Don Rigoberto’s and his second wife Lucrecia’s relationship is built on physicality and sexuality. When the prepubescent Alfonsito begins to insistently pursue his stepmother, she strongly resists. One day, however, she gives in.
An entry into the erotic novel genre, Mario Vargas Llosa, obviously not satisfied with adhering to any conventions, immediately puts his own spin on what should be possible in such a tale. For instance, much of the eroticism is overdone in a way that borders on the grotesque which to me made it seem more like a caricature of an erotic novel, although I don’t believe that it was intended as such. An example of this kind of exaggeration are the detailed descriptions of Don Rigoberto’s hygiene rituals that reduce the human body to such an imperfect entity that the maintenance it requires to stay, or even be, attractive appears exceedingly exhausting. Another instance is a chapter in which a woman’s rear is only called a croup by her husband; it is supposed to be a compliment, and the body part in question is celebrated by everyone involved, but I found it incredibly off-putting. This focus on wallowing in the crude and obscene is only enhanced by the inclusion of six chapters dealing with the myths depicted in six well-known paintings which, although great art, only manage to underline Vargas Llosa’s treatment of the topic.
This exposing of the seedy underbelly of desire, and the unflinching depiction of what it can entail, is nonetheless a strength of the book and of the author’s writing in general. A lot of what is put on display is uncomfortable and unattractive, and ostensible certainties of morality are easily turned on their head. Alfonsito, for example, is no hapless victim; he is the perpetrator, a devilish cupid that leads Lucrecia to her doom while upholding the most innocent front. In that, he is a manifestation of all the warped desires and irresistible temptations people can be corrupted by, and which only wreak havoc and bring misery to those that cannot refuse them. To paint him as such, is ingenious and, in my eyes, much-needed, because not only does it tie the main plot even more tightly into the mythical worlds of the paintings, but also attaches a different meaning to the overall events.
Although there is a lot of challenging and captivating material in the book, I have to admit that I struggled with it. It is rather short, but it took me a few weeks to finish it. Especially in the beginning, my interest did not outweigh my aversion because I was indeed grossed out at some points. This may not necessarily be a universal reaction because Vargas Llosa leaves a lot of room for the interpretation of events and characters’ behaviours, and so other readers may regard some things differently. I could not appreciate the story until after I had finished it, and even then, although I was impressed by the overall idea and the masterful execution of it, I was, and still am, absolutely torn on the question of whether I actually liked it or not.
CBR12 Bingo: No Money because I inherited the book.