event: a peasant uprising in northeastern Brazil during the late nineteenth century, led by a charismatic prophet named Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel, better known as Antônio Conselheiro (“the Counselor”), who began his career as a wandering preacher in the arid province of Bahia, repairing abandoned churches and cemeteries, while teaching his own idiosyncratic version of Catholic fundamentalism. Political changes in Brazil’s far-off power centers—collapse of the monarchy and establishment of a republic in 1889—, events about which the simple backlands dwellers had only the vaguest ideas, would have ramifications whose cumulative effect would lead to horror and disaster on an unimaginable scale.

The tragedy was triggered by the collision of two antagonistic cultures: Conselheiro and his tradition-minded followers felt threatened by the rush of modernizing reforms implemented by the progressive elites who controlled the new republic. Among other aberrations, the republic had separated church and state and had instituted civil marriage, “as if a sacrament created by God were not enough”.  It had also introduced a new set of weights and measures (the metric system) and had even proposed to take a census. The latter measure was the last straw because in the Conselheiro’s view it was because “they wanted to know what color people were so as to reestablish slavery and return dark-skinned people to their masters, and their religion so as to be able to identify the Catholics when the persecution began”.  (The monarchy abolished slavery in Brazil in 1888.) The Conselheiro could only conclude that “the Antichrist is abroad in the world; his name is Republic”.  Rebellion was therefore justified and the Conselheiro’s followers proceeded to burn the government’s edicts, refused to pay taxes, and gathered at the former plantation of Canudos to prepare for an assault from republican forces.  The rebels successfully defeated three military expeditions sent to suppress them.  The uprising was eventually crushed, but only after a fourth expedition, armed with heavy artillery, laid siege to Canudos for two months. Many thousands were slaughtered.

Vargas Llosa based his novel on a famous book about the Canudos war, Os sertões (1902), written by Euclides da Cunha, a journalist who accompanied the fourth and final expedition. Vargas Llosa considered these events of the past relevant for our time because they illustrate the destructive power of ideologies and fanaticism. The core theme here is the myopia that renders ideological adversaries incapable of understanding their opponents’ viewpoints. The Conselheiro, who only sees a vast conspiracy bent on wiping out the last remnant of true believers in the Blessed Jesus, is obviously a fanatic. But so are his main opponents, most notably the commander of the third expedition, Colonel Moreira César. He is convinced that the peasant uprising is a smokescreen and part of a larger plot by reactionary landlords and British agents to restore monarchy.  As he tells the Baron of Cañabrava, a landlord in the region: “Objectively, these people [the farmers of Canudos] are the instruments of those who, like yourself, have accepted the Republic the better to betray it.” 

Vargas Llosa adds another element to this toxic mix of confusion and misunderstanding in the person of Galileo Gall, a European revolutionary who seeks to make common cause with the rebels. As a modern freethinker, he of course detests religion, but he sees the rebellion as a proto-revolutionary force to be encouraged and, if possible, guided: “Those poor devils represent the most worthy thing there is on this earth, suffering that rises up in rebellion”.  Gall thinks of himself as a scientist, but he cannot avoid viewing events through the prism of his own ideology.

Gall’s character is obviously a stab at today’s progressive intelligentsia and reflects Vargas Llosa’s gradual movement away from his old leftist positions. Even more symptomatic of this transition is his portrayal of the Baron of Cañabrava, another major character in the novel. Indeed, some critics argue that his favorable treatment of the baron indicates that Vargas Llosa had finally made his peace with the Latin American elites.  In any event, the baron is unquestionably one of the few truly appealing characters in the whole story.  Pragmatism is his main attribute, which is invariably cast in a positive light.  At times he seems to be the only sensible and clear-headed person in a mad world spinning out of control: “The baron felt a shiver down his spine; it was as if the world had taken leave of its reason and blind, irrational beliefs had taken over.”

