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Mario Vargas Llosa: Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service)

It may not be his greatest novel. That’s probably La guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World). It may not even be his greatest comic novel. That’s probably La tía Julia y el escribidor (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter). However, it is certainly the one I enjoyed most. The English title, in particular, but also the Spanish title hide what this book is about – prostitution.

Pantaleón Pantoja has been promoted to captain in the Peruvian army. He is expecting a new assignment and, indeed, is sent out to Iquitos. He soon discovers that his assignment is far from what he had expected. Pantoja is a properly behaved, conservative, happily married man. As a result, he has been specially selected for the task ahead. The army is concerned that the conditions out in the jungle are making the soldiers difficult to control. They are getting drunk and generally behaving in a wild manner. Pantoja’s task is to set up a brothel to keep them happy. Of course, he cannot be seen to be associated with the army so has to dress up as a civilian. He tells his wife and mother (both of whom accompany him) that he is on a top secret mission which he cannot reveal to them. Of course, the whole business becomes farcical but, in the hands of a skilled writer like Vargas Llosa, who uses it to poke fun at the army, the bureaucracy and conservatives, it is superbly well done. Pantoja’s efforts at finding the prostitutes is only the beginning. He himself changes, as his wife notices, spending more time out at night and expecting more from her when he comes home. And, of course, his efforts become far too successful, which causes more problems. Other complications include a religious sect which sacrifices animals, a radio commentator who threatens to reveal all and the locals who also want to enjoy what the soldiers are enjoying. Things get messier and messier, till, finally, the military brass, realising how dangerous this is, call a halt and try to make Pantoja a scapegoat. Vargas Llosa and his readers have had lots of fun before it breaks up. There is an element of seriousness too but it is the humour that you will remember.

Publishing history

First published in 1973 by Seix Barral
First published in English in 1978 by Harper & Row
Translated by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