Touchstones: Essays on Literature, Art, and Politics

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9780374278373: Touchstones: Essays on Literature, Art, and Politics

One of Latin Am erica's most garlanded novelists―and the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature―Mario Vargas Llosa is also an acute and wide-ranging cultural critic and an acerbic political commentator. Touchstones collects Vargas Llosa's brilliant readings of seminal twentieth-century novels, from Heart of Darkness to The Tin Drum; incisive essays on political and social thinkers; and contemporary pieces on 9/11 and the immediate aftermath of the war in Iraq.

Fantastically intelligent, inspired, and surprising, Touchstones is a landmark collection of essays from one of the world's leading writers and intellectuals.

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About the Author:

Mario Vargas Llosa is Peru's foremost author and the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1994 he was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's most distinguished literary honor, and in 1995 he won the Jerusalem Prize. His many distinguished works include The Storyteller, The Feast of the Goat, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Death in the Andes, In Praise of the Stepmother, The Bad Girl, Conversation in the Cathedral, The Way to Paradise, and The War of the End of the World. He lives in London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

TOUCHSTONES (Chapter One)Seed of Dreams

The house in Ladislao Cabrera Street in Cochabamba, where I spent my earliest years, had three patios. It was single-storey and very big, at least in my recollection of that period, which my memory preserves as an innocent and happy time. What for many people is a stereotype – the paradise of childhood – was for me a reality, although doubtless since that time this reality has been embellished by distance and nostalgia.

In this Eden, the main focus is the house with the solid front door that opened onto a hallway with a concave roof which sent back an echo of people’s voices. This led to the first, square patio, with its tall trees that were good for rerunning Tarzan movies, around which the bedrooms were laid out. The last year that we lived there, one of those rooms housed the Peruvian Consulate, which, for economic reasons, my grandfather moved from a building close to the Plaza de Armas to the family home. At the end of that patio there was a pillared terrace, protected from the sun by an awning, where my grandfather would nod off in a rocking chair. To hear him snoring, his mouth an open invitation to flies, made my cousins and me fall about laughing. From there, one entered the dining room that was always busy and noisy on a Sunday when the vast family tribe all appeared to savour the spicy dishes and that dessert prepared by grandmother Carmen and Mamaé that was everyone’s favourite: pumpkin fritters.

Then there was a small corridor, with the bathroom on the right, that linked the first to the second patio, where the kitchen, a pantry and the servants’ rooms were located. At the far end were wooden railings with a squeaky little door through which one could glimpse the third patio, which must have once been a garden with vegetables and fruit. But then it was just open ground: it was used as a corral and sometimes as a zoo, because on one occasion it housed a goat and at another time a monkey, both species brought by my grandfather from the country estate in Saipina, around Santa Cruz, where he had been sent from Arequipa by the Saíd family to start up cotton cultivation. And there was also a talkative parrot which imitated me and screamed ‘granmaaaaaa’ all day long. The laundry room was there, and lines with sheets and tablecloths and clothes billowing in the breeze that the washerwoman came to wash and iron every week. The gardener, Saturnino, was a very old Indian who carried me on his shoulders; the day the Llosa family returned to Peru, he came to the train station to see us off. I remember him, holding on to my grandmother Carmen, sobbing.

There were many people living there: grandfather Pedro and grandmother Carmen, Mamaé, my mother and I, uncle Juan and aunt Laura and their two daughters, my cousins Nancy and Gladys, uncle Lucho and aunt Olga. Their first daughter, Wanda, was born in the house one memorable afternoon when, caught up in the general excitement, I climbed a tree in the first patio to spy on what was happening. I could not have understood much because it was only later, in Piura and in 1946, that I learned how babies came into the world and how their fathers made them. Uncle Jorge also lived there until he married aunt Gaby, as did uncle Pedro, who turned up in Cochabamba to spend the holidays, because he was studying medicine in Chile. There were at least three employees in the second patio, together with two intermediate figures of uncertain status: Joaquín, an orphan boy that grandpa had found in Saipina, and Orlando, a boy who had been abandoned by a cook in the house who had disappeared without trace. Grandma Carmen ended up grafting them onto the family.

My cousin Nancy was a year younger than me, and cousin Gladys was two years younger. They were magnificent playmates, involved in all the adventures that I invented, which were usually inspired by the films that we saw in the Roxy Cinema and the Acha Theatre on Saturday matinées or Sunday morning screenings. The serials were wonderful – three chapters per performance, with the serials lasting for several weeks – but the film that touched us, and made us cry, laugh and, above all, dream, and that we went back to see several times (it convinced me that I should become a bullfighter), was Blood and Sand with Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Rita Hayworth.

