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In Vargas Llosa's Latest, Dickens Meets Soap Opera

Mario Vargas Llosa is also the author of <em>The Bad Girl</em>.
Morgana Vargas Llosa / Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Mario Vargas Llosa is also the author of The Bad Girl.

The Discreet Hero is set in two Peruvian cities, the provincial desert town of Piura and the metropolis of Lima, and tells of two aging businessmen, each of whom we meet on the verge of life-changing situations.

A transportation company owner from Piura, Felicito Yanaque, has spent most of his adult years in a bloodless marriage. He has two sons, a young mistress, and has recently become the apparent target of an extortion threat against his transit enterprise, a threat that, he vows heroically, to fight against, with or without the help of the police.

The other businessman, Ismael Carrera, is a Lima insurance executive and a widower ready to retire and travel a bit. He has a new love, but when his two playboy sons hear of it, Ishmael finds himself in the middle of a war with his spoiled and rather nasty offspring. As we go back and forth between Piura and Lima, and between these two men, each struggling to seize his own destiny and live out a peaceful second half of life, the plot builds with a tension usually reserved for novels about war and politics.

Felicito takes his initial threat — a note signed with the drawing of a spider — to the Piura police, but they give him little satisfaction. In the arms of his mistress, the attractive and ultimately duplicitous Mabel, he finds some pleasure. But the threats continue. When someone sets fire to his office and posts another threat on the door of Mabel's hideaway Felicito goes into higher gear, pushing the police ever harder to catch his extortionists.

Felicito's story comes to the reader directly by means of a third person narrative. The Lima strand, the story of Ismael Carrera, comes filtered through the experiences of a colleague at his insurance company. Don Rigoberto is a dear friend and deep thinker edging toward retirement who serves as witness to Ishmael's personal trials and family turmoil. When his friend and colleague fights back against his sons, Don Rigoberto himself becomes entangled in the war of the younger generation against the older.

Felicito to Ismael, then back to Felicito, from hot dusty Piura to damp and foggy ocean-side Lima, the story continues until finally building to the high point where the two men intersect. In anyone else's hands this material might seem drab, but I can't think of another novel in recent years that has given readers these kinds of thrills alongside and old-fashioned kind of high novelistic narrative.

As he considers how he's become caught up in his boss's struggle, Don Rigoberto puts it this way: "My God, what stories ordinary life devised; not masterpieces to be sure, they were doubtless closer to...soap operas than to Cervantes and Tolstoy...but then again not so far from... Dumas... Zola... Dickens, or...Galdos..."

Somewhere between soap opera and Dickens, Zola and Galdos, is not a bad place to be. By plucking his heroes from the world of business rather than government or the military, Vargas Llosa calls our attention to the strengths of people we don't normally think of as noble characters. It makes for a peerless novel about middle-class people wrestling with the nature of fate, happiness, the nature of success, and the struggle to lead an ethical life — a tale of two men, two families, two cities, two crises, two scandals.

And in his use of the double hero Vargas Llosa demonstrates yet again his broad reach — not one major figure but two, who, taken together, reveal a great deal about the national character and the geographical particularities of the writer's native country. After setting three of his last four novels in places other than Peru, this return home is a welcome one, allowing him to reassert his old and enduring allegiances to the Nineteenth Novel (Flaubert's to be specific) even as he exercises his modernist prowess. Let me say just a little indiscreetly this big book about ordinary people living out big modern themes is the best new novel I've read in quite a while.

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Alan Cheuse
Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.