Compared to the fanaticism around him, the pragmatic Baron is eminently reasonable: “We must make our peace,” he tells an associate. “Let us keep our Republic from turning into what so many other Latin American republics have:  a grotesque witches’ Sabbath where all is chaos, military uprisings, corruption, demagogy.”  The Baron is not optimistic, however and realizes that the events he is witnessing bode even worse horrors:

“We are at war,” says Gall, “and every weapon counts.”
“Every weapon counts” –[the baron] repeated softly. “That is a precise definition of the times we’re living in, of the twentieth century that will soon be upon us, Mr. Gall. I’m not surprised that those madmen think that the end of the world has come.”

This is a multilayered novel that can be read and interpreted in many ways.  It can be read, for example, as a meditation about the clash of modernity and backwardness. (The Conselheiro ultimately rebelled against the very idea of progress.) Nevertheless, it can also be read as a rejection of that false dichotomy that has plagued Latin America throughout the twentieth century: revolutionary violence versus military repression. Vargas Llosa has come to believe that neither of these courses of conduct will solve our problems. At an even more basic level, the novel is a plea for tolerance and rejection of fanaticism and dogmatic belief in all of its forms: “The baron recognized that tone [...] The tone of absolute certainty, he thought, the tone of those who are never assailed by doubts.” 
It is evident that at the time he wrote this novel, Vargas Llosa had clearly crossed the threshold of the open society. This book was his manifesto.

V. Settling Scores: Historia de Mayta

Mayta is the story of a failed insurrection in a remote place of the Peruvian highlands one year before the Cuban Revolution. It is also the story of an attempt to reconstruct the insurrection’s history and the background of its leader, Alejandro Mayta a middle-aged Trotskyite. Once again, the narrator is a fictional version of Vargas Llosa himself, who skillfully adapts the medium of fiction writing to write a story about the making of a story.

Although the narrator’s investigation is described as an inquiry about true events, it is intended to collect materials for a fictionalized version of those same events, and the result is the very book the reader is reading, itself obviously and explicitly a work of fiction. This of course means that we never really know if the Mayta we are reading about is the “real” Mayta or the “fictional” Mayta (not even when actually meet the “real” Alejandro Mayta toward the end of the story.) As a literary experiment Mayta is a tour de force.

But it is more than that, however, because it is also a vehicle for the expression of the author’s views  (the “real” author’s views) about social phenomena and the role of ideology.

Although the investigation pertains to events that occurred in Peru in the late 1950’s, the narration is set in a fictitious version of Peru in the early 1980’s. Things were bad enough in the real Peru at the time: debt crisis, runaway inflation, and rampaging terrorist groups setting off bombs and murdering at random. The novel’s fictional Peru is, if anything, in even worse straits, as the narrator lets us know in no uncertain terms. The novel starts and ends with visions of Lima, the capital city, as a vast garbage dump:

Ugly, too, is the garbage that piles up on the outer edge of the Malecon and spills down its face. Why is it that this part of the city –which has the best view—is a garbage dump? [...]  Why don’t the property owners tell their servants to stop dumping garbage right under their noses? Because they know that if theirs didn’t, the neighbors’ servants or the workers from the Parque de Barranco would. Even the regular garbage men do: I see them [...] throwing garbage down there they should be carrying to the dump [...] The spectacle of misery was once limited exclusively to the slums, then it spread downtown, and now it is the common property of the whole city, even the exclusive residential neighborhoods [...]
On all sides, there are mounds of garbage. The people, I suppose, just throw it out of their houses resigned, knowing that no city garbage truck is ever going to pick it up.

To sum it up in Zavalita’s memorable statement, the country is “fucked up”, so the unavoidable question is: Why? What led to this? Vargas Llosa, we now know, had by the time he wrote this novel given up on the old Marxist explanations. Mayta and his associates, though well intentioned, were misled by an inadequate diagnosis of their country’s ills. The novel portrays the leftist cliques of the 1950s involved in ridiculous doctrinal squabbles, but harmless enough. Their debates are irrelevant, not really dangerous.  When at one point a member of a rival party derisively describes Mayta’s group as “twenty-odd Peruvian Trots”, Mayta corrects: “Actually, there are only seven of us.”

