A Writer's Reality

Prolific author Mario Llosa Vargas' next series of articles will focus on his harsh impressions during an almost-secret visit to the dark backyard of the Israeli occupation without an army spokesman, without the Foreign Ministry.

A summer sun flooded the balcony of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem last Saturday. In the concert hall of the YMCA, across the way, the Eighth Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival was taking place; in the hotel's restaurant, a few Jewish tourists from the United States and France were dining. The Old City glinted in the sunlight. Nothing hinted at what is really happening there, and Jerusalem seemed like a city of unparalleled serenity.

A well-groomed, elderly woman approached the table where we were sitting. "I heard you speaking English," she said in an American accent from Oklahoma, her home state. "Where are you from? "I'm from Madrid," replied the man whose homes are scattered over four capitals and two continents, who defines himself as "a citizen of the world in which the borders daily become more blurred," a person who is irritated by questions about his identity, as he once said in an interview: "That word makes me very nervous. Identity is a word that is usually used by those who want to insult by ascribing an individual to a group."

The American woman heard Madrid, and immediately pounced on the guest rapaciously. "Do you fight anti-Semitism in Madrid?" she asked with unconcealed belligerence. The guest raised an eyebrow. "Anti-Semitism in Madrid?" The woman's credit card had recently been stolen during her visit to the Spanish capital, and had not been returned, because of anti-Semitism. She reads The Jerusalem Post, and helps terror victims on a volunteer basis. Which terror victims - those of Israeli terror or those of Palestinian terror? - I asked her provocatively. Her face reddened in anger, the veins in her neck were about to burst, words failed her. "Are you Jewish?" she asked.

The guest listened to the exchange of words between us, expressionless.

Afterward he said that he had learned a great deal from them. He will certainly write about this incident in the series of articles, and possibly in a book, that he will write about us. Llosa, the prize-winning Peruvian writer, visited here over the past two weeks, almost in secret. The Foreign Ministry did not host him, the officers of the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson's Office did not accompany him, the IDF's generals did not brief him. He avoided any contact with government people, with the exception of Shimon Peres, his friend, the friend of all the writers in the world.

Llosa conducted a visit - his fourth - of a different nature, more extended and more profound, without photo-ops and without interviews to the media. An alternative, subversive visit, as befits a writer of his stature. Loyal to his view that "only the dissidents will save the State of Israel," as he put it in our conversation, this old friend of Israel came to encounter another Israel.

For decades he has considered himself a friend of Israel, even when sympathy for the country is considered offensive in broad intellectual circles. He once sent his son to work on a kibbutz, and he himself is a laureate of the prestigious Jerusalem Prize.

Now this friendship has reached a crossroads.

At the end of his visit, he feels great disappointment. This is not the Israel he loved. He visited our darkest back streets from the wild Jewish settlement in Hebron to the demonstrations against the construction of the fence in Bil'in. He met several human rights activists and visited Gaza and Ramallah, all far from the usual encounters and trips we designate for important visitors: the visit to Yad Vashem, a helicopter tour above the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley, a briefing by the General Staff, and dinner with the foreign minister. Everywhere Llosa left a strong impression, with his expertise, his curiosity, his energy, his diligence, his sensitivity, the depth of his questions, his modesty.

"Israel is reaching the grotesque stage of the occupation," he said a few days before our meeting, to historian Dr. Ilan Pappe of the University of Haifa, who hosted him in that city. The encounter with the American woman on the balcony of the King David certainly reinforced his assessment.

After Llosa's last visit here, he published an article in El Pais, the prestigious Spanish newspaper, for which he serves as a special envoy, which contained an unparalleled attack on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That was in late 2001, a short time after Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, his assumption of the reins of government and the outbreak of the current intifada.

"The tragic thing is not the fact that at the head of Israeli policy stands such an intolerant and dogmatic person," wrote Llosa at the time, "but that in Israel, a democratic society since its inception, the only democracy in the Middle East, there is a majority of voters who are so desperate or agitated because of the situation, that they are willing to elect him, and thus to grant legitimacy to his insane views. The Israeli electorate that voted for a person like Sharon caused damage to itself, and on the way did a service to Israel's enemies."

Llosa, the friend, wrote at the time that Israel was using "terror under government sponsorship," and compared Sharon's rise to power to the strengthening of Hamas and Islamic Jihad - with the exception of the legitimacy of the way Sharon was elected. "I have been defending Israel for 30 years in articles, in speeches and in public activity. I am not the only true friend who is amazed and saddened by Sharon's deeds. Especially when I see what capital is made of these deeds by anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic groups, of which there are many in the world," he wrote.

After Llosa published that article, the Israeli ambassador to Lima came to his house and told him that he "should be boxed on the ear." This week he kept his opinions about Sharon to himself. Several of his interlocutors had the impression that they hadn't changed drastically.

He remains in favor of the Oslo Accords and negotiations. The conflict in the Middle East was and remains in his eyes a central subject in world policy, which is liable to ignite a terrible conflagration all over the globe. That is why he is so interested in it. His friendship with writer Amos Oz has probably also added to his interest in us.

