Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa’s turn to authoritarian neoliberalism has puzzled many. A new book traces his journey to right-wing punditry back to a beef with Fidel Castro.

Mario Vargas Llosa at the Presidential Palace, San Salvador, El Salvador, March 8, 1984. (Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images)

Review of Cinco días en Moscú. Mario Vargas Llosa y el socialismo soviético (1968) (Reino de Almagro, 2024) by Carlos Aguirre and Kristina Buynova.

Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa has been one of the leading writers and intellectuals of the twentieth century in Latin America. He was part of the so-called Latin American boom, a group of novelists that achieved international fame together with Carlos Fuentes from Mexico, Julio Cortázar from Argentina, and Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez. Since his youth in Lima, Vargas Llosa tried to place himself in the literary avant-garde under the legacy of Rubén Darío’s modernism, French literary narrative, and the tradition of US writers, in a quest to diagram a “Latin American realism” attentive to capturing the dynamics and changes that affected the societies of the region. Although in political-ideological terms he is currently associated with liberalism and the right wing, in the 1960s and 1970s Vargas Llosa fervently supported the Cuban Revolution, processes of decolonization and, with nuances, the socialist experiments.

Latin American studies professor Carlos Aguirre and Russian international relations scholar Kristina Buynova’s new book explores a portion of Vargas Llosa’s career and his early relationship with the political and cultural processes that interpellated much of the Latin American intelligentsia of that time. Aguirre and Buynova’s work, published in Spanish, allows us to accurately gauge, on the one hand, Vargas Llosa’s political-ideological path during the period, and, on the other hand, its link with the Cuban and Soviet cultural world. As a result of the access that both scholars had to archives and materials found in the United States, Russia, and Latin America, the book tries to explain the reasons that led the Peruvian novelist from a position of identification with Cuba, in particular, and socialisms in general, to a deep disenchantment that facilitated the enunciation of a general and resounding criticism to all these experiences. Access to his personal correspondence, newspaper publications, and various letters allow the authors to compose in detail the circumstances surrounding the significant moment in his life in which Vargas Llosa traveled to the Soviet Union in 1968.

Trips to revolutionary Russia were commonplace throughout the twentieth century for intellectuals, writers, politicians, activists, and even workers. Visiting Moscow and other Russian cities became essential for those interested in “seeing” and “touching” the new future of humanity. Historiography has long been examining the features of these trips, their protagonists, the networks used, the places traveled, and the subsequent return to the country of origin where opinions on what was experienced were presented.

Vargas Llosa is one of many Latin American writers and intellectuals who arrived on Russian soil. In fact, the writer himself has recounted it on several occasions; from his point of view, that journey was fundamental to gaining a real awareness of what was happening in those countries. As he has said, it brought about his disenchantment with the “actually existing” socialisms when he observed that not only were those societies still unequal, but that, most worryingly, they had no freedom of expression. Years before his arrival in Moscow, Vargas Llosa had criticized the treatment and censorship of the Russian writers Andrei Siniavski, Yuli Daniel, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in addition to the Cuban episodes of suppression of artistic freedom (such as the prohibition of the documentary PM by Sabá Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jiménez Leal). However, he still chose to rely on the achievements of socialism in social matters, considering them part of a global solution to the problems faced by Latin American countries.

Vargas Llosa’s repeated support for both the Soviet Union and revolutionary Cuba cannot be explained solely by political or ideological reasons. There were others. According to Aguirre and Buynova, the “cultural diplomacy” exercised by both countries — relations between states or individuals around the exchange of ideas, arts, and writers in order to establish friendly ties — was central to his approach and positionality in each case. His former sympathy and reciprocal love with Cuba are well known thanks to a number of investigations; his relation to the Russian cultural world, however, is not. This is one of the many contributions of the book. In fact, in the second chapter we observe the beginnings of that bond when the authors note how the Soviet Union, after Stalin’s death, experienced a renewed appetite for world literature — in particular for those who, like Vargas Llosa, were protagonists of a stellar moment in the international scene of letters.

