The fish in the water: summary, and what it doesn’t know

El pez en el agua (originally published in 1993 as El pez en el agua) is the memoir of the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the Nobel Prize in 2010. It covers two main periods of his life: the first covers the years between 1946 and 1958, describing his childhood and the beginning of his writing career in Europe.

El pez en el agua 1

Summary of El pez en el agua

El pez en el agua is a book divided into twenty chapters in which the author intersperses his narrative with themes from his early life and events related to his political activity in Peru. In these recollections, Vargas Llosa recounts many important experiences for him, such as meeting his father, whom he thought was dead, his first job at the newspaper La Crónica, and others.

El pez en el agua 2

El pez en el agua also refers to events related to his political activity, such as his participation in the movement against Peruvian President Alan García in 1987 and his campaign as a candidate for the presidency of Peru in 1990.

One of the curiosities that “El pez en el agua” revealed about the writer was the time he played for the junior team of Universitario de Deportes, the Peruvian football club of which he is a supporter. Get to know another of Vargas Llosa’s works by reading La tía Julia y el escribidor (Aunt Julia and the Scrivener).

Summary by chapter of El pez en el agua

I. Ese señor que era mi padre : The novel begins when his mother Dora, ayo a su hijo, believes that his father, Ernesto Vargas, is alive and she assumes that he doubts it, but it was not so, he always believed that his father had died.

Mario Vargas Llosa finished fifth grade at the Salesian school in Piura, and his mother told him, when she was 19, that she had the pleasure of meeting Ernesto Vargas, she fell in love with him and one day, during their holidays in Arequipa, they arranged their love affair and on 4 June 1935 they met at his grandparents’ house.

In the tourist hotel Mario met his father and felt a little bad when his father embraced him. His father told him that they were going to go for a walk in the square in Piura in his car and later they would go to Lima and once they arrived in the city he saw that his relationship with his father had become more distant. Mario began to miss his friends from Piura, his grandparents, his aunts and uncles, etc.

El pez en el agua 3

II. La Plaza San Martíne: this title tells us of his departure from the politics that began against the Aprismo, led at the time by the head of the Republic, Alan García Pérez: Alan García Pérez, who wanted the banks to be different and the private institutions to be state-owned, as well as the television and radio stations.

Mario had just arrived in Peru after a long trip to Spain with his wife and children. He listened to the President’s speech on the radio on 28 July 1987.

In his opinion, Alan García’s policies were a time bomb, because instead of Peru becoming a developing country, with the stabilisation of various institutions, it was going backwards economically and culturally.

III. Lima the terrible: When Mario Vargas Llosa arrived in Peru in 1946 to stay in Magdalena, he found that this was the most bitter period of his life, because he missed his grandparents and his companions from Piura, and it was during this time that he witnessed the strained relationship between his parents. Read the summary of the novel Los Cachorros by Mario Vargas Llosa.

IV. The Democratic Front: Vargas Llosa recounts his difficult political campaign, how his party Libertad, better known as the Democratic Front, was founded, how he first felt a thirst for justice in society, how he was against the stabilisation that García had caused, and how this then became a thirst for power in all politicians.

He began his political career motivated by his colleagues who believed in his abilities. Two important figures were born, both of whom already had a history in the Peruvian political context: Bedoya and Belaunde.

All this led this person to retire to Europe with his wife Patricia, handing in his letter of resignation to the President of Peru, which at the time was considered a political strategy, although according to him he could no longer bear the disagreements between the two parties that supported his party (Partido Libertad) and foresaw the catastrophic end.

V. El cadete de la suerte: During the time he lived with his father, until he entered the Leoncio Prado in 1950, the innocence disappeared, the open vision of the world that his mother, uncles and aunts and uncles had instilled in him.

El pez en el agua 4

As he grew up, he learned more and more about life, like when he met the Jirón Huatica in the popular La Victoria district, the street of the whores. He noticed the rooms lined up side by side on both sides of the street, from Avenida Grau to seven or eight blocks down.

The prostitutes stood at the windows, showing off to the many people who passed by, staring at them, stopping to discuss the price. A strict hierarchy governed Huatica, according to the street.

In addition to reading, he changed his life, it opened his eyes to the country and he acquired new knowledge, where he carried out his main work, Leoncio Prado gave me the order to practice the sport I liked best: swimming, and it was also in that summer of 1951 that his father made his first trip to the United States.

