Thursday, 18 June 2015

Vargas Llosa’s two trilogies at one stroke

Full title: The Discreet Hero
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 326 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The novels of Mario Vargas Llosa should come with instruction manuals. Not because he indulges in obscure matters, but because his constant play with references is so intricate and so personalized that a new text, like The Discreet Hero, risks passing as a mere exercise in simplistic storytelling flavors with an exhibitive soap-opera character. Knowing the author’s penchant for narrative experimentations, a lot of this is likely to have been done on purpose. But confusion does look like a real possibility when it comes to readers.
The review in The Guardian, for instance, all but ignores the cross-referential nature of the novel, which brings together allusions to earlier novels by Vargas Llosa. Francisco Goldman’s account, in The New York Times, is much better informed and better situated critically in its balanced view of the Peruvian author’s literary and political views (paying attention to matters of plot significance, as well as following his ascending career, from the socialist devotee of the early works and convictions to the aristocratic conservative known, since 2011, under the hereditary title of 1st Marquis of Vargas Llosa).
The Discreet Hero is an interesting case of double closure, a really curious and highly original hybrid. It stands as the third volume in two different trilogies: the one taking place in Lima and featuring Don Rigoberto and his immediate family (The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto and In Praise of the Stepmother) and the other one set in Piura and featuring Sergeant Lituma (The Green House and Death in the Andes).
This hybrid is not at all surprising if one considers Vargas Llosa's distinctive attention to narrative interweaving and plotting, based precisely on shooting references across pages and across texts.
His favourite technique shows, at a local level, throughout The Discreet Hero: alternative chaptering. As in so many of his previous books, Vargas Llosa refuses, almost programmatically, to stick to a one-plot narrative. And for that reason his cast of characters is, as always, impressive. Every chapter has its own plot, with their respective subplots and parallel developments, each following the performance of specific characters. The most important of them are, of course, Don Rigoberto and Sergeant Lituma. They don’t know each other, and when they do meet (very late in the novel) there is no outstanding exchange between them. Only the reader is satisfied to see the convergence of the two lines of plot and to admire, perhaps, the author’s art of bringing them together. Otherwise, Rigoberto is the same aristocrat disgusted by the mundane flavor of life, who featured, with his strange rituals of ablution and sexual oddities, in The Notebooks and in The Stepmother. Lituma too remains true to his narrative destiny drawn in the previous novels: poor but honest, victim of coincidences and misunderstandings, the only policeman in town who has never taken a bribe and who, for precisely that reason, is, in his own words, “the only one that's still a poor beggar and will be a cop forever.” Both Lituma and Rigoberto, must be noted, are secondary characters in this novel. The chapters in which they feature are dedicated to Felícito Yanaqué and Don Ismael Carrera, respectively, business owners of different calibers but of similar providence, who find themselves the victims of their relatives’ rapacity.
But we know that Lituma and Rigoberto are the men to look for, because they are the ones who help finishing the trilogies.

Mario Vargas Llosa. Source: The New York Times
The chapters woven into each other play the obvious role of keeping the reader’s attention in check. With the spirit borrowed, doubtlessly, from the popular telenovelas of South America and also, perhaps, from the Greek and Roman Menippean satire, this technique relies on the good old effect of well managed cliffhangers: tension builds up, a climax becomes possible, then very likely, then unavoidable, and suddenly the curtain falls and we move to the next chapter. Where the action starts anew and builds up towards the same resolution. And so on and so forth.
One wonders if this technique, now anything but new in Vargas Llosa's work, is a narrative strength of his or just a sign of weakness. I believe both options have equal chances to be the winner. I would not completely dismiss the view that this spectacular intermingling of narratives turns almost all of his novels into collections of short stories. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Nobody said novels must be monological. On the contrary. And in fact the novels of Maria Vargas Llosa always find subtle, surprising ways of connecting those stories and sub-plots in ways that give them a true novel feel. But still, that demon of doubt...
In The Discreet Hero, it's not only stories that are sewn together but also genres. From drama to tragicomedy and from 19th-century melodrama to 20th and 21st-century telenovelas, a broad spectrum of possibilities is activated every step of the way. At times the novel feels like the work of a debutant who is trying his hand at as much narrative material as possible.
A tad too much soap opera? Maybe. Albeit the message is clear: here’s life imitating art and art imitating life.
“My God, what stories ordinary life devised; not masterpieces to be sure, they were doubtless closer to Venezuelan, Brazilian, Colombian, and Mexical soap operas that to Cervantes and Tolstoy. But again not too far from Alexandre Dumas, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, or Benito Pérez Galdós.”
Until the moment of the reunion of the two narrative threads, though, almost everything has that cheap allure of unexpected encounters, events whose levels of likelihood would, under normal circumstances, be very low, situations and accidents that seem, well – too accidental to be taken seriously. Kind of like eighteenth-century novels. Something à la Tom Jones, if you like, or the pseudo-romances of Samuel Richardson, where characters run into trouble in the most artificial of ways, all in the name of a transparent spectacle.
But it’s clear that Vargas Llosa has planned, with this his latest novel, a take on genres as much as a take on his eternal concern with Peruvian life. And since we’re in the eternity department, let’s finish with another quote concerning telenovelas:
“The soap opera isn’t over, it goes on and on and gets harder to understand every day.”
That’s Don Rigoberto for you, the aristocrat who ends the novel in a plane, flying his family to Europe, where he has planned to disappear amidst bourgeois intellectual pursuits like a man who has been planning his withdrawal from a book.