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the complete review - fiction
The Discreet Hero
Mario Vargas Llosa
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- Spanish title: El héroe discreto
- Translated by Edith Grossman
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B : fine, engaging stories, but Vargas Llosa coasting most of the way
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Aunque no podemos ubicarla entre la media docena de obras maestras de Vargas Llosa, El héroe discreto es una valiosa contribución al conjunto de su obra. No aporta ninguna novedad temática o estilística significativa, pero constituye una buena síntesis de sus temas y sus técnicas más constantes. Esta obra de madurez demuestra que el autor mantiene una admirable buena forma creativa, que resulta de la suma de su capacidad de fabular y de su dominio de los recursos narrativos." - Joan Estruch, El Diario
- "This hybridity suffuses Edith Grossman’s translation. (...) Flashes of strangeness enliven a novel that sometimes teeters on the pedestrian. (...) Elsewhere, two-dimensional characters diminish the credibility of the plot." - Julius Purcell, Financial Times
- "(A) novel which shares some DNA with a classic thriller plot, but whose magnanimity, comedy and moral concerns make it something closer to a fable. (...) (T)he reversals and betrayals of the book’s interlocking plots owe as much to telenovelas as the writings of Isaiah Berlin." - Marcel Theroux, The Guardian
- "Vargas Llosa weaves the twin plot-lines together with his customary relish, and with a flavoursome contrast between posh and popular speech captured by that master-translator, Edith Grossman. In soap-opera style, we face outright tragedy but then swerve around it like a recklessly driven truck on an Andean road." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
- "The great pleasure in this book is finding him on such good form. He's still an assured storyteller, light-footed and nimbly partnered in translation by Edith Grossman. The story takes precedence over style or character, but it's a good story and turns on an elegant technique, including Vargas Llosa's method of weaving different scenes together on the page. (...) The disappointment is how limited the female characters are. They seem to be measured only by the heft of their tits and arse and their ability to coax an erection in an ageing member." - Miranda France, Literary Review
- "The Discreet Hero is somber, but there is an undertone of amusement, perhaps at the foibles of everyone, even discreet heroes. (...) Vargas Llosa is good at many things, and not the least of these is doling out information." - Jane Smiley, The Los Angeles Times
- "Ein diskreter Held buhlt mit recht durchsichtigen Reizen um Leser wohl gesetzten Alters: saftige Erotik mit stets jüngeren Frauen, bittere Enttäuschungen über eigenes Fleisch und Blut, dazu schaurige Einblicke in düstere Bars, in mühselige polizeiliche Ermittlungen sowie menschenverachtenden Boulevardjournalismus, über den sich der Autor ja auch schon früher ausgelassen hat. Es ist ein Alterswerk in doppelter Hinsicht." - Jörg Plath, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Just as Vargas Llosa’s morality-tale aspirations struggle to overcome the goodies’ predilection for anal-rape fantasy, so his desire to compose an expansive portrait of Peruvian society, complete with a cartography of its power structures, is scuppered by strange plotting. (...) The translation from the Spanish, by Edith Grossman, is turgid and tone-deaf." - Leo Robson, New Statesman
- "The book is often funny; you turn the pages with relish; it offers up plenty to think about and admire; for most of its length it immerses you in the way you hope any novel will immerse you. Of course a lot of this book’s drive and wonderful verbal energy in English are attributable to what is clearly a superior translation on the part of Edith Grossman, the admired translator of many Spanish-language greats. Yet as its title implies, The Discreet Hero is also a kind of moral fable, suggesting it may have a didactic purpose." - Francisco Goldman, The New York Times Book Review
- "The Discreet Hero, an energetic book with a more straightforward narrative method than almost any other Vargas Llosa novel (.....) The Discreet Hero is most memorable for its optimism (...) and for the way in which Don Rigoberto is forced away from his etchings and phonograph records and into the "sordid warp and woof" of the world he has scorned." - Thomas Mallon, The New Yorker
- "El héroe discreto es también lo que podría llamarse una novela moral, y no moralizadora, por supuesto. Una novela ejemplar, porque lo que busca mostrar son ejemplos de conducta." - Sergio Ramírez, El País
- "Veering between detective story, social comedy and fable, The Discreet Hero, translated by Edith Grossman, has all the author’s trademark incidental pleasures (.....) It’s a jeu d’esprit from a master; not one of his best novels, but there’s enough here for his followers to enjoy." - Lee Langley, The Spectator
- "The good news is that The Discreet Hero very swiftly strays off-message: or, rather, its narratives take us away into much more vivid, exciting and above all human places. (...) Ultimately, this novel is full of life, excitement, humour: its charm, thankfully, is anything but discreet." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
While The Discreet Hero is hardly a career-summing-up tome, Mario Vargas Llosa amusingly offers echoes of previous work in bringing back familiar characters, most notably Don Rigoberto and his wife and son (from In Praise of the Stepmother and The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto) and slipping in asides about characters such as "La Chunga, that slut !" and places like "the famous Green House", the bordello in the eponymous novel.
