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Peru’s most celebrated author was a great friend to the Jews — is he still?

The Peruvian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, recently honored by election to the French Academy, has long expressed his creative debt to Jewish writers and thinkers. More recently, some readers have asked whether Varguitas (a nickname he adopted for his fiction, reused in a memoir by an ex-wife) is a friend to be cherished or one who annoys by offering intrusive, misleading advice.

Vargas Llosa’s stature in France made the academicians overturn their own rules by admitting someone a decade older than the 75-year age limit, who never wrote a book directly in French. This preeminence is partly due to a half-century of toil by Albert Bensoussan, a French Jewish translator of Algerian origin. Bensoussan’s Gallic versions of Vargas Llosa’s novels have been compiled in two volumes of faint microscopic print covering almost 4000 pages.

In one of his last interviews, Philip Roth expressed pique that he was not the sole foreign living author honored by inclusion in the Pléiade series. Bensoussan’s memoir, “What I Know About Vargas Llosa” expresses unnuanced worship, deeming Varguitas a “giant” and “master” akin to Victor Hugo and Balzac, whose works provoke “literary orgasms.”

Such ecstasies, Vargas Llosa has long avowed, were inspired by his reading of Jewish authors such Isaiah Berlin and Raymond Aron, as well as Karl Popper, all staunch defenders of individualism and democracy against totalitarianism. Also revering the philosopher Robert Nozick and fellow Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, especially the latter’s novel “Herzog,” Vargas Llosa has repeatedly mentioned acceptance of Jews as a criterion for any society’s humaneness.

More intimately, Vargas Llosa’s 1987 novel “The Storyteller” tells the story of Saúl Zuratas, a Sephardic Jewish anthropology student who tries to blend his Yiddishkeit and Peruvian identity by abandoning scientific research and becoming a storyteller for a Peruvian tribe, to help preserve their vanishing folklore.

As one onlooker in the novel comments: “Well, a Jew is better prepared than most people to defend the rights of minority cultures.” Marginalized as a Jew in his homeland, Saúl Zuratas identifies with a downtrodden itinerant tribe. The character Saúl Zuratas is a fan of Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis,” to the point where he names his parrot Gregor Samsa, after Kafka’s protagonist.

At times “The Storyteller” echoes the real-life American Jewish artist Tobias (born Toivele) Schneebaum, who lived with the Harakmbut people of Peru, and the Asmat people of Papua, Western New Guinea, Indonesia.
Vargas Llosa himself has been determined to draw lessons from the modern historical experience of the Jews. When in 1978 he belatedly disavowed Marxism as an unworkable system with tyrannical results, he chose a high-profile lecture to the Latin American Jewish Congress to express this long-simmering resentment.

This occurred a year after his first trip to Israel, which he would later recall in a March 1995 speech on the occasion of receiving the Jerusalem Prize, Israel’s premier literary award.

Merely recollecting his first trip to Israel, Vargas Llosa asserted in retrospect, was an “act that enlivens my spirit, as does a fervent prayer or a sip of fine whisky for others.”

Applauding the relative freedom of expression in Israeli society, which permits political dissent, Vargas Llosa further identified with the Jewish State as a fiction writer: “We must not forget: before it was history, Israel was a fantasy that like the creature of [Jorge Luis] Borges’ tale, ‘The Circular Ruins,’ was shifted to a concrete world from within the impalpable mist of the human imagination. Of course, literature is inhabited by all these magic things, but, as far as I know, in world history, Israel is the only country which can boast of having, like a character out of Edgar Allan Poe, Stevenson or the ‘Thousand and One Nights,’ such an explicitly ghostly lineage. Its story was first longed for, invented, constructed from the subtle subjective matter from which literary and artistic mirages are shaped, and then afterwards, by dint of courage and will, smuggled into real life.”

The notion of Israeli history as an “adventure of feasible utopia, of fiction which has been made incarnate in history and changed the lives of millions of people for the better” furnished a reply to those who criticized his belief that the world’s societies might be free one day as the “senseless fantasy of a novelist.” To these doubters, Vargas Llosa informed his Jerusalem audience, he would always reply: “And what about the delirium of a Viennese journalist, Theodor Herzl?”

In another example of Jewish historical awareness, Vargas Llosa wrote in 2013 in El País” about a Dominican court ruling removing citizenship from ethnic Haitians as a “legal aberration [that] seems directly inspired by the famous Hitlerian laws of the thirties dictated by German judges” to declare Jews non-citizens. He found the procedure the “same as for Jews, whom Hitler deprived of legal existence before sending them to extermination camps for belonging to a despised race.”

Yet Vargas Llosa’s responses on political matters sometimes scanted facts. The Peruvian Jewish anthropologist Enrique Mayer faulted him for blaming the 1983 murder of eight Peruvian journalists on an indigenous population, rather than government paramilitary forces trying to halt reportage of their activities.

On the Middle East, Vargas Llosa has expressed exasperation with ongoing tensions and conflict, for which he mainly blames Israel. This stance in turn baffles observers such as the Argentine Jewish political scientist Julián Schvindlerman who commented ten years ago about Vargas Llosa’s allying himself with the BDS movement while also claiming closeness to the Jewish people: “This may continue to seduce the editors of El País in Spain and the Nobel Committee in Sweden. To many Jews, however, his proclamations of friendship ring hollow to us.”

Schvindlerman added that as Vargas Llosa abandoned leftism to praise Margaret Thatcher and Silvio Berlusconi for their economic policies, he oddly retained the quintessentially ultra-leftist condemnation of the State of Israel.

This two-faced approach, of having his cake and eating it too, might be expected of a Peruvian who doesn’t write in French yet now sits in an academy devoted to preserving the French language and compiling a dictionary in that language.

And this bifurcated style matches his latest novel, “Harsh Times” in which a Jewish character serves as a cautionary tale. Following along the lines of historical events, Vargas Llosa recounts how Edward Bernays, the eminent publicist and nephew of Sigmund Freud, helped the 1950s banana trade in Guatemala of a client, United Fruits by urging a CIA-led coup for more favorable political leadership.

Just as Bernays convinced American women to smoke more cigarettes to benefit another client, the American Tobacco Company, by terming them “Torches of Freedom,” the consummate Jewish salesman’s talents led to tragedy..

In terms of portraying individual Jews, it is a noticeable decline from the sympathetic culture-nurturing Saúl Zuratas to the rapacious profiteering of Edward Bernays especially since Bernays is a nonfictional character. In the same way, Israel, although indeed promoted by the novelist Herzl, as Vargas Llosa noted in 1995, is no fictional dream but a reality, as a recent clumsy slogan reminds us.

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