14 de març de 2015

Mario Vargas Llosa’s ‘Discreet Hero’

[The New York Times, 13 march 2015]

Francisco Goldman


When I think of the writers I adored in my 20s, during the 1970s and ’80s, it almost makes me think that winning the Nobel Prize in Literature must not be so hard, because nearly every one of them has won it: García Márquez, Bellow, Morrison, Coetzee, Naipaul, Grass and, in 2010, the youngest and only surviving member of the Latin American “boom,” Mario Vargas Llosa. I mention this not to pitch myself as a reliable Nobel handicapper but to point out the futility of ascribing any politically correct left-wing bias to the Swedish Academy, since at least three of those favorites — Bellow, Naipaul and Vargas Llosa — are about as politically correct as Margaret Thatcher. All three have been identified with the cultural and political right, none more so than Vargas Llosa, who ran seriously for the presidency of Peru and who to this day is probably, partly through the opinion columns he publishes in Spain’s El País, the Spanish language’s most prominent conservative intellectual.
In the life outside the one I inhabit when reading novels (often carelessly referred to as “reality”), I’ve sometimes been infuriated by Vargas Llosa’s published political incursions, and sometimes uplifted. But none of that matters when I pick up a new Vargas Llosa novel. The title of his latest, “The Discreet Hero,” refers to not one but two of its central characters, who appear in nearly alternating chapters, living in distant Peruvian cities. Felícito Yanaqué is the up-by-the-bootstraps founder of a transportation company in the provincial city of Piura. Don Rigoberto — a sophisticated hedonist who has featured in two previous Vargas Llosa novels — is the successful manager of a major Lima insurance firm owned by his longtime friend, the octogenarian Ismael Carrera. Both Felícito and Don Rigoberto are beneficiaries of a Peru awash in rising prosperity, its politics stable and democratic. “These are good times for Piura and for Peru. . . . I hope they last, knock wood,” one character tells his cousin, Sergeant Lituma (also reappearing from earlier Vargas Llosa novels), who has returned to the formerly raffish neighborhood of his youth — its “chaos” and brothel bars now replaced by “straight, parallel streets . . . respectable . . . colorless” — in search of a dangerous suspect. Lituma, a policeman who has “never asked anybody for a single bribe,” has found his cousin’s thriving auto repair shop built on the very spot where the family’s humble house used to stand.
Vargas Llosa, in interviews, has called “The Discreet Hero” his most optimistic novel. In contemporary Peru, even the residents of Lituma’s boyhood slum can thrive so long as they work hard. But as the policeman’s presence indicates, these aren’t good times for everybody. Evil acts and crime, even violence, threaten Felícito and Don Rigoberto. “This is one of the important functions of literature: to remind men and women that however firm the ground that they walk on appears to be, and however brightly the city that they live in shines, there are demons lurking everywhere” — that sentence, from Vargas Llosa’s admiring essay on Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” could equally reflect on “The Discreet Hero.”
Both Felícito and Don Rigoberto are being extorted. Felícito receives notes signed with the symbol of a spider, demanding he pay $500 a month in protection money or face the consequences. Don Rigoberto, meanwhile, faces a more complicated but equally menacing racket. His boss, the widower Ismael, has married his much younger housekeeper and gone to Europe. He says the relationship rejuvenates him. But Ismael has also acted out of “rancor toward the hyenas,” his decadent and dangerous playboy twin sons, who he suspects wish him dead so they can inherit his fortune. Because Don Rigoberto was a witness at the marriage, the twins want him to testify that their father was manipulated and not competent. With their lawyers, they are holding up Don Rigoberto’s longed-for early retirement and a planned trip to Europe with his wife, even threatening him with invented accusations of defrauding their father’s company.
“The Discreet Hero” isn’t solely a detective story. As with the cast, the novel has fun reuniting genres we associate with Vargas Llosa. Here are traces of the “total novel” that seeks to represent an entire society, along the lines of “Conversation in the Cathedral,” one of Vargas Llosa’s great masterpieces, an intense, complex, thrillingly alive, darkly political novel of Peru at a time when it didn’t inspire much optimism in anybody. “The Discreet Hero” includes often hilarious echoes of the playful erotic novels — think Gomez and Morticia Addams, but hornier — that featured Don Rigoberto and his second wife, Lucrecia, the sexy stepmother seduced by the demonic, beautiful young Fonchito, Rigoberto’s son from his first marriage. Here too are echoes, though less comic, of the soap opera melodrama of “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.” For most of this novel Vargas Llosa blends these disparate elements skillfully, with his familiar windmilling style. The book is often funny; you turn the pages with relish; it offers up plenty to think about and admire; for most of its length it immerses you in the way you hope any novel will immerse you. Of course a lot of this book’s drive and wonderful verbal energy in English are attributable to what is clearly a superior translation on the part of Edith Grossman, the admired translator of many Spanish-language greats.
Yet as its title implies, “The Discreet Hero” is also a kind of moral fable, suggesting it may have a didactic purpose. It asks what makes for a discreet hero, or for two of them. Felícito is a cholo, raised by his peasant father, spending his whole life “working like a slave, never taking a vacation.” We understand this is a trait we should admire, and of course we do. Felícito also has a nearly mystical side, with a mulatta friend who dispenses ambiguous prophecies that always come true while also signaling looming plot developments. “Human beings, each of us, are chasms filled with shadows,” a priest in the novel remarks, and Felícito certainly has shadows. He has reason to doubt his white-skinned oldest son is really his own. And he regards his dutiful lowborn wife as “a piece of furniture.” Meanwhile he has fallen in love with Mabel, young enough to be his daughter. She’s the kind of prostitute, or semi-prostitute — the distinction matters, in this novel — who “had to feel at least some affection for the man, and also had to get the goods.” Felícito weeps when they finally make love: “Until now I didn’t know what it meant to feel pleasure, I swear.” He buys Mabel a small house and opens a bank account for her.
Felícito refuses the extortionists’ demands and even taunts them with an open letter in the newspaper. He is risking his life. His sons protest they don’t want him to die; they don’t seem to consider that he is placing their own lives in danger too. Felícito tells Mabel: “I’ll never pay an extortionist. Not even if they kill me or the thing I love most in this world, which is you.”
Don Rigoberto likewise stands up to Ismael’s sons, though it threatens “his plans for a joyful retirement rich in material, intellectual and artistic pleasures.” The reader understands that the twins represent one of the most reprehensible phenomena of Latin American culture: privileged white youths who commit as many crimes as they want, shielded by wealth and social position. They are very bad sons, another of the novel’s themes.
“The Discreet Hero” plays out without excessive exploitation of that most annoying feature of crime fiction, the withholding of information. Yet the last third is a disappointment, as Vargas Llosa’s narrative exuberance yields to his didactic intentions. I know we are supposed to admire Felícito for standing up to the extortionists — except I live in a part of the world, Mexico, where people who did that would guarantee their own and probably their loved ones’ violent deaths. How realistic does a novel have to be to resonate realistically outside its setting? Economically and politically, Mexico, along with most of Central America, is not a region that anybody feels optimistic about right now. But nobody goes to a novel for a rebuke of Thomas Piketty’s economic theories. I do wish more of this book had been devoted to the redoubtable Sergeant Lituma. I have a feeling this isn’t his last appearance in a Vargas Llosa novel, and I look forward to his return.
THE DISCREET HERO
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by Edith Grossman
326 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26. 




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