A finger on Peru's political and literary pulse

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA, a well-known Peruvian novelist, tells the stories of both his childhood and his failed attempt to become president of Peru in his new book, ``A Fish in the Water: A Memoir.''

As an insider's view of the Peruvian political and literary scene during the last four decades, the book is fascinating. Vargas Llosa, who's had his finger on the pulse of Peru since adolescence, writes of backroom deals made by powerful political players and of college adventures with some of his country's most significant thinkers.

As a journalist, academic, and writer, Vargas Llosa has lived a varied and interesting life. In the chapters recounting his youth, he writes with brilliant detail of his rich experiences and the bigger-than-life people he's encountered - pointing out those individuals who have found their way into his fictional works.

The strength of this book, though, lies in the interspersing of chapters dedicated to Vargas Llosa's childhood with those recounting his 1987 presidential campaign. The first chapter tells of a memorable scene when Vargas Llosa was 11 years old; the second, the event that prompted him to run for president; the third jumps back to his childhood; the fourth explains the birth of his political party; and so on. By structuring the book in this way he creates a parallelism between the mistakes and lessons he learned as an adolescent and those encountered in his first political campaign.

``A Fish In The Water'' is a tale of self-discovery apparently motivated by Vargas Llosa's failed presidential bid. He seems to want to explain why he made the decisions he did during his campaign to all those who asked at the end, ``What happened?''

Although Vargas Llosa shifts between blaming himself for not grasping the subtleties of Peruvians' voting whims and castigating Peru's political system, the overall tone of the book is resolutely one of bitter disappointment. Vargas Llosa writes early on that as long as Peruvians are more susceptible to romance than reason, democracy will remain at a distance. ``The [Peruvian] politician goes up onto the platform to charm, to seduce, to lull, to bill and coo,'' he writes. ``His musical phrasing is more important than his ideas, his gestures more important than his concepts.... The good orator may say absolutely nothing, but he says it with style.''

This feeling that a democratic solution for Peru is on hold does not change throughout the 532-page work. Vargas Llosa ultimately concludes: ``My last reflection, in this book that has been difficult to write, is not optimistic. I do not share the broad consensus that appears to exist among Peruvians, that through the two electoral processes held in Peru after April 5 [1992] ... legality has been reestablished and the government has recovered its democratic credentials.''

``A Fish In the Water'' was originally written for Peruvians, and readers of this translated version may find the the endless references to Peruvian politicians, historians, and literary figures hard to keep up with - especially because Vargas Llosa's skipping between past and present means they appear out of sequence. Nevertheless, Vargas Llosa's compelling story and plethora of sharply observed details far outweigh any difficulties the book presents.

Vargas Llosa's memoir reveals a man who has succeeded at everything except reaching his country's highest office. This makes some of his criticisms of Peruvian politics sound like the charges of a bad loser. But despite his occasional bouts of self-pity, Vargas Llosa was clearly genuine in his desire to lead his country to a better future. In the end, one is likely to think that the Peruvian people have lost out by not having this earnest, thoughtful man as president.

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