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The Claims of Mischief

In Evil Hour, begun in 1956, abandoned for a while, then finished in 1961, is a novel which belongs to the period of García Márquez’s idolatry of the cinema. It doesn’t have the verve or the tone or the narrative invention of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it does have other virtues. It is intensely visualized, as befits García Márquez’s beliefs at the time, and it has pieces of dialogue which would be a credit to any movie, but especially those Hollywood movies where a delicate edge of parody is what keeps the nightmare away. Every shape is a little too clear and the book moves toward travesty: a comic version of what William Empson called a style learned from despair, except that here the style is in the way you avert your face, turn away from the despair you would see if you looked.

The stories collected in No One Writes to the Colonel stem from the same time and portray the same imagined world as In Evil Hour. One of them even duplicates an event in the novel, the encounter of the mayor—a military man—and the dentist of a small tropical town. “This is where you pay for the twenty men you killed, lieutenant,” the dentist says, “without rancor, rather with a bitter tenderness,” as he tugs at an offending tooth, extracted without an anaesthetic.

In Evil Hour shows us the same mayor going to the same dentist, presumably to have the same tooth pulled, but we now understand much more about their relationship. The mayor has imposed the rule of the government party in the town by means of murder and terror, and the dentist is the only known supporter of the opposition who was not scared away—although his house was raked by bullets and he had to move his office to an inner room. The mayor, once again, is not given an anaesthetic, but the dentist remarks this time, “You people killed without anaesthesia.” Nothing is said about bitter tenderness, and here it is rather the mayor who keeps up humanity’s end by offering a splendid, unruffled joke. The dentist, checking the mayor’s mouth later in the book, finds a few cavities, and asks him to come in, so that he can see whether his wish to have the mayor die in his house comes true. The mayor smiles, spreads his arms, and says, “It won’t. My teeth are above party politics.” The line belongs to an extravagant movie Hollywood never made, and the interesting thing is that the political realities of the town are asserted rather than diminished or denied by the gag.

The town of In Evil Hour is reached by river, waits anxiously for launches to bring it news and goods and entertainment from the outside world. A woman taking the boat out is thought of as returning to reality—she had not heard of the town until she saw its name on a slip of paper picked from a hat when schoolteachers’ posts were being allocated. Aureliano Buendía, a major character in One Hundred Years of Solitude, spent a night on the balcony of the town’s rickety hotel, on his way back to Macondo after a civil war. We meet the town’s doctor, its rich widows, its clerks, its policemen, its poor, its worried husbands, its servants, its amorous ladies. We meet the priest, wearily trying to hold up failing morals; the barber, ready to conspire against the mayor at the first chance he gets; the judge, who appears in his office for the first time eleven months after he has been appointed—he has been daunted, quite reasonably, by the fate of his predecessor, blown to pieces while leaning back in his swivel chair. The rains come to the town, there is flooding, a dead cow, bloated, floats downstream. A circus arrives; movies are shown. Meals are eaten.

The town is living through a political truce. “The opposition has guarantees,” the mayor tells the dentist, “and still you go on thinking like a conspirator.” The dentist doesn’t answer, except to say, “Rinse your mouth out with fenugreek water.” The mayor is getting rich, and now needs peace to get richer. “We’re trying to build a decent town,” he says, and a poor woman sharply replies, “This was a decent town before you people came.” The concrete walls of the barracks are still “spattered with dry blood and bullet holes,” and in this context even the mayor’s jokes have a sinister ring. “We’re living in a democracy,” he says, as he takes down a sign in the barber’s shop. “Here the only one who has the right to prohibit anything is the government.” But the mayor, to make a distinction hardly applicable anywhere except in this novel and in Western movies, is only a murderer, not a villain. Or rather, he is no more a villain than the town itself, which rejoices, when the truce breaks, in the promised return of chaos and slaughter. The town experiences “a feeling of collective victory in the confirmation that was in everyone’s consciousness: things hadn’t changed.” The mayor’s past is ugly, his present motive is greed, but his current actions are mostly laudable. Certainly there are no grounds for celebration in the town’s return to its old ways.

What ends the truce? A scourge of lampooning wall posters, gossip daubed in blue ink and stuck up at night all over town, purveying tales of infidelities and abortions and swindles. They seem to say what everybody says, if not what everybody knows. They contain no surprises, but they advertise scandal, and they bother everyone likely to be bothered by such publicity. A man is killed by a jealous husband, the priest worries, nagged by the town’s respectable ladies, and the mayor imposes a curfew. That is when people begin to feel the old days are coming back. The mayor’s bullies kill a prisoner, shooting breaks out, men start to leave the town to join the guerrillas in the jungle. And still the invisible lampoonist continues his trivial, ruinous work, as if he had nothing to do with any of this.

