José María Vargas Vila (1860–1933), possibly the most widely read Colombian author of the early twentieth century, was a literary iconoclast. His overarching aim in writing was to subvert those elements of society assumed to be sacred but believed by him to be hindering progress and equality in Latin America. Roman Catholicism and its representatives in general, and the meddling of the church in matters of the state more specifically; traditional concepts about family and society, such as marriage and accepted public behavior; "respectable" writing, including long-established themes and conventional literary approaches; and what he deemed to be false morality that kept society from moving forward—these were all targets in his works. Intolerant of what he viewed as intolerance, he polarized the reading public from the very start of his literary career.
The major themes in his work include the criticism of close-minded societies, a constant attack on dictatorial regimes, an exploration of proscribed sexual topics, a bitter defense of individualism, and the scrutiny of the political developments of his time. The subject matter of his books was frequently shocking, as might be expected in works that aimed to overthrow the status quo. This he did with unusual frequency by airing taboo subjects such as incest, the corruption of priests, and drug use and by attacking the sacredness of fatherland or brotherly love. Some of his more extreme characters include a leprous priest who has a child with his cousin; a narrator who defends and recommends suicide as the only way out for those who blindly accept social mores; and an artist whose lover destroys his hands with acid. The Catholic Church responded. Several of Vargas Vila's books were banned, and anathema was pronounced upon those who were caught reading them. It was widely thought that the Church excommunicated Vargas Vila, but this was not the case. However, being the object of persecution translated into fabulous financial gains for the author, as his forbidden books were printed, sold, and reprinted and sold, again and again.
Vargas Vila intended his prose style, at least in part, to complement and to serve as an expression of his philosophy and subject matter. The dominant technique in his texts is, perhaps, fragmented writing. Short paragraphs, aphoristic affirmations, infringement of the traditional rules of punctuation, incorporation of foreign words and phrases, word play, insults, Latinate grammatical constructions, and unexpected typography—all these rouse the reader from the comfortable state of merely being entertained instead of actively shaping and reshaping society. Vargas Vila's intent was to épater le bourgeois, that is, to shock those who profited from positions of power. There appears to be unanimity among critics that there is something that can be called the Vargavilesquian style.
Vargas Vila's output was prodigious. In addition to articles in Némesis, his own journal, he wrote over eighty books. Despite being largely shunned by polite circles, Vargas Vila was one of the few writers who lived off of his trade. A writer who came to publish so extensively and who received royalties from the direct sale of his books was uncommon for Latin American authors until well into the twentieth century. Many literary critics, of course, viewed the sheer volume of his work as uncouth. Nonetheless, Vargas Vila was widely read, by a public whom most contemporaneous critics scorned. He was not without notable admirers, however. Among these were the modernist Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, and the Cuban intellectual, poet, and hero José Martí.
Until now, a serious and comprehensive study of Vargas Vila's corpus would have been very difficult. This is largely because of the author's aforementioned copious production, as well as the fact that many of his works appear in a variety of editions, and the same works often under different titles. The "definitive edition" of Vargas Vila's works, published by Ramón Sopena in Barcelona while the author was still alive, exceeds fifty volumes. This web site brings together twice that number of volumes, and its goal is to offer access to Vargas Vila's work in all his lifetime editions. The Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been actively acquiring these works for its Rare Book Collection.
We hope that readers will eventually find here the first editions, comparison editions of titles that were published by more than one publishing house, the re-editions of certain works under different titles, and works that were issued in nontraditional formats. In time—and with the aid of visitors to our site—we also hope to become the largest online repository of graphic materials associated with Vargas Vila.