Some time ago I urged a friend from Lima to read Vargas Llosa’s Historia de Mayta—clumsily entitled The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta in the English edition—so that he might give me an insider’s opinion of the book’s treatment of the Peruvian revolutionary left over the last thirty years and decode some of the specific events and personalities.footnote1 This friend, who is not only a socialist but also a gay activist and adviser to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, understandably shied away from a novel whose author is opposed to almost everything he holds dear. Eventually I thrust a copy of the book into his hands with the rather weak excuse that one might best understand one’s enemies when they are trying to do the same. Some weeks later I received a letter succinctly expressing what has subsequently become a general response to the novel within the circles of the left: ‘This little monster has a knack for saying the most reactionary things in the most brilliant way.’ Such an appraisal could easily be hedged around with nuanced qualifications or rendered into more modulated prose but it is, I believe, entirely accurate.

Mayta is a very fine novel built around some compelling—if not completely felicitous—literary devices and imagery that is both rich and subtle. Yet, just as one might anticipate little less from such a reputable author, so also is the expectation of a profoundly conservative perspective fully justified and even surpassed. In this text Vargas Llosa directly addresses matters of great importance to him as a political animal as well as a novelist—the shade of Sendero Luminoso is here in all but name.

The book is markedly devoid of the fiercely polemical tone adopted by the author in his public statements and increasingly frequent excursions into journalism, but it provides an extensive display of the assumptions and convictions that underpin Vargas Llosa’s more trenchant extra-mural invectives. One of the novel’s principal resources lies in the sympathy with which the central radical protagonist is drawn as an individual, yet its essential character is established by the only constant feature of the text: the understanding that the being of the left is singularly self-determined and, even more importantly, that the catastrophe that is contemporary Peru is centrally attributable to the agency of this left. The notable lack of attention to the wider context within which the ideology and organization of radicalism are engendered is no mundane omission. For whilst all histories, ‘imagined’ or otherwise, are necessarily partial and Vargas Llosa is justifiably preoccupied with an internal discourse, the core of the book is constituted by the presumption that the semi-fictional Mayta and the entirely real Sendero can only be comprehended through their own vision of the world and esoteric protocols.

Despite its title, the novel has two protagonists—the restless Alejandro Mayta, an obscure Trotskyist attempting to stage an insurrection in the Andes in 1958, and an anonymous narrator endeavouring to reconstruct the story of this abortive revolt in the Peru of a near future when the state of strife that prevails today has escalated to open civil war, invasion by a Cuban–Bolivian revolutionary force and intervention by the us marines. This time gap allows Vargas Llosa to establish, but never explain, a linkage between Mayta’s not completely dishonourable failure in the past and the horrendous successes of the faceless subversives of today and tomorrow. The ‘plot’ of the 1958 rising is subordinate but far from marginal since its unremitting advance towards the disaster we know it will become contains all the elements of detective fiction, to which Vargas Llosa has long been attached. However, the author bobs and weaves around this basic narrative line with a series of literary devices that increasingly dominate the text. The most obvious of these is the constant exchange—most often between paragraphs but sometimes within lines—of the point of narration between the researcher, interviewing Mayta’s erstwhile comrades in the first person, and Mayta himself, struggling towards his half-baked destiny in the third. The literary success of this mechanism has been the subject of some discussion.footnote2 It is, though, of secondary importance within the more general ‘relativizing’ of the text whereby one revelation after another is subverted through a change of voice as well as developments in the story, continuing Vargas Llosa’s established affinity for the artifice of the ‘Chinese box’.footnote3

Through all but one chapter the precarious nature of the ‘truth’ of Mayta’s escapade is engagingly demonstrated by the contrast between a narrative of 1958 invested with the authority of the third person and the versions of that same past recounted to the narrator by those who have survived it. Although these interlocutors are told that their confidences will be respected and that their account will be used only as a basis for a fiction and not as ‘history’, they are requested to provide a detailed concrete version of what occurred. Their reminiscences are then shown to be highly varied and fraught with all manner of insufficiency, the lapses and adjustments of memory generally being openly self-serving although Vargas Llosa is not so banal as to exclude the more extensive and profound difficulties and richness of oral history. The book could easily rest on this basis, but even before the last chapter it is evident that our writer will play his trump on the decreasingly credulous reader. In the final pages the novel reaches its dénouement in a meeting between the narrator and Mayta himself, which encounter provides both a resolution to the story of the aged agitator and a final subversion when the narrator reveals his own lies and concoctions within the text hitherto and directly signals the ultimate deceit encompassing all of these—that invented by Mario Vargas Llosa, novelist in the quick.

As Salman Rushdie has commented, this contrived ending lacks conviction, not least because it extinguishes a doubt as to authorship that resists neat consummation after such diligent seduction. One suspects that Don Mario’s self-proclaimed extremism of the imagination yields to feigned rapture because it is in embrace with political conservatism: Mayta’s embattled trajectory terminates in careworn common-sense and apolitical sobriety yet cannot convincingly be dragged over this final mile unless we are assured that such an account belongs to the man on the dust-jacket and is ‘the real story’. The portrait of an exhausted revolutionary is neither unpersuasive nor markedly indulgent, but it is only achieved by the liquidation of literary as well as political subversion, and in this respect the importance of Mayta lies far more in its substantive treatment of Vargas Llosa’s preferred themes of obsession and ideology than as an exploration of literary form.

The quite widespread identification of this book as more reactionary than its immediate predecessors has undoubtedly been encourgaed by its political subject-matter—perhaps also by greater exposure of the thoughts of Vargas Llosa in the English-speaking world following the acclaim and mass sales of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977) and War of the End of the World (1984). However, Mayta represents a continuation and distillation of the essential motifs of both novels, fusing the treatment of personal obsession at the heart of Aunt Julia, a hilarious semi-autobiographical excursus, with reflection upon the susceptibility of the masses to an apocalyptic vision which courses through War of the End of the World, an unqualified tragedy based upon the experience of millenarianism in late nineteenth-century Brazil.footnote4 Mayta does not possess the clarity of genre of either of its antecedents and attempts a much more synthetic vision of the personal and political, being correspondingly less anarchic and grandiose. Its realism is decidedly not of the ‘magic’ variety that is generally associated with the Latin American literary ‘boom’ opened in the metropolis by Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and which has, in fact, never been a prominent characteristic of Vargas Llosa’s work. The novel relates in tone as well as subject matter those distinctly Peruvian qualities of the author’s work which, as Gerry Martin persuasively suggests, set him apart from his peers no less than do his political convictions.footnote5