Pornography and literary beginnings
For a man conferred a great many honors, Mario Vargas Llosa bears his laurels lightly. The First Marqués of Vargas Llosa and Nobel Laureate for Literature has probably been conferred more honorary doctorates than the combined number of all his toes and fingers. These degrees build up an impressive academic roster, including Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Tokyo University, and even De La Salle University in Manila.
Looking back on meeting him in Makati at a dinner hosted by Lin Bildner in November 2016, I realized that we often celebrate what exceptional people have become and overlook their beginnings. In the case of Mario Vargas Llosa, it was a father who tried to reform his son’s sensitive and creative nature by consigning him, at age 14, to the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Lima. As all fairy tales go, that attempt backfired. Vargas Llosa embarked on a writing life and lived happily ever after. But what you are not told is that his literary life began with pornography!
Over a glass of red wine, Vargas Llosa recollected:
“When my father discovered I was writing, he sent me to military school, not knowing that he gave me the subject for my first novel which was set in a military school. I think I discovered what it was to be a writer in military school in Peru, where I met different social classes and students. Indians, Chinese, Japanese, all of Peruvian society was there, so I discovered the country. I didn’t know Peru but I learned a lot about Peru in military school.
“… I was allowed to write only pornography… I became a professional writer, I wrote the love letters of my classmates, they didn’t know how to write, so I always wanted to read their long letters in order to answer, and that I enjoyed so much, and then I wrote pornographic stories and was paid with cigarettes. I was only 14 years old. These were for the students and they masturbated on my stories! When you write pornographic stories then, it was macho. I had no experience, so all this came from my imagination.”
I wasn’t able to ask why his first novel “La Ciudad y los Perros” (1963) was translated from the original Spanish into “The Time of the Hero” instead of the more literal “The City and the Dogs,” and whether the title led to its success. Vargas Llosa wanted to be a naval officer, but changed course when his novel was given a more than warm welcome:
“When I wrote my first novel on the military — in English, ‘The Time of the Hero,’ in Spanish ‘La Ciudad y los Perros’ — it was a big success, because the military burned a thousand copies. And it was said that the Ecuadorians paid for this to discredit the Peruvian military. I was in France at the time and I discovered that they had a formal burning of the thousand copies in the military school in which the story was set. Then, in the newspapers, someone said the publisher did this to promote the book, he gave the thousand copies to be burned!”
We often see, and sometimes envy, people whom we know from their success, and not from their beginnings. Looking back, the process of becoming is more helpful, sometimes inspiring. I asked Vargas Llosa if his father read any of his novels, or how his father took to his growing reputation as a writer which was a future he did not see or want for his son. Vargas Llosa replied:
“My father didn’t say a word, but my mother told me that when they went to live in Los Angeles, my father was a great admirer of the American way of life, hardworking people, etc. Then one day he was looking over Time magazine, for him Time magazine was the Bible, and he saw my picture there. He was absolutely speechless, he couldn’t understand how his writer son could be in Time magazine. He didn’t say anything, but he was deeply impressed and probably proud. He never said anything about this big problem [writing as a career] when I was young.”
The 2016 Manila visit was not Vargas Llosa’s first. He had been to Manila in the 1970s to attend a PEN Conference, and from that visit he came to know that many writers and journalists were in prison, and that “Manila and Lima are so similar, the big contrast between rich people and poor people and a thin middle class.” Now that he has connections to Manila, through the elegant Isabel Preysler, I look forward to giving him a tour of Intramuros on his third visit so we can continue the conversation.
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