He began his elementary school in Bolivia but left after the fourth grade, continuing his elementary and high school education in Peru. He earned his bachelor degree in literature and philosophy from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Peru. He worked 7 jobs to make ends meet. In 1959 he won a scholarship to study for a doctorate in philosophy and literature at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Complutense University of Madrid). Upon completion of the PhD program, Vargas Llosa moved to Paris, France to work.
His efforts to embark on a literary career started when he published his first work, a compilation of stories called “Los jefes” (The Chiefs) in 1959. He received the Leopoldo Arias award for this publication.
In 1965 Vargas Llosa traveled to Cuba. Initially a supporter of the Cuban revolution, he participated as a Jury in the Casa de las Americas Awards as well as in the editorial council of the Casa de las Americas magazine, both in Cuba. However, in 1971 he distanced himself from the revolution and became an ardent critic due to the Padilla Affair. Heberto Padilla was a Cuban poet who was incarcerated for speaking out and criticizing the revolution. Vargas Llosa saw this as a direct violation of human rights and conflict with what he thought was the original stated purpose of the revolution.
He has worked and lived in many European cities throughout the years, mainly moving between Paris, London and Barcelona.
In Peru in the early 1980s Vargas Llosa hosted a TV show, later becoming the political leader of the Freedom Movement opposed to statists measures being taken by the president of Peru at the time.
In 1990 he ran as the Presidential candidate for the party Frente Democratico (Democratic Front). After two disputed rounds he lost the election and returned to London to re-embark on his literary career.
Currently, he is a collaborator with the newspaper El Pais in Madrid, Spain and the monthly cultural magazine Letras Libres (which translates to Free Words, published in Mexico and Spain). Vargas Llosa is a visiting professor at Princeton University and the distinguished Templeton Leadership Fellow for the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.
His career includes many awards and distinctions. In 1975 he was named to the Peruvian Academy of Language and in 1994 he was designated a member of the Spanish Royal Academy. In 1976 he was named the president of the International Pen, the worldwide association of writers. He has been a visiting professor of numerous universities around the world including the Queen Mary College and King’s College of the University of London, Cambridge