FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Fathers and Their Ungrateful Sons

How can you not admire a writer who—after he wins the Nobel Prize (2010), after he’s written twenty or so earlier books, after he’s supposedly reached his peak—writes still another gripping novel, reminiscent of his finest, earlier works? I’m talking about the Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, whose most recent novel, The Discreet Hero, superbly translated into English by Edith Grossman, has just been published in the United States. The complexity of the book, its multi-textured plot, its large cast of characters, its good cheer and humor, will remind many readers of several of Vargas Llosa’s earlier works, especially Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977).

This is not to say, however, that The Discreet Hero is not without its darker contours. In fact, much of the initial action in the story is menacing, troublesome, downright ugly. And this is true for both of the parallel threads of the novel. The first begins when Felícito Yanaqué, the owner of a successful transport company in Piura, opens his door one morning and discovers a letter attached to it. It’s a threat, a shakedown from extortionists, who say that if he doesn’t start paying them $500 a money for protection, he will regret it. Felícito, who is 55, immediately thinks of his poverty-stricken father’s dying words, “Never let anybody walk all over you, son. This advice is the only inheritance you’ll have.” Felícito will not give into their threats and trots off to the police immediately to tell them what has happened.

They turn out to be useless, so he also visits Adelaida, a friend of many, many years. She’s a woman with a small, run-down shop that Felícito doubts can generate much income. His eyes observe the details of the place: “silvery cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, the ancient shelves with packets of parsley, rosemary, coriander, and mint, and boxes of nails, screws, seeds, eyelets, and buttons, the prints and images of the Virgin, Christ, male and female saints, and holy men and women cut out of magazines and newspapers, some with lit candles in front of them and others with adornments—rosaries, amulets, and wax paper flowers.”

Felícito wonders how Adelaida can survive. He’s never observed another customer in her shop. He goes to her for advice or her discreethero“inspiration,” as she refers calls it, and her advice is that he should pay the monthly shakedown amount. But for the first time in his life, he doesn’t follow her advice and, shortly, his business is burned down. Felícito still refuses to pay, but he returns to the police, who—again—are not particularly helpful. Then, days later, Mabel, his much younger mistress is kidnapped. The extortionists are clearly not going to give up easily. Obviously, he fears that they may kill Mabel.

The second story of the two interwoven plots concerns eighty-year old Ismael Carrera, who is a widower and the owner of one of Peru’s most successful insurance companies. With no other warning, he calls up Don Rigoberto, his assistant of many years, and asks him if he can be a witness to his marriage to Armida, his much younger housekeeper. This is tricky because Ismael has two worthless sons who have repeatedly been in trouble yet still expect to inherit their father’s business once he dies. Worse, he overheard to two of them a couple of months earlier when he was in the hospital, when they expressed their hopes that their father would quickly die. Ismael has no intention of leaving his money to his ungrateful sons.

The wedding takes place, the honeymooners fly off to Europe for a month, and Ismael’s sons, Miki and Escobita threaten Rigoberto, telling him that his own retirement will be jeopardized if he doesn’t testify to the fact that their father is senile. They want their father’s marriage annulled, and their thuggery is not something that Rigoberto can ignore. Worse, he’s got a son, in his early teens, who believes that he is visited by the devil. The visitations are so concerning that Rigoberto and his wife insist that Fonchito be examined by doctors and priests. The priest who does not doubt the boy’s encounters tells his father that the boy is going through a powerful religious experience.

This is enough of a summary of the complex stories that—no surprise—eventually become interwoven. Felícito also has two grown sons, so the novel actually pursues the relationships of three fathers and their five troubled sons. The entire gambit of father/son relationships is presented, with Rigoberto and Fonchito’s being the most positively drawn. And, as you might expect, since Vargas Llosa’s novels are always rooted in the dynamics of contemporary Peruvian life, the composite picture of the country is one that is fast-moving, dangerously approaching instability, hinted about in an observation by one of Felícito’s friends of many years: “The earth is round, not square. Accept it and don’t try to straighten out the crooked world we live in. The gang’s very powerful, it’s infiltrated everywhere, beginning with the government and the judges. You’re really naïve to trust the police. It wouldn’t surprise me if the cops were in on it. Don’t you know what country we’re living in, compadre?”

All the fathers in The Discreet Hero have their dignity, their manhood restored by the end of the story, though that cannot be said of their sons. And although the three fathers are all candidates for the figure mentioned in the title, you’ll learn who that is only by reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s very, very clever novel.

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Discreet Hero

Trans. By Edith Grossman

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 326 pp., $26

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
Mairead Maguire
Demonization of Russia in a New Cold War Era
Dean Baker
The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessary
Wim Laven
Hurricane Trump, Season 2
Yves Engler
Smearing Dimitri Lascaris
Ron Jacobs
From ROTC to Revolution and Beyond
Clark T. Scott
The Cannibals of Horsepower
Binoy Kampmark
A Traditional Right: Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats
Laura Flanders
History Markers
Weekend Edition
September 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Obama’s Imperial Presidency
Joshua Frank
From CO2 to Methane, Trump’s Hurricane of Destruction
Jeffrey St. Clair
Maria’s Missing Dead
Andrew Levine
A Bulwark Against the Idiocy of Conservatives Like Brett Kavanaugh
T.J. Coles
Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Celebrity Salesman for the Military-Industrial-Complex
Jeff Ballinger
Nike and Colin Kaepernick: Fronting the Bigots’ Team
David Rosen
Why Stop at Roe? How “Settled Law” Can be Overturned
Gary Olson
Pope Francis and the Battle Over Cultural Terrain
Nick Pemberton
Donald The Victim: A Product of Post-9/11 America
Ramzy Baroud
The Veiled Danger of the ‘Dead’ Oslo Accords
Kevin Martin
U.S. Support for the Bombing of Yemen to Continue
Robert Fisk
A Murder in Aleppo
Robert Hunziker
The Elite World Order in Jitters
Ben Dangl
After 9/11: The Staggering Economic and Human Cost of the War on Terror
Charles Pierson
Invade The Hague! Bolton vs. the ICC
Robert Fantina
Trump and Palestine
Daniel Warner
Hubris on and Off the Court
John Kendall Hawkins
Boning Up on Eternal Recurrence, Kubrick-style: “2001,” Revisited
Haydar Khan
Set Theory of the Left
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail