Spanish Lit Month

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa for Spanish Lit Month

Dear Spider Extortionists,

Although you’ve burned the offices of Narithuala Transportation port, a business I created with the honest effort of a lifetime, I’m publicly informing you that I will never pay the amount you demand to give me protection. I’d rather you kill me. You won’t receive one cent from me, because I believe that honest, hardworking, decent people shouldn’t be afraid of crooks and thieves like you but should face you with determination until you’re sent to prison, which is where you belong.

Signed,

Felicito Yanaque (I don’t have a maternal surname)

What courage it takes Felicito to write this letter, and further to publish it in the newspaper! He refuses to concede to the extortionists who try to scare him into giving them $500.00 per month for “protection”. In fact, he takes them on with a vengeance, refusing to acquiesce even when his transportation business is burned down and his lover, Mabel, is kidnapped.

Why won’t he give in to their demands? Because of his father. The memory of his father, who was the very pillar of strength in Felicito’s eyes, will not permit him this betrayal.

“His father might have been poor but he was a great man because of his upstanding spirit, because he never harmed anyone, or broke the law, or felt rancor toward the woman who abandoned him, leaving him with a newborn to bring up. If all of that about sin and evil and the next life was true he had to be in heaven now. He didn’t even have time to do any evil, he spent his life working like a dog in the worst-paying jobs. Felicito remembered seeing him drop with fatigue at night. But even so, he never let anyone walk all over him. According to him, that was the difference between a man who was worth something and a man who was worth only a rag. That had been the advice he gave him before he died in a bed with no mattress in the Hospital Obreco: “Never let anybody walk all over you, son.”

Parallel to Felicito’s story is the story of Don Ismael Carrera (boss of Rigoberto who is the manager of Don Carrera’s insurance office). In stark contrast to the relationship with his now deceased father that Felicito holds dear, is the one that between Ismael and his twin sons. From their youth, these boys (Miki and Escobita) have done as they pleased which included carousing, lying, stealing and even rape. They become furious when their widowed father marries his housekeeper, Armida, as she is the one who will inherit his fortune, because all they want from their father is his money.

Perhaps more than anything, to me, this novel is about what it means to be a good father, to be an honorable son. We read of the sharp contrast between one son who holds his father’s teaching so dear that he himself will not bend when threatened, and two other sons who are simply waiting for their father to die so that they can be rich. We read of yet a third son who sees nothing wrong with brutally mistreating the very man who raised him. What are we to make of this? It leads us to the meaning of the word hero.

In this novel, a hero is one who upholds his father. One who won’t let himself be walked over. One who stands in the face of adversity with courage and strength and honor. My favorite kind of guy.

The Discreet Hero was originally published in 2013, and published in English with a translation by Edith Grossman in 2015. I read it for Richard and Stu‘s Spanish Lit Month, and as my first introduction to Mario Vargas Llosa, I can say it was a brilliant one. He has given me so much to ponder about Peru, but even more importantly about the power of a discreet hero.

Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa for Spanish Lit Month


image

This is is a novel I would not have discovered without the review at seraillon. And it is without a doubt a book I would have sorely missed had I not read it. At sixty-four pages, it can be read in a single evening…for some of you, in a single hour. But, it is not a book to be rushed.

Is it a mystery? Is it an ode to the love of literature? Is it a romantic story of one bookseller’s passion for a beautiful woman who comes in and steals his books? It is all three.

Our narrator owns a bookstore named La Entretenida (literally, The Entertaining) into which Severina walks one day. When she leaves, she has “slipped two little books from the Japanese section into her bag.” Every time she comes to the store she takes a few books. Every time she takes a few books he records the missing titles along with the date and time. But, he does nothing to stop her.

In fact, he falls in love with her.

It is almost with obsession that he follows her and her grandfather, whom he has been told is her husband by another bookshop owner, to their pension. Even though he knows where she lives, temporarily, and rents a room there for himself, she remains elusive. From what country does she come? How have they remained in Spain with false passports? All of her belongings fit into one small backpack, for she seems to live on books alone.

Of course that is fantastical. But it is a suggestion that I feel Rodrigo Rey Rosa offers up. And as a fellow bibliophile, I find myself not questioning the veracity of this story at all, especially as her grandfather explains it quite clearly below:

I ought to begin by pointing out, though it shouldn’t come as any surprise, that we’re really quite ordinary people. I have my ideas, and she goes along with them, but in her own way, of course. Books have always been my life. Both my father and grandfather lived exclusively from books, each in his own way – books of all sorts. And I’m not speaking metaphorically: books are our sole means of subsistence,” he said and then fell silent.

A Heart So White by Javier Marias for Spanish Lit Month

image

Javier Marias often writes sentences that are full paragraphs, and while some require me to read them several times over for clarity, others make me reach for my pen to record them in a journal I keep for exquisite quotes.

“Look,” I said, “people who keep secrets for a long time don’t always do so out of shame or in order to protect themselves, sometimes it’s to protect others, or to preserve a friendship, or a love affair, or a marriage, to make life more tolerable for their children or to shield them from some fear, of which they usually have many. Maybe they simply don’t want to add to the world a story they wished had never happened. Not talking about it is like erasing it, forgetting it a little, denying it, not telling a story can be a small favour one does to the world. You have to respect that. You might not want to know everything about me, later on, as time goes by, you might not want to, and I won’t want to know everything about you either.”

This is, perhaps, a strange thing to say to one’s new bride. But it gives an indication of the depth of secrets contained within Juan’s story. From the very beginning, when Teresa who would have been his aunt had she not shot herself in the breast before Juan was born, there is a sort of veil which covers everything. “Why did she kill herself?” we ask ourselves, filled with apprehension as we read to the end of the book. “Why are there so many secrets the couples keep from one another?” For each of the couples in this novel have a relationship within which something is hidden.

On his honeymoon in Havana, Juan overhears a woman named Miriam arguing with her lover in the hotel room next door. She is told that his wife is dying, and Miriam says that has been the case for a very long time. And then she asks Guillermo to kill his wife. “If you don’t kill her, I kill myself. Then you get one woman’s death on your hands, either her or me.”

Perhaps equally tragic was the relationship of Juan’s friend, who desperately seeks love through a dating service. Each person sends a letter, and often an accompanying video of himself, to the person with whom a potential match is made. But, the man responding to Berta’s letter will only be satisfied with a video showing all of her personal parts; he makes it quite clear that he will sleep with her only if she is attractive. How tragic to me that she responded to his request, so great was her need for relationship.

Threats and empty promises, wounding one another through lies and deceit, these are how Marias’ couples seem to interact.

The lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth appear throughout the novel, for it is from one particular phrase that it takes its name.

“She (Lady Macbeth) likens herself to him, thus trying to liken him to her, to her heart so white: it’s not so much that she shares his guilt (of murder) at that moment as that she tries to make him share her irremediable innocence, her cowardice.”

Yet, can one partner cover another’s guilt? Conversely, does one’s guilt shade another’s heart so white? This is the struggle which Juan faces as he uncovers his personal history involving a father who has been married three times, and not one wife is still alive.

“It was simply a matter of accepting the belief or superstition that what one doesn’t say doesn’t exist. And it’s true that the only things never translated are those never spoken or expressed.”

A Heart So White won the Dublin IMPAC prize for the best novel published worldwide in English in 1997. Find other thoughts from JacquiWine’s Journal, A Little Blog of Books, and Tony’s Reading List. Other friends who read it this month are Frances from Nonsuch Book and Scott from seraillon.