After a long time, and a trippy interlude, I’m back with the debut novel of the recent Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, which was handed to him just recently (December the 10th) after an acceptance speech given three days earlier called ‘In Praise of Reading and Fiction’, which I recommend reading here. It’s an astounding piece and you should absolutely read it as I’ll make references to it during this and maybe forthcoming reviews of his fiction work.
Before I dwelve into the aspects of ‘The Time of the Hero’, the first published novel written by Mario Vargas Llosa, I do have some reservations regarding his political thinking that I can’t avoid. Reading his acceptance speech was a truly illuminating experience in two senses: one, he truly demonstrates his capabilities with the written word, with subtle nuances and low blows, passing them as praise and human perfection; and two, his political views are clearly the weakest aspect of his thinking. He may know how to write about political figures, political processes, specially regarding dictatorships, but that doesn’t mean that his hate towards that kind of government makes his astoundingly ridiculous political statements correct. His lack of vision of the real situation of Latin America is caused by the distance he usually has with the continent (he’s a ’citizen of the world’, according to his speech), and because of the blindfold that right-wing political thinking can be.
Mario has said that a government without a culture is a goverment that doesn’t work with the people (I’m paraphrasing here), yet he supported the right-wing presidential candidate of my country (Mr. Sebastián Piñera) who ended up winning the election and now is passing an education reform that it’s currently reducing the hours dedicated to History, now there’s a contradiction caused by the blindness of biased political thinking (‘we’re from the same political party, so I should just aid him’ nonsense). Just one more example before the review, in his speech he has called the indigenous population as an ‘unresolved issue’ in Latin America, specially due to their lack of recognition; yet, at the same time, he calls Bolivia a ‘pseudo populist, clownish democracy’, only because of its socialist democratic regime, which is the only one that’s actively working on the recognition of bolivian indigenous minorities (being the president himself an indigenous descendant).
My edition of this novel, which was acquired by my parents some time ago with a newspaper who put them out for sale, is 483 pages long, and while it’s not the longest novel ever written, nor one of the longest I’ve read (the complete Harry Potter series and ‘It’ by Stephen King battle for this spot, one being more accurate than the other), but it sure feels long, as it is divided in two totally distinguishable parts and an epilogue, whose respective chapters sometimes last more than 40 pages, being this a practically non-stop read from start to finish that goes through its story changing narrators and narration styles, from first to third person, from the past to the present, from the conscience current (primarly used in James Joyce’s experimental post-modern novel ‘Ulysses’) to the detailed description of objects and places sorrounding the characters. If you’re going to read this novel you have to be 100% aware of what you are reading, because there isn’t a character list, many times when there’s a narration on 1st person, it won’t tell you who it is, and sometimes you don’t even notice who is talking to who, when and where.
Many would say that the last few things I’ve said about the narrative of this novel are negative, but as you start reading this story about this group of kids pretending and acting like adults, you see that it doesn’t really matter, it just adds information about them as a group, even more, as a generation which is probably spoiled due to the various circumstances that lead them where they are at the present of the novel, it does matter who did what, but not to know name by name who is who, since this is mostly a portrait about a group of people whose past experiences lead their actions and responses, many of them violent, who also portraits the (then) current Peruvian society, ethnic and economical groups included.
Before, finally, totally inmersing ourselves into what this book is about, I have some reservations towards the title this book was given in its english translation: ‘The Time of the Hero’. The original title of the novel in spanish is ‘La ciudad y los perros’, translated roughly as ‘The City and the Dogs’. Can anyone tell me how something originally called ‘The City and the Dogs’ becomes ‘The Time of the Hero’? It’s curious, because the english title is similar to one of the earlier titles of this novel, until he found with a friend that the original spanish one was The title for the book. But let’s get this straight, the original title was good, as it referred to two different aspects of the novel: the interior and the exterior of the place were this happen. the city that sorrounds the place and how the people that live inside of it are called (this will make sense later). If you take the inferior title, ‘The Time of the Hero’, you may find that it doesn’t make sense according to the events that take place during its lenght, because it may refer to the statue of a hero that plays no role absolutely, or to one of the characters, whose acts are far from heroic. It saddens me to see this kind of title just thrown in for international sales, as if these wasn’t as a attractive as ‘The City and the Dogs’, maybe they thought people would be confused if there wasn’t going to be any dogs in the novel? Beats me.
