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Inheritance of Anger

By (March 1, 2015) No Comment

reetheroThe Discreet Hero
By Mario Vargas Llosa
translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
Mario Vargas Llosa’s father was a cruel man who abandoned Mario and his mother for ten years and then returned to tyrannize them. Vargas Llosa became a writer in order to annoy him. In his memoir A Fish in the Water he writes,

It is probable that without my progenitor’s contempt for literature I would never have pursued so obstinately what at the time was a game, but was gradually to turn into an obsessive and pressing need: a vocation.

But is the struggle of a son with his father an honorable source of direction for life? Or does Vargas Llosa’s origin story undermine his whole life’s work by identifying it with childish rebellion? In his new book The Discreet Hero, he seems to be wrestling with this problem.

The Discreet Hero is two stories told in alternating chapters which intersect only in seemingly unimportant ways but really serve the purpose of commenting on shared themes. In Letters to a Young Novelist, he calls this structure by the odd term “communicating vessels.” He names it one of just three or four of the “primary techniques” of novel writing: a clue to any reader of his own novels about just how seriously he takes the doubled narrative. The other clue is that fact that he’s used the technique over and over again, even in his autobiography (which splices the story of his boyhood together with the story of his campaign to become President of Peru). Of “communicating vessels” he says:

the unity that this narrative technique establishes makes an episode composed this way always more than the sum of its parts.

The Discreet Hero‘s first story is about Felicito Yanaqué, owner of a transport company in Piura, a small city in northern Peru. When he receives a demand for protection money from unnamed thugs, he refuses to pay up, even when they burn down his offices and kidnap his mistress. Felicito is a self-made man who inherited nothing from his father but a simple injunction. This inheritance remains precious to him, a patrimony to be cherished above all material success:

The advice Aliño [Felicito’s father] gave before he died, “Never let anybody walk all over you, my son,” had been the motto of his life. And Felicito wasn’t going to let those goddamn son of a bitch thieves, arsonists, and kidnappers walk all over him now.

letterstoayoungnovelistFelicito becomes a local celebrity because he resists a regime of extortion other businessmen quietly accept; but the true horror of his predicament only becomes apparent when it is over and his own son is implicated in the crime.

The second story is a bit more complicated. It’s about Don Rigoberto, who is familiar to readers of Vargas Llosa’s short masterpieces of comic erotica, In Praise of the Stepmother and The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. He’s on the cusp of early retirement from an insurance company in Lima, the Peruvian capital. He looks forward to a trip to Europe where he will be able to indulge his real passions in life: fine music, paintings, food. But a request from his longtime employer and friend, Ismael, interrupts those plans. Will Rigoberto be a witness at Ismael’s marriage — to his housekeeper? The old man has conceived of this plan on purpose to offend his sons. During a period of serious illness, he overheard them talking above him, wishing that he would die and his wealth pass to them. Full of rage, Ismael intends to cut them off from their patrimony by bestowing it on a new wife. Rigoberto agrees to do his old friend this favor, even though he fears terrible repercussions from the affront. As expected, he reaps a great deal of trouble. The sons try every expedient, legal and illegal, to undo the consequences of their father’s marriage or, failing that, to prove him mentally incompetent or that his witnesses and new wife are swindling him.

Don Rigoberto’s part in this novel is bifurcated into a bystander role in the family drama of Ismael, and into a strange family drama of his own. Rigoberto’s own son, Fonchito, has been approached by a strange man who calls himself Edilberto Torres. No one else can see this man. Is Fonchito lying? (The boy’s propensities for mischief are known to Vargas Llosa’s readers from In Praise of the Stepmother, where he seduces his stepmother.) Or, as the ordinarily atheistic Rigoberto begins to wonder, is Fonchito in fact seeing the devil? Or is his son going mad?

This couldn’t go on, he had to question Fonchito with prudence and astuteness, unmask what really went on in those encounters, dispel once and for all the absurd phantasmagoria devised by his son’s feverish imagination. My God, this wasn’t the time for the devil to give new signs of life and appear once more to humans.

Most critical notices of The Discreet Hero have spent their energy describing how Vargas Llosa displays the changing fortunes of his native Peru, its increasing prosperity and accordingly new problems. When a novelist has achieved a certain distinction literarily or politically — and in Vargas Llosa’s case both, with both a Nobel prize and a presidential campaign to his name — we sometimes judge their subsequent work by the standard of journalism rather than literature. Once they have assumed a certain world-stature, we sometimes inadvertently demote our writers from participants in the ongoing conversation of literature to mere factotums of the zeitgeist, observers of society or, at best, its conscience. Philip Roth speaks for Jewish America, David Foster Wallace for Generation X, and all you need to know about Peru can be found in the books of Vargas Llosa! Yet The Discreet Hero actually marks a withdrawal from the political preoccupations that have dominated his post-campaign novels, dwelling instead on what appears to be a less timely and more existential problem: antagonism between fathers and sons.

