The prolific Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is according to many, THE Voice of Latin American literature. He is well known for his political activism and has a long tenure as a high profile spokesman for Spanish language letters. In 1994 he was the recipient of the prestigious Miguel De Cervantes Prize. His oeuvre spans journalism, fiction, criticism and drama. Having only read his War at the End of the World oh so many years ago, I picked his second novel 1965’s, The Green House to review. Some critics hold this up as his most important work. Being a glutton for punishment, I opted for it since its also thought of as his most difficult novel.
There is no single protagonist per se, rather there are intertwined narratives focusing around six major characters who are all inhabitants of the Piura region of northwest Peru. Their story is gradually re-constructed in Llosa’s narrative kaleidoscope which I will visit in Bones. The novel’s plot, which as readers of Traces know by now usually is not summarized, is complicated. Suffice to say its synopsis would be a feat in itself…But since it IS a challenge, here is a rough sketch anyway:
In the rural village of Santa María de Nieva, lives Bonifacia, a young Aruguna Indian who is a nun-in-waiting. She lets two Aruguna Indian girls out of the convent’s enclosed yard to escape, as they were forcibly taken from their jungle huts by soldiers in an attempt to ‘civilize’ them. After she is expelled from the convent one narrative follows her trajectory from Nun to prostitute (as ‘Wildflower’) and her relationships that will affect the five other main characters. Meanwhile another storyline follows the life of Don Anselmo, a stranger who appears one day and endears himself to the townspeople, later he becomes the proprietor of The Green House, a brothel he has built at the edge of town. After a debacle and tragedy (no plot spoiled here) he undergoes a transformation of sorts and becomes a quasi-orphic figure known as ‘the harp player’. Simultaneously related is the story of the fugitive Japanese Trader Fushía and his part in the development of the region against the backdrop of the story of the Lituma, a soldier and local home town favorite who becomes a ‘cop’ and is sent by the corrupt Governor to put a stop to the exploitation by the Rubber traders (who compete with the equally corrupt Governor) of the indigenous Indian tribes. Then we have the side story of Lalita, wife of first Fushía, then Adrían Nieves, who uses the men as they use her. Lastly is the story of the river ‘pilot’ Adrían Nieves, whose actions interrelate with all the above mentioned as he is relied on as a navigator who plies his boat on the jungle rivers, facilitating at different points, both the illegal traders and the soldiers who will later hunt him.
The overall structure is a montage that Llosa’s favorite American author Faulkner would have envied. The narrative jumps back and forth chronologically from a myriad of perspectives, and each section’s context only gradually makes sense as the collage is pieced together. Of the two main frames, one is an ongoing reconstruction of the past part the illustrious fugitive Trader Fushía played in his trade with the different jungle tribes, as he later relates to his only trusted fellow trader Don Aquilino , as he gradually fills in gaps in time where Aquilino was not present. Framed within their narrative, Llosa uses a “picture in picture” technique to flashback to dialogue sections in present tense to the actual scenes he is relating, ‘camera shots’ of exchanges of conversation. As if dramatizing, or ‘showing’ while simultaneously telling Fushía’s perspective of the same fictive events to Aquilino. The jumps are frequent and at first hard to follow, but later the repetitions of this device their context becomes apparent and resonate off each other. The second main frame narrative threads interleave the stream of consciousness sections focalized from many different characters, even peripheral minor players. These flashbacks serve to fill in the gaps in the six different stories.
Themes and Leitmotifs:
Llosa sets up dichotomies to function as a dialectics of forces at play in his re-textualizing a portion of Peru’s history. ‘Savage’ vs ‘Civilized’: the jungle is a central metaphor for complexity, disorder, savagery. As a symbol of growth uncontrolled it is also associated with inherent beauty, and its fecundity can not occur without death and decay, the life cycle is dependent on it. Two of the main six characters will suffer disease and ‘rot’. The region itself is at the junction of desert and jungle, at the mercy of the uncontrolled wild growth and the windswept sand that falls at night blown in from the high desert. The theme of the captive, as in enslavement to ‘civilization’ vs the fugitive as exemplified by the the Aruguna people as well as the Traders and soldiers.
To carry the idea of binaries further, the six protagonists can be separated into pairs counterpointing each other in terms of their part as either ‘betrayers’ or as ‘innocents’:
Fushía- exploiter of the native people vs Anselmo- exploiter of women and the weakness of men
Bonifacia- orphan whore vs Sergeant Lituma- ‘whore’ of his government
Lalita- betrayer of her lovers vs Nieves- the innocent scape goat
What I took Away
‘Disorder and early sorrow’ could summarize my reading experience. The reader can become accustomed to the split screen dialogue exchanges and one wishes the interior monologue sections were consolidated. Llosa’s ability to give life to the characters who must carry the story is not in question. The very bitter ironies Llosa develops come off brilliantly: who in Piura are actually the ‘civilized’ and who are ultimately the ‘savages’? Who are the real prostitutes: the ladies in the Green House, or the officials in power that are supposed to impose order? Where this ambitious novel falls short is in its diversity of narrative directions, its parity in treating the separate stories dilutes its affect. There is no single personal fate or compelling idea rising above the narrative landscape or developed enough to focus Llosa’s collage. I would tend to believe that Bonifacia/Wildflower and Don Anselmo/the harp player are the two figures that Llosa meant to catalyze the story, but their momentum is never allowed to build. In the end, I would be hard pressed to say if the fates of the Piurans mattered enough to be memorable for this reader.