The Passions of Vargas Llosa

The Discreet Hero

by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 326 pp., $26.00
Mario Vargas Llosa, Lima, Peru, October 1994
Jonathan Becker/Contact Press Images
Mario Vargas Llosa, Lima, Peru, October 1994

Even among his extraordinary generation of Latin American literary figures, Mario Vargas Llosa has had an unusually prodigious career. He is nine years younger than his most famous contemporary, Gabriel García Márquez, yet his first two novels had an electrifying effect on Latin American literature when García Márquez was still searching for the style that would plunge him into what he called a “frenzy of renown.”

Vargas Llosa had already experienced that frenzy in Peru. His biting first novel, The Time of the Hero (1963), about his years as a student at Lima’s premier military academy, provoked cadets to make a bonfire of its pages and several generals to charge him with being paid by the government of Ecuador to humiliate the Peruvian army. The Green House (1966), a dizzying Faulknerian concoction about a whorehouse on the outskirts of the provincial Peruvian city of Piura, employs a complicated, time-shifting technique that makes past and present part of a single simultaneous consciousness. Two characters will be engaged in a conversation, for example, during which thoughts, experiences, and prior conversations that relate to the current one are provoked in the characters’ minds. As the scene unfolds, these associations stitch into a unified narrative account. It’s a difficult, supremely modernist technique that Vargas Llosa has used throughout his career. When successful, it allows him to present a more or less seamless stream of concurrent realities and to bypass the cumbersome formality of flashbacks.

His social lens is wide, encompassing cholos (as the mixed-blood Indians of Peru are disparagingly called), businessmen, aristocrats, pimps, revolutionaries, foreigners, convicts, politicians, and artists in intertwining tales. His writing about Peru can be bitter, tinged with history’s cruelty: in The Green House, young Indian girls, kidnapped into a convent, chatter their teeth like “timid maquisapa monkeys when they are put in a cage.”

Fanaticism, social desperation, power, and sex are the main concerns of his fiction. The Feast of the Goat (2000), his novel about the thirty-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, is a scorching study of the psychology of state terror when it is embodied in a single man.1 From Chile to Cuba the cult of the caudillo with absolute power infected Latin America for much of the twentieth century. In The Feast of the Goat, Trujillo becomes emblematic of that caudillo. The effect is felt not only in imprisonments and paramilitary squads, in disappearances and torture, but also in the way the caudillo affects the psyche of his countrymen, colonizing their very way of thinking, giving rise to a dwarfing sense that the caudillo is always present, like a child’s unvanquishable parent.

Among the symptoms is the sense of shame the caudillo inspires—the machista shame for fearing him, the shame of the violated who believe,…

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