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A finger on Peru's political and literary pulse

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MARIO VARGAS LLOSA, a well-known Peruvian novelist, tells the stories of both his childhood and his failed attempt to become president of Peru in his new book, ``A Fish in the Water: A Memoir.''

As an insider's view of the Peruvian political and literary scene during the last four decades, the book is fascinating. Vargas Llosa, who's had his finger on the pulse of Peru since adolescence, writes of backroom deals made by powerful political players and of college adventures with some of his country's most significant thinkers.

As a journalist, academic, and writer, Vargas Llosa has lived a varied and interesting life. In the chapters recounting his youth, he writes with brilliant detail of his rich experiences and the bigger-than-life people he's encountered - pointing out those individuals who have found their way into his fictional works.

The strength of this book, though, lies in the interspersing of chapters dedicated to Vargas Llosa's childhood with those recounting his 1987 presidential campaign. The first chapter tells of a memorable scene when Vargas Llosa was 11 years old; the second, the event that prompted him to run for president; the third jumps back to his childhood; the fourth explains the birth of his political party; and so on. By structuring the book in this way he creates a parallelism between the mistakes and lessons he learned as an adolescent and those encountered in his first political campaign.

``A Fish In The Water'' is a tale of self-discovery apparently motivated by Vargas Llosa's failed presidential bid. He seems to want to explain why he made the decisions he did during his campaign to all those who asked at the end, ``What happened?''

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