Mario Vargas Llosa’s new novel is a literary melodrama – and vice versa
“My God, what stories ordinary life devised,” a character in Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s new novel thinks to himself, “not masterpieces to be sure, they were doubtless closer to Venezuelan, Brazilian, Colombian, and Mexican soap operas than to Cervantes and Tolstoy. But then again not so far from Alexandre Dumas, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, or Benito Perez Galdos.” The Discreet Hero, a soap-opera thriller with literary pretensions – or is it a literary novel with soap-opera leanings? – is melodramatically consumed with the chasms between fathers and sons, husbands and wives.
Vargas Llosa’s story, which begins with a prosperous entrepreneur named Felícito Yanaqué receiving seemingly all-knowing letters demanding protection money and threatening harm to his business, is crammed full, in traditional soap-opera fashion, with mysteries and coincidences and buried secrets and hidden links between its characters. As Felícito struggles to uncover the villain targeting his business, Vargas Llosa cuts to a second, echoing story, in which Don Rigoberto, a loyal employee of an insurance company on the brink of retirement, finds himself under assault after he serves as a witness for his boss Ismael Carrera’s surprise marriage to a much younger woman.
Vargas Llosa cuts back and forth between Felícito and Rigoberto’s stories, two intensely stubborn men tormented by fate and circumstance and swept into the ever-hungry maw of the tabloid media. “Never let anybody walk all over you, son,” Felícito remembers his working-class father telling him. “This advice is the only inheritance you’ll have.” The pieces are reshuffled, but each story – not only Felícito and Rigoberto’s, but also Ismael’s – is a variation on a theme about fathers and sons, husbands and wives. The author’s sympathies are with these harried, ageing, powerful men, burdened with loveless marriages or unappreciative sons or unfulfilling careers, but still hungering for life. The Discreet Hero not only alternates chapters between its two central plot lines, but cross-cuts between conversations, splicing dialogue from separate encounters to heighten the aura of suspense. One would be tempted to call this book one of Vargas Llosa’s “entertainments”, echoing Graham Greene, but the author of The Bad Girl always seems to be having this much fun.
“But what’s he trying to do with these stories?” Rigoberto wonders about his son, prone to telling wild-sounding tales about an all-knowing stranger invested in his family life. “Things like this aren’t unprovoked, they come from somewhere, with roots in the unconscious.”
Vargas Llosa is engaging in a form of self-analysis, but he is also playing up the uncanny feel of his doubled and tripled and quadrupled story, in which every echo has its own echo: familiar characters like Don Rigoberto (from The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto) and Sargeant Lituma (from The Green House) return here, their timelines and character arcs deliberately and playfully jumbled.
The distinct stories of The Discreet Hero unsurprisingly intertwine, with Vargas Llosa’s men of a certain age standing firm for their preferred values of loyalty and stubbornness. If by the novel’s end, none of his heroes feels quite heroic, this, too, is a product of the ambience: “The soap opera isn’t over, it goes on and on and gets harder to understand every day.” Sons disappoint fathers and women disappoint men, but Rigoberto and Ismael and Felícito are also limited in their own ways, small men with big ideas. Readers, too, may feel like the novel, bursting with ideas and emotions and tangled relationships, loses some steam by the end, its happy ending a tad too neat for this messy world.
Vargas Llosa is wrestling with his own long-standing preference for melodrama, whether it is the literal soap-opera antics of his best novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, or the emotionally voluble, ageing dictator of The Feast of the Goat. Is the telling of all-too-human stories of excess and crime a suitable endeavour for a lover of art and beauty? “How painful to be seeing lawyers and judges, thinking about the twins, those functional illiterates,” Rigoberto thinks, “instead of losing himself morning, noon, and night in these volumes, prints, and designs, listening to good music, fantasizing, traveling in time, experiencing extraordinary adventures, getting emotional, growing sad, enjoying, crying, becoming exalted and excited.” Is Vargas Llosa mourning the books not written, the noble sentiments not expressed? Perhaps, but the lavish attention paid to its own story of human foibles suggests the author is being disingenuous. Messy people and messy lives are not a distraction from the world. They are the world, and Mario Vargas Llosa is their chronicler.
• The book is available from Amazon.co.uk
Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to The Review.
Updated: March 12, 2015 04:00 AM