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Mario Vargas Llosa: Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto (The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto)

That Vargas Llosa can write novels about sex cannot be disputed. La tía Julia y el escribidor (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter) and Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service) are two of his best novels. They are funny, superbly well told and wonderful stories. This novel, unfortunately, falls well below their standard. It is the follow-up to Elogio de la madrastra (In Praise of the Stepmother), which I haven’t read and, after reading this one, am unlikely to read. The story is simple. Don Rigoberto, an insurance executive, is married to Doña Lucrecia and has a son, Alfonso (Fonchito), from his first marriage. Because of some misbehaviour involving Alfonso and Doña Lucrecia in the previous book (fantasies were translated, for a night, into reality), Doña Lucrecia and Don Rigoberto are separated, Alfonso living with his father and Doña Lucrecia with her maid Justiniana. And that’s where we are at the start of the novel.

Don Rigoberto is a snob. He collects books and art work. He has exactly 4000 books and 100 works of art. When he acquires a new one, one of the old ones has to go. Initially he gave them to charity but now he burns them. He also rails against those he disapproves of, such as feminists and sports fans. Indeed, outside the bedroom he seems to be a dull, boring and unpleasant man. In the bedroom, he is merely a fantasist. Much of the book, as the title clearly implies, consists of notebooks about his erotic fantasies about his wife, from whom he is now living apart. We get a litany of these fantasies. There is nothing wrong with erotic fantasies but, frankly, these strike me as rather boring, at least when they are happening to someone else. A couple of examples will suffice. The first involves Doña Lucrecia rolling around naked with cats (of whom she is not particularly fond). The second involves one of her former lovers inviting her on a very luxurious, all expenses paid trip to New York, Paris and Venice. Don Rigoberto gives her permission to go and then gets his jollies when she returns and tells him what went on. To save you reading the book, the answer is, sexually, not much except for a bit of cock-teasing.

Apart from Don Rigoberto’s wankfest, we also follow the story of young Alfonso, who is definitely like his father. He is planning to be an artist and his hero is Egon Schiele. At the beginning of the book, young Alfonso goes to his stepmother’s house to beg her pardon for his sin (it is not explained so, if you have not read Elogio de la madrastra (In Praise of the Stepmother) or this review, you might be lost). She reluctantly forgives him and he continues to visit her throughout the book, telling her about his ambitions and Schiele, concentrating on the erotic aspects of Schiele, as a turn-on for her, mentioning Schiele’s use of various friends and family members as nude models or Schiele’s father’s syphilis. We also get to read various anonymous erotic letters sent to Doña Lucrecia and Don Rigoberto, which help bring them back together.

So why doesn’t it work? Firstly, none of the characters is sympathetic. Indeed, not only are the three main characters generally unpleasant, even the minor ones are. Secondly, the humour is there but it seems secondary to the sexual titillation, which seems to be Vargas Llosa’s main point for this novel. If you like soft-core porn, you may well enjoy this novel, otherwise stick to his other, far greater works.

Publishing history

First published in 1997 by Alfaguara
First published in English in 1998 by Farrar Straus Giroux
Translated by Edith Grossman