Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book 16, Peru: "The Time of the Hero" by Mario Vargas Llosa

Gah! Yes, It’s been a while since I made progress on the map, but I was out of Singapore, swamped with work, and then chose a 400-pager to complete.

I’ve read Vargas Llosa before: Who Killed Palomino Molero and In Praise of the Stepmother, both of which were good, but not thrilling. Still, he’s universally regarded as Peru’s greatest novelist (and I’d already read César Vallejo's Black Angels, so I couldn’t quite switch to the greatest poet), so I figured I might as well read one of his more acclaimed works – Death In the Andes seemed popular, but in the end I decided on the book that launched his career as a vital author of the Latin American boom (and got him in shit with the military government), The Time of the Hero.

And it’s really good. I didn’t take to it straight away: after all, it’s one of the malest books I’ve read in a while, set in the Leoncio Pradio Military Academy: all the savagery of teenage boys in a monosocial environment plus the pressures of boarding school plus the pressures of the military, a dog-eat-dog-then-bugger-a-chicken-to-death environment soaked in pisco spirits and cigarette smoke and blood; barely a sympathetic character in sight. Plus the stream-of-consciousness, who’s-in-first-person-now? narrative style is a little hard to follow.

But the story draws you in – Alberto the Poet’s twisted crush on the penniless girl Teresa and his weird power relationship with Arana the Slave and Jaguar, the head honcho of the dorm, who organised their collective resistance to the Year Fives when they were being hazed. And through a bizarre chain of events (I won’t spoil it for you), you end up not knowing which of the characters is the greater hero – which one of them, for all his rottenness, has the more admirable qualities that drive them to resist the system for at least one point in their lives.

Rather nice that I’m able to recognize the cities and ethnic differences they talk about after my trip to Peru this year: Lima, Callao, Puno, Juliaca, Arequipa, and the Japanese/Chinese/African/European/Indian mestizaje that happens in the society, yielding all sorts of racist comments that really aren’t the same as North American racism because it really all comes down to class in the end. Also interesting is the realisation of Faulkner’s profound influence on Latin America, how his Modernism was reinterpreted decades later for the rejuvenation of another section of world literature.

Worth the read. Unfortunately, there’s only one copy in stock at Central Lending. I’ll return it pronto.

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Representative quote: The chicken was on the ground, gasping. That peasant Cava, can’t they see what he’s doing with his hand? He likes to play with himself, but it’s dead, the Boa’s the one who gets a hard-on even when he’s marching. We’ve drawn lots, everything’s ready, screw her or we’ll screw you like the llamas in your village. Don’t you know a story? What if we get the Poet here to tell us one of those stories that make your cock stand up? But that’s horseshit, I can get a hard-on just by thinking about it, it’s all a matter of will power. What if I get a dose? What’s the matter, loverboy, what’s got into you, peasant, don’t you know the Boa is cleaner than your mother ever since he’s been screwing Skimpy? Where did you get those crazy ideas, haven’t they told you chickens are more sanitary than dogs?

Next book: Luis Sepulveda’s The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, from Ecuador.

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