Some time in 1970 or 1971, I was picking boring books at random off my employer’s shelf – I was an au pair in Barcelona – when I opened a novel that had me laughing, and transfixed, by the bottom of the first page. My ignorance meant that I was one of the few people to discover One Hundred Years of Solitude without all that baggage of pleasures foretold. I was excited, and on learning that this was not simply one book, but part of the Latin American boom, I decided to study these works at university. Two authors gradually displaced the overripe, over-imitated Márquez from the top of my list: Julio Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa. The first constructed a dream of Buenos Aires and Paris, balancing paper-thin speculations in a bubble of eternal studenthood. The second couldn’t have been more different. A pungent brutality steeped the many voices in sexualised politics; and there was a cruel numbness that seemed the condition, somehow, of being Peruvian – I’ve been afraid of visiting that country ever since.
Vargas Llosa’s The City and the Dogs and Conversation in the Cathedral are two of the most painfully demanding and rewarding books to have been written about the articulations of violence, power and sex in Latin America before the advent of the half-baked democracies, in which militarism and imperialism have merely taken up a more discreet place. But if President Fujimori of Peru and other Latin American heads of state have done little to deserve the plaudits they receive from interested parties such as the US, the new conjuncture has certainly muffled the reverberations of the ‘boom’. Latin American writers have given up the suavity of the public intellectuel in favour of a more chastened position, each is at loggerheads with the others, diminished by the fragmentation of the politics that, except for Cortázar, they so effectively ploughed into literature. The withdrawn Guillermo Cabrera Infante feels persecuted for his anti-Castroism, a victim of liberal consensus. His great novel about life under Batista, Three Trapped Tigers, had innocently looked forward to a dramatic political change, and it is ironic that a recent issue of Time magazine praised the book as a study of oppression in revolutionary Cuba. García Márquez, on the other hand, lost at least as many admirers as Cabrera Infante for his continuing (some thought self-interested) loyalty to Castro after the show-trial of the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla in 1971. And Octavio Paz forced many readers to make an awkward distinction between his political views and his writing when, late in life and in the name of order, he became a member of the putrid Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party. Paz had turned into a crotchety despot, who famously ejected Vargas Llosa from his symposium of handpicked conservative intellectuals for calling the Mexican regime a ‘perfect dictatorship’. Vargas Llosa himself ran for the presidency in Peru in 1990, only to see his neo-liberal coalition Fredemo – an offshoot of the anti-nationalisation movement – trounced by Fujimori, who went on to apply all his opponent’s prescriptions in a far more uncivilised manner. Vargas Llosa retreated to London and to novels like this one, in between despairing explorations of the endemic, almost spiritual character of Peruvian violence, such as Death in the Andes (1993).
The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto is a sequel to In Praise of the Stepmother (1988), a naughty tale set in contemporary Lima (but with a curiously 18th-century feel), about a curly-mopped cherub who seduces his stepmother while persuading her it was the other way round. Much of the earlier book consisted of the author’s verbal fondlings of Alfonso, affectionately known as Fonchito, and Lucrecia, who between them incarnate the two poles of conventional male desire: the girlish, pre-pubescent ephebe and the voluptuous mature woman. As physical types they are conventional enough, but aspects of their personalities are reversed for the sake of piquancy: Fonchito is a devious manipulator and Lucrecia a child-wife of 40 (it’s hard to work out the boy’s age: he is described with so many diminutives that, improbably, we visualise a six-year-old, although it turns out in the second book that he’s old enough to ride a motorbike). Even so, the boy retains the innocence of his amorality and the woman is predictably ruled by her senses. The attraction between them made this a luscious voyeuristic fantasy. It was unlikely to appeal to the Chippendale crowd, though, since the only male in this triangle, the father and husband Don Rigoberto, was an ageing insurance manager with an outsize nose and ears; a misanthrope, a snob, a pedant and an aesthete who takes ages to clean a different part of his body on a set day of the week, and possesses an invariable 4000 books and 100 prints, ritually consigning a treasure to the fireplace every time he acquires a new one.
