The public persona of the recently deceased Norman Mailer was always bigger than his reputation as a writer. One of the first to be considered a ‘celebrity’ writer, Mailer wanted to be at the centre of a new American revolution. His name was synonymous with activism from the Fifties through the Seventies: he famously participated in the anti-Vietnam-War march on the Pentagon in October 1967, got arrested and wrote the classic, The Armies of the Night (1968) — a social and political treatise of creative non-fiction that featured the author as the centrepiece. In 1969, Mailer, equally famously but clownishly, ran for the mayor of New York, on the promise of making New York the 51st state of the Union, which would hold gladiator contests in Central Park and also ban private vehicles. He lost in the Democratic primary. His running mate, the columnist, Jimmy Breslin, later commented, “I found out I was running with Ezra Pound.”
Mailer’s last overt bit of activism had ended disastrously. In 1980, he had championed Jack Henry Abbot’s campaign for parole. Abbot was a convicted killer with literary ambitions. But within weeks of his release, Abbot killed a New York waiter and Mailer was nationally damned. A notorious anti-feminist, Mailer also publicly opposed women’s liberation, with the argument that women should be kept in cages and that their only function was procreation. At the centre of Mailer’s art and activism was his creed of violence and masculinity. He believed that violence was necessary to write and to avoid disease.
Mailer had ideas about everything and a strong aesthetic and political philosophy. But in retrospect, it is difficult to take his activism seriously because it is often difficult to take his ideas seriously. His hubris has ensured that charges of self-promotion will always overshadow any assessment of his activism. However, it did produce his creative non-fiction and his New Journalism. It produced Armies, “The White Negro” (1957), Advertisements for Myself (1959), The Executioner’s Song (1979) and much more. If history remembers Norman Mailer, it will be for his writing.
Unlike Mailer, Mario Vargas Llosa, to pick another celebrity writer-activist, impresses one with a sense of sincerity. Llosa’s proposed austerity drive scared the poor and lost him the presidential race to Alberto Fujimori in 1990. Llosa maintains that he went in because democracy in Peru would have collapsed (and it did). He lost because he had said exactly what he would do. Once a socialist, Llosa became disillusioned with the Castro regime and turned increasingly neo-liberal in the Eighties. The most significant chapter in his activist career was the formation of the Libertad movement against a drive to nationalize banks. Although Fujimori’s fall vindicated Llosa, he vows to never return to active politics since he has neither the appetite nor the aptitude: “I am returning to the ranks of the intellectuals and from there I plan…to be critical…and engage in polemics.” A Fish in the Water (1993) recounts his political career.
Aesthetics and politics are closely intertwined in Latin America. Llosa too believes that it is a writer’s obligation to write about politics. But there cannot be a marriage between the two professions. Public office would have put his writing on hold. So, where Václav Havel succeeded, Llosa failed. But what Havel lost, Llosa retained — his identity as a writer. What he could not convince the electorate about, he turned into fiction. Although The Feast of the Goat (2000) is about the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo, could Fujimori have been the trigger' His Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), a ‘total’ novel about Peru under Manuel Odría, had already damned a dictatorship and its suppression of the public will.