Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the world's greatest living writers, is also well known, especially in Spain and Latin America, as a great defender of the ideals of a free society. In the Spanish-speaking world, he is therefore more than a great writer; he is also a public intellectual in the real sense of that much abused expression, and his regularly aired opinions on political events (as well as on literature, culture, and the arts) are a fixture of the intellectual life of these regions. His writing is always intelligent and urbane. Moreover, it is always informed by a definite classical-liberal point of view. Indeed, he may well be the most prominent expositor of this point of view in the Spanish language today.
The first three chapters of WELLSPRINGS constitute the author's "Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature," delivered at Emory University in 2006. These lectures deal with "three masters" of Spanish letters: Miguel de Cervantes, Jorge Luis Borges, and José Ortega y Gasset. The chapters on Cervantes and Borges, perhaps predictably, deal with literary matters for the most part, but in the chapter on Ortega the stress is on political thought. Here Vargas Llosa adds what, to many, might seem an unexpected twist: he argues that this presently much-neglected Spanish philosopher should be regarded as a key figure in the development of the liberal tradition. To be sure, Ortega was not much interested in economic matters, and this omission was a shortcoming in his approach to social problems, but Vargas Llosa himself has often pointed out that classical liberalism includes much more than free-market economics. . . .
In addition to the Ellmann Lectures, WELLSPRINGS includes four other chapters, which offer ruminations on nationalism, discussions of aspects of Latin American history, and (the last two chapters) commentaries on the writings of two thinkers who, according to Vargas Llosa, have had a profound and decisive influence on his own approach to politics: Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper.
This volume thus offers to the English-speaking public a distillation of Vargas Llosa's mature thought on political and social issues. The stress in the previous sentence should be on _mature_ because, given his current prominence as a spokesman for classical liberalism, it is easily forgotten that as a young writer he was a typical "man of the left." Indeed, like most intellectuals coming of age in the 1950s and early 1960s, he was closely identified with left-wing causes, and he greatly admired the Cuban Revolution. This stance was in part owing to the prevailing climate of opinion among intellectuals at the time, especially in France, where he spent his formative years as a struggling young writer. Another factor was a personality that has always exhibited a strong antiauthoritarian streak, along with the fact that authoritarianism in Latin America had historically long been associated with right-wing regimes. He eventually became convinced, however, that armed revolution was not a real option for improving social conditions in Latin America and that gradual reform within a functioning democratic polity was the only way to achieve social justice. He consequently became increasingly interested in the preconditions for a well-functioning democratic society.
In his narrative work, the shift in his political and social thought was expressed most forcefully in two major novels of the early 1980s: The War of the End of the World (La guerra del fin del mundo, 1981) and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta: A Novel (Historia de Mayta, 1984). These novels deal, each in a distinctive way, with the myopia that renders ideological adversaries incapable of understanding their opponents' viewpoints. As Vargas Llosa himself later explained (in commenting on MAYTA), he came to realize that _all_ ideologies are fictions and that instead of providing solutions, they make the problems even worse. . . .
Vargas Llosa attributes much of his change in outlook to the influence of Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, both of whom he began to read and study in earnest in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As mentioned previously, he devotes two of the longest chapters in Wellsprings to discussion of these philosophers and their impact on his own thought. . . .
Thus, both Berlinean pluralism and Popperian uncertainty serve as antidotes to dogmatism and fanaticism, the great enemies of liberty in Vargas Llosa's worldview. These essays offer insightful and lively commentary on two important liberal thinkers written by a master of modern prose. In this collection of writings by a novelist, however, the strongest case for liberty as a value in its own right fittingly comes not from a philosopher, but from another novelist: "Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts bestowed by heaven on man; no treasures that the earth contains and the sea conceals can compare with it; for freedom, as for honor, men can and should risk their lives and, in contrast, captivity is the worst evil that can befall them" (Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605, 1615), qtd. on pp. 23-24).
It is good to know that the liberal tradition in Spanish letters--a tradition as old as Cervantes--is still alive and well.
From a review by Julio H. Cole, The Independent Review, Spring 2010