VI. Religion, communities and traseros: He returned to Lima on 14 July 1989 with the intention of reconciling with Acción Popular (Belaunde) and the Christian People’s Party (Bedoya). But he was surprised to find that these parties had divided up the posts of councillors and mayors throughout the country.

El pez en el agua 5

The only small problem was the mayoralty of Lima, and it was the one that would have the greatest political impact on the presidential campaign. Acción Popular nominated Eduardo Orrego for the first vice-presidency (which I disagreed with) because he had municipal experience and one of the best images within his party. A likeable, intelligent, amusing and apparently loyal man.

VII. Journalism and bohemia: The three months that he worked at La Crónica, between his room and his final year of secondary school, were a turning point in his destiny: he got to know a Lima that was unknown to him at the time, he lived a bohemian life, he received his identity card and his identity papers with photo and stamp, and he signed where it said “journalist”.

The news had to start with the central fact, summarised in a short sentence. The arrival of the chief of police, Becerrita, was the event of every night, he had created the red page of the big crimes.

Two or three weeks after I started working on La Crónica, Aguirre Morales asked me to replace one of the writers on the headquarters page who was ill, and I gladly accepted. Becerrita was afraid of him because of his bad temper, his writers were damn loyal to him and in the month I worked under him I became proud to be part of his group.

El pez en el agua 6

The tour of the police stations began at about seven o’clock, but it was not until ten or eleven o’clock that the police arrived with their cargo of thieves, bloodthirsty lovers, badly wounded in fights in discotheques and brothels, who were pursued fiercely and who always deserved the honour of the police page.

VIII. The Libertad Movement: The Libertad movement was forged in an artist’s studio, among half-drawn pictures and pre-Hispanic masks and feathered cloaks, where we exchanged ideas about the future, the successes of the struggle against Alan Gracia’s attempt to nationalise the banks had filled us with enthusiasm and hope.

We were going to create something broader and more flexible than a party: a movement that would bring together the independents mobilised against this institution and take root in the popular sectors, especially among informal traders and entrepreneurs.

The liberty movement developed a radical pattern and modernised Peru’s political tradition, confronting socialist collectivism and mercantilism with a proposal.

IX. Uncle Lucho: Of all his 55 years, he prefers to relive the time he spent with his uncle Lucho and aunt Olga in Piura. Mario was in the 5th year of high school and working in industry. All the anecdotes of April and December 1959 are remembered with nostalgia.

Uncle Lucho was the eldest of all the uncles, the patron saint of the Llosa family, and Mario’s favourite. The family was very fond of him because of his academic excellence throughout the years, but Uncle Lucho could not pursue a career because he was the handsomest and had success with the girls.

El pez en el agua 7

When he returned home with a girl 20 years his senior, he went to Chile with her, but later separated from her because he was still pursuing his gallant adventures. After the divorce, he went to Cochabamba to live with the nonos. Every Sunday the family would sit around the big table and Uncle Lucho would tell of his conquests.

XI Comrade Alberto: He spent the holidays of 1953 in his nono’s apartment while he prepared to enrol in San Marcos. Then he took the entrance exam and met Lea, with whom he became comrades.

He developed a closer friendship with her because he had more in common with her. It was the time of the president, and San Marcos was preparing a strike on the pretext of changing the rector.

El pez en el agua 8

XII Intrigues and dragons: In late September and mid-October 1989, after registering with the National Electoral Jury, he went on a tour of four countries: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, which he described as “examples” of the development of economic freedom.

The trip was political; its aim was to show Peruvians the opening of our economy to the Pacific.

XIII. “El sartrecillo valiente”: He worked with Raúl Porras Barrenechea from 1954 to 1958, from Monday to Friday afternoons. He was the one who contributed to his creation and to his understanding of Peru. Porres Barrenechea was a historian, a professor who liked to have loyal students.

El pez en el agua 9

Porras’s students and friends met at the Colina to relax over coffee and discuss university gossip and politics. During his time at Porras’ house, his first task was to read the chronicles of the conquest.

He liked to read the chronicles of the Incas Garcilaso or Cieza de León, which he enjoyed very much because, after reading a book, he could make an evaluation of the characters of the episodes in each book, which he found very interesting and important.

