The most affecting essay in Making Waves
, a collection of Mario Vargas Llosa’s work spanning three decades from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, is the improbably titled ‘My Son the Rastafarian’. With equal parts humour, horror and great tenderness, Peru’s sole Nobel Prize winner relates the story of his sensitive son Gonzalo Gabriel’s extremely unlikely Rasta phase, brought on by the equally unlikely influence of a marijuana-growing Milanese fellow pupil at a prim and proper English boarding school.
The story – for Vargas Llosa never fails to fulfil his vocation even while writing nonfiction – is a moving portrayal of the relationship between a father and son when the latter is not quite at the brink of finding his future self. I strongly identify with Vargas Llosa Sr’s powerlessness to reason with a boy who is suddenly not quite a man, but intellectually equipped to explain inexplicable and sudden life choices with passion and plausibility. Mario’s patient reason here is comic: boys of sixteen will always know better than you.
As I read of the young Gonzalo’s newfound hero ‘Nesta’ – the man the world knows as Bob Marley – I thought of my own teenage son’s phase a couple of years ago under the influence of Kurt Cobain, a similarly iconic singer who exerts a potent force on young minds from his eternal youth beyond the grave. Granted, Cobain’s followers lack the fully-fledged ideology of Rastafarianism, a religion of which Vargas Llosa has been blissfully unaware until his middle child becomes a dreadlock-wearing, marijuana-smoking, militant vegetarian worshipper of Haile Selassie I. But there is a certain set of lifestyle choices that often follow: long hair, ripped jeans and oversized woollen cardigans are just the beginning.
Looking at it from the perspective of a middle-aged world famous writer and emerging politician, Vargas Llosa coolly dismisses the whole corpus of Rastafarian doctrine as consisting ‘four or five simple ideas buried in extravagant rhetoric’. Why, wonders the exasperated father, ‘out of all the cults of the earth, had Gonzalo Gabriel opted for the one which combined, in abundant measure, bodily filth, historical nonsense, ethical misunderstandings and theological gibberish’? He ruminates on the effect of his son’s itinerant childhood – the family lived, during Gonzalo’s first sixteen years, in London, Washington, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Lima, Paris and Barcelona – and its effect on the boy who was always the deepest thinker among his siblings.
During my own son’s difficult teenage years, there have been times when I too have questioned the circumstances of his upbringing, the inevitable effect of my life choices impacting on a child necessarily deprived of any agency in the matter. It may not be as cosmopolitan as Vargas Llosa’s list, but those who know the city will understand why moving between the Cardiff districts of Cathays, Roath, Llanishen, Pontcanna and Splott might be just as disorienting for a child. Is teenage rebellion the inevitable outcome of the simple fact a child can’t choose where he lives or what kind of parents he has?
There is an affectionate adult-who-knows-better tone to some of what Vargas Llosa writes about his son, a horror of Gonzalo’s utter seriousness combined with a deep knowledge that this conversion is just a phase, albeit an entirely unexpected one. Gonzalo goes as far as to express a commitment to learn Amharic and spend a lifetime helping the needy in Ethiopia. All the while, the backdrop to the piece is the teenager’s accompanying his father at a film festival in Berlin.
It is a frustrating, amusing and ultimately moving story for any father of a confused teenage boy in the process of discovering his path in life. I have spent the last several years listening to plans for self-sustainability, marathon hikes across Europe, goat farming in the Hebrides and university courses in Scandinavia, as well as a scheme to elope with riot-grrrl band Skating Polly.
In the two years between sixteen and eighteen, Gonzalo is reported as going through ‘at least two further changes similar to his encounter with the Rastafarian cult, though perhaps less spectacular from the point of view of attire and theology.’ Vargas Llosa reports on a volte-face in relation to hairstyle. (I am still waiting for Emmet to emerge from a lustrous Jim Morrison phase that has lasted at least four years and seems interminable). The essay finishes with an update: Gonzalo is now a student at the University of London who mentions the names of economists with the same devotion previously reserved for Emperor Haile Selassie. Recently, I have observed a parallel process in Emmet. Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke have been all but supplanted by A.J.P. Taylor, Hermann Hesse and Francoise Sagan.
In some senses I am cheating, because I know how the story unfolds. ‘He spends his holidays working as an interviewer in the shanty towns of Lima,’ writes Mario Vargas Llosa of Gonzalo, proudly. ‘He’ll soon be eighteen.’
A couple of years ago, I was invited to be one of the chairs for an ‘accountability assembly’ at which all four of the then party leaders in the National Assembly for Wales participated. My role was to secure commitments from each of them on a series of issues raised by citizen committees across the country. The event came at the height of what the media were calling Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’. I had been volunteering for a project that welcomes asylum seekers to the city where I live, and had made many friends from various countries, people who had fled war, torture, persecution of many kinds.
In retrospect, I overstepped the mark in challenging the First Minister Carwyn Jones over issues that were beyond the immediate remit of the event. In my mind, he had given a lukewarm response to a simple request to commit to resettling a relatively low number of Syrian refugees. Privately, I thought the request too timid in any case, and fired by the presence of many of my new refugee friends in the auditorium of the thousand-seat city centre chapel where the event was held, I publicly called out the First Minister and created what I later agreed with the event organiser was ‘a real moment of tension’.
Afterwards, I was admonished by some for ‘getting on my soapbox’ and going off script and beyond my remit, but my refugee friends thanked me. Many of them used the fact I had gone beyond Syria, mentioning the names of their countries, as leverage to seek an audience with that night’s special guest: the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Representative to the UK. Gonzalo Gabriel Vargas Llosa.
Emmet will turn eighteen in a couple of months, and today I’ll be crossing paths with Mario Vargas Llosa. I feel a connection has been created by his decades-old words, and I hope the old man doesn’t mind my repeating them here, because I’d like to look back on them in another thirty-three years time, by which time, who knows?
‘I observe him with curiosity, with envy. And I wonder what surprises are in store for him (for us) in the next chapter.’ It’s the parentheses that kill me (that’s love).