It’s hard to like any of these people, but Vargas Llosa’s new book takes up with them again a year later. Lucrecia has been expelled from the family nest and is now living with her faithful, sassy ‘cinammon-coloured’ maid Justiniana; father and son, meanwhile, have been muddling along together. The novel opens with a ring on Lucrecia’s doorbell: it’s Fonchito playing truant from school, who misses his dear stepmother and wants her back home so Papa can be cheerful again. ‘ “Say you forgive me, Stepmama,” he begged. “Say it, say it.” ’ The old ambiguities are instantly re-established. Can this limpid childlike gaze really conceal diabolical intent? Perhaps it was all a mistake? At first she declares she will never forgive him. ‘But, belying her own words, her large, dark eyes scrutinised with curiosity, some pleasure, perhaps even with tenderness, the tousled curls, the thin blue veins in his neck, the tips of his ears visible among the blond ringlets, the slim graceful body tightly encased in the blue jacket and grey trousers of his school uniform.’ Later, she confides to her maid that she’s no longer certain whether the seduction and the way he arranged for Rigoberto to find out, were acts of conscious evil after all. Nurturing this doubt and ‘breathing heavily’, she disrobes at great length in front of the mirror and positions herself on the bidet ‘at just the right spot’; ‘it was as if the liquid caress of the nimble jet of water reached to her very soul.’
All the clichés of soft porn are here, as they were in the previous book, but The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto is written with a consistendy jocose coyness that makes the other seem haunting, decadent and melancholic. Trying to discern the dark and unforgiving grip on reality that once characterised Vargas Llosa’s fiction is difficult. The seamless switches of speaker and time within a paragraph or single sentence are still there, as are a number of trademark (and untranslatable) grammatical liberties. Invoking the ‘boundary between physical reality and the imagination’, the blurb nonetheless goes too far in alluding to Cervantes and assuring us that we’ll be kept guessing ‘which episodes are real and which issue from [Rigoberto’s] imagination’. Such a promising confusion only lasts for a little while, and we soon grasp that the episodes involving husband and wife (in which Lucrecia gets off with a eunuch, a cat freak, her maid, an elderly professor and other face-savingly inferior characters, and either tells Rigoberto about it or lets him watch) are in fact his imaginings in her absence: he is a fastidious man and, of course, monogamous. The encounters with Fonchito, who now comes regularly for tea with Lucrecia, take place in real time. And the ‘letters’ written by Rigoberto to the social stereotypes he despises belong to the notebooks of the title, which also contain literary quotations and comments devised to help him get it up: in Don Rigoberto’s opinion, ‘all human activity that does not contribute, even indirectly, to testicular and ovarian arousal, to the meeting of sperm and egg, is contemptible.’
The Rigoberto of the earlier book was content with his obscurity, knowing that it concealed the treasure of ‘attainable joy’. The outside world was never permitted to impinge too much on the huis clos of the erotica. In this book, however, it irks the hell out of him and he’s turned rancorous and preachy. One by one, the letters lambast feminists, ecologists, Rotarian do-gooders, sportsmen (especially surfers), flag-wavers and Christians, for their high-minded stupidity and lack of individualism. Surprisingly perhaps, since the author is a notorious repentant leftist, the character does not attack the Left as such, and in explaining his own replacement of social utopias with the private ecstasies of the marriage-bed, only admits to having once been involved in something called ‘Catholic Action’. It was an off-putting experience, which ‘catapulted me to a defence of hedonism and the individual’ and brought on such a phobia of groups that even the cinema queue ‘makes me feel abused ... and reduced to the condition of mass-man’.