A sign of Soviet interest in Latin American novels is illustrated by the publication of his book, La ciudad y los perros (published in English as The Time of the Hero). As evidenced in the third chapter, Vargas Llosa had the privilege of being the first of the boom to be translated into Russian in 1965. Already having received awards in Spain and recognition by Carlos Barral, the influential owner of the Seix Barral publishing house that published the Spanish edition, the book arrived in Russia, thanks to a shipment sent by Barral himself with a view to expanding his presence in the global literary market.

Russian publishing house La Joven Guardia was in charge of evaluating, accepting, translating, and also censoring the Peruvian writer’s work. As historian Robert Darnton demonstrated in his book Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature, in the case of the German Democratic Republic, this exercise of control was an essential aspect of the cultural policy that socialist countries implemented on the productions of writers. However, as Darnton also proved, such evaluative judgment was not established from the top in a vertical manner. Rather, different mediating figures intervened in the process, negotiating the final result by relativizing the prohibitions. La ciudad y los perros was subjected to this mechanism by the publishing house La Joven Guardia, especially when addressing the parts dealing with themes such as homosexuality or sexual acts. The Spanish edition also suffered an analogous erasure by the government of Francisco Franco, although in that version, everything associated with militarism and authoritarianism in Peruvian society that the text exposed in a critical way was also removed. According to the authors, despite the censorship and the fact that Vargas Llosa never authorized its publication in the Soviet Union, the Russians not only paid the corresponding royalties sooner rather than later, but also, by way of compensation, invited him to visit Moscow for a while.

What was observed during the trip, the censorship that took place, and the publication without permission did not mean a break in Vargas Llosa’s relationship with Cuba and Russia. The main reason for the estrangement, which from then on became irrepressible and even extreme, occurred as a result of another event: the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Faced with the attempt to democratize the socialist government in Prague, the USSR had occupied the capital with troops and tanks with the purpose of breaking a Czech political sector interested in changing the rules of the game in force up to that moment. Almost immediately, many world-renowned intellectuals protested against an intrusion that, from their point of view, obstructed the right of peoples to self-determination and democracy. Vargas Llosa, in addition to other members of the boom such as García Márquez, joined the many denunciations published at the time, some of which were addressed to the Writers’ Union of the USSR regarding the outrages committed and the imperial nature of the event.

As the authors of the book point out in the fourth and final chapter, however, it was not this event in itself, nor his view of Moscow, that marked the beginning of a permanent criticism of socialist experiences for the Peruvian writer. The most significant fact was associated with Fidel Castro’s support for Soviet interference. For Aguirre and Buynova, Castro’s declaration in favor of the Russians had greater importance for Latin American intellectuals than the occupation itself. But while close friends such as García Márquez opted to lower the decibels, Vargas Llosa had no qualms about publicly questioning Fidel. In an article published in the Lima-based magazine Caretas in September 1968, titled “Socialism and the Tanks,” he questioned the support given by the Cuban leader. In his view this was a “military invasion aimed at crushing the independence of a country” that intended to “organize its society according to its own convictions.”

The disappointment assumed with respect to the USSR, the negative view of Moscow, the problems associated with the publication of his book and, finally, the Soviet invasion coagulated as a result of the decision taken by Castro with respect to the Czech issue. From that moment on, Aguirre and Buynova record the beginning of the end of Vargas Llosa’s relationship with Cuba, and of course with the Soviet Union. The imprisonment of Cuban writer Heberto Padilla in 1971 sealed Vargas Llosa’s decision to put an end to more than a decade of solidarity and fraternity with two of the most powerful transforming projects of world socialism. It was the beginning of a path that, as a result of that disillusionment, led him to assume a critical position toward the Left under the auspices of the liberal tradition. Vargas Llosa would progressively become part of another political and ideological family of which he is still a member: that of the Latin American right wing.

Aguirre and Buynova’s book reconstructs with precision, accuracy of sources, and analytical sensitivity a turning point in the life of the Peruvian writer that began in 1968. Although from that point on he cast aside his adherence to socialism, he maintained a certain flare in his performance as a public intellectual. His rebelliousness, cult of public exposure, and remarkable ability to engage controversy, forged partly in his native Lima and partly among the ranks of the Latin American revolutionary left, are qualities he continued to play in his role as “disseminator” of liberal and conservative ideas from the 1990s to the present — as Stéphen Boisard outlines in this article. But that is another story.

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