XIV “The cheap intellectual”: During the Velasco government, Sendero Luminoso published information calling for a strike to support the people’s war. The next morning, Henry Pease García, a United Left candidate for Lima City Hall, announced that he and his supporters would take to the streets to show that democracy is stronger than subversion.

XV. Aunt Julia: This is from 1955, Mario was 19 years old, he was a student of languages and law, he wrote in newspapers and had even won a literary prize. That year Julia arrived in Lima to live with her uncle Lucho, Julia was the younger sister of her aunt Olga. She had divorced her Bolivian husband with whom she had lived for several years on a hacienda in the highlands.

XVI: The Great Change: This chapter speaks of ten representatives, whereas CADE had called for only four parties to be represented, according to the polls of December 1989. Those of the Democratic Front, the APRA, the United Party and those of the Socialist Accord, Alberto Fujimori appeared at the bottom of the polls.

Lucho Bustamante gave him a list of speeches that reflected the most important measures. It was a time of controversy with Alan García over public workers.

XVII. Pájaro Mitra: After isolating the Alliance Française, he decided to study French as a foreign language at the San Marcos Doctoral School of Literature. In 1956, politics reentered his life. Porras Barrenechea called Pablo Macera and Mario to work with Doctor El Valle, who at the time was an accountant for the Presidency.

El pez en el agua 10

XVIII. Dirty war: It received a whole dirty war campaign. It began with the excessive publicity of the front, where the different participants of the party appeared in all the media and wasted a lot of money on advertising.

This was in contradiction with the liberal principles they proposed, which the government in power (Alán García) noticed, and they went through all the media, spreading these problems and possible interests of very rich people, so that this front would come to power and thus benefit them.

XX Last point: Fujimori and Vargas Llosa. They met secretly at Mario’s request. During this meeting, Vargas Llosa told Fujimori that he wanted to resign for the second round. Mario Vargas realised that some people were supporting him because he was Peruvian and Fujimori. There was discrimination. On 10 April, Mario Vargas Llosa.

El pez en el agua 11

This is how Mario Vargas Llosa’s El pez en el agua ends. If you want to know the work of another author, read El gato que encontró a Dios (The cat that found God).

Analysis of The Fish in the Water

Well, this analysis of The Fish in the Water is a novel where the main theme tells us about the whole life of this great writer, the novel is a narrative genre. This beautiful novel leaves us with a beautiful message that tells us that we should learn from our bad experiences and always focus on all the goals that life gives us and never look back.

The most important part of El pez en el agua is when Mario meets his father and shares his experiences with him. This work is very beautiful because it tells us about the life of a great writer. If you want to discover the personality of a teenager through philosophy, read The World of Sofía.

Plot of The Fish in the Water

El pez en el agua is a double memoir: in alternating chapters, Mario Vargas Llosa recounts his unsuccessful candidacy for the Peruvian presidency and his childhood and adolescence. It’s a clever juxtaposition: either chapter could have stood on its own, but the change of pace, scene and focus between the campaigns and the turbulent youth is particularly effective; without it, the political half could easily have become too tedious for the reader.

In the middle, Vargas Llosa describes his youth up to the time he left for Europe as a graduate student. Although this section ends before he has established himself as a writer, it reveals a great deal about the future author. The autobiographical background so prominent in his early novels is described here from a different point of view.


El pez en el agua 12

It is also fascinating how extraordinarily busy and productive he was, working as a journalist in his mid-teens and holding down all sorts of jobs during his university years. (This half of the book is reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez’s Living to Tell the Tale, in which the equally busy (if more single-mindedly obsessed) author describes his apprentice years).

The other half of the book describes how Vargas Llosa came to run for the presidency of Peru, the campaign and his disappointing loss (to the now thoroughly disgraced Alberto Fujimori).

As the descriptions of his student years make clear, Vargas Llosa had always been politically interested and occasionally very active – albeit leftist – in his youth, while by the late 1980s he saw the only hope for Peru’s market reforms in what might be called a very anti-socialist platform (von Hayek and Karl Popper are among those most influential in his change of outlook).

El pez en el agua 14

Vargas Llosa begins his memoirs of childhood at the age of ten, with the reappearance on the scene and in his mother’s life of his father, an unpleasant and very strict man whom he had been led to believe was dead.

