Friday, April 13, 2007

Book Review: Touchstones by Mario Vargas Llosa

Jason Wilson reviews Touchstones by Mario Vargas Llosa.

The South American liberator Francisco de Miranda warned us to "trust no man over the age of 40 unless you can be sure he is fond of reading". Despite standing in Peru's presidential elections and deriding Castro, Grass and many others, you can trust Mario Vargas Llosa, another kind of liberator, as a reader.

Touchstones, the name given to his regular, syndicated column that literally touches on everything, is a follow-up to Making Waves (1996), also edited and serenely translated by John King. These essays are a novelist's account of the world as he sees it. Few would question Vargas Llosa's utterly believable fictional worlds. He documents carefully, has a perfect ear for register and slang, and plot and narrative techniques merge to baffle the reader's anticipations. His language does not draw attention to itself in its creation of imaginary worlds, and he brings this enviable clarity to his journalism.

However, there is a loss of intensity in these wide-ranging essays. It could be that Vargas Llosa has conceptualised his thinking before writing so that there are areas that function as a shorthand for complex processes, like the "truth of lies". He assumes that reading is always a vicarious experience; that it's therapeutic to abandon the self and live through others. This thinking doesn't figure in the fiction.

So these more intellectual essays reveal a reasonable writer who makes sense through low-key narratives about the real world. A large section is devoted to his account of a visit to Iraq in June 2003, with his daughter. What convinces here are the stories he hears, the incidents, the mindless destruction; not his ideas. At the outset he opposed the invasion; this journalistic foray changed his opinions as he learnt first-hand about life under Saddam.

Even more impressive is how Vargas Llosa starts from a cosmopolitan Peruvian position, often in critical dialogue with Paris, so that his range of references astounds readers more attuned to national traditions. Just listing the novels that he re-read while campaigning for the presidency in 1990 is a lesson: Heart of Darkness, Death in Venice, Mrs Dalloway, Nadja, La Condition Humaine, Tropic of Cancer and six more. In that list, there's only one Peruvian novel.

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