Mario Vargas Llosa | Critical Review by John Updike

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Mario Vargas Llosa.
This section contains 1,270 words
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Critical Review by John Updike

SOURCE: "Resisting the Big Guys," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXIII, No. 27, August 24, 1987, pp. 83-6.

Considered an extraordinary stylist and a perceptive observer of the human condition, Updike is one of America's most distinguished men of letters. Best known for such novels as Rabbit Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990), he is a chronicler of life in Protestant, middle-class America. In the following excerpt, he finds that Who Killed Palomino Molero? is a compelling portrait of racism in Latin America and of virtue amid pervasive corruption.

The Peruvian man of letters Mario Vargas Llosa is almost too good to be true; cosmopolitan, handsome, and versatile, he puts a pleasant and reasonable face on the Latin-American revolution in the novel, and, in such gracious public performances as his panel appearances in New York last year and in Washington this, makes everybody, even North Americans, feel better about being a writer. Yet his fiction has a gritty side, a mode in which the ugly native truths of poverty and brutality abrasively rub through his urbane inventiveness. His recent The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, while in a sense mocking the unreal aspirations and clammy psyche of its Trotskyite hero, also conveyed the sour taste and decaying texture of modern-day Lima and in some of its incidental episodes penetratingly savored of intimate, as well as political, squalor. Even his farcical love romp, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, has some authentically harsh touches among its antic, patently fabricated episodes, and at the end returns the reader to reality with a bump. Vargas Llosa's newest fictional offering, Who Killed Palomino Molero? is nasty, brutish, and short; its first words are "Sons of bitches," and its first page displays the body of a young man tortured to death:

The boy had been both hung and impaled on the old carob tree. His position was so absurd that he looked more like a scarecrow or a broken marionette than a corpse. Before or after they killed him, they slashed him to ribbons: his nose and mouth were split open; his face was a crazy map of dried blood, bruises, cuts, and cigarette burns.

The time is 1954, in the strongman Presidency of General Manuel Apolinario Odría, an era in which Vargas Llosa has located most of his novels. The place is Talara, in northern Peru; the protagonists are two members of the Guardia Civil, Lieutenant Silva and Officer Lituma, who, with resources so slender they must take the town's one taxi on their investigative journeys, attempt to unravel the murder. The victim, they soon discover, was Palomino Molero, a young recruit at the local Air Force base, who was distinguished chiefly by his lovely voice and his skill at singing boleros. The Air Force is not cooperative, and Lieutenant Silva, who has some of Sherlock Holmes's uncanny gifts, persists in his investigation mainly as a favor to his Watson, Lituma, who has been touched and rendered indignant by the crime. Silva seems to know that the society will ill reward their successful police work and is more interested in his incongruous amorous pursuit of Doña Adriana, the hefty married proprietress—"old enough to be his mother"—of a local restaurant. Yet he and Lituma detect on, through a series of dusty and heated interviews that in sum sketch the meagre, furtive, and faintly menacing life of the Peruvian provinces. The ruling oligarchy of "the big guys" figures as a presiding apathy, an ominous airlessness in which the two policemen gasp for truth.

The Pacific coastal-desert towns are less cheerful in their torpor than Gabriel García Márquez's Caribbean Macondo. In Piura, the victim's home town, the air smells of "carob trees, goats, birdshit, and deep frying." Talara's principal recreational facilities are a whorehouse on the edge of town and an outdoor movie theatre whose screen is a wall of the parish church ("so Father Domingo determined which movies … could show") and whose projector needs to be reloaded after every reel: "The movies, accordingly, were strung out in pieces and were extremely long." The weather is hot, the nearby oil refinery's housing compound with its gringos and swimming pool keeps the locals aware of their lowly status, and an emphatic racism divides the society. Officer Lituma (who figures, at least in name, in one of the soap-opera episodes of Aunt Julia) is a cholo, a half-breed, and as such instinctively subservient to Lieutenant Silva, who is "fair-skinned, young, good-looking, with a little blond mustache." Palomino Molero was also a cholo, and Lituma sympathetically imagines him "in the half light of the streets where Piura's purebreds lived, beneath the wrought-iron bars on the balconies belonging to girls he could never love, captivating them with his pretty voice." When Molero and the daughter of the base commandant, Colonel Mindreau, fall in love, trouble is certain. In Lituma's view, the Air Force men "all thought they were blue bloods" and also thought "the Guardia Civil was a half-breed outfit they could look down on." "These damned whites," Lituma says to himself. Another character complains of being treated "like some damn nigger." Generally we credit our Latin-American neighbors with less racism than northern Europe and the United States. As the historian Allan Nevins put it: "Aside from the small white ruling class, society in the greater part of Spanish America was comparatively level and devoid of racial antipathies … Long before the Moorish conquests, before even Hannibal's invasions, the people of what are now Spain and Portugal had been familiar with their African neighbors, had intermingled with them, and had learned to attach no excessive importance to the color line. The burnished livery of the sun carried little if any stigma." But in Peru, where the viceregal aristocracy lived and ruled and where a mining economy was based upon Indian slavery, distinctions of bloodline are still jealously observed, to judge from Vargas Llosa's fiction. The question of his title implies the answer "the society"—a society, we see in the flurry of idle gossip at the end of this detective novel, willing to believe anything but the truth.

Sherlock Holmes and his myriad successors in American and English mystery fiction had the satisfaction of social approval; the identified criminal was hauled off to justice, and the detective's ingenuity was richly remunerated, sometimes, by a grateful client. At the least a significant clarification was achieved and the rule of law and reason reaffirmed. In the Peru of Who Killed Palomino Molero? the diligent detectives are demoted and their findings dissolved in a babble of xenophobic rumor: "With all these murders there had to be Ecuadoreans in the woodpile." For the book's final words, Lituma again pronounces, "Sons of bitches," and such do seem to be running this corner of the New World as of 1954. What, then, impels our two officers of the Guardia Civil to serve, via rickety taxi and rough encounter, the cause of truth and justice? Claude Lévi-Strauss, in "Tristes Tropiques," asks much the same question in regard to the chiefs of the nearly extinct Nambikwara Indians: Why do men seek power when it offers next to no rewards? He concludes, "It is because there are, in every group of human beings, men who, unlike their companions, love importance for its own sake, take a delight in its responsibilities, and find rewards enough in those very burdens of public life from which their fellows shrink." Just as no society is ideal enough to erase our darker impulses, so our more noble and altruistic tendencies persist, it would seem, even in the worst-managed system.

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This section contains 1,270 words
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Buy the Critical Review by John Updike
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