I’m reading a novel for the first time in ages. It’s the entertaining The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa. Set in contemporary Peru, it’s about two men, strangers at first, who each try to “seize control of their destinies in a social and political climate where lives can seem predetermined.”
I enjoy Vargas Llosa’s books. They have a distinctive lightness and voluptuousness, a non-moralistic enjoyment of life that is the antithesis of Anglo-American puritanism. Is it the man? Is it the society?
Inspired by him, for the next while, I’ll be posting a daily book review from the archives.
Here’s the first. It’s about another Vargas Llosa book, the very naughty In Praise of the Stepmother. If you’re of puritanical bent, better look away now.
In 1988, one of Latin America’s most famous and revered writers, the 52-year-old Mario Vargas Llosa, writes what The Financial Times calls an “audacious caprice of a book” involving, amongst other delicacies, the erotics of ear-cleaning, tooth-brushing and defecation.
In Praise of the Stepmother (Elogio de la madrastra) features the story of Don Rigoberto, a middle-aged man newly married to his second wife, the beautiful and passionate Doña Lucrecia. Don Rigoberto is a sensualist of the highest order and, nightly, he and his wife climb aboard their bed to scale the erotic heights.
The Don and his wife have been afraid his young son from his first marriage, the golden-haired cherub, Fonchito, might be difficult. But, au contraire, Fonchito begs his stepmother for kisses, and nibbles on her earlobe as he whispers goodnight:
To think that her women friends has prophesied that this stepson would be the major obstacle for her … Deeply moved, she kissed him back, on the cheeks, the forehead, the tousled hair, as, vaguely, as though come from afar, without her having really noticed, a different sensation suffused every last confine of her body …
The die is cast, and it’s but a light and delightful hop from here to the full consummation between the 40-year-old Doña Lucrecia and the ageless, pre-pubescent Fonchito. Along the way are the funny, erotic chapters on the Don’s ablutions, fantasies woven from famous artworks by artists such as François Boucher, Titian, Francis Bacon and Fra Angelico, and at the end, a lovely twist.
Reviewers search for coordinates and invoke Oedipus with relief. However, he’s nowhere mentioned or implied. What is implied is the annunciation and the Archangel Gabriel. What might have happened that day if, when he called on Mary, his motives were false?
In short, Vargas Llosa writes a perfect little soufflé on “the mysterious nature of human happiness and the corrupting power of innocence,” a pistachio sorbet to Tolstoy’s sumptuous banquet on wedded relations. All grace and light and play, to be tossed off on a hot summer afternoon, about perversion.
Just two years after its publication in Spanish, the “Stepmother” is translated into English. It is the same year Vargas Llosa runs as a candidate for the presidency of Peru. He wins the first round with 34% of the vote, but is defeated in the run-off by a “then-unknown agricultural engineer, Alberto Fujimori.”
As The New Yorker would go on to remark of the novel,
Startling … Not only would an American presidential candidate not have written it but the National Endowment for the Arts wouldn’t have given it a grant.
In 2010, Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. The title of his acceptance speech nods to the “Stepmother.”