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THE DISCREET HERO by Mario Vargas Llosa

by Nora Rawn

image Money, religion, sex, intrigue: Mario Vargas Llosa delivers all of these in his new novel, The Discreet Hero (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), as befits a Nobel prize-winning author who stated at the beginning of his career that he wants to create “total novels.” Set both in the provincial Northern town of Piura and the bustling capital of Lima, its main characters operate in milieus that are wildly different and yet share a central concern: how to protect their successful businesses from existential threats.

Felicito Yanaqué, the novel’s besieged heart, was born in abject poverty and rose out of it on the labors of his untiring father, who imparted only one piece of wisdom to his only child: ”Never let anyone walk over you, son. This advice is the only inheritance you’ll have.” Felicito profited from his father’s example, and builds a well-respected transport company by heeding it. So when he receives an extortion note demanding protection money, acquiescing is an impossibility, no matter the consequences. He reports the threat to the police (including Sergeant Lituma from the 1966 novel The Green House and 1993’s Death in the Andes, who continues to be woefully out of his depth) and stands firm even as the criminals go so far as to set a fire at his office and to kidnap his younger mistress, Mabel. Despite the toll the situation takes on his health, Felicito is incapable of compromise. As his story spreads in Piura, he becomes infamous in the town as a lone symbol of resistance against an increasingly criminal society.

Meanwhile in Lima, the widowed insurance magnate Ismael Carrera becomes the center of an even greater public spectacle upon marrying his housekeeper and disinheriting his two sons, known locally as “the hyenas”. He does so in the utmost secrecy, enlisting as witnesses only his trusted driver and his employee Don Rigoberto, from The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (1998).  Following the ceremony, Ismael and his new wife Armida leave the country immediately on their honeymoon, leaving the hyenas behind to file for an annulment on grounds of senility. Dissipate and greedy, they have already spent the early inheritance settled on them and are furious at the idea of being shut out from the estate. Armed with a team of lawyers, they bring accusations of Ismael’s senility before the press and attempt to bribe and torment Don Rigoberto into testifying to Ismael’s incompetence. Armida ends up at the center of this dispute after Ismael’s sudden death, ultimately fleeing to her home town of where else but Piura to escape the attention.

Amidst these two unfolding dramas, Don Rigoberto’s teenaged son Fonchito begins telling strange tales of a man named Edilberto Torres, who constantly appears next to Fonchito as he goes about his life in Lima: now materializing on the bus, now on the school bleachers. Edilberto knows a great deal about Fonchito, but his own identity is a mystery. His appearances seems to change Fonchito’s character, driving the boy further inward, and yet when physiatrists and even priests are consulted they agree that Fonchito is exceptionally well balanced, concurring that the teen is neither lying about Edilberto’s existence nor in the grip of a hallucination. The dual trials of Fonchito’s mysterious acquaintance and the hyenas’ persistent attacks rob Don Rigoberto of his pleasure in life.

Indeed, the sons depicted in the novel are almost universally harbingers of strife. Ismael’s bold re-marriage is almost solely motivated by an urge to prevent his reprobate offspring from inheriting his company or his wealth, while Felicito’s troubles all stem from the machinations of his eldest son, who he raised as his own despite the fact that another man was clearly the child’s father. Even Fonchito’s perfect manners and emotional maturity do not keep him from being a constant worry to Don Rigoberto, albeit on rather different grounds than in Notebooks. The trials and tribulations caused by this new generation reflect a larger uneasiness about modern Peru, from its newly scandal-mongering 24-hour media to the increased opportunism and lawlessness that has come with the rising fortunes of the country’s urban centers.

Next to these trappings of the modern era, the equally destabilizing element of faith looms. Neither Felicito nor Don Rigoberto are themselves believers, but they still devote a great deal of attention to the spiritual world. Felicito has for decades relied upon the “inspirations” of his good friend Adelaida, a mix between a witch and a healer who sometimes receives premonitions, despite the fact that she is generally suspicious of tales of saintly visions. Without pretending to know their provenance, Felicito has always followed the advice of these insights.  His position recalls that of Sergeant Lituma in Death in the Andes, who was equally unable to rule out the power of spirits in the high sierra. Don Rigoberto too is drawn to engage with unworldly speculations. The visitations of Edilberto Torres drive him to his copy of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, searching for clues that Torres is none other than the devil. An old school friend of his seems to suspect, to the contrary, that Torres may be an angel; or perhaps after all he is only a product of an over-active, even malicious, imagination. The novel ends on a wink that leaves open all of these possibilities without settling on any of them.

Even the biographical details of such recurring characters as Sergeant Lituma and Don Rigoberto have an unsettled feel. While recognizably themselves, some aspects of their past bear more of a general than an exact resemblance to the details given in previous books. Dialogue in the novel also causes a constant sense of dislocation. Interrogations about conversations held earlier are interspersed with the conversation at issue, with no demarcation between what was said earlier and how it is being retold in the framing scene. Unlike in the overtly magical work of Vargas Llosa’s contemporary Garcia Marquez, however, the line between what the reader can trust and what should be discounted is always hazy. Vargas Llosa creates a world that is immediately recognizable, only to shift the goalposts when the narrative begins to be comfortable and familiar. Without compromising on the plot, he indicates that there is more happening here than the simple mechanics of a whodunit.

In some ways, this is an explicitly moral novel, albeit a very humorous one, engaged with fundamental questions about what constitutes acceptable behavior and highlighting how rare it is for someone to behave with principles in a world that pushes for expedience and holds money and power superior to all else. Gray areas proliferate even within this framework, however, from the complicated dynamics of Felicito’s marriage, supported by duty rather than love and laced through with deception on both sides, to Ismael’s intent vengefulness against his sons, which may even contribute to his early death. Vargas Llosa judges his characters, it seems, not by their private acts, which are motivated by a blend of good and bad but should be understood rather than castigated, but rather by their public actions.

The implicit critique of society that comes from selecting Felicito and Ismael (and perhaps even Don Rigobertio to a degree) as “discreet heros” overlaps with the more sadistic vision of the recent Argentinian film Wild Tales, which depicts a culture gone off the rails and starkly divided between the wealthy and the poor, where the demands of life can be enough to cause a kind of temporary insanity and malaise. Europe and its civilized cultural centers appear to Don Rigoberto and Ismael as an escape from this climate (perhaps modeled after their largely expatriate creator), a belief Armida picks up after Ismael’s sudden death and even imposes upon her sister and brother-in-law, none other than Felicito, but it’s hard to be sanguine in the world of Vargas Llosa. He excels at creating an atmosphere of unease—even if it is an unease by turns jocular, earthy and cultured—and the reader of The Discreet Hero can expect to find their assumptions and complacency challenged.

Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” He has been awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s most distinguished literary honor. His many works include The Feast of the Goat, The Bad Girl, and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

Edith Grossman has translated the works of the Nobel laureates Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez, in addition to Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. 



Nora Rawn works in publishing and lives in Brooklyn.