Why has García Márquez’s magical realism cemented its place on American bookshelves and syllabuses while Vargas Llosa’s gritty masterpieces are neglected? Vargas Llosa’s best books are harder to read than García Márquez’s. He’s less sentimental, dirtier, raunchier, angrier. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” looks like a Hallmark card next to “Conversation in the Cathedral.” You might be fired for assigning Vargas Llosa in high school English. And Vargas Llosa has published so many novels — 18 in all — that the tours de force can get lost among the mediocrities. His buttoned-up public demeanor hasn’t helped. “Gabo” was not only a tremendous writer; he was an expert showman who once worked in advertising and cannily played up his Caribbean exoticism for foreign audiences. When the two fell out in the 1970s, many intellectuals leaned left toward García Márquez, while Vargas Llosa was shunned.
Yet Vargas Llosa is the more daring, more democratic writer. While García Márquez cozied up to Fidel Castro and refined a distinctive style, Vargas Llosa reinvented his over and over again while defending free markets and reproductive freedom, gay rights and open elections. His political tracts underscore the value of diversity, of stellar public education, of equal opportunities for the poor. And his novels, whether they are kaleidoscopic histories, political thrillers, generational sagas or slapstick comedies, are remarkable for their ability to inhabit a host of perspectives. He’s especially good at the psychology of collaborators — the people who surround authoritarians and make their administrations function. Such characters were not popular among readers in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, who preferred García Márquez’s romantic heroes, but they might feel especially relevant to Americans today.