Mario Vargas Llosa
A strong selection of the 60-year-old Peruvian novelist's (Death in the Andes, 1996, etc.) journalism and literary essays, spanning 30 years of prodigious, passionate creativity. Such collections of fugitive works by great writers are tricky: Some seem to consist largely of pet peeves and fragmentary musings. That's not the case here. Vargas Llosa writes with compelling insight, verve, and intelligence about even the most modest matters. He is a cosmopolitan figure, having spent a great deal of time in Europe and the US, and the wide range of his knowledge and experience is frequently on display. He writes with vigor and clarity: Essays produced in the 1960s and '70s on, say, the difference between Comus and Sartre, are just as alive and relevant now as when he wrote them. Naturally, Vargas Llosa writes a good deal about politics, especially South American politics. ("The raison d'etre of a writer," he reminds us, "is protest, disagreement, criticism.") Though politicial essays are especially prone to seeming dated and irrelevant, in Vargas Llosa's hands the opposite is true. He cannily brings out the element of the permanent that inhabits the ephemeral. But perhaps his best efforts in this book are the literary essays. He turns his analytic gaze on Doris Lessing, Grass, Dos Passos, Faulkner, Cortezar, Bataille, Bueuel, de Beauvoir, Joyce, Bellow, Rushdie, and Hovel, among others, to considerable effect. In addition, he has interesting things to say about such diverse topics as Lorena Bobbit, the British school system, and the grave of Rin Tin Tin. The collection is also of interest because it offers an intimate chronicle of Vargas Llosa's intellectual life, tracing his trajectory from the political left to the right, a transit he has made with admirable honesty and self-criticism. A fine collection demonstrating that, like his American colleague John Updike, Vargas Llosa has done some of his finest writing in essays and reviews.