The Discreet Hero
Faber and Faber, $29.99 pb, 326 pp, 9780571310715
Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the marvels of contemporary fiction. The Peruvian Nobel Prize winner not only bestrides it like a colossus, he is also a law unto himself. It is as if he takes the legacy of a realism that is only in his hands magical (because of the enchantment he creates from it) as a kind of blank cheque with which he can license any expense of narrative in a waste of flaming invention. Except that it’s not waste; his plotting is a remarkable thing as he keeps the wheels of invention turning.
I remember being staggered by the poignancy as well as the steadiness of vision in The Bad Girl (Travesuras de la niña mala,2006), in which a kind of chronicle became a many-gabled mansion of desire and memory. What was it Lytton Strachey called Shakespeare’s last plays? ‘Dotages’: adding injury to the insult of Ben Jonson’s ‘mouldy old tales’. Well, there is an aspect to the work of the seventy-nine-year-old writer which is supremely relaxed, easy and doodling and constantly fiddling with his own surfaces and lines of narrative expectation in a way that suggests the bard in his Prospero phase: desert islands, conscious illusions and their implied metaphysics, the drowning of books. He writes as a great chef improvises, throwing pineapple and garlic together because you can make the paella from any damn thing if the basics are there and you can imagine the equation of a flavour from any incongruity of elements.