Nevertheless, as the story progresses, a case is made that the underlying premise shared by all of these groups –la idea that revolutionary violence is the only solution to the country’s problems– had been disastrous for Peru and for Latin America in general. Mayta’s attempted insurrection was a pathetic failure, but by setting a precedent for the use of violence: “it charted the process that has ended in what we are all living through now”.  Once again, as Martin points out “the message is that ideology is an illusion that ultimately leads to catastrophe.”  Talking about his own novel, Vargas Llosa explains that with time he realized that all ideologies are fictions that instead of providing solutions only make matters worse:

[Mayta and his followers] believing their ideology was a scientific description of historic reality embarked on this absurd adventure and failed [...] It is an ideological fiction [...] What the novel tries to prove are two kinds of fiction: one that is not recognized as such and pretends to be an objective take on reality [...] and fiction without pretense [...] Literature is a lie and presented as such: a lie that unlike ideology makes no pretense of being a true and objective description of reality.

Many young people, many intellectuals, many avant-garde politicians were using ideology, were using these political ideas that presumed to describe reality [...] and were, in fact adding to reality a purely imaginary world. It seemed to me strange that this fiction [...] was a major source of violence and brutality in Latin America; that these sometimes elaborate and complex ideological constructions in which one society was described and then another ideal society was also described as a goal to be reached through revolution [...] were, in fact, a mechanism that was destroying our societies and creating major obstacles to real progress.
What is then the answer to Zavalita’s question? In his search for the historic Mayta, the narrator finds himself in front of the Museum of the Inquisition in Lima, and decides to walk in and see it. Suddenly he feels an intuition:

From this audience chamber [...] the Inquisitors in their white habits and with their army of lawyers, notaries, secretaries, jailers, and executioners struggled valiantly against witchcraft, Satanism, Judaism, blasphemy, polygamy, Protestantism, and perversions. All heterodoxies, all schisms, he thought. It was an arduous task, rigorous, legalistic, maniacal, that of the gentlemen Inquisitors, among whom there figured (their collaborators) the most illustrious intellectuals of the era: lawyers, professors, theological orators, versifiers, writers of prose [...] He thought: This museum is really worth a visit. Instructive, fascinating.  Condensed in a few striking images and objects, there is an essential ingredient, always present in the history of this country, from the most remote times: violence. Violence of all kinds: moral, physical, fanatical, intransigent, ideological, corrupt, stupid—all of which have gone hand in hand with power here.  And that other violence—dirty, petty, low, vengeful, vested, and selfish—which lives off the other kinds. It’s good to come here to this museum, to see how we have come to be what we are, why we are in the condition in which we find ourselves.

Thus herein lie the roots of the evil that we suffer and have always suffered from. On the one hand, dogmatism –that feeling of absolute certainty and therefore the conviction of falseness in any other belief–, and on the other its infallible crony: fanaticism, the corollary and twin brother of dogma.  It justifies every abuse considered necessary to impose truth.  These are the greatest enemies of individual freedom. These are the burdens that overwhelm us. These are the evils we must fight.

VI. The Battle Letter of the Marquis de Vargas Llosa  

This particular vision of liberalism stems from something beyond merely rejecting a rival ideology; in Vargas Llosa’s case it is based on an intellectual construct built upon his own experiences, but also from studying the writings of other thinkers, more specifically of two philosophers to whom he mostly attributes his change in outlook: Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper. Vargas Llosa began to read and study these authors in earnest the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, at precisely the time he was writing The War of the End of the World, during the period in which, according to Kristal, he had begun to question his socialist convictions without having completely ruled them out. Therefore Berlin and Popper’s intellectual influence on Vargas Llosa was extremely important and timely, as it occurred precisely at a decisive moment in his intellectual transition.

One of the things he most admires in Berlin, Vargas Llosa tells us, is his skepticism regarding claims to final answers for the world’s woes:

A constant in Western thought is the belief that one true answer exists for every human problem, and that once we find this answer, then all others must be rejected as mistaken. A complementary idea, as old as this one is that most noble and inspiring ideas –justice, freedom, peace, pleasure, and so on—are compatible with one another. For Isaiah Berlin, these two beliefs are false, and many of the tragedies that have befallen humanity can be laid at their doorstep. From this skeptical base, Berlin produced a number of powerful and original arguments in favor of freedom of choice and ideological pluralism.

