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Mario Vargas Llosa: La casa verde (The Green House)

The joy of reading Vargas Llosa is that you never know which writer you are going to get – the witty intellectual, the writer seriously concerned about the social conditions of his own country, the anthropologist, the realist, the fabulist or a combination. This novel, which evokes the lush jungles of the Peru as well as its dry deserts, shows the cruelty suffered by the poor of Peru and how they are exploited by the rubber companies and the government but it is by no means a gritty social realism novel. It spans three generations but it is certainly not a family saga. It is picaresque in part, fragmented in its approach as it jumps in both time and place and it is fantastic, not in the magic realism sense of many of his Latin American contemporaries but in the sense of evoking, at least for non-Peruvians, an exotic, shimmering and unreal landscape and environment.

The green house of the title is a brothel, run by Anselmo and La Chunga. It is even burned down by the locals but Anselmo and La Chunga rebuild it. You can take the green house as simply a brothel or a symbol of fertility and sexuality. Sexuality, however, is often brutal in this novel. La Chunga’s mother, Toñita, was coming across the desert with her family when they are attacked by bandits and killed except for Toñita, who is left blind, deaf and mute. Anselmo kidnaps and rapes her. She dies giving birth to La Chunga. There are two other stories mixed into this novel. The first is about a native girl, Bonifacia, who is kidnapped and forced to go into a convent to civilise her. After freeing others from the convent, she marries an army sergeant but is raped by his friends after he is sent to jail for killing a local landowner. Bonifacia then works as a prostitute for La Chunga. The third story concerns Fushía who had escaped from prison in Brazil and worked in the illegal rubber trade, exploiting the local Indians. He tells his story while fleeing the police. Vargas Llosa intertwines these stories so that we get fragments at a time, often out of chronological sequence, the aim, of course, being that we focus not so much on the plot but on the characters who are formed by their experiences both past and present. And, as Vargas Llosa is such a superb writer, it works.

Publishing history

First published in 1965 by Seix Barral
First published in English in 1968 by Harper & Row
Translated by Gregory Rabassa