As in one sense he doesn’t. García Márquez proposes a quite different chain of causality. The dentist, troubled by the political and moral implications of having pulled a tooth for the mayor, begins once again to pass around clandestine fliers. The prisoner who is killed was arrested for distributing these fliers, and the shooting occurs because guns have been discovered beneath the floor of the barber’s shop. The writer may be hesitating with his subject here, unsure which way to push it. However, the kinship between the lampoons and fliers seems clear enough, and the relation of both of them to the writing of fiction seems hard to miss.

If lampoons and/or fliers serve to turn back a perhaps reprehensible progress, and if the writer sees himself as engaged in some such enterprise, however many qualifications he might wish to attach to the parallel, then In Evil Hour represents not the claims of the imagination, as Vargas Llosa suggests in his study of García Márquez, but the claims of mischief, the possible usefulness of making a disturbance. I think the claims of mischief are serious, but they do imply an optimism about our capacity for learning from disturbances which I suspect García Márquez doesn’t have. Certainly the fate of the town in this book is not encouraging, and this puts the writer-lampoonist in an awkward position. One of the attractive aspects of the book is that it does not try to hide this awkwardness. It ends with a sentence which is finished by the person who is speaking it, but not heard by us. What it says, presumably, is that the lampoons are still appearing, but the silence leaves us alone with the writer, blue ink all over his meddling hands.

People go to the movies in Vargas Llosa’s The Cubs and Other Stories, but the book itself evokes other books rather than films. Not because it makes allusions or seems derivative, but because it aspires so transparently to literature, conjures up so clearly the decorous company of sensitive, intelligent, well-written texts it wishes to join. Vargas Llosa himself, in an engaging and modest preface written for this translation, says the book is derivative, attributes one story to the influence of Paul Bowles, and calls another “an out-of-tune echo of Malraux’s novel Man’s Hope.” “I liked Faulkner,” he says, “but I imitated Hemingway.” “These stories owe a great deal to that legendary figure, who came to Peru just at that time….”

But the most interesting feature of the preface, and in one sense of the book, is its picture of the writer as reader.

I read on buses and in classrooms [Vargas Llosa says], in offices and on the street, in the midst of noise and people, standing still or walking, just so long as there was a little light…. I remember some exploits: The Brothers Karamazov read in one Sunday; that white night with the French version of Henry Miller’s Tropics, which a friend had lent me for a few hours; my astonishment at the first novels by Faulkner that fell into my hands.

With a few changes of title Vargas Llosa could, I take it, be speaking for Fuentes or Donoso or Puig or García Márquez or many other contemporary Latin American writers, and this is a fact that needs to be set beside all the movie going and delight in the movies. These novelists were the first generation on their continent, I think, to have read so voraciously in so thoroughly international a manner—and to have slighted, relatively, the French and Spanish literature which seemed to be their inheritance. Faulkner, Joyce, and Kafka are the crucial figures here, and I suspect that most of these Latin American writers read these modern masters as they read the movies: with passion and pleasure and surprise and curiosity—but without piety. So that Joyce, for example, could become a companion and a challenge, rather than a chore or a monument or a career.

The Cubs and Other Stories is an early work, a young man’s book. The title piece, a novella, was written when Vargas Llosa was twenty-nine, but the other six stories were written when he was between seventeen and twenty-one. It is a young man’s book in another sense. It is about youth; about the fights and hesitations and prejudices that go with growing up in the closed world of a school or a neighborhood or a farm or a familiar city. Only the young have such moments, as Conrad said. There is a story, called “The Leaders,” about a failed school strike which is really a personal battle between the strike’s competing organizers. Another story depicts a rivalry for a girl which sends two boys out to ride the Pacific surf in a wintry mist, where they almost drown in cold and terror; another shows a boy coming home to a harsh and bigoted country life, and learning how to assert himself against his older brother. These scenes and quarrels are rendered sharply and economically, with impressive professional skill. But nothing means more than it says—a virtue, of course, as García Márquez says of the concentration on images in film, but also a limitation.

The novella in the collection, “The Cubs,” is more ambitious. A boy is savaged and emasculated by an angry dog, and Vargas Llosa became interested, he says, in that “strange wound that, in contrast to others, time would open rather than close.” The boy grows up, passes through adolescence into adult life, getting more and more unhappy, desperate when his pals have girlfriends, miserable when he himself falls briefly in love. He leaves Lima, loses touch with his old chums, who hardly speak to him when he returns to visit:

…we hardly said hello, what’s new kid, how are you P. P., what’s up old boy, so-so, ciao, and he had already come back to Miraflores, crazier than ever, and he had already killed himself, going up north, how? in a crack-up, where? on one of those treacherous curves at Pasamayo, poor guy, we said at the funeral, how much he suffered, what a life he had…

His friends meanwhile have settled down, have wives and children, are getting fat, wearing glasses, worrying about age spots and wrinkles.

