& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Discreet Hero – Mario Vargas Llosa

At the Festival of Literary Diversity, I met Farzana Doctor, an author who I admire. Earlier this year she was in Beirut, Lebanon, with her partner Reyan, and was fascinated by the place. She told me she intends to weave the place into her work someday.

I humbly suggested instead of a novel, she should consider doing a non-fiction book about the place and the people, and how the place has moulded the people, and how the people have made the place what it is.

What I know about Beirut and Lebanon is what the western media wants me to know. Farzana’s book, if she ever wrote it, would be refreshing, different, and something that we need because it’d be a perspective of an outsider who’s a bit of an insider.

I’m reading Jasmine D’Costa’s Matter of Geography. It is a story set in the 1992-93 religious violence between the Hindus and Muslims that tore apart Bombay and nearly all of India. The story is about a resilient Christian community in old Bombay’s Mazgaon that comes together to rescue a Muslim neighbour from a marauding mob of crazed Hindutva fanatics.

Although I’m all too familiar with Bombay and with the 1992-93 rioting, Jasmine’s book is refreshing, different because she is able to weave a story around a people in a place and how both the people and the place affect and transform each other. (More about Jasmine’s novel soon after I finish reading it).

Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Discreet Hero, set in Piura and Lima in Peru, is also a story of people and places and how the two complete each other. It's a story about two senior men living a life afforded by wealth, and one that is not uncommon from others of their age and means. They are blackmailed and/or harassed because they’re wealthy and old.

In the case of Ismael Carrera, an insurance company tycoon in Lima, his layabout sons are waiting for him to die to inherit his wealth. Felicito Yanaque, a trucking company owner, in Piura, who is the other protagonist of the novel, becomes a victim of an elaborate protection racket, that turns into kidnapping and ransom as the story progresses.

Both the stories are full of intrigue comprising people who have malleable morals and possess low cunning. Both the stories are of older men falling for much younger women. Carrera falls in love with Armida, a maid, and Felicito with Mabel, a streetwalker. 

Both attempt vainly to rise above their circumstances without losing their dignity or compromising the dignity of their young lovers, aware that in the life of old men, decency in family ties is better maintained by being quiet and working quietly to safeguard the interests of those you love more than others.

The Discreet Hero is the first Llosa novel I’ve read, and it’s great to be acquainted with Don Rigoberto and Dona Lucrecia, who watch the proceedings from the sidelines and are only tangentially affected by the doings of the Carrera couple. 

They're sophisticated, cosmopolitan better off married couple who’d be more at home in Madrid or Rome rather than Lima, and constantly dream of spending time going to an opera, visiting a gallery and dining in a patio of a fine restaurant in a European city.

Apparently, Rigoberto and Lucrecia and their son Fonchito have also appeared in other Llosa novels, as have Sergeant Lituma.

Llosa’s mastery is in weaving a story around people and places and how both affect and transform each other. The descriptions of the police station, the local bars in Piura acquire a meaning and come alive because of the characters such as Felicito and Lituma. If it were not for these characters, the places would be nondescript.  

The story has a slow pace and the author is more interested in exploring relations between the characters, observing their little idiosyncrasies. He doesn't mind taking the reader on short digressions, holding the story to a standstill, while helping his reader understand a character flaw better by such explorations.

The novel is about the life and the lifestyle of its characters and not much about the linear narration of the story. For instance, the efficiency and speed with which the police resolve the mystery behind the protection racket could perhaps have made this into a tremendous potboiler, but clearly is of little interest to Llosa, who'd rather have his policemen discuss women's asses. 

There are passages in the novel that remarkably bring out the universality of emotions – love and betrayal – and how these are common to all humans.

Edith Grossman has skillfully translated the book from Spanish into English, transcending the barriers of language-specific nuances. Towards the end of the story, the novelist abandons the rigours of form and dovetails several separate sections of different characters into seamless paragraphs. This could’ve been challenging but Grossman pulls it off without any effort.

