ALTHOUGH books about other books abound, there are very few that actually tell us what it is like to read. "The Temptation of the Impossible," Mario Vargas Llosa's book about Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," is one of these rare confessions. Perhaps because Vargas Llosa is himself an author, a Peruvian rival of the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he has the confidence to tell us that his comprehension is sometimes stretched, his attention fluctuates and that when he closes his eyes, only a few memorable scenes from a novel appear before them.
Vargas Llosa calls these hotspots "active craters." In Hugo's epic novel, he picks out the scene in the Paris sewers as the ex-convict Jean Valjean emerges with Marius on his shoulders and also the epic battle on the barricade at La Chanvrerie, in which the street urchin Gavroche dies and Valjean saves the life of Javert, the relentless policeman. The scenes' vitality "flows from them and expands in time and space"; they "dominate the vast landscape of 'Les Miserables.' " The vastness of that landscape, at about 1,200 pages in translation, cannot be ignored. Vargas Llosa admits that the story has a "slow pace," but he makes a good apology for it. Were the story not so long, he writes, it would not be as powerful: "Quantity is one of the ingredients in the quality of a novel."
More is more. The nerve of a wordy and assertive narrator pleases Vargas Llosa. First in line is the narrator: "The ambition of the book is his ambition." Vargas Llosa knows ambition well. Like that of Hugo, his may have begun in an artistic impulse to meliorate reality. In his "Letters to a Young Novelist," he equated the literary vocation to rebellion: "Why would anyone who is deeply satisfied with reality, with real life as it is lived, dedicate himself to something as insubstantial and fanciful as the creation of fictional realities?"
In 1990, Vargas Llosa ran for president of Peru and almost won. Hugo's own career, as a man of letters, led him into national life, as an assemblyman, a political exile and then a senator. He was beloved. For his 79th birthday, Paris staged a parade that took six hours to pass Hugo's window. Vargas Llosa's take on "Les Miserables" might, therefore, be expected to be one of instructive envy, a look at one of the world's greatest social novels and the public career of the man who produced it. But rereading the book, living in its alternate reality, convinces him that it is not a social but a religious novel. Without a belief in God, it would be impossible to create a narrator with the authoritative fiat of Hugo's. The volcanic hugeness of the novel does not seek to change reality but to replace it.
Neither he nor Hugo, despite their very real public lives, put politics first, Vargas Llosa explains. What an unexpected tribute to the independence of art, then, when Vargas Llosa writes: "Novels, great novels in particular, are not testimonies or documents of life itself. They offer another life, endowed with its own attributes, that is created to discredit real life."