The Storyteller

An Interview with Mario Vargas Llosa

I think not. I think ideas are more important than images, and that we should arrange through education and through complementary efforts to give profundity to ideas again if we don't want democracy to collapse. I am absolutely convinced that culture is important for creating the kind of citizens necessary for a democracy — those with critical experience who won't be manipulated easily by the powers of this world. On the contrary, I think a society impregnated with images and educated only by images can be very easily manipulated by populism. I think it's happening in the world today. Even in the United States. We thought that the United States was totally vaccinated against populism. In fact, it's not. It has surrendered to populism, as England has. I lived many, many years in England, and I have enormous admiration for the civic qualities of the English. And look now: Brexit. Nationalism has produced the kind of populism that is behind Brexit. Our love of images is behind the nationalism that is appearing in Europe. In France, in Italy. The government now in Italy is populist. I think this is a serious situation.

We thought that after the collapse of Communism, democracy would flourish everywhere. But now within democracy we have populism. And its worst expression, which is nationalism, is challenging the democratic institutions and the democratic culture in a way that probably is more sinuous and more difficult to defend against than in Communist times.

OR: Why is today’s Left seemingly so attracted to authoritarianism?

Vargas Llosa: It's not serious. I don't think a serious Left would be nostalgic for the Soviet Union, for the China of the Cultural Revolution. That would be grotesque. The Soviet Union collapsed without foreign intervention because it was totally unable to satisfy the most elementary wishes of the population. I think Communism is dead. For whom, assuming he is in his right mind, could North Korea, or Venezuela, or Cuba be the model of the future? I think these are failed societies, failed governments. So the Left now tries to accommodate itself within the spectrum of democratic institutions.

The problem, I don't think, is Communism anymore. That, I think, is finished. The problem is populism. This is a kind of illness that has reappeared within the democratic system and is doing deep, deep damage even in what we thought were the most solid democracies in the world. Britain, France, and America. We cannot close our eyes. The enemy is there, and he is an enemy of the democratic culture, of all its great achievements. So we must keep fighting.

OR: What can we do to address this problem?

Vargas Llosa: I think we must try to replace images with ideas. I think ideas are essential. And the best way to defend democratic values is replacing these images and fake news. Because fake news, I think, comes with this hegemonic role that images now have in our culture.

OR: Can this be done, given the brief attention spans that most people have now?

Vargas Llosa: I am not against films and TV series at all. On the contrary. But I think books are more important than images. I think the real, powerful ideas are in books. I think we must try to rescue reading, rescue the book in this world of images. I think it's important that we try to recalibrate this relationship, in which my impression is that books are regressing and regressing and regressing, defeated by the world of images. Particularly among young people.

OR: You once remarked that "History and literature are like brothers."

Vargas Llosa: I think literature is a complement. When we read Tolstoy we believe that the Napoleonic Wars in Russia were as he described. And even if they were incorrectly described in War and Peace, these ideas — these literary fictions — will prevail over history. It's literature which gives, let's say, the most enduring idea of what has happened in history.

OR: As a novelist who has drawn upon real events as inspiration, how much do you feel obligated to stay with the truth of what actually happened?

Vargas Llosa: When I use history as raw material, I don't try to be respectful of history. Not at all. I am respectful of literary truth, which is not historical truth. Of course, you cannot distort things that are evident and obvious. These you have to respect. But all the details you can enrich in literature — for example, my novel The Feast of the Goat respected the basic facts of the Trujillo dictatorship. But there were things that I couldn't put in the novel, facts of history which were totally not verisimilar. I had to eliminate them because the brutality, the stupidity, the cruelty of the real world would have been unthinkable for a literary novel. Because the persuasive power of the novel would have been completely damaged by these enormities committed during the Trujillo dictatorship.

OR: What fascinated you about Trujillo?

Vargas Llosa: I went to the Dominican Republic for the first time — to make a documentary —about 30 years after the assassination of Trujillo. People were no longer paralyzed by terror, and they were telling things. I was so amazed by things that I heard. I remember particularly a doctor. We became very good friends. He told me that during the Trujillo era, the dictator always did a tour in the country; during these tours, he received as a gift from peasants their daughters. I said, "This is true? That peasants were giving Trujillo their daughters as a gift?" And he told me, "Yeah."

I met one of the assistant ministers of Trujillo, and he confirmed this. He told me, "Yeah, that was a problem for El Jefe because he didn't know what to do with all of these young girls. He married some of them to soldiers, but it was a big problem for us." I thought: how was this possible? The level of infatuation of these people with a brutal, corrupt dictator was so extreme. So I started to take notes, and one day I discovered that I was writing a novel.