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A Man of the World

Passionate and pugnacious, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa won't be hemmed in by boundaries of any kind. But that doesn't mean he wouldn't like to feel a little more welcome in his native Peru.

June 23, 1997|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — Mario Vargas Llosa talks in erudite, polished riffs about all manner of topics: politics, eroticism, art. And whether he has a place he calls home.

"Ever since I was young, it has been my ideal to become a citizen of the world," Vargas Llosa says, sipping coffee in the genteel lounge of a hotel here. "Not to feel limited or conditioned by geography or culture or creed. If a man really wanted to be free, he had to be able to circulate freely not only in physical space but among cultures, languages and beliefs. Without renouncing, of course, the formative experiences of life, which in my case are Peruvian. I don't want to feel like a foreigner anywhere. If there is for me a fundamental idea of civilization, it is this."

At 61, the Peruvian novelist appears to have achieved his ideal and has become a literary giant in the process. His recent visit here to present his new novel, "Don Rigoberto's Notebooks," was a perpetual orgy--to borrow a Vargas Llosa title--of adulation. He made the rounds of the talk shows. Crowds overflowed his appearances at the city's mammoth book fair. Argentine President Carlos Menem invited him to the palace for a chat.

Vargas Llosa looked at home in Buenos Aires--as he does in London, where he works in the blissful anonymity of his preferred sanctum, the Reading Room of the British Museum. He also keeps a home in Spain, a nation that has granted him literary prizes and a passport. Paris remains the mecca of his idols, Honore de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert.

He knows his way around Princeton and Harvard, having taught at both, and Miami, whose prosperous immigrant melange makes it "one of the most interesting places in the world."

Still, the one place where he has felt distinctly unwelcome in recent years is his native land. His failed presidential bid in 1990 sowed lingering hostility across the ideological landscape in Peru--and among a sector of Latin American intellectuals who call him a right-wing elitist.

But this is a decisive time in his uneasy relationship with his homeland. After visiting Argentina in April, he spent a week in Lima, interrupting a seven-year, self-imposed exile. He posed for photos in the 15,000-volume library of his new apartment in a beachfront building on the site where his former house had been torn down: a symbolic homecoming.

"He broke down the wall that had grown up between him and Peru," said Fernando de Szyszlo, a friend and painter. "I hope this will renew a normal relationship with Peru."

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No one expects Vargas Llosa to move back to Peru or reenter elected politics. But if he returns more often, as expected, his outspoken criticism of President Alberto Fujimori will inevitably intensify.

Like his fictional creation Don Rigoberto, who scribbles obsessive philosophical diatribes into the night, Vargas Llosa defends his ideas pugnaciously. He has opened himself up to conflict because, by running for office, he took to the extreme the activist political tradition of Latin American writers. And while the region's intellectual elite still lean to the left, Vargas Llosa is a champion of the free-market policies that dominate Latin America's politics and economics. His syndicated column in El Pais, a Madrid newspaper, gives him a prominent and sometimes-polemical voice in the Spanish-speaking world.

"He is one of the very few writers who assumed the challenge of being a statesman," said Tomas Eloy Martinez, an Argentine novelist and Rutgers University professor who is a longtime friend. "He is very hardheaded. He is secure and closed in his ideas. That is his greatest advantage and his greatest weakness. He tries to conform reality to his ideas. But Latin American reality is sometimes more complex than ideas, especially neo-liberal economic ideas."

In the interview and at his appearances in Buenos Aires, Vargas Llosa did his best to focus on his new book, which revisits the characters he introduced in the 1988 novel "In Praise of the Stepmother" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

"Don Rigoberto's Notebooks" reflects his skill as a craftsman of narrative and his voracity as a cultural scholar. The book has topped bestseller lists in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Peru (and will be published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, probably next year). It is about liberty--his recurring theme--painting and eroticism, which he defines as "the enrichment of physical love through imagination and culture."

"I do not usually have much fun when I'm writing a book," he said. "It can be agonizing. But this experience was very entertaining. It was a chance to play a bit, the same way the characters play games and enact rituals."

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