It’s for strong stomachs to review their own writing. Mario Vargas Llosa’s “Making Waves” is compiled from some thirty years of essays and criticism, and when browsing through it the veteran writer must have winced a little at his less mature incarnation. The picture of intellectual progress that emerges is mostly positive; after all, Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for being the relatively centrist voice in a South America that sometimes seems stuck between armies of the right and guerillas of the left.
Still, I wonder if he would groan a little re-reading his own praising appraisal of Fidel Castro in 1962. Young MVL’s awestruck giddiness in the presence of the loving crowds chanting, “Fidel! Fidel!” make it seem as if the naive 20-something had never picked up a history book. Couldn’t he have guessed that hysterical mobs chanting the names of “Great Men” are rarely good at political discernment? By 1968, after the Soviet Union’s inexcusable “intervention” in Czechoslovakia, Vargas Llosa begins to see the clay feet: “It is distressing to see Fidel reacting in the same conditioned and reflex was as the mediocre leaders (…) who rushed to justify the Soviet intervention. The words of Fidel have seemed as incomprehensible and unjust as the noise of the tanks entering Prague.”
“Making Waves” tracks the subsequent political maturation, (an unlikely one: he’s ascended from semi-Commie to the Spanish Nobility as the 1st Marquis of Vargas Llosa !) But the essays are better when explaining the seeds behind his first few novels (“Conversation in the Cathedral”, “The Green House” and “The City and the Dogs”); or when they show Vargas Llosa as an exile vagabond in 1960’s Paris, strolling through the Pet Sematary where Rin-Tin-Tin is buried; or confiding in us the guilt he feels over the sad fate of an acquaintance named P’tit Pierre, a Gavroche of the type that France insists on producing (ask the Dardenne Brothers); or simply fighting the domestic invasion of mice in his British rental house.
And the collection is at its best far away from politics, when Vargas Llosa talks books, movies, arts. Then the declarative politician gives way to the exploratory critic. Here he bemoans the often sad pre-Latin-Boom fate of Latin American authors; exposes with admiration the revealing lies in Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”; examines the existentialist novels of Camus, Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, and the threat presented to them by the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet; celebrates James Joyce’s “The Dubliners”; and visits a festival of Luis Bunuel’s “excellent, bad films” (the commercial, melodramatic Mexican stretch that goes from “Gran Casino”, “The Great Carouser”, “Daughter of Deceit”, “A Tram-Ride of Dreams” and “River of Death”).
That visit is paired with a more personal one, to the Parisian home of the aging director himself. Bunuel serves his in-house-creation, the “Bunuel” cocktail, and, with a smirk, claims that all of his movies contain a moment of what he calls “morcillismo”. Morcilla was a mediocre Spanish painter who contradicted any comments directed at his work: if praised, he insisted his paintings were terrible; if scorned, he declared them masterpieces.
Like this so-called Morcilla, Vargas Llosa insists, in essay after essay, that literature must always be there to dissent: it is the ultimate duty of the writer – of any artist, period. There is no point in adding to some overwhelming choir, or on sailing with the prevailing winds; every piece of art must be a fiery solo, a stand against tide and ebb.