Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa's newest novel deals with two pervasive problems in Peru and the surrounding region: rapid urbanization, and corruption. The Discreet Hero has been on Latin America’s best-seller lists for the past month, with one local celebrity even publicly giving thanks for a riding accident that gave him time to read it. It has yet to be published in English.
The story follows two parallel tales: an elite Lima businessman who decides to punish his undeserving heirs, and a self-made man in Vargas Llosa’s adopted hometown, Piura, who resists an extortionist demand. The backdrop is the new Peru, one flush with economic success and urban consolidation. The heroes struggle with shadowy mafias and barbarism instead of the repressive military figures and dictatorships of past decades.
Everywhere in the novel there are signs of prosperity and growth. Walking through the neighborhoods of Piura, characters note how streets have replaced mud tracks, and well-constructed houses have replaced the huts of yesteryear. A shiny new mall makes an appearance. The hero himself rose from abject poverty to become a comfortable middle-class entrepreneur. But this economic growth has contributed to corruption, people are afraid of the mafias, and a frequent refrain is that for a small sum, anybody can hire a hitman. “These are the consequences of progress,” explains one character. “When Piura was a poor city, these things didn’t happen.”
The Piura hero – Felícito Yanaqué – is being blackmailed by anonymous letters, signed with a drawing of a spider, demand payment of $500 per month to protect his company and family from "vandals" and “envious people.” He finds, to his great dismay, that all of his fellow transportation company owners have been paying extortionists for years.
Seeing such episodes in literature has driven home the strange reality that passes for normal in the region. In an interview, Vargas Llosa refers to a crisis caused by greed and points to mafias and the drug trade as instruments of corruption. His heroes are an homage to Peruvian society’s “unsung moral reserve.”
Vargas Llosa seems to suggest that in the face of such fears, more people should dare to be discreet heroes. His hero is willing to see his life’s work, his family and even his own life go up in flames before compromising his upright stance. Most people aren’t though, and that doesn’t make them unethical. Vargas Llosa offers them no comfort nor guide.
Top image: In this July 9, 2013 photo, a shopkeeper takes a break in the Chinese neighborhood in Lima, Peru. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)