'Captain Pantoja and the Special Service': A Transitional Novel

By Kristal, Efrain | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

'Captain Pantoja and the Special Service': A Transitional Novel


Kristal, Efrain, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Mario Vargas Llosa's reflections on socialism have always informed the themes of his major novels. In the 1960s, when he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban revolution, his novels reflected his conviction that Peruvian society was too corrupt for reform. In the 1980s, after repudiating socialism, his novels explored the dangers of ideology. Unlike the 1960s or 1980s, the 1970s--the period dealt with in this essay--were for Vargas Llosa a time of political ambivalence: he was no longer at ease with socialism, but he did not yet want to give it up.

Even after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which he condemned. and the incarceration of dissidents in Cuba, against which he protested, Vargas Llosa was not willing to break with the socialist states. As late as 1974 he was writing articles rationalizing Fidel Castro's policies:

Cruel and pressing economic realities, the scarce resources Of 2 tiny underdeveloped island, and the gigantic, savage blockade imposed by imperialism in order to drown it--all this kept "socialism in freedom" from prospering even initially. Castro's dilemma was to maintain an open socialism in the absence of international support, risking the demise of the revolution by linking its economy and its project to the Soviet model. With his famous pragmatism, Fidel chose the lesser of two evils. Who could reproach him, especially after the death of Allende and the fall Of his political movement.... Notwithstanding my visceral horror of police states and of the dogmatism of systems that believe in single truths, if I must choose between capitalism and socialism, I bite my tongue and continue to say "on with socialism."(1)

By 1975, however, Vargas Llosa began to reconsider his allegiances to the Cuban revolution and to the Soviet Union. The first half of the 1970s was a period of artistic transition during which Vargas Llosa gradually abandoned the character type most prevalent in his first novels: tragic or innocent victims of a corrupt society, the likes of Ricardo Arana, Gamboa, Santiago Zavala, Jum, and Ambrosio. Vargas Llosa's artistic transition first becomes apparent in Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973), where he explores, with humor and irony, two themes he had earlier treated with the utmost seriousness and pathos: the depravity of military institutions and prostitution in a society "with a corrupt heart but with a puritan facade."(2)

Captain Pantaleon Pantoja has received a special mission from the general headquarters of the Peruvian armed forces: to establish a secret prostitution service to appease the sexual appetite of those soldiers who rape women near their jungle garrisons. In order to carry out his duties in secret, Captain Pantoja is ordered to live as an ordinary citizen. He is forbidden regular contact with other soldiers and is not allowed to reveal the nature of his clandestine activities to anyone, including the two women he lives with: his wife Pochita and his mother Leonor. The novel's main story line traces Pantoja's adventures and misadventures from the fateful day he receives his orders until his failure and transfer to a humiliating post.

The novel has two types of chapters. Four of them consist of dialogues in which different conversations that took place in distinct times and places are juxtaposed and intertwined, a literary technique Jose Miguel Oviedo has called "telescoping dialogues."(3) Vargas Llosa gives this technique a twist summarized in his book A Writer's Reality: he eliminates the verba dicendi (e.g., "he said," "she affirmed with sincerity") and replaces them with the descriptions and observations of a third-person narrator.(4) Instead of identifying Pantoja as the speaker, for example, Vargas Llosa interjects description into his character's transcribed dialogue:

"Because the first time you name me or speak about the Service, I'll thrown all fifty specialists on top of you, and let me warn you, they all have long fingernails," Pantaleon Pantoja opens a desk drawer, takes out a revolver, loads and unloads it, spins the cylinder, takes aim at the backboard, the telephone, the rafters. …

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