A Fish In the Water is Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa's bittersweet tale of the three years he spent in public life and of his quixotic campaign for the presidency of his native Peru.
His candidacy, he says, all came about "through the caprice of the wheel of fortune." At the time, he thought his decision to run for president of Peru was a "moral" one. "Circumstances," he writes, "placed me in a position of leadership at a critical moment in the life of my country." But Vargas Llosa is first and foremost a writer, not a politician, and so he has been willing to dig a little deeper into the reasoning behind his decision. "If the decadence, the impoverishment, the terrorism, and the multiple crises of Peruvian society had not made it an almost impossible challenge to govern such a country, it would never have entered my head to accept such a task." Motivation doesn't get much more quixotic than that.
Even more engaging than Vargas Llosa's revelations about his unsuccessful foray into the political world, are his reminiscences about his childhood and youth, which he intersperses throughout this book. He begins with a vivid and traumatic memory: the revelation by his mother that his father, whom the author thought had died before his birth, was, in reality, alive and waiting to meet him in a nearby hotel. It was a revelation that Vargas Llosa did not greet with joy.
In fiction, the cruelties experienced in childhood might be used to help explain the adult who survived them, but Vargas Llosa wisely makes no attempt to connect the two. The sections regarding the presidential campaign and those on his youth run along parallel tracks, but the story of his early life trails off after his graduation from college and his decision to go to Europe to write. The matter-of-fact air about the stories suggests that Vargas Llosa is more concerned with remembering than with interpreting and analyzing.
While the personal memories make for the most compelling reading, the campaign memoir does offer a convincing self-portrait of a political innocent sinking under a tide of democratic absurdities. Wildly popular at first, Vargas Llosa presented a coherent, but harsh, economic plan to his fellow Peruvians and rapidly became Peru's sacrificial llama. Near the end of the campaign, he endured catcalls, stone throwing and scurrilous allegations about almost everything, including his books.
Those of us who know and love Vargas Llosa and his books greeted his loss to Alberto Fujimori with more than one sigh of relief. But anyone who has an interest in the gorgeous landscape of Peru, Latin American politics, or the magnificent works of Mario Vargas Llosa will find this book essential reading.