Why do so many sons hate their fathers, subvert their authority, rebel against their wishes? Biographically, Vargas Llosa’s most vivid role in this equation was as the son. His own father earned his hatred. So the real feat of imagination here is the way he interrogates the question from the perspective of the fathers. In this book, sons make a bad showing. They stalk their fathers’ well-earned peace like impatient wolves. Felicito’s extortionist offspring holds a grudge against him for making him enter the military; but the bewildered Felicito doesn’t understand. Even though he has always suspected this son was illegitimate (and that his wife had pretended her child belonged to him in order to blackmail him into marrying her), still,

if he sent him into the army, it was to do him a favor, because he was leading a dissipated life. He’d never shown any preference for the younger son who was his spitting image.

inpraiseofthestepmotherLikewise, both Ismael and Rigoberto are just and generous fathers. Yet Ismael’s sons can’t wait for him to die, and Rigoberto’s son seems intent upon distressing him. Vargas Llosa gives the fathers — on the face of it — the moral high-ground of victims.

But all these fathers also harbor hidden reservations. Felicito’s reservation is an obvious one about the paternity of his son. Ismael dislikes the dissipations of his brood, which are so unlike his own life of business. And Rigoberto — to my mind, he is the most interesting case, both because he is the kindest father and because his son takes the most curious revenge.

Rigoberto, over the course of the three novels in which he has featured, has surely earned the right to be considered an archetypal aesthete. We met him in the pages of In Praise of the Stepmother, a sybarite living by the theory that

as an ideal, perfection was perhaps possible for the isolated individual, if restricted to a limited sphere in space (cleanliness or corporeal sanctity, for example, or the practice of eroticism) and in time (ablutions and nocturnal emissions before going to sleep).

Rigoberto pursues his idea of perfection by an elaborate regimen of personal hygiene, a sensual ritualization of the ordinary acts of self-care. He derives great aesthetic, even erotic, pleasure from activities like plucking his nose-hairs, defecating, or cleaning the wax from his enormous ears. Moreover,

though he concentrated his five senses on [these activities], taking all the time needed to ensure the success of the operation, he had so completely mastered the rite that his attention could be divided and be partially devoted, as well, to a principle of aesthetics, a different one each day of the week, one extracted from that manual, tablet of the law, or commandments drawn up by himself, in secret also, in these nocturnal session which, on the pretext of cleanliness, constituted his particular religion and his personal way of bringing about utopia.

The lifestyle and moral commitments of an aesthete conflict with the obligations of an ethical life. In The Discreet Hero, Rigoberto is disturbed by the incompatibility of aesthetic solipsism and paternal care: he tries to be a good father, but he continually finds his son’s existence, experiences, and desires a challenge to his own life. The nature of their relationship can be epitomized by a short exchange that occurs about halfway through the book:

“There’s something I don’t understand,” Fonchito ventured uncomfortably. “About you, Papa. You always liked art, painting, music, books. It’s the only thing you seem passionate about. So, then, why did you become a lawyer? Why did you spend your whole life working in an insurance company? You should have been a painter, a musician, well, I don’t know. Why didn’t you follow your calling?”

Don Rigoberto nodded and reflected a moment before answering.

“Because I was a coward, son,” he finally murmured. “Because I lacked faith in myself. I never believed I had the talent to be a real artist. But maybe that was an excuse for not trying. 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.”

This conversation illustrates one common reason why the relationship of father and son sometimes breaks. The father, having reproduced himself in the son, is faced with the problem of his own example. Does he want his son to grow up like him? Usually, in a sense (if secretly), yes; though some fathers with their hearts set upon imitation choose outwardly to encourage difference, as notebooksofdonrigobertoRigoberto does. It’s difficult, however, to encourage difference when it actually appears: because it is difference, it is mysterious and repellant. Meanwhile, the concrete differences the father encourages the son to adopt will tend to reflect the secret aspirations of the father’s own heart. And the son, that regrettable combination of the insightful and the obtuse, does not fail to recognize those aspirations, spoken or concealed, and to despise them. To know what the father wants is enough to make the son despise it; any actual grievances against the father are at best justifications of this, seemingly a priori, rebellion. Something like this frequent — though not universal — experience is at the heart of all three central storylines in Vargas Llosa’s book.

