Mario Vargas Llosa. “The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto” | The Use of Self-introspection, Diary, Reference and Conversation.

Screenshot 2014-04-20 18.04.42One of the greatest attributes of Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction writings is the complex characters which so well represent the diversity of Latin America’s social and ethnic landscape. Using the voices of self-introspection, personal diaries and conversations, Vargas Llosa manages to create individuals with very different tastes, economic backgrounds and educational levels; women and men that are happy or sad; that love, hate or fear; that dream or despair.

 With humor and satire, Vargas Llosa’s stories deal with love, power, history and ideology, exploring a vast range of situations and problems that human relationships confront. Vargas Llosa’s novels take the readers to Lima, Santo Domingo, Paris, Mexico, Buenos Aires and many other cities that he undoubtedly knows first hand.

His historic novels, The War of the End of the World (La guerra del fin del mundo) and The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo), demonstrate his talent as a storyteller as well as a serious scholar and journalist.

Most of his novels seem to be directly related to his own life. His second novel The Time of the Hero (La Ciudad de los Perros) tells about the life of certain young cadets who confront the severe hardships from the military hierarchy, which seems to be inspired by his own experience. His father sent him to the Leoncio Prado Military School in Lima Peru at age 16.

 In a brief speech at the Nobel banquet in Sweden after receiving the 2010 Literature Prize,Vargas Llosa revealed his own background. He recalled the adventures of a 5-year-old boy – clearly himself – that read, discovering “a way to escape from the poor house, the poor country and the poor reality in which he lived, and to journey to wonderful, mesmerizing places peopled with the most beautiful beings and the most surprising things, where every day and every night brought a more intense, more thrilling more unusual form of bliss”. He ended the speech by telling the audience that the protagonist of the story, now an adult, had received a mysterious call announcing “that he had won a prize and that in order to receive it he would have to travel to a place called Stockholm, the capital of a land called Sweden.

The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, published in Spanish in 1997 was soon translated in English into 1998 by Edith Grossman. It can be classified as ‘erotic picaresque”, a genre that Vargas Llosa uses in many other novels. This one in particular is full of erotic content in the form of notes, letters and conversations that illustrate internal conflicts and delicious evocations of love scenes between Don Rigoberto, a highly educated man that is also an insurance executive and Doña Lucrecia, his second wife.

When the translation was published, The New York Times critic Walter Kendrickpresented Vargas Llosa’s book as “a pornographic novel”,focusing on the erotic descriptions in Rigoberto’s mind and real scenes enacted by the couple in bed. Mr. Kendrick and other criticsmiss the complexity of Vargas Llosa multi-layered narrative, which explores moral, emotional, physical and psychological issues, using images of famous paintings by Gustave Klimt, Félix Vallotton, Balthus and Fernando Botero, as well as quotes of Casanova, Marquis de Sade and many other classic authors skillfully chosen to be part of the story.

In addition to Don Rigoberto and Doña Lucrecia, there are two other relevant characters in the novel. One is Fonchito (nickname for Alfonso), the teenage son from Rigoberto’s first marriage, who is so obsessed with Egon Schiele’s life and his erotic paintings that he spendshours looking at them in my papá’s books”. Fonchito also uses specific portraits by Schiele in “games” to try to seduce his stepmother “innocently” by asking her to “pose like the lady in Reclining Nude in Green Stockings...”, while mischievously adding, “without undressing…” Lucrecia comments on Fonchito’s actions: “The damn kid had the diabolical habit of turning the conversation to salacious topics, playing the innocent all the while

The other character is Justiniana, Doña Lucrecia’s trusted maid and confidant, who, despite of her limited education, has the sensibility to understand the complexity of her boss’s relationship with Don Rigoberto and his son Fonchito. “Shes more than an employee to me. I dont know what I would have done without her. Doña Lucrecia tells Fonchito, “I dont have the stupid prejudices against servants that other people in Lima have”, referring to the thorny relationship that the upper classes have with their servants.

The story takes place in Lima and its three main characters belong to the educated upper middle class of the Peruvian society, which, as in most of Latin American countries, means that people with relative wealth can afford expensive homes, art collections, regular trips to Europe and New York as well as the luxury of having full time in-house staff like Justiniana. These people manage all the housework plus taking care of the children and, like in the novel, also of their boss.

.Don Rigoberto is a lonely individualistic executive full of mania and phobia kept in his notebooks, which are key part of the story. He reads and writes these notebooks late at night in his library revealing his sexually charged fantasiesand complicated relationships, many of which are inspired by books, paintings and music that he lists and describes with explicit details, which may be one of the reasons why some critics considered the novel to be borderline pornographic.

 Don Rigoberto’s life is full of contradictions. On the one hand, he “had already spent a quarter of a century at the insurance company, surrounded by, submerged in, asphyxiated by stupidity” and, on the other hand, is an erudite reader, peculiarly attracted to erotic art. As a collector he designs his library dogmatically to be “in the small constructed space that I will call my world and that will be ruled by my whims”. He wants a library that holds “four thousand volumes and one hundred canvases and printsand he adds,to avoid excessive abundance and disorder, I will never own more”. To explain his eccentric idea, Rigoberto writes, … for each book I add to my library, I eliminate another, and each image that enters my collectionlithograph, woodcut, xylograph, drawing, engraving, mixed media, oil painting, watercolor, etceteradisplaces the least favorite among all the others.

