Make a list of crises, twists and disasters that lead The quiet hero, the assured and captivating 16th novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, and it sounds like a penny-pot. But we are talking here about Vargas Llosa, the Nobel laureate whose own life – journalist, activist, former presidential candidate in his native Peru – has been anything but tamed. If anyone can take extortion, arson, adultery and mysticism and produce literary fiction, it’s the guy who first revered novelist Gabriel García Márquez and then beat him. in a public brawl, leaving his literary hero with a black eye.
Things take a turn when Felicíto Yanaqué, the lowly owner of a trucking company in Piura, a small town on Peru’s northern coast, finds an extortion demand taped to his front door. Handwritten and signed with a spider design, the note threatens Felicíto and his loved ones with serious harm unless he starts paying $500 a month in protection. But Felicito isn’t about to back down. All he inherited from his impoverished father, who worked day and night so that Felicíto could make his way to a better life, were his last words: “Never let anyone step on you, son.
Felicito obeys. He surrenders first to the police, then to his friend Adelaida, a clairvoyant who runs a run-down flea market in the city’s slaughterhouse district. But he ignores their advice to pay and instead takes a public stand against the extortionists, a decision that leads to unexpected fame and the quick unraveling of his life.
Meanwhile, on the coast of Lima, Don Rigoberto is about to be trapped in another spider’s web. Weeks away from early retirement from his job as an insurance company administrator, Rigoberto is asked by his employer, Ismael Carerra, to help him escape with his maid. The sons of Ismael, feral twins whose criminal misdeeds earned them the nickname “hyenas”, had openly celebrated their father’s impending death while he was in hospital after a heart attack. Ismael got his revenge with a quick recovery and is now planning a shock wedding to rob his sons of the inheritance they so desperately covet.
As hyenas wreak their own vengeance and Felicito’s stand against the extortionists on the coast takes unexpected directions, Vargas Llosa weaves the two stories together. At first it’s a simple alternation of chapters, then a gradual blending of themes – fathers and sons, aging, power – until suddenly the plots intersect, then come together.
Readers of Vargas Llosa will recognize characters from previous works. There’s Don Rigoberto, office drone by day, sybarite by night, whose exciting exploits have turned Vargas Llosa’s novels “In Praise of the Stepmother” and “The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto” into eroticism or pornography, depending on the where you draw that line. Rigoberto’s loving wife is back, as is her son, Fonchito; and Sergeant Lituma, the cop too honest to take a bribe, makes a welcome return.
You get snippets of the political commentary that Vargas Llosa is known for – talking about race, class and the skyrocketing violence and theft as a byproduct of Peru’s economic growth – but most of the time, the author is having fun here. Plots spawn subplots that lead to backstories with their own backstories. Don’t worry, you are in the safe and skilled hands of a master. Edith Grossman, the excellent translator of Vargas Llosa, manages the feat of making people forget that you are reading a translation while imbuing the language with a Latin American rhythm and sensitivity.
Here is Vargas Llosa, who attended primary school in Piura, writing about the landscape of his childhood:
“…the noise of the city had already erupted, the high pavements filled with people going to the office or to the market, or taking their children to school. A few devout old women had been on their way to the cathedral for eight o’clock. were peddling their wares: molasses candies, lollipops, plantain chips, empanadas and all sorts of snacks; and blind Lucindo, with the alms canister at his feet, had already settled down in the corner under the eaves of the Colonial house, house, just as it had been every day since time immemorial.
“The Discreet Hero” is a story of light and shadow, privilege and greed, a morality piece in a soap opera. It’s wacky and funny, filled with joy and elation and, if the two heroes of Vargas Llosa are to be believed, discretion is indeed the beating heart of bravery.