by Jaime Grijalba.
It’s been almost a year since I talked about the books of the peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, and many new readers, and I’m sure that most of the old ones as well, completely forgot that I was in charge of reading and reviewing all of his prose work in a chronological fashion, an endeavour that stopped right on its tracks after I reviewed his first novel, the amazingly written and entertaining ‘The Time of the Hero’, that went into personal territory as it dwelved in his own memories on the military school ‘Leoncio Prado’. Why did I stop? Did my constant hate for his political viewings and speeches of hate towards the left that rules certain south american countries, as well as his constant forgiveness for right wing political and social mistakes? I mean, just read the freaking speech he made when he received the Nobel, all my claims can be taken into account as subjective opinions on an objective attitude he has vented through the press during the whole year that he was the center of the literature world during 2010-11. But no, that’s not the reason why I ended (supposedly) my series on his books, after all, I made a promise to do so, and I never break my promises.
So, what happened? I lost my book. This book. The one I’m reviewing right now. How did that happen? Well, there’s a story there. It was early this year and I was just past halfway through ‘The Green House’, the second novel Mario Vargas Llosa ever wrote and the second that I was reading for this little review you see before your eyes. I had a hard time starting it, for reasons I’ll state during the lenght of the review, but I was starting to like it and was going faster and faster on my reading of it. So, one day comes, the day of the Hot-Dog-a-thon, a day that I wasn’t really expecting in terms of actual participation (I’m a freaking disaster when it comes to making hot dogs), but it was an important day for the cause: we made hot dogs so we could win some money for our drama club, where I act, so all’s good and fancy, I go to my friend’s house to help out, make rounds around the neighbour to sell our delicious (yeah, they were) hot dogs. That day I brought the book with me, I knew that there were a lot of dead hours to go. 9 pm and I had to go home, I said goodbye and got in a bus that left me near the metro station so I could go home (I practically live at the side of a metro station, so I just need people to drop me off or tell me if they live near a metro station, and I’ll be there). But oh, dammit, I left the book at my friend’s house. Well, at least he’s a responsible guy so-oh you didn’t bring it, ok, I’ll wait for next wee-oh, what the hell, why didn’t you come? Well, surely next week I’ll probably-oh my God, my school is on strike. Fuck. The thing is that I just received the book three weeks ago from the hands of the man himself, so yeah, I finished it and here I am… uhm… Ta-dah?
Anyway, as uninteresting my anecdote may be I now have to work on my actual review of the book, but before that I must say something. I just recently did a news item regarding the new Nobel prize winner: Tomas Tranströmer, and I talked about my ignorance with it, so you can laugh at it. But then an interview came up, an interview with Vargas Llosa himself talking about his “year as a Nobel Prize winner”, and how he was busy all year with interviews, local speeches, lectures, being followed around, how jealousy (as he called it) filled those who saw the prize as not deserving, and so on and so forth. I think that the unknown status of Tomas beyond the land of the poetry experts will extend the lapse of time that Vargas Llosa will have in the spotlight, now is it for good or bad, we’ll see, because when people are in the spotlight for too much time they become boring or just begin to say the most awful things to maintain their popularity and their name in the mouths of people, specially when they have as outrageous and publically condemnable opinions on some issues. Now, we will still have a place in our hearts for Mario Vargas Llosa and his novels as the spotlight will continue with the rest of his ouvre until we get a more interesting Nobel Prize winner (or I find a book with Tranströmer poetry, if you wanna help me, please contact me and I’ll drop my adress for those caritative souls). With that said, I’ll talk about the book that is the issue of this post.
There is something distinct about a book called ‘The Green House’ (‘La Casa Verde’ in spanish, an accurate translation for once, I think), specially when the mentioned house is a building that burns in a christian fire very early in the book, and then is rebuilt to its image decades later, but specially when you take into account how little of the actual book takes place inside that building: a bar and whore house in both of its encarnations. But then, you have that the rest of the book takes place outside, and with that I mean in the jungle and muddy rivers of the Great Jungle of the Amazonas, specifically, in the part that pertains to Peru, the country of the writer and where this story takes place, and with that you can say that the ‘green house’ is also the jungle where the military, the police, the religious and the indigenes roam and talk and relate to each other in different ways, and that’s how the book goes on in different threads and stories that interconnect their lives and different time periods. One of the most distinct qualities of the book itself is how it manages to tell different stories that (in some way) end up connected with each other, but having them happening in two totally different places: one is the desertic town of Piura, where the whore house ‘The Green House’ is located, and where we will get to know Don Anselmo, a stranger that one day comes and stays there to build the first whorehouse of the town. Then, the other place is Santa María de Nieva, a ‘civilization’ town in the middle of the amazonic jungle in Peru, a place filled with nuns, soldiers and policemen (and of course the always forgotten and diminished indigenes that make up most of the population but are treated like animals), and there we find out about many characters: Bonifacia, a indigene brought up by nuns that then gets kicked out and marries a Sargent called Lituma, who’s also from Piura, and that’s how stories start to combine.
