LITERATURE

Conversation at Princeton

Farrar Jan. 2023. 272p. tr. from Spanish by Anna Kushner. ISBN 9780374129019. $28. LIT
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Two books from Nobel laureate Vargas Llosa is cause for celebration. The Call of the Tribe (Farrar; Jan. 2023) attempts to do for liberal thought what Edmund Wilson did for socialism in 1940’s To the Finland Station; in separate essays, he traces the evolution of liberal doctrine from 18th-century Adam Smith through six 20th-century writers—Ortega y Gasset, Hayek, Popper, Aron, Berlin, and Revel. They’re not the only thinkers he could have chosen to examine, but they’re the ones who most directly influenced him. When Vargas Llosa was 12, Peru’s president, a relative of his family, was overthrown, and Peru slid from democracy into dictatorship. The author emerged convinced that the root enemy of free society was suppression of speech. He started college a Sartrean and was an early enthusiast of the Cuban revolution but became disillusioned as he witnessed injustices that took place there. He eventually found that he could no longer tolerate Sartre’s kneejerk support of communism. The best essay in this book is on Isaiah Berlin, who argued that humans hold ideals that don’t fit together; they have to work out ways to accommodate them through compromise and tolerance of difference. Conversation is an editing of classroom discussions on four of the author’s novels and his memoir in a seminar conducted in tandem by Vargas Llosa and Princeton professor of Spanish literature and language Rubén Gallo. What constitutes a novel, and what role do novels play in our thinking and acting? The discussion bristles with sidebars: the constraints of journalism vs. fiction; why Sartre’s novels no longer interest; censorship’s effects on action; and how Vargas Llosa conceives his characters, researches stories, and structures his complicated back-and-forth narratives. The books on display run from Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) to The Feast of the Goat (2001), a memoir of his failed run for president of Peru. Throughout, Vargas Llosa comes across as gracious, self-aware, and modest.
VERDICT Neither book will replace the author’s landmark novels, but they enrich our appreciation for this great writer. Written in approachable style, they should appeal to all serious book lovers, not just academics.
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