Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel has just come out, in English translation, in paperback, so all you readers who loved Aunt Julia and the scriptwriter, reviewed here, have some fun in store. True, this novel is the 16th ( or 17th!) by the great Peruvian writer, and its two protagonists are men in middle age, but nevertheless the novel is filled with a broad cast of characters and the plot imbued with twists and humour just like its predecessor.
The discreet hero of the title is Felícito Yanaqué, who runs his own bus company and lives in Piura in north west Peru. He has worked his way up out of abject poverty, being brought up by his illiterate father working several jobs to put food on the table, always holding in his heart his father’s advice,” Never let anybody walk all over you, son”. One morning he finds a note pinned to his door, asking for extortion money. With his father’s words in mind, he refuses to sign up to the monthly payments and then has to deal with the consequences which follow.
His story is told in parallel, initially, with that of Don Rigoberto, a lawyer from Lima, who has worked for many years in the insurance company of his friend Ismael, and is now determined to retire so that he can visit Europe with his wife Lucrecia and son Fonchito and devote his time to art and literature. His plans are thwarted by agreeing to witness Ismael’s wedding, in his early 80s, to his housekeeper, Armida. As predicted, the marriage incurs the wrath of Ismael’s bad boy twin sons, who take out court proceedings against their father. Ismael dies shortly after the wedding and Don Rigoberto is held up in Peru by the protracted court proceedings. The second problem for Don Rigoberto is that his teenage son, Fonchito, is being occasionally harassed or visited by a character called Edilberto Torres, who appears out of nowhere at his side, chats to him and then disappears. Don Rigoberto doesn’t know if he is real, a paedophile, a figment of Fonchito’s imagination, or made up by Fonchito to attract attention.
The narrative perspective alternates largely between these two characters, and we learn of their past struggles, hopes for the future and present anxieties- and through this see life in Peru from their different social and class perspectives. At the same time as the characterisation of these more complex characters we meet a host of minor figures- sergeant Lituma, Felícito’s adored mistress, Mabel and many others trying to make a life in contemporary Peru. However I was aware that the female characters in the book represent a pretty limited range of women, being either wives, mistresses or servants, and some of their stories make for sad reading indeed: poor unattractive Gertrudis, made to work as a prostitute by her mother and turning to religion for solace. The only working woman we see is Josefa, Felícito’s secretary- I’d be interested to read some younger Peruvian female writers to see if they present female characters engaging more independently with Peruvian society.
Now, the two stories are told in parallel, but at some point they do that delicious Vargas Llosian thing of touching and intersecting. And just to keep you even more on your toes, the narrative increasingly darts between past and present, especially when characters are relating events to one another, so it’s hard at times to keep a handle on who’s saying what to whom. And though the whodunnit aspect of the novel- who is responsible for the extortion racket and its sequelae- is resolved at the end, at least one thread is deliberately left open-the identity of Edilberto Torres whose presence haunts the end of the book.
I really enjoyed this novel- the plot with its unexpected twists and turns, the range of characters, the depiction of Peru as a modern city with its sophisticated seafood restaurants, yet containing some of the same old- corruption, extortion and exploitation of the poor. Read it. If you liked Aunt Julia, you won’t be disappointed.