Georges Simenon always said that he approached his romans durs, or hard novels, more seriously than his books featuring the detective Maigret. Graham Greene categorised his thrillers as “entertainments” and his more literary works as “novels”. Mario Vargas Llosa, on the other hand, never alerts us to the level of engagement we should bring to his fiction. The Peruvian Nobel Laureate has spent half a century writing books that shift seamlessly between high and low culture. While his work examines the history and politics of a place – Latin America – that can appear to locals as normal and to outsiders as fanciful, Vargas Llosa most often swaps the magic associated with his Latin American Boom contemporaries Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar for gritty urban realism.
In The Discreet Hero, we find the 79-year-old author committed to dissecting the lives and preoccupations of his fellow Peruvians. The more captivating of the novel’s two narrative strands begins when Felícito Yanaqué, owner of a transport company and a man of “cast-iron character and a bulletproof will”, discovers a note pinned to his door. The note demands monthly compensation to ensure that Yanaqué, his business and his family remain safe from “any accident, unpleasantness, or threat from criminal elements”.
After refusing to pay, Yanaqué falls into a labyrinthine world of betrayal and corruption. In the new Peru, the troubled past shadows current prosperity. The Discreet Hero continues to explore the concerns raised in the Jean-Paul Sartre epigraph of Vargas Llosa’s first novel, The Time of the Hero (1963): “We play the part of heroes because we’re cowards, the part of saints because we’re wicked: we play the killer’s role because we’re dying to murder our fellow man: we play at being because we’re liars from the moment we’re born.”
The Discreet Hero revisits a handful of characters and places from earlier books. Vargas Llosa takes us into the underbelly of Piura, where the policemen Lituma and Silva (Who Killed Palomino Molero? and Death in the Andes) investigate Yanaqué’s extortionists, and Lima, where the novel’s other, less successful, narrative follows the often-frivolous antics of the upper-middle-class Don Rigoberto (In Praise of the Stepmother and The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto).
The charge of this unsteady novel, one more for devoted fans than new readers, fizzles when it drifts from Yanaqué and his refusal to bow to his blackmailer. The Discreet Hero remains more intent on inviting us to trace previously laid threads than on weaving something new.
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