The Discreet Hero
- By Mario Vargas Llosa; translated by Edith Grossman
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Liam Callanan
- March 20, 2015
A novel packed with energy and tumult finds room for keen descriptions of life’s small pleasures.
It’s morning in Piura, a provincial capital of about 380,000 along the coast in northwestern Peru, not far from the border with Ecuador. All is well as Felícito Yanaqué takes his “usual breakfast: coffee with goat’s milk and toast with butter and a few drops of raw chancaca honey.” Outside, “women were on their way to the cathedral for 8 o’clock Mass. Peddlers hawked their wares: molasses candies, lollipops, plantain chips, empanadas, and all kinds of snacks…Everything just as it had been every day from time immemorial.”
But hardly a paragraph later in Mario Vargas Llosa's The Discreet Hero, trouble arrives: Someone has tacked a note to Felícito’s door, demanding protection money lest his trucking and transport business suffer “any accident, unpleasantness or threat from criminal elements.” The demand: $500, paid monthly.
Meanwhile, a few hours south in Peru’s capital, Lima, another elderly businessman, the 80-something Ismael Carrera, is also in the midst of crisis, although this one is almost entirely of his own devising: to everyone’s great surprise, he’s decided to wed his longtime maid, Armida. Ismael’s ne’er-do-well sons declare war.
Up in Piura, the extortionists do the same when their prey takes out a newspaper ad announcing he’ll never give in. A mysterious fire breaks out.
And that’s not all: riddling these narrative strands are threats, lawyers, mistresses, simple but stalwart policemen, qigong sessions, a kindly priest, a “holy woman” who can see the future, and a young boy who can see the devil (unless the person in question is not the devil; it’s hard to say).
What’s not hard to say is that this novel, confidently and intricately plotted, is enormous fun, even (or especially) when it pursues its permutations to a madcap degree. Long-lost siblings appear, secret connections surface, and characters pause every so often to deliver disquisitions on music, sex, religion, fatherhood, and loyalty. It can feel a bit peripatetic at times, as the novel rarely alights long in a particular place or character’s mind. But give yourself over to Nobel laureate Vargas Llosa’s seamless narrative and a strange sort of magic surfaces.
The book’s most pervasive magic emerges from the simplest of means — white space. Or rather, its absence. Where most authors insert a line space when switching from the present narrative to a retrospective reflection, or use italics to separate imagined dialogue or internal thought from actual speech, Vargas Llosa runs everything together.
The result can be confusing at first, but the disorientation fades and you begin to experience the crowded, complicated world of these characters much as they do — riven with digressions and colorful distractions. Who hasn’t spent part of a conversation contemplating memories that arrive unbidden?
Similarly, although Felícito’s and Ismael’s stories initially seem to have no connection whatsoever, the braiding of the two narratives never feels forced, but somehow they feel dependent on each other.
Both Felícito’s and Ismael’s stories include a third group of characters — Doña Lucrecia, Don Rigoberto, and their son Fonchito. Like the police sergeant who investigates Felícito’s case, they’re all veterans of previous Vargas Llosa novels, a kind of literary repertory company. It’s intriguing how Vargas Llosa uses them here: At times they’re vital to the machinations of the plot; at other times they seem to function as stand-ins for the reader, asking questions we might ask, scratching their heads over things that confuse us, too.
One such confusion is the mysterious Señor Edilberto Torres, who apparently can only be seen by young Fonchito. Ever courtly, nattily dressed, and, strangest of all, often awash in tears, Torres appears at Fonchito’s side throughout the book. Don Rigoberto comes to believe he’s the devil, but Fonchito’s not so sure, and neither is the reader — if Torres is not the devil, he makes for an odd guardian angel or inscrutable ghost.
Is Torres the discreet hero of the title? Fonchito? Felícito? Ismael? Readers will enjoy coming to their own conclusion, likely recognizing that for all the plot’s noisy tumult, the book’s keenest pleasures — its descriptions of a cool glass of water on a hot day, of late-age married love, of the price, and finally, reward of lifelong loyalty — are its quietest ones.
Liam Callanan is author of The Cloud Atlas, All Saints, and, most recently, Listen & Other Stories.