Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Discreet Hero (2015) is one of the most readable and among his more optimistic novels in recent years, though his own claim that it is his “most optimistic novel” is a bit of an overstretch. The optimism may have more to do with Llosa’s winning the Nobel Prize in 2009, for one cannot ignore that a deep pessimism is instrumental in building the plot of this novel.
In his style familiar to his avowed readers, there are two alternating stories in the novel revolving around three sets of fathers and sons, sucked into a grim vortex of blackmail, threats and intimidation. Two stories of intrigues that are as fast moving as a soap opera and keep the reader glued to the pages, follow.
While the life stories of each of the men are different in many ways, what unites them is the disappointment that their sons turn out to be. The optimism of the hard-working fathers is offset by the pessimism of their descendants. The perceived optimism is limited to that of the two businessmen fathers enriched during Peru’s neoliberal upturn in the 1990s.
Two of the fathers — Felicito Yanaque and Don Ismael Carerra — are businessmen. The third, Don Rigoberto, is a senior employee in Ismael’s insurance company. Felicito, a cholo (term for indigenous people who have adopted some aspects of the Spanish culture), is the self-made owner of a transport company while Don Ismael has inherited the company from his father. The sons, pitted against their fathers, turn out to be rather flat characters. About the two fathers themselves, other than standing up to the violent assaults launched by their “enemies,” there’s little that is heroic while Don Rigoberto is given to hedonism, like in another novel where he makes his appearance (The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto).
Optimism- pessimism axis
The optimism- pessimism dichotomy plays out differently in the case of Don Rigoberto and his son Fonchito. Fonchito is constantly engaged in meetings and discussions with the imaginary Edilberto Torres, who seems to be the father’s alter ego with whom Fonchito can engage in conversation, unlike Don Rigoberto who is disengaged from his son and lives in a space that he has created for himself.
In an illuminating soliloquy in the middle of the book, Don Rigoberto ruminates on his life:
In this country, not even a tiny space of civilization can be built”, he concluded, “In the end barbarism demolishes everything.
Having decided in his youth to continue to live in Lima, instead of emigrating, he has tried to build “a citadel of civilization to resist the ongoing assault of the instinctive, violent, obtuse, ugly, destructive, bestial force that dominated the world.”
As in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, to which there are references, Don Rigoberto trades his soul for carving out this little space of civilisation. The true self thus appears in the form of Torres who disappears only when Don Rigoberto is absolved of his professional and personal responsibilities towards his lifelong employer and is on his way to a retirement vacation in Europe, towards his long-postponed tryst with civilisation as it were.
Flawed fathers and the discreet heroes
It’s difficult to see any of the fathers as exemplary heroes, and even less as discreet ones.
Yanaque, an old man maintaining a young mistress, pays scant attention to his wife, while the widower Ismael marries his housekeeper forty years younger to him. Yanaque forces his older son, whom he suspects of not being his son at all, to join military service. Ismael seems to have little interest in bringing up his two sons. Don Rigoberto is practically cut off from his teenage son. There is no indication that the fathers have been upright or honest businessmen either.
If there is one, the real and particularly discreet hero it is Yanaque’s father, a poor landless farmer who gave only this advice by way of an inheritance to his son: “A man shouldn’t let anybody walk all over him in this life.” This is what inspires Yanaque to resist the extortionists who send him threats and follow them up by burning his office and kidnapping his mistress.
The other character who shines in a brief appearance is the honest and well meaning, but also somewhat dim-witted and comic policeman, Lituma. The women characters have little role, other than as sexual partners to the men. Some of the descriptions are rather masochistic.
Cities, twists, impossible coincidences
The novel builds on another dichotomy, between the big city Lima and the small town Puira, separated by the former’s Westernised and white character in contrast to Puira’s cholo culture. There is also a difference in the language that is sought to be communicated in English, even if in a limited manner, by the use of the phrase translated as “waddaya think” used by Puirians.
These two cities are gripped by events that are eerily similar, and ultimately intertwined. Perhaps the former right wing Presidential candidate Llosa imagines that the forces of instant communication and globalisation are working towards creating a “flat” world.
Long-time readers of Llosa’s works will recognise some of the characters from previous novels (like Don Rigoberto and his wife Lucrecia, their renamed son Fonchito, Lituma) as well as some techniques from Llosa’s oeuvre used in previous works that are executed with remarkable felicity. This includes conversations that move across different characters in time and space, representing how actually a person thinks or how moments are lived.
Llosa is at his best in keeping the reader guessing for more than the first half of the book. Around a 100 pages before the end, in the eternal battle between the writer and the reader, the reader emerges with a complacent smirk as the story loses steam like a soap opera that has outlived its story. Some of the coincidences that tie the two stories together are hard to believe. But while it lasts, the entertaining alacrity of the novel is reminiscent of some of Llosa’s finest works, notably the hilarious Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Thematically, it is one of the weaker works by the Peruvian novelist of the Boom generation who has outlived his contemporaries. Edith Grossman’s translation is, as usual, impeccable.
This review first appeared at DNA.