Biography of Mario Vargas Llosa, Peruvian Writer, Nobel Prize Winner

Vargas Llosa, 2006
Mario Vargas Llosa, writer.

Quim Llenas / Getty Images

Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize winner who is considered to be part of the "Latin American Boom" of the 1960s and 70s, a group of influential writers including Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. While his early novels were known for their critique of authoritarianism and capitalism, Vargas Llosa's political ideology shifted in the 1970s and he began to see socialist regimes, particularly Fidel Castro's Cuba, as repressive for writers and artists.

Fast Facts: Mario Vargas Llosa

  • Known For: Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize winner
  • Born: March 28, 1936 in Arequipa, Peru
  • Parents: Ernesto Vargas Maldonado, Dora Llosa Ureta
  • Education: National University of San Marcos, 1958
  • Selected Works: "The Time of the Hero," "The Green House," "Conversation in the Cathedral," "Captain Pantoja and the Secret Service," "The War of the End of the World," "The Feast of the Goat"
  • Awards and Honors: Miguel Cervantes Prize (Spain), 1994; PEN/Nabokov Award, 2002; Nobel Prize in Literature, 2010
  • Spouses: Julia Urquidi (m. 1955-1964), Patricia Llosa (m. 1965-2016)
  • Children: Álvaro, Gonzalo, Morgana
  • Famous Quote: “Writers are the exorcists of their own demons.”

Early Life and Education

Mario Vargas Llosa was born to Ernesto Vargas Maldonado and Dora Llosa Ureta on March 28, 1936 in Arequipa, in southern Peru. His father abandoned the family immediately and, due to the social prejudice his mother faced as a result, her parents moved the whole family to Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Dora had come from a family of elite intellectuals and artists, many of whom were also poets or writers. His maternal grandfather in particular was a major influence on Vargas Llosa, who was also taken by American writers like William Faulkner. In 1945, his grandfather was appointed to a position in Piura in northern Peru, and the family moved back to their native country. This move marked a major shift in consciousness for Vargas Llosa, and he later set his second novel, "The Green House," in Piura.

In 1945 he met his father, whom he had assumed was dead, for the first time. Ernesto and Dora reunited and the family moved to Lima. Ernesto turned out to be an authoritarian, abusive father and Vargas Llosa's adolescence was a far cry from his happy childhood in Cochabamba. When his father learned he was writing poems, which he associated with homosexuality, he sent Vargas Llosa to a military school, Leoncio Prado, in 1950. The violence he encountered at the school was the inspiration for his first novel, "The Time of the Hero" (1963), and he has characterized this period of his life as traumatic. It also inspired his lifelong opposition to any type of abusive authority figure or dictatorial regime.

After two years at the military school, Vargas Llosa convinced his parents to let him return to Piura to finish his schooling. He began to write in different genres: journalism, plays, and poems. He returned to Lima in 1953 to begin studying law and literature at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.

In 1958, Vargas Llosa made a trip to the Amazon jungle that deeply impacted him and his future writing. In fact, "The Green House" was set partially in Piura and partially in the jungle, chronicling Vargas Llosa's experience and the indigenous groups he encountered.

Early Career

After graduating from university in 1958, Vargas Llosa obtained a scholarship to pursue graduate work in Spain at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. He planned to begin writing about his time at Leoncio Prado. When his scholarship ended in 1960, he and his wife Julia Urquidi (whom he had married in 1955) moved to France. There, Vargas Llosa met other Latin American writers, like Argentinian Julio Cortázar, with whom he struck a close friendship. In 1963, he published "The Time of the Hero" to great acclaim in Spain and France; however, in Peru it was not well-received because of its critique of the military establishment. Leoncio Prado burned 1,000 copies of the book in a public ceremony.

Vargas Llosa, 1961
Author Mario Vargas Llosa casually leaning against railing on street, holding cigarette. H. John Maier Jr. / Getty Images

Vargas Llosa's second novel, "The Green House," was published in 1966, and quickly established him as one of the most important Latin American writers of his generation. It was at this point that his name was added to the list of the "Latin American Boom," a literary movement of the 1960s and 70s that also included Gabriel García Márquez, Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes. His third novel, "Conversation in the Cathedral" (1969) concerns the corruption of the Peruvian dictatorship of Manuel Odría from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s.