We met for a conversation that became prolonged. For about three hours, Llosa wanted more to hear and less to speak that after all was the purpose of his visit. And therefore, by the way, he didn't want to be interviewed in the media. He agreed, however, to let Miki Kratsman and me publish our impressions of the conversation.

"It's a free country, and you can write whatever you like," said the man whose writings were outlawed in Cuba, which was once almost his second homeland, and who even in his first homeland has known difficult periods.

Llosa is a former presidential candidate in Peru, who fought against the corruption in his country. Now his oldest son is his successor. Alvaro Llosa, 39, recently published an investigative article about the involvement of two Israeli businessmen in illegal oil deals in his country. In Peru there is an "Israeli Mafia," his father explains. The wife of Peru's president, Eliane Karp, is of Israeli origin. Whatever the case, Alvaro was charged with slander, and because he felt that his trial would not be a fair one, because of the involvement of the authorities, he did not appear at it. Since then, Alvaro has been an exile, who is liable to be arrested when he returns to his homeland. He is waiting in exile for the end of the term of the incumbent president, Alejandro Toledo, in about a year. That's life in South America.

Llosa, Sr. has been a voluntary exile from his country almost since his earliest childhood. He spent his first four years of school in Bolivia, and since then he has been roaming the world.

"And this is what I am: I'm a Peruvian, at the moment I have a Spanish passport, I'm a Latin American in a very profound way, but I'm also very involved in European culture. And at the same time, I'm also a product of my era." At present he is living in his home in Madrid, yet he prefers to write in his home in London because "Spaniards don't know how to respect privacy." He also has a home in Paris and, of course, one in Lima, where he spends several months a year.

He owes his writing regimen to the Europeans, not to the Latins, he admitted this week. He writes every day, seven days a week, twice a day, after his morning walk and after his almost-obsessive reading of the newspapers - at least three a day. Five days a week he writes literature; on the other two days, over the weekend, he writes journalistic pieces.

He has just completed his latest novel, for the moment, "The Mischief that a Naughty Girl Gets Up To," with a plot that stretches over many decades, in the cities where he has lived during his life. In the same way he has already written about 40 books, since "The City and the Dogs," his first famous work. There have been novels, short story collections, essay collections and a few plays as well.

He is a very productive writer, he writes with a pen, and afterward copies his words onto a computer - at least those he especially likes. In general, he loves to write. And when the computer breaks down, the family is in an uproar. His three children, Alvaro, Gonzalo and Morgana, who have scattered to the four corners of the earth, provide his technical support: They are immediately summoned by phone to help their father, who is helpless in front of the wayward computer. When Morgana talks about this, both of them smile broadly.

Morgana is a 31-year-old photographer. Her father says that she is 30 years old and she quickly corrects him, saying, "You don't even know how old I am." And again she smiles her enchanting smile. She joins her father on many of his journalistic trips.

She arrived in Israel about two weeks before him, in order to prepare the visit. Her fiance, Ricardo, also joined them. Ricardo is a French-Peruvian Jew who in his youth was sent to volunteer for very short service in the IDF. His present visit with his beloved and her father agitated him very much. He saw an Israel that he had not seen in his previous visits. Nor did Morgana like what she saw here, to put it mildly. She says that it's much worse than she had imagined before she came. Nevertheless, she promised to return.

When the three of them visited Gaza for a few days, and encountered a demonstration of the Popular Resistance Committees about 1,5000 armed men marching together Ricardo whispered to his future father-in-law: "I'm the only Jew here." Llosa recalls how, when Morgana was born, he promised himself to raise her as an independent woman, or in his words, like "a man," which arouses Morgana's anger. "You see what a chauvinist you are," she says, again with open affection. Whatever the case, there, at the demonstration of the Popular Resistance Committees, in front of all those armed men, Llosa was proud of his daughter, and thought to himself that perhaps he had even succeeded too well in educating his daughter like "a man."

Llosa met his father only at the age of 10. Now the picture of Don Ernesto Vargas Maldonado, wearing the uniform of an officer in the Peruvian navy, adorns the Web site of his son the writer. His mother, Dora Llosa Ureta, is represented there in a white wedding dress, with a long train. The young Mario studied at a military school, but didn't finish, to his father's chagrin. Peru lost a general and gained a great writer. He studied literature and law in Lima, and at the age of 18 married a relative, Julia. They lived a life of deprivation, Mario worked simultaneously at seven different student jobs from updating the names of the deceased in the local cemetery, to reading the news at Radio Central.

In 1959 he wandered again, this time to Spain, where he completed his doctoral studies in literature, thanks to a scholarship he received. Afterward he moved to Paris, where he taught Spanish at the Berlitz school. Also in 1959 he published his first book, "The Book of the Generals," a collection of short stories. He wrote his first play, "The Flight of the Inca," and in 1964 returned to Lima. He divorced his wife and went on a journey into the jungle, to collect material about the inhabitants of the Amazon.