The Discreet Hero

By Mario Vargas Llosa

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 336 pp. $26.

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Reviewed by Katherine Hill


In awarding the 2010 Nobel Prize to Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, the Swedish Academy praised "his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat." But one could also cite his examination of the good life.

Vargas Llosa's latest turn, The Discreet Hero, opens in the remote northern city of Piura. Felicito Yanaqué gets an anonymous demand for protection money for his transportation firm. The dignified Felicito takes out a notice in the local paper, declaring his refusal to pay. His bravery makes him a media darling, while his assets and beautiful mistress become targets for his foes.

Meanwhile, in Lima, insurance executive Don Rigoberto is finally on the cusp of an elegant retirement when his widowed boss calls in a favor. Ismael Carrera hopes to solve all his problems at once: Marry his beloved young maid, Armida, and forever disown his profligate, degenerate twin sons. But first he needs his trusted friend to witness his secret wedding.

Rigoberto agrees, Ismael and Armida sneak off to Europe, and almost instantly, the twins threaten legal action, putting Rigoberto's coveted retirement at risk. To top it off, there is Rigoberto's own son Fonchito, a good boy who nonetheless may be receiving visits from the devil.

Eventually, these narratives must converge, and Vargas Llosa is masterful at unspooling multiple threads. But who is the eponymous hero, the individual resisting the powers that be? Neither Felicito, nor Rigoberto, nor Ismael seems entirely up to the task. Despite their many fine principles, these prosperous, aging men are far more concerned with incurring no harm than with improving the status quo.

"That was when he'd had the idea of saving spaces," Rigoberto laments in the thick of his troubles, "the idea that civilization was not, had never been a movement, a general state of things, an environment that would embrace all of society, but rather was composed of tiny citadels raised throughout time and space, which resisted the ongoing assault of the instinctive, violent, obtuse, ugly, destructive, bestial force that dominated the world and now had come into his own home."

For this discreet hero, self-protection is the better part of valor. It's hard to know to what extent the author approves, but to the novel's credit, the idea doesn't sit too easily, even when things work out.

Vargas Llosa fans will cheer his familiar wit and erudition, as well as a number of fixtures of his Balzacian Peru. Police sergeant Lituma, the Green House brothel, and the imaginative erotic life of Rigoberto and his clever wife, Lucrecia, all return. While the portrayal of women as hookers, witches, wives, or nuns is disappointingly familiar, most readers will find some pleasure in this fundamentally comic world.

With real newspapers, streets, and local dishes mixing seamlessly with fictional lives, The Discreet Hero is a charming field guide to contemporary Peru, the kind of story that makes a certain class of Americans so eager to travel south, and a gentle reminder that wealth, more than any other force, makes for very careful men.

Katherine Hill's first novel, "The Violet Hour," is now out in paperback.