In fact, his parents were divorced, but their passion for each other survived the long separation (during which Mario’s father also remarried) and their obvious incompatibility.

Growing up without him in a large Peruvian family, Mario’s life became more confined when his parents reconciled: his father, who was immensely jealous, wanted no contact with the other relatives and forbade him virtually all social contact.

El pez en el agua 15

Mario at least found some escape in books, and his early and passionate devotion to literature is a constant in A Fish in the Water: even on the campaign trail he promises to devote two hours a day to reading (though he admits he often fails to do so).

His school years were not particularly pleasant, and things got worse when he was sent to the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in 1950. Vargas Llosa vividly describes this period: the ups and downs, the various adventures and many friendships, the prostitution around him and much of Peru at the time.

Despite some of the circumstances (his father sounds simply terrible), there is little here to depress, as Mario’s soldiers generally improve times and manage to make their way in the world.

El pez en el agua 16

From his early work as a journalist, through his student days, early political activism and marriage to an elderly aunt (and the seven jobs he took to support them both while at university), he certainly lived a colourful and busy life, all before he even graduated from university.

One misses the middle part of his life, after he moved to Europe and began publishing the works for which he is now known, but perhaps he is right to take that for granted. Everyone knows who the man was when he took to the stage in Peru and contemplated running for president.

The Fish in the Water tells the story of how he became a candidate, and then the bizarre election campaign. Some of this is mired in local Peruvian politics, but for the most part Vargas Llosa explains the main players and events very clearly, so that even readers who know nothing about Peruvian politics can get a clear idea of what was going on and what Vargas Llosa was up against.

El pez en el agua 17

It turns out that Peruvian politics is as messy as politics almost anywhere else. It did not help that democracy had not yet been firmly established: the country had gone through several periods of dictatorship and, as Vargas Llosa writes in his epilogue, “Colofón”, the man who defeated him, Alberto Fujimori, undid democracy less than two years after being sworn in by suspending the constitution and closing down Congress.

The campaign was a combination of personality and party politics, all the more complicated because Vargas Llosa wanted more than one party, which caused problems inside and outside the campaign.

His school years were not particularly pleasant, and things got worse when he was sent to the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in 1950. Vargas Llosa describes this period vividly: the ups and downs, the various adventures and many friendships, the prostitution around him and much of Peru at the time.

Despite some of the circumstances (his father sounds simply awful), there is little here that is depressing, as Mario’s soldiers generally improve times and manage to make their way in the world.

From his early journalism jobs to his student days, early political activism and marriage to an elderly aunt (and the seven jobs he took to support them both while at university), he certainly had a colourful and busy life, all before he even graduated.

One misses the middle part of his life, after he moved to Europe and began publishing the works for which he is now known, but perhaps he is right to take that for granted. Everyone knows who the man is when he takes to the stage in Peru and contemplates running for president.

El pez en el agua 18

EL pez en el agua tells how he became a candidate and then the bizarre election campaign. Some of it delves into local Peruvian politics, but for the most part Vargas Llosa explains the main players and events very clearly, so that even readers who know nothing about Peruvian politics can get a clear idea of what was going on and what Vargas Llosa was up against. If you want to know a work of a different genre, read 1984 by George Orwell.

Characters in The Fish in the Water

The main character in The Fish in the Water is Mario Vargas Llosa, and the secondary characters are Mr “Ernesto J. Vargas”, Miss Dorita, Uncle Lucho (Luis), Uncle Jorge, his cousins Eduardo, Pepe and Jorge, Helena, Raul P. Barrenechea, Aunt Julia. If you want to read a very well known book, read El caballero de la armadura oxidada.


A polemical section of the book El pez en el agua contains harsh criticism of other Peruvian intellectuals who at some point had a difference of opinion with Mr Vargas, usually of a political nature, for example the aggression against the then dying writer Julio Ramón Ribeyro.

El pez en el agua 19

In an interview with Clifford Landers (Albuquerque, 5 November 1994), translator Helen Lane mentions that she originally translated the title as “The Fish in the Water”, without the article, and changed it to “A Fish in the Water”, losing the parallel with the English “The fish out of the water”. If you want to know the value of friendship, read The Owl Who Couldn’t Hoot.

Scroll to Top