Vargas Llosa explains that reading Berlin he was able to clarify certain notions he was already perceiving, still somewhat confusedly:

True progress, which has withered or overthrown barbarous practices and institutions that once were the source of infinite suffering for humankind and has established more civilized relations and styles of life, has always been achieved through a partial, heterodox, deformed application of social theories—in the plural, which means that different, sometimes irreconcilable ideologies have brought about identical or similar forms of progress. The prerequisite was always that these systems should be flexible and could be amended and reformed when they moved from the abstract to the concrete and came up against the daily experience of human beings.

As for Popper, a famous essay that Vargas Llosa wrote about this philosopher opens with a very strong statement: “Truth, for Karl Popper, is not discovered: it is invented.”  This statement might seem like an extreme formulation of what is in fact a very complex and nuanced theory, although Vargas Llosa makes his case with customary elegance. What this essay says about Popper, however, is not as interesting as what it says about Vargas Llosa himself. The Popperian emphasis on “falsifiability”, criticism, and provisional (but never unconditional) acceptance of scientific hypotheses clearly had an impact on Vargas Llosa’s own understanding of the world:

Without criticism, without the possibility of “falsifying” every certainty, no progress can be made to master science or to perfect social life. Unless the truth, unless all truths are put to the test of “trial and error”, unless there is freedom allowing mankind to challenge and certify that any theory attempting to respond to the problems at hand is valid, knowledge becomes mired and may be perverted. Then, instead of rational truths, myths, acts of faith, and magic rule– the kingdom of irrationality, dogma and taboo regains force.

Despite the fact that this is an epistemological theory, for Vargas Llosa a philosophy of science also entails certain implications for the political culture of an open society:

Popper’s theory of knowledge is the best philosophical justification for the ethical value that most characterizes democratic culture: tolerance. If there are no absolute and eternal truths, if the only way for knowledge to progress is by making and correcting mistakes, we should all recognize that our truths may not be right, and what looks to us like our adversaries’ errors may in fact be correct. Recognizing this margin for error in ourselves and for truth in others is to believe that discussion, dialog –coexistence– afford greater opportunities to identify error and truth than the imposition of a single, official way of thinking everyone must subscribe to under pain of punishment or discredit.

Thus, both Berlinean skepticism and Popperian uncertainty serve as antidotes to dogmatism and fanaticism, which are two great enemies of liberty in Vargas Llosa’s worldview. The struggle against dogma and fanaticism has been a recurrent theme in his literary oeuvre and a key element in all of his intellectual and political statements. As he recently reiterated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

Since every period has its horrors, ours is the age of fanatics, of suicide terrorists, an ancient species convinced that by killing they earn heaven, that the blood of innocents washes away collective affronts, corrects injustices, and imposes truth on false beliefs. Every day, all over the world, countless victims are sacrificed by those who feel they possess absolute truths. With the collapse of totalitarian empires, we believed that living together, peace, pluralism, and human rights would gain the ascendancy and the world would leave behind holocausts, genocides, invasions, and wars of extermination. None of that has occurred. New forms of barbarism flourish, incited by fanaticism, and with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we cannot overlook the fact that any small faction of crazed redeemers may one day provoke a nuclear cataclysm. We have to thwart them, confront them, and defeat them. […] We should not allow ourselves to be intimidated by those who want to snatch away the freedom we have been acquiring over the long course of civilization. Let us defend the liberal democracy that, with all its limitations, continues to signify political pluralism, coexistence, tolerance, human rights, respect for criticism, legality, free elections, alternation in power, everything that has been taking us out of a savage life and bringing us closer – though we will never attain it – to the beautiful, perfect life literature devises, the one we can deserve only by inventing, writing, and reading it. By confronting homicidal fanatics we defend our right to dream and to make our dreams reality.

Mario Vargas Llosa was once described as “the errant knight of the liberal imagination”.  For one who like he loves stories of chivalry and is also a great liberal, there could be no greater praise.

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