A reviewer in the Wall Street Journal recently wondered aloud whether body functions have any proper place in literature. A lot of us are asking the same question. Few serious novelists any longer use sex as the main point of a story, and a growing minority — more men than women, it is interesting to note — now eschew it altogether. This latter group has been fortified, at least in Britain, by moral support from Auberon Waugh’s Literary Review, which for some time has been awarding an annual Bad Sex Prize to the submitter (not the author) of the most tasteless, clumsy or unintentionally comical sex scene in a novel published during the year.
It was thus with some surprise that I read the publisher’s description of this book, right there on the jacket fold, as “a spellbinding work of erotic fiction.” Now, I count myself a fan of Mario Vargas Llosa. I thought Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter marvelous fun; and Death in the Andes, his last novel, was a brilliant, atmospheric tale of terrorism and superstition in the Altiplano. Nor is there only Vargas Llosa the writer to admire; in his second job, as a gadfly, the author has spoken out courageously against the clerico-fascist-mercantilist elites who until recently had their thumbs on the windpipe of his native Peru. Mario Vargas Llosa is, in short, a good egg as well as an excellent novelist, and I do not understand why he wants to cast his line in such a thoroughly fished-out stretch of the river.
Well: Don Rigoberto is a fiftyish insurance executive living in Lima. We first met him in the author’s 1988 novel, In Praise of the Stepmother, at the end of which his second wife, the beautiful Doña Lucrecia, was obliged to leave the household after going astray with her young stepson. Notebooks picks up the tale some months later. The couple are still estranged; but they do not live far apart, and the stepson, Alfonso, has taken to visiting Doña Lucrecia on his way home from school — not for hanky-panky, but to share his obsession with Egon Schiele, a dismal artist of the Viennese Expressionist school.
These visits, and Alfonso’s exchanges with Doña Lucrecia and her maid, form the first part of each of the book’s nine chapters. They are followed, in each chapter, by an extract from Don Rigoberto’s notebooks, in which he reveals himself to us as an Epicurean individualist, a lover of art and eccentricity, hater of noise and all gregarious activities.
The third component of each chapter — again, the pattern runs right through the book — is an erotic fantasy generated by Don Rigoberto, alone in his bed in the small hours of the morning. The star of these episodes is his estranged wife, whom he loves dearly and very physically in spite of her misdemeanor. Her partners are a menagerie of males and females, some invented by the dreamer: a foot fetishist, a Mexican whore, an imaginary brother, an emasculated motorcyclist, the maid.
Each chapter is closed at last by a letter. These letters, tender and passionate though not always erotic, are addressed alternately to Don Rigoberto and to his wife, and signed only with whimsical pseudonyms like “A Phantom in Love” or “Mad about your Ears.” We gather that both parties wish for a reconciliation, and that both have hit on this sending of anonymous letters as a means to that end. The stratagem succeeds, and at last the family — husband, wife and stepson — is reunited. That is by no means the end of the matter, however. In a swift and puzzling denouement, we learn that Alfonso is a very naughty boy indeed. I do not want to blow the gaff for intending readers; suffice it to say that Alfonso’s personality is central to the story.
And there you have the book’s great weakness; for in fact, Alfonso is not drawn with sufficient conviction to make the tale credible. We do not, for example, know his age. This missing piece of information is critical to the book’s situation; yet not only does Vargas Llosa not supply it, he leaves us with the impression that he does not know it himself, and has not thought the matter through. From a frank description in the previous book we know that the lad can Do It. Yet we read here of his “small, childlike figure,” and of him “chirping.” To kiss Lucrecia’s maid on the cheek, he has to stand on tiptoe; and in that other book, when standing on his bed, he is the same height as his stepmother — making him no more than four foot. It is all very peculiar. Perhaps things go differently south of the border. I recall that in George Orwell’s memoir of his prep-school days, an epidemic of masturbation was blamed on the presence in the school of some South American pupils “who would perhaps mature a year or two earlier than an English boy.”
Nor do Don Rigoberto’s fantasies carry much value-added. Thirty years ago this stuff would have been sensational, or at least striking; nowadays, for better or worse, the Law of Diminishing Returns has fixed its cold grip on literary eroticism. Even the obligatory scene of genital mutilation no longer has any power. A chap in one of John Irving’s novels lost his Clinton when his car was rear-ended during an act of fellatio. We felt his pain. Notebooks is the work of a better writer; but when that hapless motorcyclist is castrated by a crucifix, the reader yawns and passes on.
The novel’s last sentence is uttered by Don Rigoberto himself: “In spite of everything we’re a happy family, aren’t we, Lucrecia?” It is a measure of the book’s failure — of its failure, at any rate, to evoke any response in a reader who holds the author in highest esteem — that what floated across my mind at that moment was not sweet regret at having finished a good read, nor satisfaction at a neat conclusion, nor any somber reflections on love, lust, or the unfathomable thought processes of pubescent boys. It was, alas, Barney the purple dinosaur.