It makes The Discreet Hero a sort of return home -- so also to the familiar locales of Lima and Piura -- though with its focus on relationships, especially between fathers and sons, but also between old men and their (sexual) partners, it does have the feel of an author trying to sum up some life-lessons.
In The Discreet Hero Vargas Llosa offers yet another novel in which he moves back and forth, in alternating chapters, between two storylines, one largely set in the Peruvian capital, Lima, the other in the much smaller Piura.
One storyline has Don Rigoberto planning to retire from his insurance job, but finding his plans -- including a trip to Europe he had promised his wife -- complicated by his octogenarian boss's plans to marry again: Don Ismael Carrera wants to take his much younger servant, Armida, as his wife.
The marriage has to be performed in complete secrecy, because Ismael's two no-good sons, worried about their inheritance, would do anything to stop it -- and, after their father has gone through with it, seem capable of and eager to do doing anything to counter-act it, whether getting it annulled, getting their father declared mentally incompetent, or even killing some of those involved.
Meanwhile, Don Rigoberto also has some concerns about his own son, Fonchito, who keeps being approached by a mysterious stranger calling himself Edilberto Torres -- a figure that would appear to be a figment of Fonchito's imagination, but seems entirely real to the boy.
The other storyline finds Felícito Yanaqué, owner of a transport company, getting an extortion demand, and refusing to pay up in what then becomes a steadily escalating conflict -- and whose resolution also upsets how Felícito has structured his life and routine.
Felícito isn't particularly happily married -- he thinks he was tricked into the marriage, the pregnant Gertrudis foisted on him, forcing him to do the honorable thing.
He has two sons, following in his business-footsteps, albeit only very slowly, and for the last eight years he has kept a mistress, Mabel.
The overlapping element between the two stories is mentioned in passing early on, but the stories only cross and meet late in the novel, after each has reached a crisis point.
Felícito insists on standing up to the extortionists -- setting him apart from the other local businessmen, who can't believe he doesn't also take the easy and not that expensive way out:
We all thought you were paying too, Felícito.
What a foolish thing you've done.
I can't understand it and none of our colleagues can either.
Have you lost your mind ?
My friend, you don't get into fights you can't win.
Felícito is unbowed; he is a man of principle -- something he learned from his father, a hard-working illiterate man who had done everything to ensure his son would have a better life:
(H)e spent his life working like a dog in the worst-paying jobs.
Felícito remembered seeing him drop with fatigue at night.
But even so, he never let anyone walk all over him.
According to him, that was the difference between a man who was worth something and a man who was worth oly a rag.
That had been the advice he gave him before he died in a bed with no mattress in the Hospital Obrero: "Never let anyone walk all over you, son."
Ismael's no-good sons are the almost comic opposite, worthless young men who expect everything to be handed to them on a platter (and then proceed to waste anything they're given, whether opportunities or money).
The Discreet Hero is very much about fathers and sons, with Vargas Llosa's conclusions sending some mixed messages.
Quite a few sons are disowned here -- justifiably, to some extent, since they're no-good -- with Vargas Llosa finding it rather easy to cut familial ties, including some for somewhat dubious reasons.
Almost arbitrary good and bad fortune -- Ismael's new bride, for example, ultimately finds herself in a very comfortable position -- often seem more reward and punishment than the respective situations and conduct warrant.
So also Vargas Llosa's notions of heroism: while straight-arrow Felícito's is clear-cut, eslewhere there's less to it.
Among the 'lessons' on offer is Don Rigoberto's for Fonchito, as he explains:
I decided not to be a creator but only a consumer of art, a dilettante of culture.
Because I was a coward is the sad truth.
So now you know.
Don't follow my example.
Whatever your calling is, follow it as far as you can and don't do what I did, don't betray it.
Vargas Llosa tells some decent stories, and he does so reasonably well; the novel rolls along nicely enough, even if there's not quite enough follow-through to aspects of it.
The father-son issues Vargas Llosa seems to be grappling with don't seem to be fully resolved here, which gives the novel as a whole a bit of an odd feel, and the conclusion feels too neatly tied up, but it's a decent enough read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 3 March 2015
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The Discreet Hero:
Mario Vargas Llosa:
Other works by Mario Vargas Llosa under review:
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About the Author:
Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010.
He has written many works of fiction and non-fiction, and has run for the Presidency of Peru.
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