One 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 spends“hours 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. “She’s more than an employee to me. I don’t know what I would have done without her.” Doña Lucrecia tells Fonchito, “I don’t 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 prints”and 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 collection—lithograph, woodcut, xylograph, drawing, engraving, mixed media, oil painting, watercolor, etcetera—displaces 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.