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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical


A Fish in the Water

Mario Vargas Llosa

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To purchase A Fish in the Water

Title: A Fish in the Water
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Memoir
Written: 1993 (Eng. 1994)
Length: 532 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: A Fish in the Water - US
A Fish in the Water - UK
A Fish in the Water - Canada
Le Poisson dans l'eau - France
Der Fisch im Wasser - Deutschland
El pez en el agua - España
  • Spanish title: El pez en el agua
  • Translated by Helen Lane

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Our Assessment:

A- : interesting stories, well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Spectator A 9/1994 Elliott Abrams
Commentary . 8/1994 A.J.Cruz/C.Cruz Sequeira
FAZ . 10/10/1995 .
National Review A+ 16/5/1994 Hugh Thomas
The NY Rev. of Books . 26/5/1994 Alma Guillermoprieto
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/5/1994 Alan Riding
Time . 13/6/1994 Paul Gray
TLS . 17/6/1994 Mark Falcoff

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "This volume of memoirs will not disappoint fans of his novels (among whom I count myself). This is an autobiography as well as a political record (.....)Vargas emerges here as the brilliant writer he has always been, with insights into politics as deep as those he has previously shown about other forms of human endeavor. If he also emerges as a bitter and often nasty man, that too is his privilege." - Elliott Abrams, American Spectator

  • "Rather than detracting from the narrative's fluidity, this alternating structure, with its shifts in tone and style, adds to the intriguing quality of the book. The "political" chapters of A Fish in the Water read like the diary of an astute social critic who, for reasons he does not fully comprehend, has also become the protagonist of the events he observes." - Arturo J. Cruz, Jr. and Consuelo Cruz Sequeira, Commentary

  • "Mario Vargas Llosas Erinnerungen sind ein merkwürdiges, langwieriges, nur streckenweise amüsantes Buch, das jedoch interessantesten Aufschluß für alle Kenner und Liebhaber seines Werkes verspricht und darüber hinaus noch einige höchst gespenstische Pointen über das Verhältnis von Literatur und Wirklichkeit, Politik und Kunst." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "A scenario like this would be enough to destroy any normal writer. The events are too many, too confusing, too breathtaking. Mario Vargas Llosa rises triumphantly to the unprecedented challenge. His memoir is a dazzling performance, one of his very best books, full of curious, even surreal, events (.....)This is a great book. I urge all who read this review to buy it immediately. They may think I have understated its merits." - Hugh Thomas, National Review

