Years ago, I sat down one summer lunchtime and picked up a copy of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War at the End of the World. The next time I looked up it was pitch-black outside and I had missed both lunch and supper. Vargas Llosa’s account of the breakaway city of Canudos in Brazil, established by a charismatic prophet in the 19th century, was one of the most gripping novels I’ve read. It’s bizarre that it’s so gripping because you know exactly what is going to happen to the prophet and his followers from the beginning but you’re still eager to get to the last paragraph of the 560-page book.
The annihilation of Canudos and its inhabitants, which pretty much amounted to a civil war, is a fascinating story in itself (and Vargas Llosa was beaten to it by the Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai, whose own masterful version plays the opposite game by covering a few hours in a slim 130 pages). Canudos is a cornucopia of narration that for us pale Londoners has all the thrills and exoticism of, say, Star Wars, (except that Darth Vader wins) but Vargas Llosa’s skill in handling the elements is nevertheless extraordinary.
Vargas Llosa spent a lot of time in Paris during the zenith of the nouveau roman, but there’s something fundamentally 19th century about his writing — he loves a story, a twist, a cliffhanger, while at the same time, having hung out in Les Deux Magots, he’s not afraid to throw in a bit of intellectual glitter and sexual weirdness over his projects: after all, you don’t get the Nobel Prize for writing EastEnders. Although in a way he did. Vargas Llosa’s other masterpiece, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, is about soap operas, and although he fools around with the genre you can see, at heart, he is a sucker for all that you-are-my-son/you-are-not-my-son stuff.
The new novel, The Discreet Hero, has much that is familiar for readers of his other novels (Piura and Lima for a start). There are both covert references and overt ones such as The Green House (his second novel — where would Latin American literature be without the brothel?). As you start reading you become aware that we are very much back in Aunt Julia territory, and by the end, just in case anyone hasn’t figured it out, one of the characters comments: “The soap opera isn’t over, it goes on and on.”
The sudden reversals of fortune and shocking disclosures make The Discreet Hero an entertaining read. Two things struck me reading it. One is Vargas Llosa’s use of rapid cuts, or what almost amounts to a literary equivalent of a split screen. There’s nothing new about throwing in flashbacks or mixing up scenes, but usually in a book, as opposed to the screen, where there are glaring visual giveaways, something signals the switch: a space, some asterisks, a different font, italics. Here Vargas Llosa (or at least his publisher) gives no warning and the first few times you encounter this, it’s confusing; later on it becomes just a little irritating, because I don’t think it adds much, or indeed anything.
The other thing is that it’s evident that once you’ve got the Nobel no one has the cojones to point out dead weight in your text. Most of the dialogue is overwritten, not in a terrible, sloppy, unbearable way, but it could easily have been hardened.
If you haven’t read Vargas Llosa before you’ll probably enjoy this contemporary Peruvian tale of blackmail and family warfare (there are very obviously father-son issues in the Vargas Llosa household, as all the male protagonists in The Discreet Hero have son woes). However if you haven’t read him, I would counsel going to the earlier books first. The War at the End of the World and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter are simply two of the best novels ever written. If you have read Vargas Llosa, well, The Discreet Hero is still better than most.