Peruvian Nobel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa is a rarity amongst Nobel Prize winners: a funny, accessible writer. I really enjoyed his erotic novel In Praise of the Stepmother, a tale of sexual morality and loss of innocence. His latest book The Discreet Hero is a page-turning mystery story written with humour and sensuality. It probably won’t be considered Vargas Llosa’s most important book, but it’s definitively worth the read.
The Discreet Hero is the parallel stories of two seemingly unconnected men, Felícito Yanaqué, a self-made man and owner of a small transport business living in the booming city of Piura and Don Rigoberto, a Lima based middle-class insurance executive. Both respectable members of their communities, their moral principles and, particularly in the case of Felícito, unyielding toughness, will be tested to the limits as they face blackmail, kidnappings and death threats.
It all starts off with Felícito receiving an anonymous letter asking for $500 a month in return for ‘protection’. Felícito, whose motto in life is ‘never let anybody walk all over you’, blankly refuses and is hailed as a hero in Piura. His stubbornness is, of course, not without consequences and soon Felícito’s long-time mistress is kidnapped.
Meanwhile in Lima, Rigoberto is preparing to retire and live ‘the good life’: listening to music, travelling and making love to his wife Lucrecia. As a last favour, his boss and the owner of the insurance company, Ismael Carrera, asks him to be the witness at his wedding. Catching everyone by surprise, Carrera has proposed to his housekeeper Armida. Ismael’s twin sons from a previous marriage are less than amused. Rigoberto is dragged into the conflict and his plans for a peaceful retirement are shattered. To make matters worse, his dutiful pubescent son Fonchito starts seeing ghosts.
From there onwards the story twists and turns, Vargas Llosa skilfully directs our suspicion from one character to the next, from dubious policemen and jealous wives to creepy cousins. The roster of colourful characters is one of the novel’s strong points, such as Felícito’s cross-eyed, shapeless wife:
A slightly misshapen figure emerged from the shadows in the room. The woman, wearing a tunic, extended a thick, sweaty hand and greeted them silently with a slight nod.
…in sharp contrast to his voluptuous secretary, Josefita.
She was no longer young, but there was something fresh and bright about her, the youthful traces in her plump, smiling face, her bulging eyes and wide, heavily painted moth. Her false, fluttering lashes were charming, her round gaily coloured earrings danced, and she had on a very tight white dress with a flower print; her generous hips did not keep her form moving with agility.
Vargas Llosa’s skills as an author are much in evidence here. He’s in complete control of the story whether he’s building up suspense, seamlessly switching perspectives, time and place in the dialogues or just being funny. Vargas Llosa writes with the confidence of a Nobel Prize winning near-octogenarian author who has nothing to prove and who simply writes because he enjoys it.
Unlike some of his previous books, The Discreet Hero is less of a novel of Big Ideas than rollicking good entertainment, although Vargas Llosa laments the rampant corruption: ‘In this country not even a tiny space of civilization can be built,’ Rigoberto concludes, ‘in the end, barbarism demolished everything’. Perhaps Vargas Llosa in old age simply wants to have a good time…just like Rigoberto.
The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa and translated by Edith Grossman is published by Faber & Faber, 326 pages.