Make a list of the crises, twists, and catastrophes that drive The Discreet Hero, the assured and engrossing 16th novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, and it sounds like a dime-store potboiler. But we’re talking Vargas Llosa here, the Nobel laureate whose own life – journalist, activist, onetime presidential candidate in his native Peru – has been anything but tame. If anyone can take extortion, arson, adultery, and mysticism and turn out literary fiction, it’s the guy who first revered novelist Gabriel García Márquez and then clocked him in a public fistfight, leaving his literary hero with a black eye.
Things get rolling as Felicíto Yanaqué, the unassuming owner of a trucking company in Piura, a small city on Peru’s northern coast, finds an extortion demand tacked to his front door. Handwritten and signed with a drawing of a spider, the note threatens Felicíto and his loved ones with grave harm unless he starts paying $500 each month in protection. But Felicito’s not about to knuckle under. All he inherited from his impoverished father, who toiled day and night so Felicíto could work his way to a better life, were his dying words: “Never let anybody walk all over you, son.”
Felicíto obeys. He goes first to the police and then to his friend Adelaida, a seer who runs a ramshackle junk shop in the city’s slaughterhouse district. But he ignores their advice to pay up and instead takes a public stand against the extortionists, a decision that leads to unexpected fame, and the swift unraveling of his life.
Meanwhile, down the coast in Lima, Don Rigoberto is about to get ensnared in a different spider’s web. Just weeks away from early retirement from his job as an insurance company administrator, Rigoberto is asked by his employer, Ismael Carerra, to help him elope with his maid. Ismael’s sons, feral twins whose felonious misdeeds have earned them the nickname “the hyenas,” had openly celebrated their father’s impending death while he lay in the hospital after a heart attack. Ismael took his revenge with a swift recovery and now plans a shocking marriage to rob his sons of the inheritance they desperately covet.
As the hyenas wreak their own revenge and, up the coast, Felicito’s stand against the extortionists veers in unexpected directions, Vargas Llosa braids the two tales together. First it’s a simple alternation of chapters, then a gradual mixing of themes – fathers and sons, aging, power – until suddenly the plots intersect, and then connect.
Vargas Llosa’s readers will recognize characters from previous works. There’s Don Rigoberto, office drone by day, sybarite by night, whose randy exploits turned Vargas Llosa’s novellas "In Praise of the Stepmother" and "The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto" into either erotica or pornography, depending on where you happen to draw that line. Rigoberto’s amorous wife is back, as is his son, Fonchito; and Sergeant Lituma, the cop too honest to take a bribe, makes a welcome return.
You get bits of the political commentary Vargas Llosa is known for – there’s talk of race, class, and the spike in thuggery and thievery as a byproduct of Peru’s economic growth – but mostly the author is having fun here. Plots beget subplots that lead to back-stories with their own back-stories. Not to worry, though, you’re in the sure and deft hands of a master. Edith Grossman, Vargas Llosa’s excellent translator, manages the high-wire act of making you forget you’re reading a translation while imbuing the language with a Latin American rhythm and sensibility.
Here’s Vargas Llosa, who attended elementary school in Piura, writing about his childhood landscape:
"... the noise of the city had already erupted, the high sidewalks filled with people going to the office or the market, or taking their children to school. Some devout old women were on their way to the cathedral for eight o’clock Mass. Peddlers hawked their wares: molasses candies, lollipops, plantain chips, empanadas, and all kinds of snacks; and Lucindo the blind man, with the alms can at his feet, had already settled in at the corner under the eaves of the colonial house. Everything just as it had been every day from time immemorial."
"The Discreet Hero" is a story of light and shadow, privilege and greed, a morality play in soap opera drag. It’s farcical and funny, filled with joy and glee and, if Vargas Llosa’s two heroes are be believed, discretion is indeed the beating heart of valor.