Fonchito’s rebellion takes the form of following his father’s advice. His reports about conversing with the mysterious Edilberto Torres pose to his father the facetious question: suppose my “calling” is to be a religious mystic? Nothing could be more foreign to the sensual heart of Rigoberto. Fonchito takes up Bible study with a group of friends, encouraged by the invisible Edilberto Torres — and Rigoberto tries to support him in this pursuit. Fonchito adopts a mournful countenance and an increasingly ascetic lifestyle — and Rigoberto refuses to dissuade him. Fonchito never confirms Rigoberto’s increasingly paranoid suspicions that Torres is the devil, but the clever boy drops hints that he is something unnatural. At last Rigoberto breaks down and demands of his son that he admit Torres is a trick, an invention designed to upset his parents.

“Foncho, Fonchito, my dear son, I beg you, I implore you for the sake of all you hold dear. Tell me that everything you’ve told me isn’t true. That you made it up. That it hasn’t happened. Tell me Edilberto Torres doesn’t exist, and you’ll make me the happiest creature on earth.”

He saw the boy’s face become demoralized as he bit his lips until they turned purple.

“Okay Papa,” he heard him say, with an intonation no longer that of a child but of an adult. “Edilberto Torres doesn’t exist. I invented him. I’ll never talk about him to you again. Can I go now?”

An unconvincing confession — and Rigoberto knows it. But thereafter, Fonchito grows back to his normal self. Was it all a lie? Or did Fonchito achieve precisely what he wanted: a moral victory. The father who professed to desire only that his son follow his calling, “whatever your calling is,” has extorted a promise from him to deny that calling. Fonchito has made Rigoberto show his true self.

This kind of moral victory complicates the otherwise upright outrage of all the fathers in the novel: the sons are vindicated by the fathers’ reactions. By their provocations they bring the reservations in their fathers’ hearts out into the open. The sons of Ismael may be little shits, but surely they deserve some of the inheritance in the expectation of which they grew up? And when Felicito visits his son, jailed for his part in the attempted extortion, a minor character tells him on the way out,

“I never imagined anyone could say those awful things you said to your son in the prison. My blood ran cold, I swear.”

“He isn’t my son,” said the trucker, raising his hand.

“I’m really sorry, I know that,” the sergeant apologized. “Of course I agree with you, what Miguel did was unforgivable. But even so. Don’t get angry, but those were the cruelest things I’ve ever heard anybody say, Don Felicito. I’d never have believed it of a person as good-hearted as you. I don’t understand why the boy didn’t attack you.”

But of course the boy did attack him, through the extortion scheme, long before Felicito’s harsh speech in the jail cell. The peculiar feature of the crimes of sons against their fathers in this novel is how often they seem retrospectively justified by the fathers’ reactions.

On Mario Vargas Llosa’s self-accounting, he began to write as a boy for the same reason Fonchito becomes religious — as a knowing provocation to his father. In his memoir, he also says that

power had always aroused my mistrust, even in my early years as a revolutionary, and one of the functions of my vocation, literature, that had always seemed to me to be most important was to be, precisely, a form of resistance to power, an activity thanks to which power — all powers — might be permanently questioned, since good literature always ends up showing those who read it the shortcomings of life, the inevitable limitations of all power to fulfill human aspirations and desires.

Can there be any doubt that this conception of literature’s function bears an important relation to his original motive for writing? Yet as Vargas Llosa has lived his long life as a cultural and political figure, his commitments have metamorphosed inexorably in the direction of constructive as well as critical ideals. He has abandoned something of the modernist difficulty of his early novels along with the Cuban communism of his early politics for a lighter style and neoliberal convictions — but his concern to expose tyrannies individual, bureaucratic, and ideological has never wavered. If it is rooted, as his autobiography suggests, in his own rebellion against his father, then this book constitutes a self-critique, or at least a self-interrogation.

In The Discreet Hero, the very tool Vargas Llosa uses for the analysis of power is turned on his own power by examining what is for him the foundational struggle of the vocation for literature. Would the healthy outcome for him have been, back when he first began to write, to confess to his father that it was all a lie, and never to write again, like Fonchito and Edilberto Torres? This is the kind of earnest reflection a literary mind conducts at the age of 79. It is a reason to read The Discreet Hero on its own account and — especially — as self-reflection on the origins of a great artist. I, for one, am glad Mario hated his father.

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Robert Minto is a PhD student and teaching fellow in philosophy at Boston College, and an editor at Open Letters Monthly. He blogs and tweets.