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A Man of the World

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mario Vargas Llosa talks in erudite, polished riffs about all manner of topics: politics, eroticism, art. And whether he has a place he calls home.

“Ever since I was young, it has been my ideal to become a citizen of the world,” Vargas Llosa says, sipping coffee in the genteel lounge of a hotel here. “Not to feel limited or conditioned by geography or culture or creed. If a man really wanted to be free, he had to be able to circulate freely not only in physical space but among cultures, languages and beliefs. Without renouncing, of course, the formative experiences of life, which in my case are Peruvian. I don’t want to feel like a foreigner anywhere. If there is for me a fundamental idea of civilization, it is this.”

At 61, the Peruvian novelist appears to have achieved his ideal and has become a literary giant in the process. His recent visit here to present his new novel, “Don Rigoberto’s Notebooks,” was a perpetual orgy--to borrow a Vargas Llosa title--of adulation. He made the rounds of the talk shows. Crowds overflowed his appearances at the city’s mammoth book fair. Argentine President Carlos Menem invited him to the palace for a chat.

Vargas Llosa looked at home in Buenos Aires--as he does in London, where he works in the blissful anonymity of his preferred sanctum, the Reading Room of the British Museum. He also keeps a home in Spain, a nation that has granted him literary prizes and a passport. Paris remains the mecca of his idols, Honore de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert.

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He knows his way around Princeton and Harvard, having taught at both, and Miami, whose prosperous immigrant melange makes it “one of the most interesting places in the world.”

Still, the one place where he has felt distinctly unwelcome in recent years is his native land. His failed presidential bid in 1990 sowed lingering hostility across the ideological landscape in Peru--and among a sector of Latin American intellectuals who call him a right-wing elitist.

But this is a decisive time in his uneasy relationship with his homeland. After visiting Argentina in April, he spent a week in Lima, interrupting a seven-year, self-imposed exile. He posed for photos in the 15,000-volume library of his new apartment in a beachfront building on the site where his former house had been torn down: a symbolic homecoming.

“He broke down the wall that had grown up between him and Peru,” said Fernando de Szyszlo, a friend and painter. “I hope this will renew a normal relationship with Peru.”

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No one expects Vargas Llosa to move back to Peru or reenter elected politics. But if he returns more often, as expected, his outspoken criticism of President Alberto Fujimori will inevitably intensify.

Like his fictional creation Don Rigoberto, who scribbles obsessive philosophical diatribes into the night, Vargas Llosa defends his ideas pugnaciously. He has opened himself up to conflict because, by running for office, he took to the extreme the activist political tradition of Latin American writers. And while the region’s intellectual elite still lean to the left, Vargas Llosa is a champion of the free-market policies that dominate Latin America’s politics and economics. His syndicated column in El Pais, a Madrid newspaper, gives him a prominent and sometimes-polemical voice in the Spanish-speaking world.

“He is one of the very few writers who assumed the challenge of being a statesman,” said Tomas Eloy Martinez, an Argentine novelist and Rutgers University professor who is a longtime friend. “He is very hardheaded. He is secure and closed in his ideas. That is his greatest advantage and his greatest weakness. He tries to conform reality to his ideas. But Latin American reality is sometimes more complex than ideas, especially neo-liberal economic ideas.”

In the interview and at his appearances in Buenos Aires, Vargas Llosa did his best to focus on his new book, which revisits the characters he introduced in the 1988 novel “In Praise of the Stepmother” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

“Don Rigoberto’s Notebooks” reflects his skill as a craftsman of narrative and his voracity as a cultural scholar. The book has topped bestseller lists in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Peru (and will be published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, probably next year). It is about liberty--his recurring theme--painting and eroticism, which he defines as “the enrichment of physical love through imagination and culture.”

“I do not usually have much fun when I’m writing a book,” he said. “It can be agonizing. But this experience was very entertaining. It was a chance to play a bit, the same way the characters play games and enact rituals.”

Peru intruded, though. Everybody in Buenos Aires kept asking about the recent, globally televised commando raid that had ended the 18-week hostage crisis in Lima in spectacular fashion. “You’d think I was touring Latin America to talk about Fujimori,” the author chuckled. He limited himself to a few barbs about Peru’s “dictatorship” and the “repugnant” televised images of Fujimori standing over the corpses of guerrillas “like an elephant hunter.”

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At the same time, he acknowledged the success of the raid and the president’s turnaround of the once-moribund Peruvian economy. Such evenhandedness and a relaxed wit contradict portrayals of Vargas Llosa as stiff and snobby. He jokes that he abandoned politics “with the help of the Peruvian voters.” And he reacts with mock horror when asked if he shares works in progress with anyone, saying that “would be like total exhibitionism, no? Body and soul.”

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Vargas Llosa’s strong features and prominent teeth vaguely recall actor Victor Mature, gone gray. His face creases periodically into a grimace of concentration. He has a straight-backed, gentlemanly bearing; he saw nothing corny about sending flowers to Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, his political hero, when she left office. The accompanying note read: “Madam: there are not enough words in the dictionary to thank you for what you have done for the cause of liberty.”

Despite his gracious manners, he has a knack for provoking people. When he penned the foreword to last year’s “Manual of the Perfect Latin American Idiot,” a book whose three authors include his son Alvaro, reviewers from Buenos Aires to Mexico City went after him with a vengeance.