  • "A Fish in the Water is his bittersweet look at the nearly three years he spent in public life. (...) Both stories have a matter-of-fact air about them that suggests the author is more interested in remembering his past than in interpreting it. In the political chapters, this tendency can lead to some pretty humdrum passages (.....) Still, the campaign memoir offers a convincing self-portrait of a political innocent sinking under a tide of democratic absurdities." - Paul Gray, Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Fish in the Water is a double-memoir: in alternating chapters Mario Vargas Llosa recounts his failed candidacy for the Peruvian presidency and his childhood and youth. It is a clever juxtaposition: either strand of the life-story could have stood on its own, but the change of pace, scenes, and focus between campaign trails and tumultuous youth is particularly effective; without it, the political half might easily have threatened to be too wearying for readers.
       In the one half Vargas Llosa describes his youth until the time of his departure for Europe as a graduate student. Despite the fact that this part ends before he establishes himself as a writer, it reveals a great deal about the author-to-be. The autobiographical background so prominent in his early novels is here described from a different point of view. Fascinating, also, is how extraordinarily busy and productive he was, working as a journalist while in his mid-teens, and holding down all sorts of jobs in his college years. (This half of the book is reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez's Living to Tell the Tale, in which the similarly busy (if more single-mindedly-obsessed) author describes his apprentice years.)
       The other half of the book describes how Vargas Llosa came to run for the presidency of Peru -- and the campaign and disappointing loss (to the now utterly disgraced Alberto Fujimori). As the descriptions of his student years make clear, Vargas Llosa was always politically interested, and occasionally also very active -- though he was left-leaning in his youth, while by the late 1980s he saw as the only hope for Peru market reforms on what might be termed a very anti-socialist platform (von Hayek and Karl Popper are among those who most influenced his change in outlook).
       Vargas Llosa's begins his childhood memoir when he was ten, with the reappearance on the scene -- and in his mother's life -- of his father, an unpleasant and very strict man he had been led to believe was dead. In fact his parents had gotten divorced, but their passion for each other managed to survive the long separation (during which time Mario's father also married again) and their obvious incompatibility. Raised without him, in a large, far flung Peruvian family, Mario's life became much narrower once his parents made up: the dreadfully jealous father wanted no contact with the other relatives, and forbade essentially all socialising. Mario at least found some escape in books, and his early and passionate devotion to literature is a constant throughout A Fish in the Water: even on the campaign trail he vows to devote two hours a day to reading (though admitting he was often unable to)
       His school years weren't particularly pleasant, and things got worse when he was shipped off to the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in 1950. Vargas Llosa vividly describes those times -- the highs and lows, the various adventures and many friendships, the whoring around, and much of the Peru of that time. Despite some of the circumstances (his father sounds simply terrible) there's little here that is depressing, as Mario soldiers on, times generally improving and he managing to make his way in the world. From his first journalistic jobs to his student days, early political activism, and marriage to an older aunt (and the seven jobs he took on in order to support the two of them -- while also attending university) he certainly lived a colourful and busy life -- all before even graduating from college.
       One misses that middle chunk of his life, after he moved to Europe and began publishing the works for which he is now known, but perhaps he is right in taking that as a given. Everyone knows who the man is by the time he stepped on the stage in Peru and contemplated running for the presidency. In A Fish in the Water he relates how he came to be a candidate, and then the odd election campaign. Some of this bogs down in local Peruvian politics, but for the most part Vargas Llosa explains the main actors and events very clearly, so that even readers who know nothing of Peruvian politics can get a good sense of what was going on, and what Vargas Llosa was up against.
       As it turns out, Peruvian politics is as messy as politics most everywhere else. It didn't help that democracy was not yet firmly entrenched: the country went through several periods of dictatorship -- and, as Vargas Llosa writes in his 'Colophon'-postscript, the man who defeated him, Alberto Fujimori undid democracy less than two years after being sworn into office by suspending the Constitution and closing Congress. The campaign was one mixing both personality and party politics -- all the more complicated because Vargas Llosa wanted to rely on more than a single party, making for messy struggles within the campaign, and without.
       With a once relatively robust and promising economy in shambles, there was certainly room for improvement in Peru: Vargas Llosa suggested what (as presented here) were certainly sensible land and other economic and political reforms. Ironically (or predictably) among those Vargas Llosa failed to convince were the very parceleros and informales who had put into action (generally illegally) some of the very reforms he was most in favour of.
       The eventual victor doesn't figure prominently for much of the book: Fujimori wasn't expected to be a contender, and Vargas Llosa amusingly repeatedly dismisses him as of no interest or concern whatsoever -- noting, for example, that when a debate was organised in December 1989 only the four candidates "according to opinion polls (...) who might possibly be elected" were invited:

Four months away from the elections, Alberto Fujimori's name did not turn up in the surveys, and when it eventually did, he was vying for last place with the Prophet Ezequiel Ataucusi Gamonal, the founder of the Israelite Church of the New Universal Pact.
       Vargas Llosa's campaign-trail-tales are much like any in contemporary politics -- i.e. generally hilariously (if also tragically) absurd, from the opposition using his novels against him, to the threat of terrorist attacks, to all sorts of lies and misunderstandings. Occasionally, Vargas Llosa becomes a bit too defensive, but for the most part he is willing to admit where he went wrong (and to wonder aloud at all the place the system went wrong). The book is certainly several cuts above the average political memoir or account, in that Vargas Llosa knows how to tell a story (and this is also a pretty good one to tell).

       An interesting memoir of Vargas Llosa's youth (which regrettably ends too soon), and a sadly fascinating account of contemporary democracy (sort of) in action. (How good a president Vargas Llosa would have been is unclear; that Fujimori was a terrible choice is now obvious.)

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A Fish in the Water: Reviews: Mario Vargas Llosa: Other works by Mario Vargas Llosa under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. He has written many works of fiction and non-fiction, and has run for the Presidency of Peru.

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