There is a certain shallowness in the work, a failure to find the depths the subject seemed to promise. The boy’s difficulty never acquires a psychological face, seems to remain a problem of engineering. We don’t see who he is or how he feels, we see what he has lost: a manhood that is, oddly, both too particular and too abstract. But then this is perhaps a reason for the success of the novella’s remarkable collective narrative, briefly illustrated in the above passage, the voice of the boy’s old gang, alternating between tenses and idioms, and between first and third person (“They were wearing long pants by then, we slicked our hair with tonic, and they had grown…”). The gang can’t really imagine a man without a member, so the story can’t either. The boy parades the unthinkable through their lives, a ruined monster, and their lives thus become the true subject of the fiction: normality, the proper sequence of aging, doing what others do.

The technical bravura of the piece—“I wanted ‘The Cubs’ to be a story more sung than told,” Vargas Llosa says, “and, therefore, each syllable was chosen as much for musical as for narrative reasons”—serves to create a community, a universe of shared hopes and assumptions and styles, the happiest time of a life. It is not the happiest time of the wounded boy’s life, but his exclusion is what convinces us of the happiness of the others: that is why we feel so sorry for him, and for them when they turn into dreary men. What the boy has missed is not adult sexuality, but the long magical moment of passage toward it, youth itself. Only the young have such moments; and some of them have no moments at all.

Captain Pantoja and the Special Service is a lighter, later work first published in Spanish in 1973. Both the Spanish and the English blurbs describe it as a farce. It concerns Pantaleon Pantoja, a captain in the Peruvian army much admired for his administrative capacities and his unblinking solemnity. Pantoja is given the task of organizing a brothel-service for some of the further-flung outposts of Peruvian military vigilance, since the desperate soldiers in these steamy spots have taken to violating the wives, mothers, daughters, and servants of the locals. Pantoja, an industrious, unsung pimp for the fatherland, does very well until his operations become entangled with the activities of a religious sect which has started crucifying people.

The central joke is rather laborious, and returns us, in a disturbing way, to the title story of “The Cubs.” Instead of a monstrous absence of virility we have here an exuberant masculine rampage, but the subject is still sexual power. Captain Pantoja recalls Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochemerle, or any one of a dozen other French fantasies about rural paradises of the libido; and I wonder, hesitating about being a damp old spoilsport, whether grievous sexual worries do not regularly hide behind such emphatic jollity on the subject of sex.

Nevertheless, the technical high jinks of Captain Pantoja are very appealing. Vargas Llosa uses a quickfire, unlikely dialogue which seems to come from Queneau, amasses piles of mock reports and requests supposedly passed between various branches of the army; he imitates newspapers, letters, and generally conjures up a universe of documents which resembles that of Manuel Puig. But for Puig the space between death and a coroner’s report, say, is usually a space of pain and pathos, while for Vargas Llosa, at least in this book, the gaps between reality and language are comic—indeed they provide the fun that the plot of the novel can’t quite deliver. Here, for example, is a lieutenant Santena reporting to his superiors on the brothel service’s first trial-run:

Following Pantoja’s instructions, a guard patrol was immediately set up to prevent any civilian element from approaching the post during the pilot experiment—really a quite unlikely danger if you keep in mind that the closest town to Horcones is a Quechua Indian village two days upstream on the Napo River…. In regard to the four female recruits, whose appearance on the gangplank was greeted with rounds of applause from the troops, they answered to the following names (the four refused to divulge their surnames): Lalita, Iris, Knockers and Sandra…. At exactly 1700 hours…the twenty users were ordered into formation and asked to indicate the woman of their choice, thus engendering the first serious difficulty, due to the fact that eighteen of the twenty resolutely indicated their preference for the so-called Knockers and the remaining two for Iris, which left the other two women without candidate-users….

The model here, as for Puig, is Joyce—the Joyce who could describe an execution as if it were the World’s Fair, and a tin of sardines as if it were a miracle encountered by Mandeville on his travels. Between the event or object and its portrayal in language arises the drama (or farce) of representing the world. Large-bosomed girls can be evoked in all kinds of words, but the perfect, official poverty of “the so-called Knockers” has its own charm, since it forces us to imagine the girl behind the jargon. It is in this way that playfulness and formal experiment, even when they are a bit ponderous, as they are in Captain Pantoja, may lead us back to a reality which more earnest and plausible forms of realism have got into the habit of losing.

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