The Mexican magazine Epoca served up a typical assault. Writer Luis Guillermo Piazza barely mentioned the book before trashing the elder Vargas Llosa, calling him a “provincial rich kid” with no sense of humor and ridiculing his ill-fated presidential campaign. “He appeared before perplexed peasants and lumpen with his fancy Oxford sweaters, the haughty thesis of Mrs. Thatcher and a seriousness worthy of Buster Keaton.”

The manual served as a kind of manifesto of the orthodox free-market ideas that a small group of former Marxist intellectuals have adopted--with Mario Vargas Llosa leading the way.

“He would be bothered that I say this, but he has the fanaticism of the converted,” Martinez said. He predicted that his old friend will eventually embrace a new ideology “with the same blind faith.”

The Peruvian author responds with purist tenacity. Privatization and deregulation have not closed the gap between rich and poor or eliminated rampant injustice and corruption, Vargas Llosa admits. But he blames faulty execution rather than the economic philosophy itself.

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“Many of these reforms have been done halfway or badly,” he said. “They have not provided the benefits they should have. In Latin America, where there are chasms between haves and have-nots, privatizations should distribute property, as has been done in Central Europe and England.”

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In Peru, the enmity toward Vargas Llosa is more than a matter of left versus right. He lost the 1990 election because Fujimori portrayed him to the mixed-race majority as the standard-bearer of a white oligarchy. Then Fujimori won over the oligarchy by unveiling drastic neo-liberal reforms and declaring emergency rule in his “self-coup” in 1992. Vargas Llosa’s protests went against the prevailing current.

“It had to be a disconcerting experience to see his most ferocious supporters, including those who had once yelled racist insults about Fujimori, totally aligned with Fujimori without concern for human rights or democracy,” said journalist Gustavo Gorriti, a fellow exile who recently healed a rift with the author. “What has not changed in Vargas Llosa is his defense of fundamental liberties.”

After being targeted by a blistering campaign of criticism that his supporters blame on Peru’s intelligence service, Vargas Llosa obtained Spanish citizenship. Although he retains Peruvian citizenship--and many well-off Peruvians have second passports--he was branded a traitor. Even fellow opponents of the regime clashed with him.

Since then, the writer and his wife of 32 years, Patricia, have divided their time between Spain and London. In addition to Alvaro, a journalist for a Spanish newspaper, they have a daughter who is a photographer and another son who works for the United Nations.

Vargas Llosa’s marital life has provided material for his literature and ammunition for nosy political opponents. Patricia is his second wife and first cousin. His previous wife was his “aunt” Julia Urquidi, who was related to his family by marriage; they eloped when he was 19 and she was 32. That romance inspired his novel “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” (Avon, 1977).

The political attacks died down with time and prolonged absence. But this year, as he planned his South American book tour, friends had to coax him into making the stop in Peru, De Szyszlo said.

“We convinced him it was vital,” De Szyszlo said. “He expected hostility. Instead, it was a very positive visit. People stopped him in the street to shake his hand. You would have thought there was nobody who hadn’t voted for him.”

The highlight of the trip was a crowded, heavily guarded gathering at the University of Lima. Vargas Llosa accepted an honorary degree and engaged in a lively panel discussion with De Szyszlo and another old friend. “It was very witty and intelligent; he had a great rapport with the public,” said Enrique Zileri, publisher of the magazine Caretas, where Vargas Llosa’s column reappeared this year after an extended estrangement.

Vargas Llosa recalled by telephone from London recently that “the reunions with family, with friends, with my books, were all very moving.” Except for hecklers at the airport, he said, the reception was pleasant. “Now that the regime is less popular, those of us who have criticized it aren’t so unpopular.”

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Not necessarily, counters Rafael Rey, a congressman and former Vargas Llosa ally who joined the Fujimori camp. Rey said the author’s visit “had little impact. The sensation of most Peruvians is uneasiness with Vargas Llosa.”

The average Peruvian holds a low opinion of the writer because his criticism from afar distorts reality, Rey said. Although Rey admitted that Peru suffers from “authoritarianism,” he said the nation is clearly a democracy. Vargas Llosa paints an exaggerated picture of a dictatorial regime based on biased reports from the political opposition, Rey said.

This “radicalization” has deprived Vargas Llosa of the credit he deserves in his homeland for his contributions as a candidate, Rey said, adding, “It is very sad. I regret that he is not recognized for having been the first to call for the changes that had to be made: reform of the state, economic liberty, frontal combat of terrorism involving the president. All those things are being done by this government.”

Vargas Llosa plans another trip to Peru in November. He sounds more low-key than friends and critics about the significance of his return. Mindful of speculation that he was testing the waters for a political comeback, he insists that his ambitions are strictly literary. He is working on a novel about the last days of Rafael Trujillo, the late dictator of the Dominican Republic. “My life is quite well-organized just the way it is,” he said.

So the citizen of the world seems comfortable with the idea of home that he has constructed for himself. His recent crusade as a columnist has been an emphatic defense of immigrants from the Third World. The multiethnic, immigrant-rich mix of Florida and California, he said, embodies what civilization should and will be. “This is the future of humanity.”

And the backlash against immigrants in Europe and the United States, Vargas Llosa argues, results from a wave of nationalism that is one of the most dangerous forces in the world today. “I believe this will be the great battle of the 21st century, the battle against borders,” he said, “against this provincial, small, petty vision that defines a human being through the idea of a nation, which can be political, religious or racial. . . . The battle is here, it has begun!”


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