In the 1970s, Vargas Llosa turned to a different style and lighter, more satirical tone in his novels, such as "Captain Pantoja and the Special Service" (1973) and "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" (1977), based partly on his marriage to Julia, whom he had divorced in 1964. In 1965 he remarried, this time to his first cousin, Patricia Llosa, with whom he had three children: Álvaro, Gonzalo, and Morgana; they divorced in 2016.

Political Ideology and Activity

Vargas Llosa began to develop a leftist political ideology during the Odría dictatorship. He was part of a Communist cell at the National University of San Marcos and began to read Marx. Vargas Llosa was initially supportive of Latin American socialism, specifically the Cuban Revolution, and he even traveled to the island to cover the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 for the French press.

By the 1970s, however, Vargas Llosa had begun to see the repressive aspects of the Cuban regime, particularly in terms of its censorship of writers and artists. He began to advocate for democracy and free market capitalism. Historian of Latin America Patrick Iber states, "Vargas Llosa began to change his mind about the kind of revolution that Latin America needed. There was no moment of sharp rupture, but rather a gradual reconsideration based on his growing sense that the conditions of freedom he valued were not present in Cuba or possible in Marxist regimes in general." In fact, this ideological shift strained his relationship with fellow Latin American writers, namely García Márquez, who Vargas Llosa famously punched in 1976 in Mexico in an altercation that he claimed was related to Cuba.

In 1987, when then-President Alan García attempted to nationalize Peru's banks, Vargas Llosa organized protests, as he felt the government would also attempt to take control of the media. This activism led to Vargas Llosa forming a political party, Movimiento Libertad (Freedom Movement), to oppose García. In 1990, it evolved into the Frente Democrático (Democratic Front), and Vargas Llosa ran for president that year. He lost to Alberto Fujimori, who would bring another authoritarian regime to Peru; Fujimori was eventually convicted in 2009 of corruption and human rights violations and is still serving jail time. Vargas Llosa eventually wrote about these years in his 1993 memoir "A Fish in the Water."

Mario Vargas Llosa during his 1990 presidential campaign
Peruvian writer, presidential candidate for right-wing Democratic Front Party, Mario Vargas Llosa waves at thousands of supporters attending his last political rally on April 4, 1990. Cris Bouroncle / Getty Images

By the new millennium, Vargas Llosa had come to be known for his neoliberal politics. In 2005 he was awarded the Irving Kristol Award from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and, as asserted by Iber, he "denounced the Cuban government and called Fidel Castro an 'authoritarian fossil.'" Nonetheless, Iber noted that one aspect of his thinking has remained constant: "Even during his Marxist years, Vargas Llosa judged the health of a society by how it treated its writers."

Later Career

During the 1980s, Vargas Llosa continued to publish even as he was becoming move involved in politics, including a historical novel, "The War of the End of the World" (1981). After losing the presidential election in 1990, Vargas Llosa left Peru and settled in Spain, becoming a political columnist for the newspaper "El País." Many of these columns formed the basis for his 2018 anthology "Sabers and Utopias," which presents a four-decades-worth collection of his political essays.

In 2000, Vargas Llosa wrote one of his most well-known novels, "The Feast of the Goat," about the brutal legacy of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who was nicknamed "the Goat." Regarding this novel, he stated, "I didn't want to present Trujillo as a grotesque monster or brutal clown, as is usual in Latin American literature...I wanted a realist treatment of a human being who became a monster because of the power he accumulated and the lack of resistance and criticism. Without the complicity of large sections of society and their infatuation with the strongman, Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Castro wouldn't have been where they were; converted into a god, you become a devil."

Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize, 2010
Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa (R) is hugged by former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo at a press conference at Instituto Cervantes after Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature October 7, 2010 in New York City. Mario Tama / Getty Images

Since the 1990s, Vargas Llosa has lectured and taught at various universities around the world, including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and Georgetown. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. In 2011, he was given a title of nobility by Spanish King Juan Carlos I.

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