As you may or may not know, the latest Nobel prize winner in literature is the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the most lauded Spanish speaking writers from the last 30-35 years, ”for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”.
My parents have always liked him, they had read many of his books in the 80′s and 90′s, and about 4 years ago they bought almost everyone of his novels as they appeared with a local newspaper at a right price. In contrast, my relation with this author wasn’t that good. In Language class the teacher made my entire class read ‘The Leaders and The Cubs’, which was a collection of short stories and a novella. I ended up finding the writing of this author quite boring, and got a not-so-good grade on the test that came after it.
You can guess my reaction towards the news that he had been awarded with the Nobel prize for Literature, I was literally freaking out, cursing and screaming against him, I asked how could they award him with that prize, while authors like Haruki Murakami remained without a recognition? I ranted and ranted, and you know the worse part? No one agreed with me, not even a random troll on the internet, they said I was biased because of his politics, and I was the first to say no, as I love all Jorge Luis Borges’s work, and he was probably centimeters away from being a Nazi.
So I guessed it was just that I hadn’t read enough of him, just one book wasn’t enough, and given that I had the books around, I decided to do it. Then, I figured it would be a whole lot better if people knew of my progress, so I contacted Sam who gave me his support to go on and post a series of reviews on all Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction work (plays not included) in chronological order, all before the next Nobel prize winner in literature is announced.
Now, the bad news was that I had to read again the book that bored me once, whose first half I review here, and I was kind of certain that it’d bore me, so here I go.
‘The Leaders’, better known as ‘Los Jefes’ in Spanish, was the first formal book form publication of Mario Vargas Llosa in 1959. This is a short story collection, featuring a total amount of six, all from the first period of his life, as it was released when he was 26 years old. This book is usually paired with the novella ‘The Cubs’ by the same author, released in 1967, which will also have its own review, and it’s named ‘Los Jefes y los Cachorros’ in Spanish, but it has been published in the English speaking market as ‘The Cubs and Other Stories’.
As this is a short story compilation, I’ll take the following approach: I’ll go through every one of the stories, telling something about them, going through their plot, characteristics and overall critical analysis. Then, after all of them are covered, I’ll take a global look and make my final verdict. So, let’s start with that.
‘The Leaders’ is the first short story, and the one who names this volume, it’s divided in 5 chapters and it tells the story of a group of high school students who try to put up a strike, against the director of the school, which doesn’t want to put fixed dates for the final exams. While the cause is noble, they don’t want to be surprised without having studied, the process of avoiding people to get inside of the school may be a bit violent. This one feels like a personal experience, as if Mario Vargas Llosa was one of the high school students narrating a experience he had when he was a child, still fresh in his memory at the age of 26, or whenever he did write this one. The dialogue may be a bit clunky and doesn’t sound at all like young people talking, not even from that time, which is a flaw that keep repeating in the other stories, the lack of distinct voice, all the characters talk the same, and it doesn’t matter if they’re from the countryside or the lower depths, they always construct their phrases perfectly and with excellent adjectives, but maybe here I’m going over my final conclusion, so I’ll leave it there.
‘The Challenge’ is the next story on my edition, and it plays on typical Latin-American plot devices, a knife fight between two people due to reasons unknown to the reader. There have been a lot of stories like this by many authors, and to make themselves distinct, they usually put some interesting narrative devices, a certain speech pattern, or at least a curious character, but neither is present in this one. The only thing worth noting is a twist towards the identity of one of the characters who witness the knife fight, that really doesn’t matter and just adds to an unnecessary sentimentalism through the toughness of these criminal personages.
‘The Younger Brother’ follows, and it may be the most interesting short story of the whole collection, it has a sense of place and locality which the other stories lack, this does feature customs and some language proper of Peru, which is the thing I’m looking for when I read short stories by Latin-American authors, which most likely are based on facts or news heard by Mario when he was young. The plot of this one is about two brothers who are looking for an indigene (which are called ‘indios’ or ‘indians’ in the story) who has supposedly taken advantage of their sister, sexual harassment most likely. While it does play with young sexuality, even incest, but it mostly deals with racial stereotypes and a feeling of hatred to the world, more acute to a philosophical reading than to a simple short story. It’s one of the best pieces, but still lacks a distinct voice.
‘On Sunday’ felt like a tremendous opportunity that was lamentably wasted due to the writer’s inexperience and young age. The protagonists of this story are youngsters, most probably of the same age as Mario Vargas Llosa had when he wrote it, and certainly inspired by a real event in which he may have been protagonist or not. A guy confesses his love to a girl, but she rejects the offer to go to the movies, this guy is so full of hate towards another guy, one of his friends, that’s actually fascinating to see into his mind and what is he thinking and planning. He thinks that his friend will seduce and have sex with the girl he has just confessed his love to, just because his friend is a swimming champ. When they confront each other they decide to compete for the chance to be with her, swimming in the open sea, which is always a bad idea. The rest of the story goes on a profound detail of every feel of the protagonist as he swims and battles against the waves, reminding me of a ‘Gattaca’ sequence. The story has many chances to name things as they are, but it doesn’t and it finally just stays as a good swimming story, on behalf of the great psychological portrait of male domination it could have been.
‘A Visitor’ is another one of those stories that approaches a native Peruvian voice, and this is mainly due to the circumstances of the story, where it’s placed and certain names and ranks of the military. This is a revenge story, in a lonely place, out in the wilderness, surrounded by forests, lives an old lady that it’s threatened and tied up by a visitor, who’s just come out of jail in exchange for this service, lure a dangerous criminal using the old lady as a hostage. The police waits in the woods, but the criminal does not come alone, ultimately the whole story centers in its extremely good yet predictable ending, while the rest of the story just wanders here and there, without making any strong points towards the peculiarities, if any, of the place or the criminals. Another wasted opportunity, but fun to read.
‘The Grandfather’ is the strangest story of the bunch, and also the last one in my edition. It’s about a grandfather who waits his grandson… I can’t say much about it without spoiling it, it has to be read to be believed, because the nature of the acts presented in the narration are so random and baseless, that one feels lost, as if I missed something, and that’s because of a lack of characterization of the grandfather, being more specific. I could recommend this book only on this story and ‘The Younger Brother’, because they truly are a fine example of good latinamerican storytelling, full of mysteries and unusual narration.
Now, as you may have guessed, this is a very minor work, this collection feature many weak stories, but still it’s interesting regarding two things, first it’s an easy aproach for those who aren’t accustomed to latinamerican narrative, as I think many of you are (if not, please excuse me), and second because the stories even if they’re quite hollow at first sight, they’re still quite entertaining.
Mario Vargas Llosa fails in giving his stories a sense of place, Peru, specifically because one can feel that these are his memories, or stories he heard from its very protagonists, these are all possible stories and the realism is there, palpable, but not quite attained, because of the lack of care from the perspective of the author to give each one of the phrases a distinctive voice, given through the situation of the characters. Everyone speaks as if they studied in the most prestigious university in the world, and not as what they really are, and that’s a flaw I can’t really accept from a latinamerican writer.
I do recommend it for those curious enough with the plots presented here, as they are well written and entertaining stories, the only thing is that one starts scratching a bit and looking under them and find nothing, maybe due to inexperience or lazyness.
Next: ‘The Time of the Hero‘