Category Archives: Literature

Vargas Llosa and the Florentine Literary Tradition

Like Dante in The Commedia, Mario Vargas Llosa casts himself in the dual role of both the author and the self-exiled narrator-character in the Storyteller We’ve seen this act before. In those few pages of the novel where Llosa speaks directly to the reader he speaks of his time in Florence, Italy. It’s here where Vargas Llosa plays with the Florentine literary tradition.

There’s a feeling that this Peruvian Mario is a man who to has lost his way. He is unhappy, sad, working his way through the circles of recollection, a kind of Purgatorio. He is remembering an old friendship, a faraway culture, and wanders the Florentine Streets whole world away from family and home.

Vargas Llosa’s account of his stay in Florence leaves the reader with the feeling that he means these months to be a period of self-exile. Throughout the account, Vargas Llosa experiences a longing for his homeland, together with sadness over the state of its political affairs back home. Meanwhile, he tells us, he spends hours in cafes and the libraries reading Dante and Machiavelli.

Why Machiavelli? Why Dante?

The simple answer is that modernist writers like Vargas Llosa tend to reference literary figures in their works. Beyond that, it’s a little risky to guess what is in the mind of a living writer. You never know. Vargas Llosa may one day Google himself and see this blog. Not likely, but you never know. The comment box is below. So, lets continue with this thought experiment in conjecture.

While Machiavelli is best known as the author of The Prince, a little how-to manual for despots on the art of political manipulation and deception, the bulk of Machiavelli’s writings are more benign than that. There’s plays, poems, history, and one work that praises the virtues of republics. Yes, bad old Machiavelli was an advocate of representative democracies that govern with the good will of the people. Machiavelli was also pragmatic. When he was out of a job after the Florentine Republic fell, he wrote The Prince and offered it as a gift to the city’s ruler. It would be the French who would later tag Machiavelli with Machiavellianism.

Dante and Machiavelli lived in much different times. Machiavelli lived during the high Renaissance, as opposed to Dante’s middle ages. And yet the thing they have in common is that both held high public office in Florence, and both the became exiles from Florence when the political tides changed. Here’s the risky part, Vargas Llosa appears to be identifying with their experience. Vargas Llosa was politically active in his country. He even ran for President. He fell out of favor with his country’s ruling party after he fought Peru’s nationalization of banks, and again when he protested against his governments human rights violations.

It’s less risky to say that writers and poets generally enjoy toying with the literary canon.  Dante and Machiavelli are clearly part of the canon, and there’s no reason to think that Vargas Llosa would not be deliberately putting the Dante and Machiavelli at play in his work. One can hardly be in Florence without sensing something of the  presence of  Dante. You can walk right up the Alighieri home, then cross the Ponte Vecchio and stand in the doorway of Machiavelli’s digs.

If one is a writer or a poet. one is going to be especially mindful of the likelihood down this or that old street,  or these stairs Dante or Machiavelli walked. If you write, and know something of your literary history, and have spent any time in places like Florence, or Paris,  or Stratford, you know this feeling.

Advertisements

Mario Vargas Llosa on Florence’s Mosquitos and Art

Mario Vargas Llosa once traveled to Florence with a plan to forget about his native Peru in “absolute solitude”. The 2010 Nobel Prize winning novelist tells us about this trip in the opening and closing chapters of The Storyteller. Florence’s Renaissance art was supposed to help with the forgetting. The mosquitos didn’t help at all.

The Storyteller is a postmodern novel in which Vargas Llosa is not just the author, but also a character and narrator in those chapters. It turns out that Mario’s time of solitude were mobbed by summer crowds and menaced by mosquitos he remembers attacking the tourists on behalf of displaced Florentine natives.

Even while viewing Florence’s Renaissance art, the mosquitos bite Mario. He can’t forget Peru. The mosquitos won’t allow it. The swarms continue to remind him of Peru and the Peruvian mosquitos that bit him on the arms, legs and neck years earlier when he visited the jungle’s Machiguenga people

While Florence’s art is clearly at play in the opening and closing chapters, specific works receive scant mention. The narrator mentions Botticelli’s Primavera and Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano. That’s it, and he mentions these only to praise a contemporary photograph taken in the Peruvian jungle, a photograph displayed as part of a temporary exhibit in a little gallery near Dante’s house.

In the jungle picture, a storyteller performs among a gathering of Indians. Mario is so captivated by the image that he says the photo is as much a masterpiece as those two paintings hanging in Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery. The story is, after all, a novel primarily about the immense cultural value of storytelling, and a Jewish man who disappears from modern Lima to live among the indigenous Machiguenga people as their storyteller. And as a postmodern Latin American novelist, author Vargas Llosa means to undermine the old Eurocentric grand narrative.

The Mario in this story rents a room in a pensione and spends his days either in galleries viewing paintings and photographs, or in cafes reading Dante and Machiavelli. He tells us that the stream of tourists inundate the streets like a flooding “Amazonian River.” So, instead of a comfortable and reflective solitude, he experiences a sense of isolation among the crowds, and a sense of loss and sadness in seeing foreign invaders occupy Florence. He says, “…there are virtually no natives left in Firenze.”

That part is an exaggeration, although it is true that some of the city’s streets become choked with foreign tourists in the summer. It’s true that many Florentines schedule long vacations from the city in the peak tourist season. Vargas Llosa is too good of a storyteller to let the facts spoil his story.

With his exaggerated crowds and mosquitos, Vargas Llosa raises those big questions of cultural hegemony and threatened native populations, and applies those questions to both the Machiguenga and the Florentines. While the Machiguenga are displaced by the corporate exploitation of their jungle homeland, Florentines see their lives altered by the tourists and the travel industry. And so, he asks, “Are the mosquitos the zanzare of the Firenze totem animals, the guardian angels of Leonardos, Cellinis, Botticellis, Filippo Lipis, Fra Angelicos?” He wants to know if the mosquitos are that, “or are they the weapon that the absent Florentines try to put their detested invaders to flight?”
–rs

Next time: What Vargas Llosa lifts from Florentine literary traditions.