There were infinite sources of fun in Cochabamba. There were outings to Cala-Cala and to Tupuraya where aunt Gaby’s family had a country house, and open-air concerts in the Plaza on Sundays at midday, after eleven o’clock mass, and the reddish meat pasties served up in a restaurant in the arcades. There were circuses that came around the time of the independence anniversary celebrations, the tightrope walkers, trapeze artists and animal tamers who made our pulses race and the wonderful clowns who made us roar with laughter. (My first platonic love was a trapeze artist in a pink leotard.) There were the exciting and very wet Carnivals – my cousins and I threw balloons full of water from the rooftops at the passers-by below – in which during the day we saw our aunts and uncles and their friends involved in intense water fights with shells, balloons, big buckets and hosepipes, and, at night, we saw them set off for the celebrations in fancy dress and wearing masks. There was Holy Week, with its mysterious processions and the visit to different churches, to pray at the Stations of the Cross. And, above all, there was Christmas, the coming of Baby Jesus (Father Christmas did not yet exist), with the presents, on the night of 24 December. The preparations for the New Year’s Eve party were long and very detailed, and these rituals stirred our imagination. With us under their feet, grandma and Mamaé sowed wheat seeds in little containers that decorated the crib. The crib figures, the shepherds, wise men, Roman soldiers, apostles, sheep, donkeys, Virgin Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, were kept in a trunk inlaid with metal that was only opened once a year. The most important thing for me and for my cousins was to write the letter to the Son of God, asking him for the presents that he placed at the foot of our beds on Christmas Eve. Before we learned how to write, we dictated our letter to uncle Pedro and signed it with a cross. As the date approached, our nervousness, curiosity and anticipation reached indescribable extremes. On the night of 24 December, no one, not our grandparents or my mother, or uncles Juan and Lala had to encourage us to jump into bed straight after dinner. Would he come? Had he got our cards? Would he bring everything we had asked for?

I remember having asked for some pilot’s glasses, like the ones worn by Bill Barnes, some boots identical to those of the hero of a serial about explorers, skittles, Meccano pieces, but, as soon as I learned to read, I always asked for books, long lists of books that I would first select when I came out of school in a bookshop in General Acha Street, where every week we bought the magazines for the whole family: Para Tí and Leoplán for grandma, Mamaé, my mother and my aunts, and, for me and my cousins, El Peneca and Billiken (the first was Chilean and the second was Argentine).

I learned to read when I was five – in 1941 it would have been – in my first year at primary school in the Colegio de La Salle. My classmates were a year older than me, but my mother was anxious to get me into school since my pranks were driving her mad. Our teacher was Brother Justiniano, a slim, angelic little man, with white, closely cropped hair. He made us sing the letters, one after another, and then, holding hands in circles, we had to identify and spell out the syllables of each word, copy them and memorise them. From coloured spelling books with little animal illustrations, we moved to a little book of sacred history and finally onto cartoons, poems and stories. I am sure that on that Christmas in 1941, Baby Jesus placed on my bed a pile of adventure stories, from Pinocchio to Little Red Riding Hood, from the Wizard of Oz to Snow White, from Sleeping Beauty to Mandrake the Magician.

Although I cried in my first days at school – my mother had to take me to the door, holding my hand – I soon got used to La Salle and made many friends. Grandma and Mamaé so indulged me (I was a fatherless child and that made me the most spoiled grandchild and nephew in the family) that I once invited twenty classmates – Cuéllar, Tejada, Román, Orozco, Ballivián, Gumucio, Zapata – for tea at home so that we could act out some epic films in the three patios. And grandma and Mamaé prepared coffee with milk and toast and butter for everyone.

It was exactly ten blocks from the house in Ladislao Cabrera to La Salle, and I think that from my second year at primary school my mother let me go to school on my own, although I usually made the walk with a schoolmate from the neighbourhood. We went through the arcade in the Plaza, past the photographic studio of Mr Zapata, the father of my great friend Mario Zapata, whom I shared a desk with, a journalist who was murdered twenty or thirty years later in Cala-Cala. This ten-block trip, four times a day – schoolchildren had lunch at home in those days – was an expedition full of discoveries. It was, of course, obligatory to look at the bookshop windows and the posters outside the cinemas on the way. The most amazing thing that could happen to us was to come across the imposing figure of the Bishop in the middle of the street. He seemed an Olympian, semi-divine figure to us, wrapped in his purple habit, with his white beard and a big gleaming ring. With religious earnestness and a touch of fear, we would kneel to kiss his hand and to receive the few kind words that his strong Italian accent bestowed on us.

That bishop gave me and a number of my classmates our first communion when we were in the third or fourth year of primary school. It was a memorable day, prec...

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