The Neighborhood review: Peruvian pulp

The Neighborhood review: Peruvian pulp

Mario Vargas Llosa, the prolific essayist and novelist, delivers an erotic thriller that is surprisingly careless at points (there is the talk of cell phone usage — in the early 1990s).

The Neighborhood starts off on a raunchy note. Marisa and Chabela, wives of a successful miner and a lawyer respectively, are discovering each other, intimately. It has happened by chance, but the discovery goes on through the book, intermittently, all the way to the conclusion. Expectedly, there is more to this translated novel than generous doses of graphic erotica.

The 2010 Nobel Prize winner, the celebrated and prolific 82-year-old Mario Vargas Llosa, now delivers what looks like a Spanish telenovela, but is at a deeper level perhaps a statement on Peruvian society during the story’s timeline, the early 90s — years dominated by President Fujimori and his corrupt cabal, notably the sinister Intelligence Service boss, Vladimiro Montesinos, warily identified generally (through the book and in real life) as ‘ the doctor’.

Peru’s capital city Lima is the setting, and the cast includes, among others — the elite couples with their plush homes and weekend escapes to Miami; the marginalised, on risky survival mode in ‘ the labyrinthine crossroads of Five Corners’ (the neighbourhood of the book title); the exploiters like a muckraking journalist and his scandal sheet Exposed. All combine to serve up a potent combination, of power, privilege, poverty and politics. And of course, there is blackmail, followed by the murder of the blackmailer.

Llosa had, in fact, contested as a presidential candidate against Fujimori in 1990, and lost. What he did not lose though was the firepower provided by his pen, making his points, even as justice was eventually meted out to Fujimori and the ‘doctor’, long after they had bulldozed their way through the 90s. Since then particularly, Lllosa has used his pen to criticise Peruvian politics, corruption, the 90s urban society that took its pleasures where it could: anything to forget reality —the daily blackouts, curfews, kidnappings of good honest successful middle-class Peruvians, the menace of Maoist revolutionaries like the Shining Path. So the rich took refuge in risqué living while the middle class happily lapped up malicious TV shows and magazines like Exposed.

Essentially, the story starts off with the said steamy scene involving the wives of two elite citizens, the mining businessman Enrique and his lawyer friend Luciano. The attention soon shifts to Enrique and a caricatured villain, the scandal-mongering Rolando Garro, editor of the weekly tabloid, Exposed. Garro’s visits to Enrique’s office leave the man terrified and silent. His puzzled wife Marisa is obviously unaware of the ticking photo-bomb threat: photos depicting Enrique in the altogether, at an orgy that the poor miserable sod remembers mistakenly attending a couple of years earlier. Enrique consults his lawyer friend and refuses to give in to blackmail. Soon Exposed is out on the stands, Enrique’s name is mud, family and friends are upset — and the muckraker is murdered. Who did it?

Simultaneously, there is a change of tone, as the story rises from its seeming superficiality into the realm of poetry and poverty. Enter old man Juan Peineta, one-time poetry appreciator-reciter — and his perspicacious cat Serafin (who listened to Pieneta’s recitation with ‘an attention equivalent to applause’). Besides Pieneta (who holds a valid grudge against the murdered man), there is the late reporter’s assistant Julieta alias Shorty. A resident of Five Corners, she has little sympathy for the victim of her employer’s successful scandal rag. The down at heel denizens of the older and more real Lima, their thoughts, actions, all provide the perfect counterpoint to the glossy world of the vulnerable elite.

Interestingly, the novel unfolds through varied viewpoints. Even the villain has his reasons. But particularly touching is the tale of Pieneta, an old broken man losing his memory, an artist who strayed into a successful television career — until he lost it all due to the perversity of a nasty journalist.

 Ultimately it is Shorty (who has ‘always possessed an audacity inversely proportional to her size’) — the survivor of Lima’s mean streets, who risks it all, helps deliver justice, exposes the rot at the top. Like the streets of an old neighbourhood, all these lives intersect, lightly touch each other, continue. Shorty graduates to TV tabloid success, the couples carry on happily enough, recent miseries forgotten. And the mindless public salivates for the newest revelation.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the prolific essayist and novelist, delivers an erotic thriller that is surprisingly careless at points (there is the talk of cell phone usage — in the early 1990s). Significantly, he uses fiction to retrospectively foretell political Peru’s millennial future. It is also an indictment of tabloid journalism — Llosa himself being a recent victim of the same.

And perhaps, this apparent piece of pulp fiction could be Llosa’s ironical take on the shallow unethical journalism of today’s wired world.