The laughable exaggeration of what are often cogent criticisms of mass culture makes us wonder what Vargas Llosa is after, damning the ideologies of social control and consolation through the mouth of a perverse character in a novel about sex. It’s potentially interesting when Rigoberto tells a tree-hugger that ‘natural resources have significance and justification for me if they pass through the filter of urban civilisation; in other words, if they are manufactured and transmuted ... by books, paintings, film or television.’ It’s ludicrous, on the other hand, and not a little counterproductive, when he adds that ‘if ... the entire planet were encased in reinforced concrete and steel beams and became a single, spherical, endless city ... the undersigned, homo urbanus to his very bones, would applaud.’ Individualism, harped on in the letters to the point of delirium, is a Vargas Llosa hobby-horse as well. His platform, when he ran for election in the Eighties, was a sort of cultivated Reaganism. And in a recent article about Chile (which, like all his excellent contemporary journalism, shows that he is still an opponent of militarism and abuses of power) he argued that the success of the country’s economic reforms, masterminded by the Chicago Boys, doesn’t exonerate Pinochet: ‘on the contrary, it proves that individual liberty, not state coercion, is also indispensable to economic development.’
But this is very different from the self-satisfied frothings of Rigoberto. Who would want to be a latter-day Monsieur Teste? And who could be? A revealing moment in this respect comes towards the end of the book, in a letter to a fellow bureaucrat (‘The Slimy Worm’), in which Rigoberto demarcates his own goals from those of his pathetic colleagues while recognising that financial security, not an asset of most people in Peru, or most of the world for that matter, is their precondition: ‘Fantasies and desires – mine, at least – demand a minimum of serenity and security to manifest themselves ... If you wish to deduce from this that my angels and demons are defiantly bourgeois, that is absolutely true.’ This passage undermines the prescriptive seriousness of his moralism, and leaves us bewildered as to Vargas Llosa’s position. And when Rigoberto laments the way ‘the world is moving so quickly towards complete disindividualisation and the extinction of that historical accident, the rule of the free and sovereign individual’, one wonders when and where such a chimera ever ruled, while finding no awareness of the opposite and equally troubling ‘individualisation’ of the world.
The novel’s structure is episodic rather than progressive. Repeating the same movements with minor differences of content, it reflects the precarious-predictable pattern of sexual fantasy, at once far-fetched and monotonous, excluding the unexpected in order to weave towards a climax that is always in its sights. As for plot, there isn’t one. Instead, there is the endless round of tea with Fonchito, when the child invariably steers the conversation towards paedophilia by way of his obsessive identification with Egon Schiele. This is confusing, as his interest in his stepmother suggests quite the opposite inclination. Anyway, the topic invariably arouses in Lucrecia the same mixture of inadmissible tinglings – and uncertainty as to the child’s true nature. Even a reader who missed the previous book will cease to sympathise with Lucrecia’s equivocations long before the moment when he sticks his ‘wet little viper’ of a tongue into her mouth, yet somehow this move leaves Lucrecia in her usual doubt. Then there are Rigoberto’s protracted fantasies, involving a regal sort of slut who differs agreeably from the ingénue he has shaped to his caprices since their marriage. Such fantasies might enable him to survive another month or so in the grey world of insurance management, but they are hard going, dabbling unctuously at the boundaries of obscenity as though trying to revive a gentlemen’s literature based on titillation. Then there are the unsent letters, Quixotic forays against a range of social windmills – Cervantes must come into it – with their repetitive harangues about individualism. Finally, there are the twee love-notes that appear in the mailboxes of the estranged couple. These read like extended Valentine’s Day classifieds, yet each spouse thinks they are sent by the other until they turn out to be the work of Fonchito, bent on a reconciliation, to what malevolent purpose we cannot know – we only ever see the child through the narrowed eyes of his parents. At the very end of the novel, the static alternation of all these elements is suddenly interrupted by a narrative hiccup: Rigoberto and Lucrecia are together again. The boy has been unmasked, but is still too young to be sent away – which seems to leave the door wide open for another sequel.
Who is this book for? Not really for women. Not for anyone with a lingering interest in the issue of community. Not for people who baulk at Lolita. Nor, sadly, for individualists, when the sexual imagination is this hackneyed. The serious questions it could be said to raise are so smothered beneath ‘haughty bosoms’, ‘tousled ringlets’ and reassuring incipient erections that in trying to visualise the person who would get through every word of this, one can only see a quaint clubroom filled with middle-aged aspiring sophisticates, twirling the ends of their moustaches with worldly chuckles. The kind of cosy fraternity that would make Don Rigoberto, to his credit, throw up.