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 “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: firstname.lastname@example.org.