Mario Vargas Llosa likes to counterpoint his darker novels with rosier themes: after the savagery of The Green House came the soufflé of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter with its mischievous nod to TV soaps, followed by The Feast of the Goat, a searing portrait of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo. Sixteen novels on, The Discreet Hero is Llosa-lite.
Nobel laureate, academic and politician (he ran for president in 1990), Peru’s most celebrated writer has acknowledged Flaubert as his spiritual mentor. In The Perpetual Orgy, a critical study, he put forward his theory of Flaubert’s style: the manipulation of narrative and time, obsession with pairs, humanising of objects.
All are here, in abundance, in the new book. Rarely have everyday objects been described in such loving detail, each glass of chichi or eggfruit juice name-checked; local dried-beef stew and shellfish ceviche noted; every avenida and plaza identified. The pages are a peephole into full-on Peru; its new prosperity and old squalor, corruption and Catholicism. He conjures up the smells, pungent or aromatic; the cacophony of street sounds. A Flaubertian obsession with pairs gives us two discreet heroes, two cities, two sets of sons, and two plots narrated in alternate chapters that finally converge.
Felicito Yanaque, a decent, hardworking 55-year-old man, from a barefoot childhood, has built up a flourishing transport business in the northern coastal town of Piura. One morning he finds pinned to his door an anonymous note offering ‘protection’. Incredulity turns to fear, then rage. He recalls the only words of advice his dirt-poor dad gave him — ‘Don’t let anyone walk all over you, son’ — and decides to defy the gangsters.
In Lima, Don Rigoberto, senior executive in an insurance company, dreams of a hedonistic retirement; more time for books and music, Europe’s museums and art galleries to explore with the wife he adores. But when he agrees to witness his boss’s secret wedding, Rigoberto’s comfortable world falls apart. By marrying his young housekeeper (a servant!), the octogenarian millionaire has shattered sacred barriers of class and ethnicity. His two wastrel sons — ‘the hyenas’ — will do anything it takes to annul a marriage which threatens their inheritance. If necessary, they’ll call in the heavies.
Cue mayhem in Piura and Lima as Vargas Llosa sweeps his two innocent heroes into nightmare territory with cliff-hangers worthy of Albert Square. A nasty kidnapping and death threats face Felicito, with family, livelihood, mistress, indeed his very existence in jeopardy. Meanwhile Rigoberto finds himself under attack when the scandalous newly-weds disappear. And (magic realism is lurking), his teenage son is stalked by a mysterious figure who may be a ghost, or possibly the devil himself.
With a conveniently theatrical twist, the two narratives come together. Veering between detective story, social comedy and fable, The Discreet Hero, translated by Edith Grossman, has all the author’s trademark incidental pleasures: it is playful, sexy and crowded with flamboyant characters — a barefoot soothsayer running a corner shop, a poet who takes his pet goat for daily walks, two unexpectedly honest cops who sweat their way to a solution of the extortion mystery…. As always with Vargas Llosa, the moral compass is central. At the end, rewards and punishments are apportioned with humour and a sweet optimism.
It’s a jeu d’esprit from a master; not one of his best novels, but there’s enough here for his followers to enjoy.