 Vargas Llosa offers an enjoyable multi-layered text, full of well-integrated references. The book is so rich that the readers are advised to make a list in their own notebooks of the books and artworks quoted by Vargas Llosa in this particular novel for the pleasure of further cross reading.


Excerpts From: Mario Vargas Llosa. “The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto.” iBooks.

Joseph Conrad and the Darkness of Heart. Part II, “Under the Western Eyes”

Screenshot 2014-04-04 11.15.02Under the Western Eyes, first published in 1911, is the other remarkable novel written by Conrad dealing with the dark human aspects linked to extreme ideologies. Unfortunately this destructive power continues to be very much alive today.

In The Secret Agent, Conrad describes the “dark heart” of a bureaucrat in great detail. The First Secretary at the French Embassy in London is ready to destroy a landmark building and, if necessary, to kill innocent people in order to force the British to adopt repressive measures against their political dissidents.

In Under the Western Eyes, Conrad chooses a terrorist as another example of the “dark heart”. Haldin, the main character of this extraordinary novel, is a young Russian student who proudly identifies himself as a “destructor”, after killing the hated repressive official Mr. P— and possibly bystanders by throwing a bomb.

Following the successful terrorist act, Haldin hides in the home of Razumov, a lonely student whose acquaintance he made in university. He immediately feels that his future is threatened by Haldin’s ominous presence in his quarters. Haldin says “It was I who removed P— this morning.” trying to make his situation clear, and goes on in a challenging tone: ”Men like me are necessary to make room for self-contained, thinking men like you”, demeaning his colleague, who now becomes an unintentional accomplice. “All I want you to do is to help me to vanish”. With these words Haldin starts to set the stage for a series of events which radically changed Razumov’s life as revealed in his diary “…I, who love my country—who have nothing but that to love and put my faith in—am I to have my future, perhaps my usefulness, ruined by this sanguinary fanatic?”

From here the story unfolds a full range of unexpected developments, showing Conrad’s unique talent as a storyteller with details of the ominous symptoms of the time in pre-revolution Russia. In the story, Conrad uses quotes from a journal that Razumov keeps after his encounter with the terrorist to demonstrate his internal conflicts, family background and the painful awakening path that connects him with extremists and revolutionaries as well as with rich powerful individuals in both Russia and the West.

The plot uses Razumov’s internal tribulations stated in his diary and the interesting conversations taking place in Geneva about the brewing Russian revolution and the incapability of the western world to comprehend it. As this emigre in Geneva explains to her English professor, “You think it is a class conflict, or a conflict of interests, as social contests are with you in Europe. But it is not that at all. It is something quite different”. The professor, who seems to be Conrad’s own mouthpiece, replies to his Russian interlocutor “A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first.” The professor goes further in his negative views on revolutions: “The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement—but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment—often of remorse.” Clearly here Conrad anticipates with great lucidity the future of the Soviet Revolution five years later. Actually his comments are still valid taking a look at the negative results of the Orange revolution in Ukraine and the Spring revolutions in the Middle East.

Among other characters living in Geneva, Under the Western Eyes also includes an influential Russian writer who advocates radical feminists ideas, and Madame de S—, a rich lady with an aristocratic family background, famous for hosting “soirees” in her chateau with Russians and political conspirators. The character of Madame de S seems to have been inspired by Mme de Staël, the 19th century French political writer, who also lived near Geneva in a chateau and was famous for her “salon” style gatherings, attended by refugees and political thinkers in the Napoleonic era

This year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the World War I in which millions lost their lives. That war was triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, three years after Under the Western Eyes was published.

There are remarkable resemblances between the fictional events of this novella and the actual occurrences which bring about historic implications. In Conrad’s novel, Mr. P—, Haldin’s target, survives during the terrorist attack while driven in a two-horse uncovered sleigh with a coachman who gets killed instead whereas in real life Archduke Franz Ferdinand was riding in an open-topped car when a terrorist threw two grenades that missed the royal member but wounded the officers badly in the car behind. In both cases, the assassination plot is completed by a second terrorist: in the novel, Haldin throws a bomb that kills the standstill target whereas in history, after the first failed attempt, Princip, the assassin, fired two shots to an almost motionless car killing the Archduke in Sarajevo and resulting in World War I.

These similarities that could be considered premonitions were again repeated 90 years later with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, 1963. Moreover, terrorist acts that target buildings as in The Secret Agent (mentioned in Part I of this article) turned into tragic reality on September 11, 2001 with the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, igniting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reading Under the Western Eyes and The Secret Agent certainly helps readers to better understand what Joseph Conrad meant by “Heart of Darkness” the title of one of his best well-known novels.

Excerpt From Joseph Conrad’s Under the Western Eyes, 1911.