My first encounter with Mario Vargas Llosa dates back to 2010. Just to make it clear, I did not read him because of the Nobel Prize – I’m not that shallow a reader. Just a few months before the announcement I read The Bad Girl, at the time the latest novel he had finished, and thoroughly enjoyed. Later I was told by better-read fans of Vargas Llosa that this wasn’t one of his best novels, and nowadays I agree with that, but for me it was a solid, gripping and well written introduction. The novel follows Ricardo Somocurcio, a Peruvian expatriate and translator, in his decades-long chance meetings with a woman he met in Lima when they were teenagers and who became the true love of his life, even though she never reciprocated his feelings. As a study of the follies of love I thought it was quite good, and in spite of the naysayers I recommend it. Then for my second reading I got The Time of the Hero, the first novel he had written. And this is more in tune with his usual work: mixed storylines, carefully-controlled shifts from third to first person narrative, a delicate manipulation from temporal events. In his first novel Vargas Llosa laid down the blueprint for most of his future novels. The story itself follows the lives of several cadets in the Military College Leoncio Prado, where young men are supposedly educated to become heroes for the fatherland but in fact is a den of drinking, gambling and vice. When a cadet dies during a training, Lieutenant Gamboa is led to believe the boy may have been murdered by a classmate and starts slowly unravelling the corruption running rampart under the lax attention of the authorities. This novel was a more complicated and not as immediately-satisfying read than The Bad Girl but with time I’ve come to appreciate it more.
Then Vargas Llosa received the Nobel Prize, and I joined an online reading group of The War of the End of the World, whose review is posted on St. Orberose. A 700-page historical novel about the Brazilian civil war of Canudos, to me it’s the author’s masterpiece and my favourite work by him. Before the end of the year I still found time to read The Dream of the Celt, another historical novel about Roger Casement, a civil rights pioneer who headed investigations into the rubber plantation crimes in Congo and Peru. Casement was also an Irish nationalist and was executed after a botched rebellion. With this novel, which was good but no exceptional, I started seeing another pattern in Vargas Llosa’s fiction: his fascination with history and real-life figures.
The reading order starts becoming fuzzy. I think next I read The Feast of the Goat, another historical novel about the assassination of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. It’s another masterpiece and on the level of The War of the End of the World. The novel interweaves three different storylines: the return of Urania, an expatriate living in the USA, to the Dominican Republic decades after the assassination of Trujillo; the days preceding Trujillo’s car ambush that ended in his death; and the chapters exploring the lives of the conspirators before and after the assassination. This was a dark, violent novel that laid bare the regime’s abuses of power and sadism. The punishment meted out to the conspirators involves some of the most horrible things I’ve ever read. And the secret Urania carries with her, the revelation of which is elegantly postponed by the author until the end, turns her into a metaphor for what Trujillo did to the country.
Next came, I think, The Storyteller. And this was the novel that started opening fissures in my admiration of Vargas Llosa. The novel, like all others, combines different storylines, in this case just two: one is told by the novel’s narrator, who once knew a man who may have become a storyteller in an Amazonian tribe; and the second narrative corresponds to the tales told by this storyteller. I absolutely hated the storyteller’s sections.
Things improved with Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which revealed yet another facet of Vargas Llosa’s work: his talent for comedy. Autobiographical, the novel is about Varguitas, an aspiring writer working for a radio station, and his infatuation with his older aunt, Julia. Fighting against poverty, family and society, the two lovers get themselves involved in a long series of hilarious travails to get married. It’s one of the funniest and sweetest books by him. But like in The Storyteller, I only appreciated the half about the lovers. The other half is about a hack writer of soap operas, Pedro Camacho. Half the novel is descriptions of episodes from his soap operas, and they’re genuinely awful. There’s something admirable, insanely heroic even, about Vargas Llosa deliberately writing bad fiction for purposes of satire, but the problem of satire is that you end up becoming the thing you satirise. And so half the novel is unreadable garbage.
The two books I read next didn’t reconcile me with Vargas Llosa. The Cubs and other stories is arguably the weakest book I’ve read by him. It’s the first book he published and you can see the young but serious writer trying very hard to impress with opaque prose and nihilistic sentiments. Fortunately he learned to relax. The Green House is undeniably a superior example of writing, the archetypical Vargas Llosa novel: abrupt shifts of perspective, dense stream-of-consciousness, non-linear storylines. I admire the execution but I didn’t feel anything for it. I was getting worried I was never going to enjoy his novels again.
