Soap opera yarn-spinner: Vargas Llosa. Photo: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Mario Vargas Llosao confuses porny, blockbuster daydreams with intricacy

Repeitition is the default mode in The Discreet Hero - an abberation in Llosa's career which confuses quantity with literary quality.

The Discreet Hero
Mario Vargas Llosa
Faber & Faber, 326pp, £20

The citation accompanying the Nobel Prize in Literature doesn’t always supply an aid to judgement. The novels that Saul Bellow published after 1976 lived up to his citation – displaying “human understanding” and a “subtle analysis of contemporary culture” – without being especially distinguished. Everything written by Imre Kertész, his worst books no less than his best, is likely to uphold “the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history”. But you would be hard-pressed to find more damning testimony against Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Discreet Hero, a truer barometer of its failure, than the committee’s praise in 2010 for his “cartography of structures of power” and “trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat”. It’s a description that this novel misses by a mile – and not because the acts of resistance and revolt culminate, for once, in victory.

Though The Discreet Hero is an aberration in this writer’s career, it claims kinship with several previous novels through the appearance of two regulars. One is Don Rigoberto, the narrator of In Praise of the Stepmother (1988) and The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (1997), who reluctantly agrees to act as a witness at the wedding of his former boss, the octogenarian Lima insurance mogul Ismael Carrera. It’s a sham marriage, but not in the way it seems: the gold-digger isn’t the old man’s housekeeper bride, Armida, but Ismael himself, desperate to wrestle his fortune away from his greedy, ungrateful sons.

Meanwhile, a thousand kilometres to the north, in the city of Piura, Sergeant Lituma, a survivor of Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes (1993), among other novels and stories, is visited by Felicito Yanaqué, the owner of a trucking company, who has received a letter demanding protection money. At first, Lituma tells Felicito that extortion is simply “the price of progress”, but he is soon training all “five senses” on the case.

Vargas Llosa wants to create a moral ecosystem in which the greed and corruption that typify 21st-century Peru are set against integrity, trust and imaginative freedom. But another, less exalted priority keeps on pushing through. Although Rigoberto, newly retired, resented being dragged into Ismael’s affairs when he could be “losing himself” in his art books, “getting emotional, growing sad”, the pleasures of painting prove somewhat limited. Looking at the work of Tamara de Lempicka, he becomes “ecstatic over these beautiful damsels decked out in low-cut, transparent dresses”. Thanks to George Grosz, he has fantasies in which he beheads naked women and then sodomises them with an enormous phallus.

Up in Piura, Lituma’s captain gives himself an incentive more powerful, if less exalted, than justice. “The day we arrest those thugs . . .” he tells his sergeant, “as there’s a God in heaven I’ll fuck my darling Señora Josefita up the ass and break her cherry and keep her shrieking all night long. Hooray for life, damn it!”

Just as Vargas Llosa’s morality-tale aspirations struggle to overcome the goodies’ predilection for anal-rape fantasy, so his desire to compose an expansive portrait of Peruvian society, complete with a cartography of its power structures, is scuppered by strange plotting. The only way he has arrived at a manuscript of social-novel heft is by giving sustained attention – ten chapters each – to a pair of scenarios concerned with self-made traditionalists, each protecting his money and his legacy against modern parasites. The effect is less Venn diagram/hall of mirrors/palimpsest than two versions of the same story welded, or stapled, together.

Repetition proves to be the novel’s default mode. The writer evident in these pages is a stranger to compression. Instead, a futile copiousness reigns, producing what Rigoberto, thinking about his wife, calls “incorrigible dawdling”. In a typical moment, Vargas Llosa violates a character’s point of view purely to add more detail: “He remained seated in the television room, not hearing the noises, the voices, the horns, the bustle of Calle Arequipa, or the mototaxi engines.”

A particularly crude bit of backstory is deemed worthy of a double airing. When Felicito reflects on reasons for resisting the extortionists, he recalls his father, who had “been able to lift himself out of poverty . . . worked like a mule . . . with no Sundays or holidays off, every day of the week and every month of the year . . . spent everything he earned . . . deprived himself of everything . . .” et cetera, et cetera. Later, on the slightest pretext, we get it all over again: “a very humble man . . . He never learned to read or write, he went barefoot most of his life . . . so that Felicito could go to school . . . Thanks to that illiterate sharecropper, Narihualá Transport existed.” (The translation from the Spanish, by Edith Grossman, is turgid and tone-deaf.)

Throughout the book, Vargas Llosa takes measures to protect himself against likely charges: “Didn’t these things only happen in soap operas?” “My God, what stories ordinary life devised . . . doubtless closer to Venezuelan, Brazilian, Colombian and Mexican soap operas than to Cervantes and Tolstoy.” But in order properly to insulate the book, he needed to scatter such apologies across virtually every page. When we read, “Her heart was pounding. ‘I’m fucked. I’m fucked. You did it to yourself, Mabel,’” we await a follow-up line noticing the odd resemblance between everyday thought processes and the writing of E L James. A similar policy might have been taken against the book’s images: “all kinds of ideas whirled around in Don Rigoberto’s head like the water in a fountain”, “he felt troubled and upset, as if he’d . . . drunk a glass of overly fermented chi-chi”. A description of Felicito’s secretary, “Josefita, of the broad hips, flirtatious eyes and low-cut blouses”, is crying out for a disclaimer about the resemblance of office life in Piura to the paintings of Tamara de Lempicka.

In accordance with literary by-laws stating that every novelist must derive at least one epigraph from Borges – a writer Vargas Llosa has praised for his “concision” – The Discreet Hero opens with the words: “Our beautiful task is to imagine there is a labyrinth and a thread.” But the relationship is crucial: one is no good without the other, and Vargas Llosa, in confusing his porny daydreams, blockbuster prose and stringy double plot for something altogether more intricate, has merely mummified the reader in balls of verbal yarn.

Leo Robson is the NS lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist