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'The Discreet Hero' Triumphs

“The Discreet Hero” by Mario Vargas Llosa (FSG), translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

Imagine La Rosa Nautica, an upscale restaurant in Lima, Peru. Tourists sit around seaside tables, looking out at gulls and surfers. Two wealthy old men, Don Ismael Carrera and his friend, Don Rigoberto, sit and order a luxurious meal. Ismael describes the scandal his upcoming marriage will cause in Lima and the annoyance it will occasion for his sons, then abruptly adds that his sons will likely have him “killed by a hired assassin, if they can.” Across Peru, in the provincial city of Piura, small business owner Felícito Yanaqué begins another ordinary day in his sleepy hometown, only to find a letter on his door notifying him that he is going to be extorted very soon. The extortion letter is signed, whimsically, with “a rough drawing of what seemed to be a spider.”

Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The Discreet Hero” (translated by Edith Grossman) depicts a pleasant, prosperous Peru; no violence to speak of actually takes place in this new novel. Yet the shadow of violence extends throughout, popping up almost absurdly in the oddest of situations. Either despite or because of its prosperity, Vargas Llosa’s Peru is terribly corrupt—but he makes it lovable anyway. Like Peru, “The Discreet Hero” hides considerable energies behind an appearance of drifting surf and can be magnetically exhortative as well as almost frustratingly remote.

Vargas Llosa is a Nobel laureate; this is not his first swing at the bat. In this latest endeavor he reuses many elements from previous novels; in particular, his signature interlacing dialogue technique, which merges two conversations together to simulate a flashback, makes a return , as do characters from past novels. That said, “The Discreet Hero” is not merely a rehashing of earlier work. It demurely ventures into the new and continues the old. Judging by the mentions of Justin Bieber’s rise and the Eurozone crisis in the final chapter, it is set around 2010, making it the first Vargas Llosa novel to focus on its own time period since “The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto” came out in 1997. And yes, that’s the same Don Rigoberto from the introduction, a delightful, urbane man who brings an aesthete’s narration to Ismael Carrera’s rather sordid story.

Vargas Llosa frequently mentions the fact that Peru has enjoyed robust economic growth for the last couple of decades, and the novel’s two storylines are, at first glance, about money: The extortionists demand money from Felícito, and Ismael remarries primarily to disinherit his sons. But money is only ever a medium of exchange. What’s actually at stake? Another clue presents itself when a number of characters tie Peru’s prosperity to increasing criminal activity. When Felícito takes his case to the police, the sergeant gives him a bizarre lecture on how organized crime is “the price of progress.” That said, apart from a magical chapter when Vargas Llosa slips into the head of the police sergeant and the style of a crime novel, “The Discreet Hero” is not exactly about crime. Nor is it about corruption among the police, the military, or some other government bureaucracy, all of which are familiar targets for the author. Vargas Llosa seems much more concerned with the state of Peru’s youth, and the corruption that worries him is more spiritual than the mere misappropriation of money. “The Discreet Hero” is filled with fears that children, especially sons, are turning out wrong; a number of characters theorize that those children are being spoiled. In the end, however, the events of the novel disprove that theory: Fault rests with society in general, not just parental overindulgence.

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Against this malign society, Vargas Llosa pits his model of the “discreet hero,”  creating memorable, heartwarming individuals who embody a kind of self-deprecation that may not seem heroic at first. Felícito, for instance, is hardly an impressive man at first glance. Everyone comments on how small he is; he is always all buttoned up. Yet Felícito proves utterly incorruptible, determined to obey his father’s charge not to let people “walk all over him.” Vargas Llosa’s emphatic pen makes his people unexpectedly heroic, even though none of their actions are particularly dramatic. Despite the singular declension of the title, Felícito is not the only candidate who qualifies for the designation of “discreet hero.” A number of characters stand up against corruption, both tangible and spiritual. It is safe to say that few good readers can go through this book without coming to admire Felícito, or growing fond of Don Rigoberto.

The dual storylines of the novel follow a nearly identical dramatic structure: They move from playful absurdity towards very real dramatic tension, climax simultaneously, and spend the final portion of the book in a state of shared detachment. The point at which these two storylines converge would be extremely unsatisfying in the hands of a less skillful writer than Vargas Llosa, because the meeting point does almost nothing to advance the plot of either storyline. One might reasonably wonder what exactly the point of such an intertwining structure might be. The nobility and singularity of Vargas Llosa’s characters, however, carries readers through in every part.

On closer scrutiny, much of “The Discreet Hero” feels just as elusive of definite meanings as this plotline convergence point. Situations intrigue and tease, always just out of the reader’s reach. For instance, Don Rigoberto is worried throughout the book about his son, Fonchito. Though friends, family, and even a psychiatrist swear Fonchito is perfectly sane, his son nevertheless continues to see and talk with a man named Edilberto Torres whom no one else can see. Like a human Rorschach blot, Torres absorbs interpretations more revealing of Rigoberto’s own mind than anything else: Fonchito is mad, Fonchito sees the devil, Fonchito is lying to him.

Vargas Llosa never gives an entirely satisfying explanation to the problem of Edilberto Torres. And yet the story is so interesting that he must be forgiven for leaving his readers hanging. That is the way of his Peru: flawed and often inexplicable, but always, always, worth a visit.

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