Lucy and Todd

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The Neighborhood — Mario Vargas Llosa

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 6:08 pm

Speaking at Edinburgh University a few years ago, Carlos Fuentes was asked if he thought literature could alter politics. ‘Sometimes,’ he said, somewhat ruefully, ‘very slowly. Fiction is fiction and power is power’. The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa addresses that idea in several ways: could a tabloid journalist fight corruption by simply reporting a sex scandal? Could a novel that posits such an event have a political effect too?

The weak, pampered head of a Peruvian mining conglomerate, Enrique Cardenas, gets invited to a party by a foreigner he doesn’t know. The stranger plies him with champagne and the gathering quickly becomes an orgy, complete with prostitutes and cocaine. Cardenas manages to hide this misadventure from his wife. The foreign gentleman vanishes from Peru.

Two years later, Enrique is called on in his fancy office by Rolando Garro, the slimeball editor of a scabrous gossip magazine (they seem to have abounded in Peru, at least during the Fujimori regime, when this story takes place). Garro has a nice set of explicit photographs of the orgy. No way is he proposing to blackmail Cardenas, he insists – on the contrary, he’d merely like him to invest in his magazine, to help it become the biggest investigative publication in Peru. Cardenas kicks him out and the magazine immediately publishes the photographs.

Within hours all of Lima has clocked the private parts of this fairly prominent citizen. His wife orders him out, and he agonizes about the effect of the scandal on his mother. He says it will kill her, and it does, rather ridiculously and pointlessly, since we’ve never even met her.

As if all this isn’t enough, Enrique’s wife has begun an affair with the wife of his best friend, Luciano, his lawyer, an affair in which Enrique eventually participates. (There’s quite a bit of sexual satisfaction in this book, mostly, one presumes, for Mr Vargas Llosa.) It’s significant that as their troubles increase, the first place these four little rich people think of turning for help is directly to Fujimori.

This is a bold book, not least because the bad guys, or, that is, the very worst of the bad guys, are real and they’re still alive: Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru, and his security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, known as ‘The Doctor’. There are very few good guys. At one point when he is starting to feel a little too sorry for himself, Cardenas remembers an appearance The Doctor made at a gathering of businessmen.

A bombastic beer belly in a blue suit with yellow shoes, he did make an impression: ‘Regarding terrorism, he talked at some length, justifying his “hard-fisted” policy with an example that made the hair of some of those present stand on end: “It doesn’t matter if twenty thousand die, including fifteen thousand innocents, if we kill five thousand terrorists.”’

Whatever Vargas Llosa’s politics now (he’s been moving slowly to the right through the course of his career), it’s obvious that he despairs for Peru, particularly in terms of its culture and the freedom to have one. There are numerous references to lambent Peruvian poems and to Felipe Pinglo, father of Peruvian ballads. One of the better-drawn characters is a partly demented old man, Juan Peineta, formerly a celebrated reciter of poetry.

Being a reciter he’s poor, and he gets inveigled into replacing a TV comic in a Three Stooges kind of act. ‘The worst thing was that in the program The Three Jokers, they even had him recite … on any pretext, just so the other two jokers could shut him up by slapping him with blows that knocked him to the floor … these were the worst moments of each program for Juan Peineta: making a laughingstock of divine poetry.’ It’s an unforgettable picture of how art and ideas are treated by totalitarians.

Juan Peineta gets beaten with rubber hoses by the security police and signs a false confession, all the while telling his torturers that they needn’t bother braining him because he’s already senile. In exchange for this favour they take him out of his hovel and install him in a nursing home with his cat.

Exposed magazine, which initiated the scandal, is now run by a very small, very tough journalist called Julieta Leguizamon. Like Rolando Garro, she is somewhat in the pocket of The Doctor. But she’s got a surprise or two up her short sleeve for him. She publishes a sizzling exposé of the murder of her predecessor and, somewhat unbelievably, gets proof of it to the judiciary, which Vargas Llosa seems to suggest is singularly protected from all this corruption he’s been describing. But within the boundaries of The Neighborhood, it works. ‘That little woman had made history without proposing to, without suspecting it.’

There’s an odd quality to this novel. The political horrors are compelling, and there’s no hint of lecturing or reams of back story. It’s not an epic, either, although it could be – Vargas Llosa tells the story of the titanic corruptions, assassinations, and disappearances of modern Peru with a small family of characters. At times they seem too evenly balanced, and without sufficient investment by the author. He could have chosen to tell the story from the point of view of any one of them – the hapless Juan Peineta would have been brilliant.

In the end, we find the two capitalist couples are up to their old tricks, having drinks on their terrace, now unbothered by kidnappings and terrorism, discussing a holiday in Miami, perhaps even moving on to a foursome from three. To our disappointment at least, the problems of Peru have been solved only in fantasy.

What a place. Now –  in reality – Fujimori has been ordered to stand trial for more murders, having been only recently pardoned on ‘humanitarian grounds’, whatever those could possibly have been. ‘Doctor’ Vladimiro Lenin Ilich Montesinos is in prison. In a proverb murmured by several characters in this book: welcome, trouble, if you come alone.


(This review appeared in the Herald on May 5, 2018)