Mario Vargas Llosa has used myriad structural gambits in his novels, from the Faulkner-esque stream of consciousness and character jumping of The Time of the Hero to the alternating stories of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. So it should be no surprise that his latest novel, The Discreet Hero, has its own angle.
Trucker Felícito Yanaqué has a wife, a mistress, a fortune-telling friend and one steadfastly held piece of advice from his dearly departed father: “never let anybody walk all over you.” When becomes the target of extortion, a growing problem in the developing town of Piura, he holds fast to his father’s advice despite the warning of the fortune teller.

We then meet Lima’s Don Rigoberto (a recurring character in Vargas Llosa’s work), more happily married, with a son who either repeatedly encounters or repeatedly hallucinates a friendly but potentially devilish figure. His older best friend is getting ready to marry his servant, which will upset his good-for-nothing children, and Rigoberto is dragged in as a witness.

While Felícito’s storyline is rather straightforward, Rigoberto’s shifts in time; as he and his wife fantasize about their acquaintances, there is slippage between fantasy and reality, and conflicts between their son’s conversations with a mysterious man and his version of their conversation. It’s a simple but effective tool that keeps the story open to interpretation.

But the novels’ s boldest conceit is the extent to which it takes its parallel stories. This is Vargas Llosa’s 16th novel, and is as strong as ever. But while his previous novels take place in more connected universes, there is not so much as a hint as to how these varied plots are connected, and this structure frustrates the reader with one cliffhanger after another. To say more would rob the book of some of its pleasures. Vargas Llosa, for all his modernist and postmodernist gambits, is a tremendous storyteller and an observant psychologist, able to fill his universes with details and asides that deftly explain a character’s principles and impulses, and then watch as practicalities and values butt heads.

As conflicts between fathers and sons play out against the backdrop of developing economies, the plots take on an element of nature vs. nurture, and its solution is a bit simplistic. While this may be lost on the book’s characters, it is not lost on the author, who perhaps makes too much of it. But characters and setting always precede ideas in Vargas Llosa works, and the novel at its best examines characters as they navigate changing, usually corrupt worlds; and how they make sense of issues that are often beyond their comprehension.

The Discreet Hero nods at many of Vargas Llosa’s previous books – those who have read The Green House will not forget Sergeant Lituma – but it isn’t correct to call this book a grand, encapsulating, or final work. Rather, it serves as a wink to longtime readers of the author’s continued focus on corruption, entrapment and feeder systems, which offer little chance of escape. It’s one of the many small details that bring the novel to life, and make it as engaging a read as any of the Vargas Llosa’s previous, even if it is not always quite as ambitious as his greatest works.

  • Holy Hell! Fargo Turns 20

    Fargo shows the Coen Brothers working in a progressive, political fashion without sacrific…
  • Eisenstein in Guanajuato

    Greenaway’s queer revisionism is an important antidote to commonplace historicity, but it …
  • Hail, Caesar!

    This is a movie about movies. …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Holy Hell! Fargo Turns 20

Fargo shows the Coen Brothers working in a progressive, political fashion without sacrific…