Here are some passages from the book that I found interesting:  

“I’ve been paying for my faults all these years, Felicito,” he heard Gertrudis say, almost without moving her full lip or taking her eyes off him for a second, though she didn’t appear to see him and spoke as if he weren’t there. “Bearing my cross in silence. Knowing very well that the sins one commits have to be paid for. Not only in the next life, in this one, too. I’ve accepted it. I’ve repented for myself and for the Boss Lady. I’ve paid for myself and my mama. I don’t feel the rancor towards her that I did when I was young. I keep paying and hope that with so much suffering, Our Lord Jesus Christ will forgive so many sins.”


To die just when he thought he’d won all his battles and felt like the happiest man in creation. Had his happiness killed him, perhaps? Ismael Carrera wasn’t used to it.


“It’s just that there’s something I don’t understand,” Fonchito ventured uncomfortably. “About you, Papa. You always liked art, painting, music, books. It’s the only thing you seem passionate about. So, then, why did you become a lawyer? Why did you spend your whole life working in an insurance company? You should have been a painter, a musician, well, I don’t know. Why didn’t you follow your calling?”

Don Rigoberto nodded and reflected a moment before answering.

“Because I was a coward, son,” he finally murmured. “Because I lacked faith in myself. I never believed I had the talent to be a real artist. But maybe that was an excuse for not trying. I decided not to be a creator but only a consumer of art, a dilettante of culture. Because I was a coward is the sad truth. So now you know. Don’t follow my example. Whatever your calling is, follow it as far as you can and don’t do what I did, don’t betray it.”

“I hope you’re not annoyed, Papa. It was a question I’d been wanting to ask you for a long time.”

“It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for many years. Fonchito. You’re forced me to answer and I thank you for that. Go on, that’s enough, good night.”


The function of journalism in our time, at least in this society, was not to inform but to make the line between the lie and the truth disappear, to replace reality with a fiction in which the oceanic mass of neuroses, frustration, hatred, and traumas of a public devoured by resentment and envy was made manifest. One more proof that the small spaces of civilisation would never prevail against immeasurable barbarism.


From time to time, taking a breather, the captain would burst into praise, charged with sexual fever, of the curves of Senora Josefita, with whom he’d fallen in love. Very seriously, and with salacious gestures, he explained to his subordinate that those gluteals were not only large, round and symmetrical but also “gave a little jiggle when she walked,” something that aroused his heart and his testicles in unison. For that reason, he maintained, “in spite of her age, her moon face, and her slightly bowed legs, Josefita is the goddamnedest woman.

“Hotter than gorgeous Mabel, if I’m forced to make a comparison, Lituma,” he went on, his eyes popping as if he had the backsides of the two ladies right in front of him and were hefting them both. “I acknowledge that Don Felicito’s girlfriend has a nice figure, aggressive tits, and well-formed, fleshy legs and arms, but her ass, as you must have noticed, leaves much to be desired. It’s not very touchable. It didn’t finish developing, it didn’t blossom, at some point, it went into decline. According to my classification system, hers is a timid ass, if you know what I mean.”

“Why don’t you concentrate on the investigations instead, Captain?” Lituma asked him.  “You saw how furious Colonel Rios Pardo is. At this rate, we won’t ever get rid of this case or be promoted again.”

“I’ve noticed that you have absolutely no interest in women’s asses, Lituma,” was the captain’s judgement, pretending to commiserate with him and putting on a grief-stricken face. But immediately afterwards he smiled and licked his lips like a cat. “A defect in your manly formation, I’m telling you. A good ass is the most divine gift God gave to female bodies for the pleasure of males. I’ve been told that even the Bible recognises this.”

“Of course I have an interest, Captain. But with all due respect, in you, there’s not only interest but obsession and depravity too. Let’s get back to the spiders now.”


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