thu 09/02/2023

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Neighbourhood review - a surprisingly sketchy telenovela | reviews, news & interviews

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Neighbourhood review - a surprisingly sketchy telenovela

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Neighbourhood review - a surprisingly sketchy telenovela

The Peruvian Nobel laureate launches a belated attack on a political rival in a light erotic thriller

Mario Vargas Llosa: pervy pulp

Mario Vargas Llosa has written a thriller which opens eye-poppingly. Two wives, one staying over with the other, discover in the course of the night that they are in fact bisexual.

“Chabela stayed and slept in the bed with Marisa,” it says towards the bottom of page one, “and now Marisa felt the sole of her friend’s foot on her right instep.” One thing leads to another and for the duration of the novel, set in Lima, the two best friends, whose husbands are also best friends, nip off to Miami or the sauna to pleasure each other in quite some detail. The author has plunged his readers into the lesbo fantasy of a randy octogenarian.

Never can a Nobel laureate for literature have written something quite so indistinguishable from the pulpy stylings of a telenovela. The chapters play along with titles like "Marisa's Dream", "The Den of Gossip", "The Scandal" and "Conjugal Disagreements and Agreements". But it's not all breathy soap opera. The ladies must overnight owing to the curfew which obtains in the Peru ruled by President Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori, it may be remembered, was the winning candidate in the country's 1990 election. His defeated opponent: one Mario Vargas Llosa. He was in power for a decade, before he was impeached in absentia and later imprisoned for corruption and authorising death squads. He was granted a humanitarian pardon on Christmas Eve of last year, less than halfway through a 25-year sentence. This novel was, of course, begun a great deal earlier – it was published in Spanish in 2016 – but it reads like Vargas Llosa’s belated retaliation. When it’s not perving about sex, The Neighbourhood gives a good kicking to the Fujimori regime and the sleazy culture of fear it sponsored.

The Neighbourhood by Mario Vargas LlosaBut a lot of the time the novel is perving about sex. Marisa’s oil magnate husband Enrique – Quique to his intimates – is caught in a sting. A shady fixer invites him out, plies him with drink and drugs, then foists a highly flexible bevy of prostitutes upon him. Behind a screen, a photographer snaps away. The pictures eventually fetch up in the sweaty palms of Rolando Garro, a classically unpleasant gutter journalist who edits a rag called Exposed with the help of a young terrier from the projects known to one and all as Shorty. There’s nothing that Quique’s best chum, the powerful lawyer Luciano, who is also Chabela’s husband, can do. Quique resists the attempt to blackmail him and the pictures, which feature a variety of positional options, are a feast for the eyes of all Lima.

Marisa duly boots out her husband, whose devoutly Catholic mother dies of shock, and Garro’s body is discovered in the poor part of town, his face stoned to a pulp. There are two potential suspects: the victim of the sting, or Juan Peineta, a destitute reciter of poetry whose life and career were destroyed by Exposed and who has vociferously complained about Garro ever since. But very little happens in Peru without the influence of Fujimori’s brutal fixer, the head of the security services known, thanks to a spurious career in academia, as the Doctor.

The Neighbourhood reads like a furious blurt of righteous indignation which might have had vastly more impact if published in the 1990s. But Vargas Llosa spent that decade writing his masterpiece The Feast of the Goat about political catastrophe elsewhere in Latin America, the Dominican Republic ruled by Rafael Trujillo (it was published in 2000). The disgust he feels for a degraded, voyeuristic culture, with noises off supplied by Peru’s mountain-dwelling Maoist guerillas the Shining Path, feels fatally diluted. He peppers the canvas with a gallery of grotesques who have a faint perfume of magic realism – a bloated old whore, a knowing cat, the Doctor himself. In one bravura chapter their narratives interweave. But bursts of back-story infill animates these characters only so far.

There is much punctilious description of crisp jackets, cleavage-revealing blouses. But in the context of political satire, it’s never clear what Vargas Llosa's deeper intention is when those clothes are peeled off and his characters buck and moan and tease, beyond titillation. He wrote about sexual obsession to far more playful effect in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. This is the feast of a different sort of goat. The author's message, all these years on from the downfall of his political rival, seems to be that the rich stay rich, the poor poor, and nobody can be trusted. From this source, it’s a surprisingly sketchy jeu d’esprit.


When it’s not perving about sex, 'The Neighbourhood' gives a good kicking to the Fujimori regime. But a lot of the time it is perving about sex


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters