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The Discreet Hero – Mario Vargas Llosa – Book Review

My first attempt at this Peruvian writer, thanks to Milnerton Library New Books Preview.

A very interesting experience, reading the novel. I’ve wondered what it is about his writing that makes it so different? It was rich in descriptions of street life in Peru.  His characters were clearly defined, even the minor ones, and they came across as authentic inasmuch as I can judge from this distance. I felt I was being shown modern Peruvian life in a no-nonsense, straightforward way, with no bullshit  manoeuvres.

I was amazed at the calm acknowledgement and acceptance of the corruption in the police force and the judiciary – nothing special, just daily life! Whereas here in South Africa we’re obsessed with these issues. They are also part of our daily lives, but I wouldn’t say there’s widespread calm acceptance of the crookery.

Another strange  aspect of the novel was – very early on, at the beginning of the book – a graphic sexual fantasy between a married couple, in bed, as a prelude to their eventual coupling. Granted, the pair were main characters in the story, but thereafter we heard no more of their sex life. And I don’t recall any other spicy passages elsewhere.  I wondered if his editor had demanded that he spice up the tale with a bit of sex? Perhaps I’m more accustomed to having the sexy bits pop up mid-way, or as a finale in  Western novels.

Then there was a weird  secondary story thread about the aforementioned couple’s teenaged son who was seemingly receiving visits from the devil, in the form of a tall elderly man, who would materialise in a variety of mundane settings – park benches/buses/streets etc, and  hold intense conversations with the boy about religion, ethics and sex. This sub-thread is resolved in the final pages of the novel, and I suppose, provides the twist in the tale.

And yet these arbitrary side excursions didn’t detract from the main story which was how, in two separate families, the two sets of sons in each family behaved abominably, and criminally.  The two families were not related, but lived in the same city.  The point was, that the sons in both families disappointed their parents. A big issue was future inheritances, from rich fathers. Not a common theme in most contemporary novels in a Western setting.

A  major theme of the novel dealt with  moral integrity and unswervingly sticking to principles.  In some ways, what with the vivid descriptions of Peruvian street life, the moral issues, the inheritance problem, I felt as if I were reading a novel from the age of Dickens or a slightly later author. Which is not to say that the novel was old-fashioned. Not at all. This was modern Peru, warts and all. I suppose the big moral questions continue from age to age, despite geography and differing cultures.

It was one of the most different novels I’ve read during 2015, and came as a complete contrast to my previous read, which was Anne Tyler’s much praised A Spool of Blue Thread. She’s a prolific and popular author, and I’ve enjoyed some of her earlier novels. But that said: there could not be a greater contrast between her anodyne American family tale and the rich, passionate, dramatic, highly emotional Peruvian story. Thinking it over, I should not talk about the two books in the same blog post. The contrast was glaring.

No wonder Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010! From now on: I’m a fan. Bring me more!



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