Mario Vargas Llosa has spent his life fighting totalitarianism - both on and off the page
Obs: What was the inspiration for The Feast of the Goat ?
MVL: In 1975, I went to the Dominican Republic for eight months during the shooting of a film based on my novel Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. It was during this period I heard and read about Trujillo. I had the idea of a novel set with this historical background. It's a long project. I went many times to the Dominican Republic to read the papers, and also to interview many people: victims, neutral people and collaborators of Trujillo.
Obs: To what degree is the book really about Alberto Fujimori?
MVL: Well, I think it's a book about Trujillo, but if you write about a dictator you are writing about all dictators, and about totalitarianism. I was writing not only about Trujillo but about an emblematic figure and something that has been experienced in many other societies.
Obs: Particularly in Latin America.
MVL: When I was at university in the Fifties, Latin America was full of dictators. Trujillo was the emblematic figure because, of course, of his cruelty, corruption, extravagance, and theatricalities. He pushed to the extreme trends which were quite common to most dictators of the time.
Obs: The corruption of power.
MVL: Dictators are not natural catastrophes. That's something I wanted to describe: how dictators are made with the collaboration of many people, and sometimes even with the collaboration of their victims.
Obs: Do you have insights into dictatorship from your political experience?
MVL: My three years in politics was very instructive about the way in which the appetite for political power can destroy a human mind, destroy principles and values and transform people into little monsters.
Obs: This novel is written partly from a woman's point of view. Was that a problem?
MVL: A challenge, not a problem. I wanted a woman to be one of the protagonists, because I think women were the worst victims of Trujillo. To his authoritarianism you have to add machismo. Trujillo used sex not only for pleasure but also as an instrument of power. And in this he went far further than many, many other dictators. He went to bed, for example, with the wives of his collaborators.
Obs: Like a Shakespeare play.
MVL: In a way. Coriolanus is a fantastic play about this subject.
Obs: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
MVL: It started not as writing but as reading. I learnt to read when I was five and I think that is the most important thing that happened to me.
Obs: What kind of things did you read?
MVL: I read novels of adventure. At that time children read not comics but texts. I remember the magazines. I started to write continuations of these stories. Because I was frustrated that they'd finished. Sometimes I wanted to change the endings. It started like this kind of play.
Obs: Like the plot of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.
MVL: That's right. When I entered university I knew that what I would like to do is become a writer. But at that time, in a society like mine, it was very difficult to decide to become only a writer... Well, what I tried to do, I'm going to make a living doing other things and literature would become my main interest, but my life would be taken by...
MVL: Yeah. But when I came to Europe in 1958 I decided I'm going to try to be a writer and consecrate my time and my energies to writing. I would survive doing marginal jobs. That was a very important moment in my life.
Obs: Quite a number of your books have got you into trouble.
MVL: The writer's job is to write with rigour, with commitment, to defend what they believe with all the talent they have. I think that's part of the moral obligation of a writer, which cannot be only purely artistic. I think a writer has some kind of responsibility at least to participate in the civic debate. I think literature is impoverished, if it becomes cut from the main agenda of people, of society, of life.
Obs: Does that reflect the more public role of the writer in Latin America?
MVL: I think the contribution of writers to the public debate is something that can make a difference. If culture is completely cut from what is going on it becomes very artificial.
Obs: Is this love of controversy in your nature or intrinsic to your subjects?
MVL: My books don't fit very easily into stereotypes. I think that is one explanation. I have tried always to be an independent writer. That doesn't mean that I have not been wrong. Probably I've been wrong many times.
Obs: What made you go into politics?
MVL: Well, I always was involved in politics, but as an intellectual. In the late Eighties I thought it was necessary to have a practical commitment with politics... it was the wrong decision.
Obs: Were you shocked by the failure of your ideas to be taken up?
MVL: Well, I was, but it was worse than that. In a democratic election you win or lose, but what happened afterwards was very confused. Fujimori won the election. Then what he did was to initiate some of the reforms I was offering. And for many years Fujimori was popular. As Trujillo and many dictators are. This was very shocking.
Obs: Do you think you've put that phase of your life behind you? You've written A Fish In The Water.
MVL: Oh, absolutely. Literature has this extraordinary power. You write about something and even if it is the worst experience, I think you achieve a catharsis, and are completely cured.
Obs: How much time do you spend in London?
MVL: I manage to spend at least three months a year in London.
Obs: You are known in this country for your approval of Mrs Thatcher.
MVL: It's very sad what has happened with Mrs Thatcher. When she took power she really made an extraordinary impact on British life, society, politics. But then I am afraid she will be remembered more as a very bitter Conservative fighting against Europe, and saying absurd things about Europe. What has happened in Britain is very interesting, because I am convinced that the best disciple of Mrs Thatcher is Tony Blair, who has been following the kind of reforms that Mrs Thatcher started.
Mario Vargas Llosa was born in Arequipa, Peru, in 1936. He is author of many acclaimed novels, including Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1982)