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Mario Vargas Llosa: El héroe discreto (The Discreet Hero)

I can certainly say that I have enjoyed almost every novel by Vargas Llosa – this is the fifteenth of his that I have read – and still, at the age of seventy-seven, he can produce a novel that is well written and a joy to read, even if it is not his best. This one tells two stories in parallel, which you know are going to coincide, though we only get a tenuous link between the two fairly early on but do not see how it will work out till much later. One of the stories is set in the relatively small town of Piura and the second in Lima.

The first story concerns Felícito Yanaqué, owner of Empresa de Transportes Narihualá, a transport company. He is now fifty-five. He has worked his way up, starting as a lorry driver but always with the dream of setting up his own company. He has now done so and it has done very well so that he is very comfortably off. He is married to Gertrudis. While the couple get on, there is little warmth in the relationship. Felícito feels that he was tricked into marrying her. He had a quick fling with her and she got pregnant. As she was under age, he was forced to marry her or her mother would have reported him. However, he is not sure if he is the older boy’s (Miguel) father. They have two sons, Tiburcio y Miguel(ito). Since the birth of the boys, they have not slept together, with Gertrudis now spending much of her time on church activities. Eight years ago, a fellow transport company owner introduced him to Mabel and the two have been having an affair since then.

At the start of the novel, Felícito is setting off to work in the morning, when he finds a letter pinned to his front door. It is a demand for protection money. He is adamant that he will not pay. He reports it to the police, who do not seem terribly interested. He ignores the second one, which comes with a stronger warning. This time the crooks issue a threat and, when he ignores their demands, carry out the threat. Felícito is so furious that he puts a notice in the paper saying that he will not be blackmailed. The result is that the police, at the insistence of their regional superior, take more interest, while his friend, the other owner, tells him that he and the other owners are paying to avoid trouble and he advises Felícito to do the same. Vargas Llosa is not adverse to mocking the police and he does it again as they seem to bumble and stumble on the case, while things get worse for Felícito.

The other story starts with Rigoberto who works for an insurance company, owned by his friend, Ismael Carrera. Ismael, a widower and well into his seventies, informs Rigoberto that he is planning to remarry and that he will marry Armida, his servant. Rigoberto is shocked. Ismael claims that he and Armida (some forty years his junior) are in love but the real reason is because of his sons. Ismael has twins sons, Miki and Escobita, who are approaching forty. They have been nothing but trouble, failing at school, despite going to the best schools, having private tutors and studying in the US and UK. They have behaved badly, getting drunk, doing drugs and partying. They once raped and beat up a girl, which cost Ismael a lot of money, and one of them – Ismael cannot remember which – is wanted in Miami for knocking down a pedestrian with his car. When Ismael had a heart attack and was lying comatose in the hospital, he heard the two whispering about how they hoped he would soon die and they could collect the money. The only way under the law to avoid giving them his inheritance was to give it to a wife. So, with Rigoberto and his chauffeur as his witnesses, Ismael gets married and immediately departs for a secret honeymoon destination, putting an announcement of the marriage in next day’s paper. Naturally, the sons rush to their lawyers and cause trouble for Rigoberto and the chauffeur.

There is another sub-plot. Rigoberto has a fifteen-year old son from his previous marriage (his first wife died), called Alfonso (Foncho). Foncho keeps meeting this well-dressed, old man, who seems to know a lot about him and his life but does not try to touch him. However, it seems that no-one else can see this man. Rigoberto and his wife, Lucrecia, are very concerned about this and spend a lot of time trying to deal with it. Does he exist? Is he the devil? Is the boy playing games? Or does he really see this man?

Of course, there are twists and turns in the plots as Vargas Llosa keeps up guessing. It is a well-told tale, one of Vargas Llosa’s more light-hearted works, with reasonably but not too predictable solutions. And certainly not bad effort for a man of seventy-seven.

Publishing history

First published in 2013 by Alfaguara
First English translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2015
Translated by Edith Grossman