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