Reading Conversations in the Cathedral has therefore been a balm. It’s the sort of intricate, perfectly-constructed, polyphonic novel I encountered in my early experiences with the author.
Santiago Zavala, journalist for a sleazy newspaper, unexpectedly finds an old acquaintance in a dog pound while looking for his missing dog. Ambrosio, living an abject existence killing dogs in the dog pound, was once chauffer of Zavalita’s father, a businessman already dead at the time of this meeting. For many years Zavalita has been haunted by the suspicion that his father, Don Fermín, was implicated in the murder of an underworld figure, a cabaret singer called Hortensia. Sitting down with Ambrosio in a bar called The Cathedral, they start reminiscing about the fifties, when Peru was under the rule of dictator Manuel A. Odría.
Don Fermín, in spite of his ties with the regime, loves his son and envisions a successful future as lawyer for him. Zavalita, however, resents him and enrols in the National University of San Marcos, a hotbed of left-wing activity, where he briefly flirts with the activist group Cahuide, just to spite his father. He experiences initial insecurities about integrating the group because of his bourgeois background. “The best revolutionaries came out from the bourgeoisie,” one of the Cahuide reassures Zavalita when declares in a meeting that he’s the son of Fermín Zavala. But his revolutionary career is interrupted when authorities detain him and his friends, and his father has to his influence with Cayo Bermúdez, the violent minister of police, to release him. Embarassed and anodyne, Santiago chooses to leave an independent life cultivating mediocrity, neglecting his studies and becoming more and more involved in his journalistic work for La Crónica, a second-rate newspaper. Zavalita’s lack of willpower becomes a metaphor for Peru itself. “The truth is I’m disoriented. I know what I don’t want to be, but not what I would like to be. I don’t want to be a lawyer, or rich, or important, uncle. I don’t want to be at fifty what my father is, what my father’s friends are,” he says to his uncle, who fails to convince him to go back to studies. As journalist, Zavalita starts sleeping during the day and living a bohemian life during the night, settling into the cosy insignificance of his job. Later he marries a nurse from the lower class, breaking his mother’s heart.
Although he spends years trying to ignore his family, it is his job at La Crónica that reunites him with his father. One day a woman named Hortensia shows up dead. The ex-lover of Cayo Bermúdez, the minister in charge of political repression in Peru, she falls into poverty when the fearful minister loses favour with Odría and is forced to travel abroad. A former businessman until his friend Colonel Espina invites him to work for the government, Cayo quickly rises in the government’s ranks and becomes a symbol of torture, arrests and abuse of power in the dictatorship. Like in The Feast of the Goat, Vargas Llosa triumphs in showing the complex inner workings of a dictatorship and its many-sided effects on society.
When La Crónica starts investigating the murder of Hortensia, Zavalitas is loaned to Becerrita, the editor of the crime section, to help him out in the macabre investigation in order to crank out more lurid details and keep the story alive to sell more newspapers. But they investigate so thoroughly, surpassing even the cops, that Zavalita discovers ties to his father. During this part of the novel the tension grew to gut-wrenching heights I hadn’t experienced in years, at least not since re-reading James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. Although the investigation runs into a dead end, the case continues to torment him for years. The mystery is too interesting to reveal it. I’ll just repeat that for a hundred pages or so it becomes one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read.
Although Zavalita abandoned political activism after his college years, and withdrew into his own world, even stopping to read newspapers, he never makes peace with his father. Ironically only Ambrosio defends his former master, insisting that he had a kinder nature than his son thought. Indeed Don Fermín, like all the characters in the novel, is multi-layered. Although he originally has ties with the regime he loses his contracts and nearly ruins his family when he joins a coup that is later stopped. And regardless of his political connections, his love for Zavalita is never put into question.
Conversations in the Cathedral is one of Mario Vargas Llosa’s best novels. It’s the kind of novel I needed to restore my faith in this great novelist. It showcases all his tricks in their most refined instances: non-linear storylines, multiple narratives, a wide array of voices, irony, humour, incisive social commentary and extraordinary gifts for creating a captivating story.