March 30, 2016KR OnlineReview

On The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

New York, NY: Picador, 2015. 336 pages. $17.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

It’s hard to open the novels of a living Nobel and Cervantes Prize winner without a moment of mental genuflection before Literature with a capital L. In bestowing its award, the Swedish Academy cited Mario Vargas Llosa’s “cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”—quite a load to carry. But Vargas Llosa’s writing does not lend itself to ivory tower contemplation of cartographies of structures. It is immediate, colloquial, even sexy, and the source of the most vivid dreams I’ve had in years. You tumble rather than tiptoe into the Peruvian’s world.

Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, The Discreet Hero (El héroe discreto), released in Edith Grossman’s spot-on English translation in March 2015, is another of the rabbit hole adventures we’ve come to expect. In thriving modern Peru, the author restores to us characters we’ve met before, tangled in new and rich webs across generations. Faithful readers have already seen the artistically frustrated insurance manager Don Rigoberto and other characters who pop up in this already-in-progress episode of Peruvian life. Watchful Sergeant Lituma knows the history of many of the characters who appear in the coastal city of Piura, where Vargas Llosa attended elementary school and later returned in life and fiction.

Parallel storylines in Lima and Piura point for most of the book toward their inevitable intersection in the final chapters. Until then, we must trust the epigram from Jorge Luis Borges: “Our beautiful task is to imagine there is a labyrinth and a thread.” In Piura, diligent, working class Felícito Yanaqué finds himself the target of extortionists at the trucking enterprise he has spent a lifetime building. In the face of much advice to the contrary, Felícito not only refuses to give in but advertises his defiance in the local paper.

In interviews, Vargas Llosa claims that these events are real life turned to fiction:

In a city in the north, a small entrepreneur of very humble origins, running a transport enterprise, published in a newspaper an advertisement addressed to the local mafia, saying, “I want you to know that I am not going to pay the money you are asking me: you can do anything, but this is a public position, and I won’t accept your blackmail.”

Meanwhile in Lima, Rigoberto’s employer, Ismael Carrera, pulls him into a family tussle with Carrera’s two sons, endearingly referred to by everyone as “the hyenas,” by asking Rigoberto to witness Ismael’s marriage to his housekeeper, Armida. It is no spoiler to say that our discreet heroes, Felícito and Rigoberto, guard their integrity against vicious attacks.

Like their creator, the central characters in both timelines are aging men, one happily married, the other keeping a mistress and still wondering if his eldest son is really his. The narrative forces the men from comfortable ruts and brings them into rough contact with a world of extortion and revenge upon ungrateful children. Francisco Goldman suggests that we are to understand moral lessons in the contrast drawn between Rigoberto, Felícito, Ismael, and their frustrating offspring, but there is nothing so heavy-handed as an identifiable moral here.

Instead, Rigoberto and Felícito move through a lightly comic, occasionally soap opera-like world in keeping with the post-modern tone of Vargas Llosas’ later novels. The telenovela comparison abounds in reviews of The Discreet Hero. The Sydney Morning Herald calls the book “fluff” before conceding that it has “deceptive substance.” The suggestion comes from the novel itself:

My God, what stories ordinary life devised; not masterpieces to be sure, they were doubtless closer to Venezuelan, Brazilian, Colombian, and Mexican soap operas than to Cervantes and Tolstoy. But then again not so far from Alexandre Dumas, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, or Benito Pérez Galdós.

Soap opera or not, Vargas Llosa’s plot corners like it’s on rails and his insights sting with the venom of a master. Rigoberto’s son has become entangled with a character presented to us indirectly as a Mephistopheles, but never seen on stage. We are left to wonder if Edilberto Torres is a ghost, a delusion, a resourceful pervert, a walking demon—or even the dark past of a nation, referred to oh-so-obliquely in this novel.

In light of Vargas Llosa’s very public politics—he ran for president of Peru in 1990 with a center-right party but lost to Alberto Fujimori—it can be difficult to read his fiction without searching for political commentary. His recent work suggests a shift from public into a more private, art-focused life, but his conservative politics remain center stage through his regular column in El País. In this, his “most optimistic” novel, Vargas Llosa’s main characters get their happy ending by abandoning Peru for Europe, as the author himself has done by taking Spanish citizenship.

One might be tempted to say that the angst that brought us brilliant works like The Green House (La casa verde, 1965) and The War of the End of the World (La guerra del fin del mundo, 1984) has given way to a contented and mature narrative voice that prefers to entertain than to twist the knife. We must look back to 2000 for works like the brutal tale of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo in The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo). Or one might say that this is the voice of a septuagenarian taking a retrospective view of life while enjoying the rich fruits of success. There is more than a hint of “get off my lawn” condescension toward the generation Vargas Llosa portrays as failing to live up to their elders’ standards, but the portrayal is not universal.

My personal favorite Vargas Llosa novel is The Bad Girl (Travesuras de la niña mala, 2006), which differs from the rest of his novels in that it takes place mostly in Europe rather than Latin America. It is a rare glimpse into the author’s youthful years in Paris and an irresistibly existentialist reimagining of Madame Bovary. Like most of Vargas Llosa’s later works, including The Discreet Hero, The Bad Girl goes light on politics in favor of the pleasure of the story, but historical events are always present. Even the bad girl goes to Cuba to train as a revolutionary.

And there is always a postmodern wink. Don Rigoberto muses on:

[T]he idea that civilization was not, had never been a movement, a general state of things, an environment that would embrace all of society, but rather was composed of tiny citadels raised throughout time and space, which resisted the ongoing assault of the instinctive, violent, obtuse, ugly, destructive, bestial force that dominated the world and now had come into his own home.

Rigoberto here sounds much like Vargas Llosa opining the demise of literary culture, although the author denies that the character is a cipher for his own views. In a Telegraph interview, Vargas Llosa calls Rigoberto “a tragic kind of person” with “a passion for culture, but no artistic vocation.” Yet Vargas Llosa declares in the same conversation:

[N]ow the novels that are read are purely entertainment—well done, very polished, with a very effective technique—but not literature, just entertainment.

The Discreet Hero is a fine entertainment. But does it move us? Does it alter our perceptions of the world? Is it literature? Readers are divided, and the author himself is cagey about his intentions. All I can say is that halfway through the novel, I was interested enough in the answers to these questions to carry the hardcover on a four day backpacking trip. A book that can engage us in the fundamental questions—make us bear in some way the weight of culture—is always welcome.

Carrie La Seur's critically acclaimed debut novel The Home Place (William Morrow, 2014) won the High Plains Book Award and was short-listed for the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel. Her writing appears in such media as Daily Beast, Grist, the Guardian, Harvard Law and Policy Review, High Country News, Mother Jones, the Rumpus, and Salon. She is a founder of the environmental nonprofit Plains Justice and the Billings Bookstore Cooperative. Her second novel, The Weight of an Infinite Sky, a rural Montana take on Hamlet, was released in paperback in October 2018.