This latest novel by Mario Vargas Llosa is a compelling and provocative story about the press, sex and power. Set in Lima, the story takes place in the 90s and early 2000s against a backdrop of kidnappings and murders carried out by the Sendero Luminoso ( Shining Path) terrorists. The country is gripped with fear and anxiety-though how this plays out in different sections of society is very much the focus of the novel. And woven into the political thriller is an exploration of the moral choices available to individuals in such a climate, in the face of a political regime which feeds on violence and corruption.
The story begins when Enrique Cardenas, a wealthy mining engineer, receives a visit from Rolando Garro, a journalist and editor of the gossip newspaper ‘Destapes’. We have no doubts about Enrique’s disdain for Rolando with his loud clothes, vulgar platform shoes dwarf like stature and trashy paper. However Enrique finds himself on the back foot when Rolando produces a stash of photos, which show him, Enrique, in a compromising situation. In a second meeting Rolando outlines the terms of his blackmail: that Enrique should become a major financial backer for ‘Destapes’. Enrique refuses. The photographs are published in ‘Destapes’, creating a huge scandal.
Julieta Leguizamón, otherwise known as La Retiquita, a tough young journalist on ‘Destapes’, fears that Rolando has gone too far. The paper’s victims are usually members of ‘la farandula’- the world of entertainment and music hall- like Juan Peineta, a reciter of verses, ridiculed in ‘Destapes’ for his performance as part of the ‘Los Tres Chistosos’ comedy act. Enrique Cardenas, a powerful business man, is in a different league. La Retiquita’s fears are realised as some days later Rolando’s body is found in the working class district of Cinco esquinas in the Barrio Altos. He has suffered a brutal death, his face mashed to a pulp.
So who was behind the killing? Enrique Cardenas, motivated by revenge, is an obvious suspect. Juan Peineta, too, hoves into view- he attributes losing his job and his descent into poverty to being mercilessly lampooned in ‘Destapes’ by Rolando Garro and writes letters to that effect to all and sundry. But La Retiquita soon finds out that the answer lies elsewhere, and in this discovery finds herself drawn into a complex web of power and deceit.
Vargas Llosa is a master of characterisation and his almost Dickensian skill at depicting characters from a broad range of social class is shown to good effect here. We have Enrique’s circle, comprising the lawyer Luciano and their two cardboard cutout wives, Marisa and Chabela, with their handbags, shining hair, trips to Miami and vacuous views. Their apartments are filled with artworks, the artists’ names disingenuously dropped into the text, and with their chauffeurs, swimming pools and private cinema, their lives are lived away from the streets, its poor and its dangers. Rolando and La Retiquita on the other hand come from impoverished backgrounds and are surviving in the tough world of journalism through grit,determination and dogged hard work, barely scraping a living from their work with ‘Destapes’. The photographer Ceferino Argüello, with wife and children to support, takes the job of photographing the compromising evening out of financial necessity and offers the photos to Rolando Garro for the same reason. Through Juan Peineta’s story we visit the ‘comedor popular’ in the Barrio Alto where down and outs can get a daily meal provided by the nuns and served up by the vast Crecilda with her wobbling backside and dubious past. And then we meet Willy, an old friend of Juan’s from the bars and gambling dens of working class Callao and a silent observer of police behaviour in the barrio.
Now, this broad range of character provides of course entertaining local colour and context – I loved the account of La Retiquita’s father toiling up and down the streets of Central Lima with his handcart laden with ’emoliente’, serving it up outside the factory gates at the end of a shift. The broad range also shows that every section of Lima society is affected by terrorism, corruption and their consequences, albeit to differing degrees. But there’s something else going on with character here and that is the shift in our view of the characters as the plot develops and the nature of the power relationships are slowly revealed. We first see Rolando Garro through Enrique’s eyes and may share his contempt for this journalist from the gutter press. However later our view of him shifts as we see what he is caught up in and are invited to speculate on his reasons for publishing. La Retiquita at first seems to share the same amoral world view as her boss, but later comes to skilfully pursue her hunt for his killers while keeping the paper afloat- and in this way shapes the unexpected denouément in an act of great courage.
And what of the sex? Now it is not quite true to say that the story starts with the meeting of Roland Garro with Enrique. In fact it starts with an erotic scene in which the two friends, Marisa and Chabela, find themselves having sex when sharing a bed one night. This is quite a start to the novel- and hopefully will not put too many readers off. I vacillated between objecting as a feminist to this male gaze on women’s sexual activity- and finding it vaguely titillating. Now, I think it is quite a clever move placing this scene right at the beginning of the novel. Firstly, it sets the scene for the different views on and experiences of sex throughout the novel: you can be blackmailed for doing it, you can do it for pleasure with a partner or friend, you can do it for a living and you can do it for protection. You can do it in all sorts of positions, from the missionary to position 69 and Vargas Llosa at times goes into a Houellebecquian overdrive in detailing who put what where. It also provides humour- Juan Peineta, envious of the 69ers in the photos displayed in every kiosk in Lima, suffers from dementia and just can’t quite remember whether he ever actually did it with his beloved Anatasia! But over and above this, placing this scene first puts us in the position of all those newspaper readers the world over. The scene runs through our heads, we keep going back to it as we read the novel,wondering how it fits in, and, yes, titillated. We readers of Mario Vargas Llosa are no better than any other readers of the gutter press which uses sex to sell newspapers.
So we see in the end the world of the gutter press as messy and scandal driven, able and willing to destroy reputations. The novel slowly reveals the powers behind the press in Peru at that time and I would refer readers to Dan Collyns Guardian article for the political background to events in the book. As for the reputations, our four bourgeois survive Enrique’s scandal materially intact, and for three of them, their sexual antics have become their main preoccupation. As always it is the poor who suffer most- Rolando Garro, Juan Peineta. Yet it is La Retiquita who uses her wits, cunning, imagination and courage to turn things around, achieving a political and narrative coup which is all the more uplifting for being unexpected. What a fantastic ending to the story- and how clever of the writer to unsettle us in spite of this ending by placing our bourgeois’ sexual carry on right at the conclusion of the book.
Now I am a huge fan of Mario Vargas Llosa- Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, A Discreet Hero, Death in the Afternoon, A Fish in the Water- are all reviewed here at peakreads. But it is the combination of suspenseful narrative, fabulous characterisation, depiction of Lima within the chilling political grip of that time, which make Cinco esquinas for me one of his best. It must be published in English soon. Don’t miss it.