But all these little plot points that I mention here I could only tell you after I read the book completely, and here is my main complaint and maybe a bit of praise regarding the book: it’s obscure. You know ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce, right? Well, this was directly inspired by it, or at least so it seems, because the literary style is near that (but not to the Finnegan’s extreme), constructively and language-wise nearer to a indigen sensibility over a irish one in the case of the english novel. Now I’ll try to explain. There are many characters and many stories that interconnect in this novel, that I already said, but I didn’t tell that these stories are separated not only in different spaces, but in time as well, and you don’t realize that until you’re way over the half of the book (at least that’s what happened to me, but now I can warn you and be more sharp into noticing this), but I’m kinda stupid for these kind of things so don’t mind me. The real problematic thing starts whenever two different times start to mix and be represented with the written word, alternating between the event in the ‘present’ and the event that they are talking about (two years before in one splendid case towards the end of the book). My main problem with this is that you start to get confused when the dialogue of one time mixes up with the dialogue of the past, and so you feel oblivious for quite a time before you catch on that these are two different time periods we are talking about, specially when similar and sometimes the same characters are participating, and more than any time when it’s in the same place. Now, does this seem like a harsh criticisism? Well, it’s not, as I like the style that was chosen for the presentation, but I was left with a question the day that I closed the book… was it necesary? Or was it just an exercise of style?
Because if it’s the later… and it seems more like it, specially as it tries to give Ulysses style of writing its full course instead of just using it for certain elements of the plot or the characters… well, if it is an exercise of style, it’s ok, you’re allowed to do it, I love a good exercise, specially when you’re riffing someone else’s style, I mean, the best spanish novel of all time as considered by the critics and scholars is a riff on the swords & knights genre of the medieval times, a parody and not much else (I’m talking, of course, about Cerfvantes’s Don Quijote, which I haven’t read in its entirety as of now). But then comes some facts that are as heavy as a rock when you try to read this Mario Vargas Llosa novel:
1. Mario Vargas Llosa is not Miguel de Cervantes.
2. MVL is riffing on a complicated, revered and already obscure writing style, the one that Joyce made famous, the consciousness stream, while Cervantes riffed on bad knighthood novels. Joyce’s novels are critically lauded, the knight books were the today’s courtroom dramas novels.
3. When you try to imitate a masterpiece, you get something that will remind of you of the better time you had reading that masterpiece, and not enjoying the actual good experience that ‘The Green House’ is.
Because it is, it is an interesting novel, it has an stupendous amount of description of the places where the actions take place, you actually can breath the moist soil and the green plants that sorround you, as well as feel the insects follow you around, and then you can feel the sand between your fingers as well as the heat and the mighty winds that populated Piura. Then there’s the story, while confusing as you read it, you amaze at how much inventive thought went into it, as it closes into itself, connecting all the dots (as novels HAVE to do, unlike movies) and stories between them, and giving the characters a past, present and future to look up at after the novel ends. And then there’s the great amount and completely constructed characters that make you feel that the town and the relationships between them are real and taken from life itself (while this was Llosa’s first novel in which he did not use personal experience for the stories that it tells, neither familiar, just journalist investigation and visits to the places where it happens, specially the peruvian Amazon). And there you have the real use of language, a really early beef I had with Llosa’s way of writing, that it didn’t give any distinct voice to its characters, not even a phrase that they’d always say, some word badly pronounced, anything, but he has overcome that with great force, combining the dialect of the indigenes with words from the different specific places this novel takes place. But no, all of that can easily be confused, forgotten, due to the overbearing style that manages to take over the whole narration and all focus points from all the characters… sometimes we can find islands of relaxation, conventional storytelling, but it’s rapidly scrapped and turned into the stream of conciousness that Llosa was so keen on using.
But I’m not alone in my criticism. Manuel Rojas, one of the most important, creative, talented and favorite chilean writers of all time had to say this after reading Llosa’s novel: ‘if we go the way of The Green House we will end up in the nothingness, I couldn’t finish Mario’s novel. Why does he do that? What Joyce did was alright… go beyond? no”, and I kinda agree with him that it is difficult to enter the novel, besides the great entertainment you get from the first stories, then it becomes quite the drag due to the obscurity of the whole thing… and it’s 525 pages long (on my edition) so that’s quite a read (for those who don’t read that much it is quite a read), so to crack into it may be a bit easy, but I understand how Rojas felt challenged and furious and maybe a bit confused, it was 1966 and maybe it was too new, but the thing is that is 2011 and it’s still a bit difficult to crack it open. Remember all this I say from my own subjectivity, after all, this novel is maybe one of the most prized on the career of the peruvian writer. He received the Romulo Gallego prize, an award also given out to García Márquez for ’100 Years of Solitude’ years later, and he was praised by many of his other coleagues (obviously not Rojas) for the cohesive nature of the tale and the strenght of the characters, but maybe they were just a bit snobbish at the time and liked the fact that people praised and liked a novel that was just a sometimes really annoying style over a really well written prose and story.
Recommend it? Why, yes! It’s a great story and a great set of characters, it doesn’t get any better than that. The fact that is muddled by this style should not be a problem after 200 pages, so I’d say that give it a read if you want to, but take into account all the things I’ve said. I liked how he managed to make every character despicable in some way, and that you can’t really root for anyone, as you end up knowing where they stand in every issue of the book. Not even Don Anselmo saves himself from having a dark spot in his persona. I’d say, read the first 200 pages, if you got the thing, do it, if you didn’t find it engaging, leave it: easy. Now, the next book shouldn’t take that long… woah, I already read that.
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