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Mario Vargas Llosa: Cinco Esquinas (The Neighbourhood)

Vargas Llosa, sadly, is one of those writers, of which there are a few on this site, whose talents have waned as he gets older. His recent books have been fairly disappointing and this one carries on down the slippery slope. It is basically a fairly predictable anti-Fujimori thriller, with some soft-core porn thrown in.

Marisa and Chabela have been friends for a long time. Both are happily married to successful and rich men. One night Chabela is visiting Marisa. Marisa’s husband, Quique (Enrique Cárdenas), is away. The novel is set during the Fujimori regime, when there was a lot of terrorism, power cuts and general uncertainty. As a result of the terrorism, there is a curfew. They have been talking so long that they had not realised that there was no time for Chabela to get home in time. It is decided that she will spend the night in Marisa’s house and they share the huge double marital bed. When Marisa wakes up in the middle of the night, she finds that, despite the size of the bed, Chabela has squeezed up closely to her. More to the point, she finds it quite pleasant. She gently responds in kind and, before long, the pair, are having a lesbian romp. When she wakes up in the morning, Marisa finds that Chabela has gone, leaving a note, saying that she needs to get the children ready for school.

The two are very close and talk and meet regularly during the weeks. However, on this occasion, for the first time for a long time, there is no communication between the two. Marisa is embarrassed to phone Chabela and waits for Chabela to phone her, which she does not. When they do re-establish contact, there is no mention by either of the two of the night of passion. Some time later, Chabela contacts Marisa to say that she has to go to their flat in Miami, to deal with some issues, and wants Marisa to come along. She has already bought a ticket for both of them, so she will not accept a refusal from Marisa. They do go and resume their lesbian relationship, despite both insisting that they still love their respective husbands.

Meanwhile, Quique, head of a major Peruvian company, receives a visit from a journalist, Rolando Garro. He has been resisting this for some time but Garro has persisted, so he finally agrees to meet him. Garro hands over to him a dossier, which he says has come into his hands and, because he admires Quique, plans to do nothing about it. On opening the dossier, Quique finds compromising photos of himself with various women, the result of an outing with a Yugoslav businessman a couple of year ago. Quique was naturally unaware that he was being photographed and is horrified. He immediately contacts his best friend, Luciano, a top lawyer, and husband of Chabela, who indicates that this is undoubtedly the preliminary stage of a blackmail attempt. Meanwhile, we meet Garro, who is the editor of a seedy scandal sheet along the lines of the National Enquirer.

We now follow not only the main characters but three others. The first is Garro, who has had a sad upbringing (abandoned baby, adopted, learned of his adoption as a young adult, ran away from his adoptive parents, after stealing all their money). The second is his assistant, Julieta Leguizamón, nicknamed La Retaquita (shorty) who, like Garro has not had a happy life but, like Garro, is vicious and determined. The third is Juan Peineta, whose life was ruined by Garro and who spends his time seeking revenge, though he is now broke, alone (except for his cat) and seventy-nine years old.

Rolando Garro does try to blackmail Quique and is sent packing, so he publishes the pictures, with devastating effect. The rest of the book is the fall-out from the publication of the photos, with distinctly unpleasant effects for several of the main characters, including not just Quique and his family, but also Garro and his staff and Peineta. Vargas Llosa gives us something of a fairly conventional thriller, with conspiracies galore, reaching to the top of the government, bloody murders and, of course, a fair amount of soft-core porn. It really is not terribly original and though the plot is certainly mildly interesting and not entirely expected, it is not what we would expect from a Nobel Prize Winner. Sadly, a writer of Vargas Llosa’s calibre should know when it is time to stop and, I am afraid, that time is long since past.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 by Alfaguara
First English translation in 2018 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Faber and Faber
Translated by Edith Grossman