Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Discreet Hero – novel by Mario Vargas Llosa

'The discreet hero' is the latest novel of Mario Vargas Llosa and the second one, after he won Nobel Prize in 2010. It has two parallel stories of two different protagonists: Don Felicito Yanaque living in a Peruvian provincial town Piura and Don Rigoberto in the capital city Lima.

Yanaque, a self-made owner of a transport company receives an extortion threat from a gang. Felicito, who sticks stubbornly to his late father's advice, "never  let anybody walk all over you", gives a defiant newspaper notice saying he would not give in to blackmail. The gang sets his company property on fire and later kidnaps his young mistress Mabel. The police investigation finds that it was one of his own disgruntled sons Miguel who is behind the criminal plot. What is worse, Miguel forces Mabel to be his lover and makes her an accomplice in the kidnap drama. After this devastating news, Felicito confirms his long-held suspicion that Miguel was not really his own son. 

The second story is that of Rigoberto, the chief of an insurance company about to retire and looking forward to pursue his passion for art. Ismael Carrera, the owner of the insurance company, comes to know after a heart attack that his two wayward twin sons are anxiously waiting for his death to inherit the company. Enraged by this, Ismael, who is a widower in his eighties, decides to marry his young live-in maid servant Armida. The couple take off to Europe on secret honeymoon, leaving behind a sensational scandal. Ismael sells his company to an Italian multinational and writes a will bequeathing his entire fortune to his wife. Ismael's sons harass Rigoberto accusing him of being  an accomplice to their father's marriage. Ismael returns to Lima and assures Rigoberto that he would sort out the problems created by his sons. But he dies of a sudden heart attack. His widow, disappears fearing assassination by Ismael's sons and lands up in the house of Felicito in Piura. She surprises Felicito saying that she is actually his wife's real sister. Eventually the sons of Ismael agree to a negotiated settlement with their stepmother. Lady Armida then moves to live in Italy and invites Felicito and her wife to be her guests there and invites Rigoberto's family too.

Rigoberto, Lucrecia and Lituma are familiar characters from Llosa's other novels. The erotic conversations between Rigoberto, the hedonist and his sensual wife Lucrecia are extensions of their fantasies in the other novels 'the notebooks of Don Rigoberto' and ' In praise of the step mother'. Police sergeant Lituma is from the earlier novels ' The Green House' and ' Death in the Andes'. Don Felicito, the discreet hero has emerged as another memorable Llosa character.  

Llosa has given a deep insight into the Peruvian society and culture through the narratives of hard working and principled men who seek pleasure from young mistress and maidservant but face painful problems from spoiled children. Especially interesting is the contrast between the sophisticated urbane art lover Rigoberto in Lima and the provincial ethos of Piurean characters such as Felicito, the police officers and Adelaida the spiritual soothsayer. The reader gets a feel of walking in the hot and humid streets of Piura and tasting the authentic Peruvian dishes in the famous restaurants in the culinary capital Lima. Rigoberto realizes that small spaces of civilization like he has created for himself with his artistic pursuits 'would never prevail against the immeasurable barbarism' around. 'When Piura was a poor city these things did not happen', laments the police sergeant referring to the violence and crime which grow with prosperity, a phenomenon, seen across Latin America. 

I was anxiously waiting to read this latest book published in 2014 and its english version in March 2015. This is not one of the best of Llosa who is among my favorite Latin American writers. I did not feel stunned as I felt after finishing ' The war of the end of the world'. But I felt entertained by this light hearted thriller-like optimistic story with funny characters and engaging twists and turns.

Can we expect more from Llosa, given his advanced age of 79? I was in for a surprise when I read his recent interview to Paris Review in which he says " My greatest fault, I think, is my lack of confidence, which torments me enormously. It takes me three or four years to write a novel—and I spend a good part of that time doubting myself. It doesn’t get any better with time; on the contrary, I think I’m getting more self-critical and less confident". 

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