Magazine article The Spectator

'The Discreet Hero', by Mario Vargas Llosa (Translated by Edith Grossman) - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Discreet Hero', by Mario Vargas Llosa (Translated by Edith Grossman) - Review

Article excerpt

The Discreet Hero Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Edith Grossman)

Faber, pp.326, £20, ISBN: 9780571310708

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. …

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