The best thing I can say about Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Neighborhood is that in it there are some interesting descriptions of Peru’s murky political climate in the 1990s. That, and it was mercifully short.
The Neighborhood is a story of corruption, infidelity, sleaze and violence. When businessman Enrique is blackmailed by a journalist, a chain of events are set off that eventually lead to the downfall of government. Set in Fujimori-era Lima, this is a novel that has, at its heart, an interesting premise. It is a tale of hypocrisy, of a rotten society infecting rotten individuals. High and mighty politicians and respectable businesspeople descend into lies and infidelity, whilst the gutter press act with an unexpected integrity in a society ruled by fear.
That’s about where the interest stops, however. The flaws in the writing are too deep, too numerous for this to be at all an enjoyable read.
Opening with a gratuitous sexual encounter between two married best friends, Chabela and Marisa, the tone is set for the rest of the novel. We’re left in no doubt about the firmness of their buttocks, the low cut necklines of their blouses, because Vargas Llosa creates every conceivable opportunity to tell us about it. This is prime ‘describe yourself as a male author would’ territory. Other female characters have ‘monstrous tits, enormous asses’ and ‘enormous breasts, muscular legs, dancing buttocks’. Funnily enough the male characters’ buttocks are seldom, if ever, mentioned.
Even if the point were intended to be satirical – which seems unlikely – it is done with such stylistic clunkiness and awkwardness that at times the novel is unreadable. As Marisa lies beside Chabela in an agony of desire, she thinks to herself – as surely nobody has ever done in a time of arousal – ‘what a nice body, how well preserved in spite of two children, it must be because she goes to the gym twice a week.’ Later, when she watches Chabela open some curtains, she is able to ‘confirm once again that her friend had a young, taut body with no fat at all, a narrow waist, firm breasts.’ Vargas Llosa crams cliches about his two young female characters into the story in the most unnatural and forced manner. By the time you reach them having sex in a sauna, their affair has moved away entirely from a complex map of human need and desire and simply reeks instead of male fantasy.
Elsewhere, the characters are so two-dimensional as to be practically non-existent. The bad guy of the story, the journalist Rolando Garro, is a pantomime villain: a ‘shrill, high-pitched
voice’, ‘creaking, high-heeled boots’ that attempt to mask his diminutive stature, a rat-like smile, a tarzanesque walk, damp palms. You can almost hear the hisses and boos every time he appears, simpering and sexually ambiguous, walking his crooked walk. What really motivates any of these characters, beyond money and lust, is a mystery. The character most convincingly sketched is Juan Peneita – a former poetry reciter reduced to ruins because of cruel reviews by Garro. We see frustratingly little of him and his cat, Serafin: perhaps the second most interesting character in the novel.
It’s possible that it was part of a greater design by Vargas Llosa that his narrative voice encapsulate the seedy misogyny of the society he writes about. Vargas Llosa is, after all, widely touted as a ‘literary colossus’ of the Spanish-speaking world and a former Nobel Prize for Literature winner, with several highly critically-acclaimed novels to his name. It’s also very likely that much of the elegance and sparkle of the original prose has been lost in translation. There is, however, little excuse for a final chapter and conclusion to a novel as formulaic, wooden and unsatisfying as the one offered to the reader here where complex storylines and political issues are neatly and indifferently tied up in a few hurried pages. This is a deeply flawed novel that never really gets going. The Neighborhood feels like the work of a writer who has lost his way.
The Neighborhood is available now from Faber & Faber.