As a chronicler of South American deaths and lives foretold, Mario Vargas Llosa has no peer. Honing a style pitched between the mock grandiloquent and the declarative force of journalism, his career has lurched from the rococo splendor of 1989’s In Praise of the Stepmother, with prose fit to match the prints of Old Masters included, and the matter of fact retelling of horrors in such novels as Death in the Andes. The Peruvian’s 17th novel isn’t at that level, and the situations and characters don’t hum with the possibilities of yore. But the meticulousness with which he works out the interlocking plots generates its own pleasure.
Exploiting the audience’s collective memory of fictions written and characters treasured is one of a novelist’s shrewder devices, and Vargas Llosa populates The Discreet Hero with familiar faces. Don Rigoberto and his family from In Praise of the Stepmother and its lesser sequel The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto return as the loyal employees of Ismael Carrera. His two wretched sons Miki and Escobita seek revenge on him for disinheriting them after marrying the servant Armida, several decades his junior. Borne aloft on the discovery of sex in his autumnal years, Ismael is cheerful and unrepentant: all he wants is a honeymoon with his new bride. Don Rigoberto can deal with the boys, with the promise of a reward, of course.
The other strand returns the Nobel laureate’s readers to Piura, where businessman Felicito Yanaqué reels from extortion letters garnished with unidentifiable spider symbols — an image hinting at layers of subterranean conspiracy that Vargas Llosa might have borrowed from Roberto Bolaño. The source of the threats is banal. Watching Felicito’s contortions is another Vargas Llosa familiar, Sergeant Lituma of Death in the Andes, shorter and rounder and rather dim, an incorruptible naïf whose fealty to the law is a match for Felicito’s self-righteousness. Vargas Llosa doesn’t grant him the status of a major character, but Lituma honors the novel’s title. For him, the performance of justice is akin to a personal kindness.
The caprice of fathers, the cruelty of sons and the tug of machismo — these patterns form the latticework in The Discreet Hero. But a Piura suddenly prosperous with philharmonic societies, luxury apartments and bars is still dominated by men. Women are soothsayers, maids, extramarital flings and unsexed wives, which, given Vargas Llosa’s functional dialogue (and there’s a lot of it), is just as well.
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Armida, the chola despised by Ismael’s sons, is transformed by her Peruvian Pygmalion from maladroit, poorly educated peasant to a perfumed, coiffed beauty. Unusually for Vargas Llosa, the novel shows little interest in pointing out the chasms between upper middle class and the servants who cater to them. Narcisso, the black chauffeur “worth a million bucks,” plays a brief but essential role in the plot convolutions; he doesn’t question his master’s possible guilt.
A necessary distraction from these pulp elements involves Don Rigoberto’s son Fonchito, of secondary school age and last seen in Vargas Llosa Land as teacher and student under Lucrecia’s bed sheets. An articulate middle-aged man named Edilberto Torres appears to him, invisible to everyone else, eager to offer advice. Rigoberto is unyielding. Is a pederast stalking his beautiful son? No. Is it a ghost? Who can say? Vargas Llosa won’t. The way in which he ties up this development doesn’t do it justice.
The introduction of the numinous threatens to destabilize things and doesn’t, alas. For Vargas Llosa to develop Edilberto’s role in these bifurcating narratives would have demanded an elongation he isn’t prepared to indulge; moreover, Fonchito’s attachment to his quasi-imaginary friend lends him a polymorphous perversity that might serve as the subject of another novel, a queerer novel. “You know that the only woman in the world I like is you, Stepmother,” Fonchito says, one of the novel’s few big laughs because it’s also obvious.
Beside his heftier tomes, The Discreet Hero is brief to the point of terseness; the interior monologues reveal little other than Vargas Llosa’s continued indebtedness to pulp. To penalize this book for its mild satisfactions is to wish the novelist had written a book of Gothic weirdness enveloping the airport fiction elements — like what William Faulkner did with Sanctuary.
There are glimpses: Don Rigoberto’s invocations of poet Fray Luis de Leon and other favorites (Rigoberto is an aesthete unto death); Gertrudis’ forgetting how to read “since I never read because of my eyes.” Spontaneous moments generated by the characters, in other words, unmoored to genre conventions. The Discreet Hero needs more of those.
Alfred Soto is a media adviser and instructor at Florida International University.