Book review: The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa - a novel labyrinth
Mario Vargas Llosa takes readers into a labyrinth of points of view, moods and other possibilities
The Discreet Hero
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
"At least now I'm certain that it's a fantasy … But what's he trying to do with these stories? Things like this aren't provoked, they come from somewhere, with their roots in the unconscious." So says Rigoberto, one of two heroes in Mario Vargas Llosa's new novel.
Rigoberto is talking about his son, Fonchito, who is conducting what his parents believe is a dangerous imaginary relationship. This in itself is bad enough, given that Fonchito is a teenager. But what really gives Rigoberto and his wife, Lucrecia, pause is the fantasised friend. Although he has a name, Edilberto Torres, Rigoberto is convinced the smooth, enquiring older man could be the devil.
Such subtle but lively games with reality and the imagination have been Vargas Llosa's speciality throughout his Nobel-winning career. His most famous book, at least for an English-speaking audience, is Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which ponders whether life imitates soap operas, or vice versa.
Readers of The Discreet Hero (El Héroe Discreto) might wonder whether similar games are being played again. Three quarters of the way through, Rigoberto is watching the latest developments of his life unfold on the nightly news. "The richest woman in Peru running away with a small bag in a rundown bus, like some pauper heading for nowhere … The soap opera isn't over, it goes on and on and gets harder to understand every day."
The soap opera in question involves a May-to-December romance between Don Ismael Carrera, a wealthy insurance tycoon, and Armida, for many years his household maid. Although Llosa's saucy narrator makes it plain that beneath her shapeless clothes writhes the body of an erotic dream ("I rarely use Viagra because I hardly need it," boasts Ismael), Armida represents more than injury time hanky panky. She is the means by which Don Ismael revenges himself on his feckless sons, Miki and Escobita, who have whored, raped, and spent their way through their allowance and his good graces.
The final straw comes when he is recuperating from a heart attack, and overhears his troublesome offspring licking their lips at the imminence of their inheritance. "I knew very well my sons never loved me … But not that they hated me so much that they'd wish me dead." Marriage to Armida would effectively cut Miki and Escobita off, and so Don Ismael decides to kill two sons with one bird. The problem for Rigoberto is, having witnessed the union and waved the happy couple off on their mystery honeymoon, he finds himself menaced by the ungrateful duo.
This story weaves through another, which opens the novel proper. Felícito Yanaqué owns the prosperous Narihualá Transport Company in the Peruvian city of Piura. After a calming morning's exercise - he favours qigong - he finds a note attached to the door of his house. Having praised him on the success of his business ("a source of pride for Piura and Piurans"), the writer then makes a most courteous threat: "Our organisation will take care of protecting Narihualá Transport Company, along with you and your worthy family, against any accident, unpleasantness, or threat from criminal elements." One imagines the last clause could be filed under "irony" in the dictionary. The note is signed with a five-legged spider - a powerful image that crawls through the story as a whole.
Felícito takes the warning to the police. Suspecting that they are not interested, he turns to the people he trusts most in the world. The first is Adelaida, "an ageless mulatta, short, fat-bottomed, big-breasted", whom the local parish priests call a witch but Felícito considers a seer: "He'd consulted her about all the important decisions he'd made in those twenty-some years." Adelaida, who gives the proceedings a hint of Greek tragedy, offers an inspiration: "Give them what they ask for, Felícito … after all what difference does money make, right?"
The second person Felícito visits is his mistress, Mabel. Trapped in a loveless marriage with the seemingly drab and quiet Gertrudis, he calls the lithe, enthusiastic and affectionate bit on the side the love of his life. Felícito's urges keep Mabel in house and home, hinting at one of Llosa's primary themes: ownership - of people, of places, of art, of material objects. Mabel is disconcerted by the note, and will play a major part in extorting money from the obdurate trucker.
For the moment, Felícito vows not to spend a penny under such duress. "It isn't the dough," he tells Adelaida firmly. "A man shouldn't let anybody walk over him in this life. That's what it's all about, comradita." This is Felícito's catchphrase, his inheritance from his revered father, Alino.
"Trustworthy and honorable", Alino worked hard and sacrificed his own comfort to ensure his son had an education and opportunities: "Never let anybody walk all over you, my son" had been the motto of his life. And Felícito wasn't going to let those goddamn son of a bitch thieves, arsonists, and kidnappers walk all over him now."
The pace, which is vibrant from the start, picks up as the respective plots hit their dramatic straps. Don Ismael is found dead, possibly murdered, forcing Armida into exile. Felícito takes out an advert in the local newspaper condemning the protection racket, which initially earns him the respect of local citizens and the terrified disapproval of other businessmen, who caved to pressure. Even when Mabel is kidnapped Felícito does not relent. But her disappearance proves to be the least of his problems as secrets emerge amid intensifying threats. .
Eventually the two halves meet as suppressed identities are revealed and alliances form. Having been kept apart, there is something joyful about Felícito and Rigoberto encountering one another in unlikely circumstances. The two middle-aged men share a hinterland and a sense that Peru has changed within their lifetime. This knowledge is not of particular comfort. Both have worked hard to provide a good life for their children; both are left to ponder, like Don Ismael, whether all their social striving is worth the trouble. "They dreamed of turning them into two fine gentlemen," Rigoberto notes of Don Ismael and his wife. "How the devil did they turn out so bad?"
Llosa interrogates this pessimism through the minor character of Sergeant Lituma, who joins the police after finding himself in prison as a youth. The investigation brings him into contact with former friends and associates, and he is shocked to see how pleasantly gentrified his old stomping grounds have become: "New neighbourhoods are going up. Every Piuran dreamed of owning a house, and it was terrific that good times had come."
The novel as a whole isn't quite so sure. With opportunity, Llosa suggests, comes comfort, prosperity and joy, but also greed, crime, deception and worship of money over love of people or God. Others, like Lituma, find their envy of acquaintances done well turning to nostalgia for a less assured past: "Back then I was happy," he says of his days in a gang called The Unconquerables. "The hard times came later."
The lure of material wealth has trapped Rigoberto in a legal career that has made him comfortable rather than happy. Lacking the courage to be an artist, he has sublimated his creative impulses with a lifetime of owning and losing himself in art, of fantasy. Felícito is let down by the people he most trusted, proving that loyalty and hard work don't guarantee success.
Llosa is especially lively when writing about the lives and loves of his male characters. The strange pillow talk-cum-foreplay of Rigoberto and Lucrecia is naughty but nice, establishing their relationship but also the appeal and perils of dream worlds - sexual, economic or social. His women are appealing but thinner creations.
In the end, Llosa spins his narrative web with no intention of catching any fly in particular. This may be a nod towards his epigraph from Borges: "Our beautiful task is to imagine there is a labyrinth and a thread." The mazy patterns he creates mirror the diverse points of view, moods and possibilities that are contained in his story. Modern Peru, indeed modern life, is both rubbish and glorious, an advance and regression, an illusion and a palpable reality.
However you want to read this fable of aspiration and disenchantment, you'll have fun unravelling the mysteries and being tripped by the surprises. An heroic, if indiscreet triumph.