Mario Vargas Llosa mentions, breafly, in his Nobel acceptation speech, that he studied in a school called ‘Leoncio Prado’. Is in that place where this novel takes place, with 15-18 year old boys as protagonists. But this isn’t a normal school, it’s a militar school, where they are instructed and taught under martial command, with salutations, marchs, competitions, besides all of the usual school subjects they must learn to graduate: maths, spanish, chemistry, etc. Once more, as with the short story compilation we looked at last time, Mario takes from his own memories and experiences to write, telling the story of a group of boys that have to act as men, even if they aren’t mature enough for it, causing troubles among them, as well as some really disgusting facts that are mentioned about the life inside this kind of facilities. It’s not usual that a novel with these kind of statements takes place in a place that really exists, as it is the ‘Leoncio Prado’ school, it is said that when this book was published it was deemed as anti-patriotic and demeaning of the institution and the military of Peru, even if it is a work of fiction, it is absolutely that many of the characters are based on real people, companions of Mario in the two years he spent in it, even with a character called ‘The Poet’, that’s obviously a representation of Mario himself in those years.
What kind of acts could this book portray that would condemn this book so much on the perspective of Peru’s militar forcest? I said they were disgusting facts, so homosexuality is clearly not one of them, I’m talking about things like paedophilia, zoophilia, theft, murder, and many other acts that are revealed as the novel goes deeper inside the psyche of these kids. A clear theme of this book, and the taste that you are left with is that these characters do these things and many other that are deemed as adult, but they are just kids pretending to be grown-ups, just because the militar rule says so, it’s an understatement to say that this book is against the military, war and all the other institutions that are represented here, including the school itself (who still exists today and checking its official website, is proud of having an ex-cadet as a Nobel prize winning writer, even if he managed it by leaving the school itself as one of the worst examples of the militar rule). If you read the acceptance speech, you can see how he talks about the change in his political ideas, he is now a right-wing personality, but before that, and surely as he was writing this book, he was communist, as the hate towards this kind of institutions shows. What is his view on the ‘Leoncio Prado’ and the military now? In the speech is notorious that he doesn’t like dictatorship, which is usually produced by a military coup, but if this ‘necessary’ institution behaves correctly, even if it bastardizes the children of the nation, should be ok for him right now.
In my last review I criticized the lack of a voice, a manner of telling stories, and a local flavor that would place those stories in a local flavor, which always gives fiction a distinct taste to the mouth of foreigners (I include myself here). Here, this fault was solved and with various other accomplishments, the novel now clearly takes place in Peru, as it uses Mario’s memories, a distinct city, a peculiar language (as well as street and militar jargon), and it’s truly amazing to see the jump in quality between these two works, as the novel finally talks about the state of Peru in that time. The characters in this novel, as they are in a famous school, come from different parts of the country, different races, different social realities, different economical situations, different backgrounds, different neighbourhood childhood experiences, which make for a sociological landscape of this southamerican country. The relations between the boys inside the barracks of the school also hint to that, as the racial stereotipes and economical relations play an important part in the characterization of these kids, and they are based on the real social demonizations that happen everyday, as Mario said many times, inside the ‘Leoncio Prado’ there was a little Peru.
So, the story starts with the theft of a chemistry test that goes wrong, and from that point on we begin to live in the ‘Leoncio Prado’, we get to know the routine, the position of every building, how they smoke, drink, how they pass their evenings, and most important, a generation. As I said earlier, while knowing who did what is important, it doesn’t really matter towards the aim of the novel, that is to describe an age and a group of people born between certain years, the generation of the author itself, it tries to explain himself of something he may have done or is going to do, or maybe he’s trying to apologize for a whole generation that was at that moment populating the streets of Lima, Peru’s capital city, or going around the world (like himself) making an image of his country.
As I said, this novel is divided in two segments by a shattering event: the shooting of one of the cadets. And that’s the only problem with this novel, when that happens, the novel takes an unprescedent speed and you have to finish it in a few days (or hours if you’re anxious enough), and when it finishes you feel that if the novel had started in that half point there wouldn’t be that much of a difference. Of course we wouldn’t have that much of a characterization, but being the two parts of the same amount of pages, the first part feels heavy, long and tiring, compared to the second more emotion driven half. I think if the second half was the entire novel, and we’re given enough mystery about who these people are, it would fight to be one of the best spanish written novels, specially due to the addition of a new narrator who gives the most peruvian of the visions to all the events that are unfolding in front of his eyes.
While it’s not the best novel of all time, and not (I hope) the best Mario Vargas Llosa novel, it still is one of the best latinamerican novels (being ‘Pedro Páramo’ by Juán Rulfo the best novel, latinamerican or otherwise), and I recommend it enough to buy or to loan at your local library (it’s still a long book, so you’ll have to either pay a fee or wait a bit between the reads). This was is the work of a Nobel Prize winner author.
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