Books

Mario Vargas Llosa
The Neighbourhood

Mario Vargas Llosa is a great writer. Part of the experimental Latin American vanguard of the ’60s and ’70s, and awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2010, his influence has echoed through the decades. However, it’s possible for a great writer to write a bad book – and The Neighbourhood is conspicuously not great.

Set in Lima, Peru, during the last years of President Alberto Fujimori’s term – a period equally characterised by neoliberalism and clandestine brutality – the story begins with the blackmailing of Enrique Cárdenes, a wealthy industrialist who’s been secretly photographed enjoying the company of sex workers. When the slimy tabloid editor who threatened to ruin his career and happy marriage turns up murdered, Cárdenes is the prime suspect.

While a conspiracy of secret police pulls strings behind the scenes, a headstrong young reporter and a washed-up poet, both with their own reasons for wanting to solve the murder and both residents of Lima’s hardscrabble Five Corners neighbourhood, are also drawn into the fray.

This neighbourhood – a place of hustlers, wheelers, dealers and ambition unhampered by morality – serves as a microcosm for Fujimori’s Peru, and is the crucible for this book’s exploration of the symbiosis between politics, corruption and journalism.

Vargas Llosa is superbly placed to explore these themes, having unsuccessfully run for Peru’s presidency in 1990, and more recently suffering at the hands of the tabloids when he left his wife of 50 years to take up with Isabel Preysler – pop singer Enrique Iglesias’s mother – and being named in the Panama Papers. So he has skin in the game. Speaking of skin, the through-line that holds together this freewheeling, breezy thriller is eroticism. Scarcely a page goes by without some kind of sordid rendezvous, be it a chatty orgy in a sauna or a hand job coerced from a political prisoner. There’s a lot of lesbian sex that reads as though an octogenarian novelist – albeit a hugely talented one – has recently discovered the game-changing storytelling potential of Pornhub.com.

Throughout his career, Vargas Llosa has held the powerful to account while bouncing stylistically between grim social critique and playful postmodernism. Both modes are at work here, but while the full-throated telenovela camp of the narrative can be read as satire of sensationalism and lurid journalism, as a whole the book is left flailing in its own sweaty sheets.  ZC

Faber, 304pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 7, 2018 as "Mario Vargas Llosa, The Neighbourhood". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: ZC

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