The Discreet Hero, by Mario Vargas Llosa: a crudely macho romp
Review: a lame-footed novel romp from a revered Nobel Laureate
Mario Varga Llosa. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
The Discreet Hero
Mario Vargas Llosa
There is nothing discreet about this leisurely, burlesque and ultimately polemical jaunt about greed, corruption and the sundry nasty stuff with which humans seek amusement. The Discreet Hero’s sole irony is contained in the title. It could have been called Bad Sons, but Peruvian master Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Laureate for Literature, storyteller and erstwhile presidential candidate, thought otherwise.
A trio of contrasting fathers make their respective ways through an earthy, convoluted narrative so weighted by plot clues, digressions and sexual innuendo that it quickly becomes clear that there is a rather small book trapped within its heaving excess. Be warned, it is possibly the longest, most lame-footed 326-page macho novel many of us will ever read.
Father number one, Félicito, is 55, a poor man made good, now comfortable thanks to the transport business he built through his hard work. He has a wife who is referred to throughout by her weight, her “bovine form”. She is the mother of their two sons. Lucky her. Her husband treats her with contempt and she accepts it; moving slowly, saying little.
Félicito, meanwhile, is far too busy with his modest empire and also paying court to his beautiful spoilt mistress, Mabel, who, in the eight years he has known her, has not gotten fat. Clever her. When not fawning over Mabel, defiant little Félicito (we know he is small because Vargas Llosa loves descriptions) is living by the mantra of his uneducated peasant father: “Never let anybody walk all over you, son. This advice is the only inheritance you’ll have.”
Those words dictate much of the action, such as it is. One thing is certain: Félicito not only listened to his father, he loved him. It appears that their relationship is the only real love in a novel preoccupied by sex. If there is a hero in this book, it can only be Félicito’s father.
As for Félicito’s own two sons, he believes he has them under control, his control. But the new wealth in Piura, located in the north of Peru, has introduced problems along with the new shopping malls.
Just when he is feeling that he owns the world, never mind the town, Félicito, while setting out for his office one morning, notices a letter attached to the front door. And as this is a most wordy novel, one must first ponder this: “Normally the mailman would slide a letter through the slot in the door”. The “old, studded” door, of course, has already been described.
The letter contains a demand for protection money. Its author suggests that it is wise to pay up and keep quiet. There is no signature. But the righteous Félicito marches off to the police station. In the absence of a photocopier, the lazy policeman sends Félicito off to get the demand Xeroxed. Our bantam storms out. The next letter, as before signed only by the drawing of a spider, brings him back to the station.
Marginally sympatheticAs the narrative lurches along in a quasi-comedic yarn about betrayal, the most successful interludes are those involving the police. Loud-mouthed Capt Silva contributes a vulgar energy all of his own. His sidekick, the slightly dim and depressed Sgt Lituma, potentially the lone, marginally sympathetic character in a crowded narrative of two-dimensional players, has memories of a former life that include a period in jail.
Sgt Lituma, who voices a heartfelt objection to an offensive speech made by Félicito late in the action, could have salvaged this oddly complacent book, but there is too much going on. None of which is all that compelling, although it is impossible to ignore or accept Félicito’s attitude to his wife.
As it is obvious who is behind the extortion threat and a subsequent kidnapping, the story saunters into another maze. This one features an elderly rich widower, Don Ismael Carrera, owner of an insurance company in Lima, some 1,000km south of Piura.
While on his recent deathbed (a false alarm) Don Ismael overheard his two scheming sons hoping that he would die and leave them all his wealth. Their hatred gave him the strength to recover and, apparently, the vigour to marry his housekeeper, a mere 38 years his junior. Ismael’s wedding requires witnesses and he decides to ask his old friend and employee, Rigoberto.
It soon becomes clear that yet again Vargas Llosa has summoned his most irritating creation, the smug lawyer first encountered in In Praise of the Stepmother (1988). Presented as a hedonist with an interest in erotica and the arts, Rigoberto is given to sexual fantasies. His son, Alfonso, may or may not have had an affair with his father’s second wife, Lucrecia. It does not really matter. Rigoberto then made a return appearance in The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (1997), in which he carefully notes everything that may or may not have happened.
In The Discreet Hero, the couple, still together, are preoccupied with the still growing and still beautiful Alfonso, now called Fonchito, who is having visions of a man who appears to be stalking him. It may be intended as a homage to Thomas Mann but it fails.
Fonchito, every inch his father’s son, appears to be another fantasist in the making, or perhaps he is simply a liar. The sexual banter of Rigoberto and Lucrecia is cloying, as are the crazy visions and endless discussions about Fonchito’s mental health.
With Ismael off in Europe with his much younger bride, about whom there are many snide, sexual gags about how she snared her wealthy man, the action becomes dominated by the danger he has left behind him. Rigoberto must deal with his friend’s evil sons, now intent on making it appear that their father was conned into the marriage.
Tough translationThere is a clever plot connection, a coincidence of Dickensian proportions which links the two main stories. It may seem far-fetched, but in a sprawling novel this ramshackle, why complain?
The prose is lumpy and the dialogue, dominated by abuse and gushy endearments, would cause any self-respecting actor to flee. Translator Edith Grossman was given an unenviable task: “Tiburcio looked like him, with the brown skin, straight black hair, and thin, slight build of his progenitor.”
Much of the narrative rotates awkwardly around themes of fathering, parenthood and concepts of honour and loyalty, even fair play. Venal corruption has replaced political oppression. It is a muddle, executed with robust glee by a revered writer of considerable power.
In a career begun with short stories, followed by an emphatic debut, The Time of the Hero (1963) Vargas Llosa has written 17 novels, many of them important, some of them extraordinary, such as The War at the End of the World (1981), and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984). He was also a sophisticated stylist as in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1973) and In Praise of the Stepmother. His passion for justice sustains his fiction and also feeds the curiosity which drew him towards Roger Casement and, eventually, The Dream of the Celt (2012).
Vargas Llosa, civil and urbane, did not meet his father until he was 10 years old. He has lived in complex times and has chronicled them well. Independently of his previous work, this novel, a bestseller in Spanish, is a disappointing, often crude, romp. But taken in the context of his career’s achievement, it is very trite indeed.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent