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.


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.

A Heart So White by Javier Marias for Spanish Lit Month


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.

My January Reading Plans: Part 1

Don Quixote

I began my reading year 2014 with Roberto Bolano’s 2666It didn’t bode well for me. I read only the first three parts, about halfway, before laying it down. (As I did with The Savage Detectives in 2012.) It’s therefore ironic that I am beginning my reading for 2015 with another book of Spanish translation: Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I am relying on Richard to accompany me on this path, for it is his invitation which I have accepted, and I wonder how well I’d fare alone.

don-quixote by Dali

But, Don Quixote has been on my Classics Club list since I first formed it three years ago. The art alone which this novel has inspired is quite thrilling. Above is a painting by Salvador Dali; below is a painting by Honore Daumier.


Harold Bloom calls Don Quixote the Spanish Bible, and says “it stands for ever as the birth of the novel out of the prose romance, and is still the best of all novels.” The best? Ever?

Don Quixote is a man I’ve heard about my whole life, how could I not discover him through the novel first hand? And so, I’m venturing forth into his world and hope to experience this masterpiece with great appreciation in January. I know Richard would welcome you to join us as well.

Spanish Lit Month: The Nautical Chart by Arturo Perez-Reverte

The story opens in Barcelona, with our hero Manuel Coy attending an auction. It isn’t that he has money to spend, or a particular item he yearns to possess. It’s that he’s bored, and restless, and a little lost ever since being suspended for grounding the forty-thousand-ton-container-ship, Isla Negra, on his watch.
Right away, I was entranced by Coy. How it is that a sailor can resemble a cowboy, and here I’m comparing Coy to Owen Wister’s The Virginian, I’m not quite sure. But they both have an integrity defined by what they judge to be right. They’re both independent, and brave, and loathe to follow rules for rules’ sake. 
Coy’s attention is caught between two bidders, who each seem to be fighting for an Atlas Maritimo de las Costas de Espana, the work of Urrutia Salcedo. One bidder is a beautiful blonde, covered with freckles; the other is a man in a ponytail who ultimately succumbs after her bid at five times the opening price.
What is it about this map, this woman, this gray pony-tailed man who have grabbed Coy’s attention? He is determined to find out, as he travels from Barcelona in search for the woman, Tanger Soto, who works for the Museo Naval in Madrid.
Apparently a Jesuit ship, the Dei Gloria, was attacked by a xebec corsair on February 4, 1767. The pirate ship did not expect the Dei Gloria to fight back, which it did, and ultimately both sank. But the Urrutia map seems to hold the location where the Dei Gloria lays, and it is this ship that Tanger wants desperately to find. 
Why? And why is the gray ponytailed man in pursuit of her and the ship himself? This is the core of the mystery, a mystery which becomes more and more intriguing as one continues through the novel. But, more fascinating to me is the character of Coy. He is a mystery in and of himself, a man of the sea and a reader as well.
The books that he reads are all relevant to ships. Sailing. Sea. He tells us he has gone through a Conrad period, a Stevenson period, and a Melville period. But soon after that passage, I began recording the titles and authors that Perez-Reverez includes in this spectacular novel. Because if they’re important enough to mention in his work of fiction, they’re important to me to know more about.
The titles Perez-Reverte has included in The Nautical Chart are:
Thunderball by Ian Fleming
The Alexandria Quartet by Durrell
Mutiny on The Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
Men Against the Sea by Charles Nordhoff and James Normal Hall
Pitcairn’s Island by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
The Death Ship by B. Traven
The Inheritors by William Golding
The Mirror of The Sea by Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad 
Green Fire by Peter William Rainer
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett
The Adventures of Tintin by (Belgian cartoonist) Herge
The Secret of the Unicorn by Herge
Red Rackam’s Treasure by Herge
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Internationally acclaimed author Arturo Perez-Reverte was born on November 25, 1951 in Spain, where he lives. He has been a member of the Spanish Royal Academy since 2003. His best selling books have been translated into nineteen languages in thirty countries and have sold millions of copies.

Spanish Lit Month: Barcelona Shadows by Marc Pastor

As a person who is terrified by horror films, I wondered if I could read this book. And yet the writing is so good, the subject matter so appalling, I could not pull myself away. Barcelona Shadows is a fictionalized account of a woman who actually lived (in the early 1900’s), if one could call her a woman rather than a monster. Or, a vampire.

Enriqueta Marti scours the streets of Barcelona, with the assistance of a lad named Blackmouth (his teeth darkened from drinking blood), looking for children. Children whom she will steal and kill; she has marinated a heart in honey and white wine with a few sprigs of rosemary before devouring it. 

“You still haven’t asked me,” she says and sits down in a doorway. 
“Asked what?”

“Why I want the children.”

He stammers.

“I…the other day…”

The dark girl with big crying eyes, the machete sinking into her flesh, the blood dripping into the bowl under the table.

“They are life, innocence, everything adults have lost and want to get back.”

Pursuing her is Inspector Moises Corvo, a heavily mustached man with a demeanor beyond brusque. He slaps those he questions if they don’t respect him, if they try to answer his questions with lies. He is caustic and irreverent and determined. But, he suspects that the kidnapper of children he is trying to track in the shadows of Barcelona is a man.

Attempts by the Chief of police to stop Corvo from looking for the killer (“There is no case, there are no missing children.”), only convince him to search deeper. He is exactly the kind of policeman I most admire, defying unjust authority when he knows it is wrong.

I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Rather than being so gruesome I couldn’t bear to turn to the next page, it was a thriller beyond compare. The writing is exquisite, the case is strangely fascinating, and the search caused me to read ever faster until the conclusion. Well done, Marc! Your novel is fantastic.

Marc Pastor (born 1977) studied criminology and crime policy, and works as a crime scene investigator in Barcelona. He is the author of four novels: Montecristo, Barcelona Shadows, awarded the Crims de Tinta prize in 2008, L’any de la plaga and Bioko. Richly atmospheric, his work spans a range of genres, from Sci-Fi to Gothic via the adventure novel. Barcelona Shadows is his first book published in English. ~Pushkin Press

Spanish Lit Month: The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I disliked The Shadow of The Wind, which is the first book of the trilogy by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (followed by The Angel’s Game and then The Prisoner of Heaven). I even read it twice, once on my own and once to refresh my memory for a book club discussion, neither time liking anything but the idea of a secret library and of selecting one book to guard for your lifetime.
But then I downloaded a free excerpt by Carlos Ruiz Zafon from Nook, Rose of Fire, which gave some background about the Cemetary of Forgotten Books, and my interest was renewed. With vigor.  So, skipping the second book entirely, I have just completed the third and found it wonderful. (They can be read as stand alone books.)
Much of the plot mirrors The Count of Monte Cristo, in that honorable men are imprisoned alongside thieves, and how can one escape? Using the same tactics, our hero Fermin Roman de Torres pretends he is dead and exists the prison, Montjuic Castle, in a bag reserved for corpses. He leaves behind a character named Salgado, who has endured the loss of two fingers and an entire hand in order to keep a secret: the exact location of a huge amount of money he had killed for and stolen.
But of course it is this same Salgado who had entered the bookstore in the very first chapter, before the long and complicated story of their imprisonment was revealed, and it is he who has also escaped and is attempting to retrieve his treasure.
The charm of the book is in a story well told. We return to the characters of Daniel Sempere, and his father. We return to Daniel’s wife, Bea, and son Julien. We return to the streets of Barcelona, and waiting for the mystery involving Fermin’s past to be revealed. And we discover the likes of Mauricio Valls, as evil a character during the Franco regime as ever lived.
(Interestingly enough, as I continue my reading for Spanish Lit Month with Marc Pastor’s Barcelona Shadows, Montjuic Castle reappears. It is a castle which was also a prison, with plenty of corpses surrounding it underground.)

Lost Luggage by Jordi Punti. Or, Beginning Spanish Lit Month Early Because I’ve Never Been Very Patient

I picked up this book on my kindle last night after hearing a woman in our book club rave about it. Knowing that Spanish Lit Month 2014 hosted by Richard and Stu is just around the corner, I began it last night. Because Richard is too polite to say anything like, “Bellezza, have you finished Bolano’s 2666 yet? You know, from the read-along in January?”
In order to not lag behind again, (still), I began Lost Luggage by Jordi Punti last night. And so far? It’s great. I’m enjoying it more than I have any of Bolano’s books, but probably that says more about me than it does about Roberto who is much beloved by Those Who Know.
The premise of Lost Luggage lies with one father of four sons, each of whom have a different mother. In a different country, no less. Christof, Christophe, Christopher and Cristofol are four brothers who live in four different cities (Frankfurt, Paris, London and Barcelona) unaware that their common tie is their father, Gabriel Delacruz.
While this might sound appallingly like a soap opera, it actually has me quite transfixed as I read about the brothers meeting, the brothers comparing their lives, the brothers wondering exactly who their truck driver father is. When I discover for myself, I shall let you know. 
(from “Divided by geography yet united by blood, the “Christophers’ set out on a quest that is at once painful, hilarious and extraordinary. They discover a man who during thirty years of driving was able to escape the darkness of Franco’s Spain and to explore a luminous Europe, a journey that, with the birth of his sons, both opened and broke his heart.”) 
In the meantime, this is just one of the books I hope to read for Spanish Lit month this July. Also included in the stacks is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love In The Time of Cholera and hopefully something by Sandra Cisneros or Julia Alvarez whose writing I have adored in the past.

The Infatuations by Javier Marias

“…the reality is that anyone can destroy us, just as anyone can conquer us, and that is our essential fragility.” 

The Infatuations begins with Maria Dolz, a meek and submissive woman who works at a publishing house, relating how she observes a married couple at a local cafe in Madrid nearly every day. She is obsessed with watching them from several tables away, although she isn’t aware that they, however briefly, have noticed her in turn. They have even gone so far as to nickname her The Prudent Young Woman. It is through this young woman’s eyes that the story is revealed, a story ostensibly involving a murder, but actually discussing such themes as envy. Death. And, of course, the way infatuations can manipulate our lives.

The marriage of Miguel Desvern (sometimes written Deverne) and Luisa comes to an abrupt end early on in the novel when he is found stabbed to death by a homeless man who believes that Miguel was responsible for the prostitution of his two daughters. Although Miguel is in the operating theater five hours, it is impossible to save him.

Miguel’s widow, Luisa, is so distraught she can barely care for herself let alone their two children. After Maria observes the mother disinterestedly sitting with her young daughter and son as they eat an ice cream, she brings herself to comfort Luisa and is invited to their home. Their conversation is interrupted by two visitors, one of whom is Javier Diaz-Varela, who apparently has a place in this home as a much needed source of strength.

When Diaz-Varela sees Maria at a museum he invites her for a drink, and the two begin a relationship. But, it is clear that Maria is the one who is infatuated with Javier, while his infatuations lie elsewhere.

One day Diaz-Varela tells Maria the story of a colonel who, though believed dead through a terrible encounter with a sword, run over by two men sent to save him, and thrown into a pit next to a mound of dead bodies, actually lives. He returns to his wife, only to have found that she has carried on with her life in his absence, never for a moment believing that he would return. This novella by Honore de Balzac, Le Colonel Chabert, is used by Diaz-Varela “as evidence that the dead are fine where they are and should never come back, even if their death was untimely and unjust, stupid, gratuitous and unfortunate like that of Desvern, and even if there was no risk of them ever reappearing.” (p. 143)

This is a point that is brought up several times through the novel; that the return of someone from the dead would be more of a disadvantage to the living than an advantage. It is a point of view which behooves some of the characters more than others.

As I read this novel, I found myself marking several passage concerning death with sticky notes. They struck me in particular as I, too, have had the experience of being a widow. Of mourning the loss of a husband and wondering how to carry on alone with my son. For those reasons, I can empathize more with the widow Julia than I can with the meek and submissive Maria. I leave them here in order of how I encountered them:

“That’s another of the problems when one suffers a misfortune: the effects on the victim far outlast the patience of those prepared to listen and accompany her, unconditional support never lasts very long once it has become tinged with monotony. And so, sooner or later, the grieving person is left alone when she has still not finished grieving or when she’s no longer allowed to talk about what remains her only world, because other people find that world of grief unbearable, repellent.” p. 62 

“I want to be where he is, and the only place where we could coincide is the past, in that place of not being but of having been. He is past, whereas I am still present. If I were also past, at least I would be the same as him in that respect, which would be something, and I would be in no position to miss him or remember him. I would be on the same level as him or in the same dimension, in the same time, and we would not be left alone in this precarious world in which everything familiar is being taken away from us. nothing more can be taken away from us if we are not here. Nothing more can die on us if we are already dead.” p. 84 

“We tend to hope that, of the people and habits we cherish, no one will die and none will end, not realizing that the only thing that maintains those habits intact is their sudden withdrawal, with no possible alteration or evolution, before they can abandon us or we abandon them. Anything that lasts goes bad and putrefies, it bores us, turns against us, saturates and wearies us. How many people who once seemed vital to us are left by the wayside, how many relationships wear thin, become diluted for no apparent reason or certainly none of any weight. The only people who do not fail or let us down are those who are snatched from us, the only ones we don’t drop are those who abruptly disappear and so have no time to cause us pain or disappointment.” p. 107

The Infatuations is an international best seller; it is also included in this year’s long list for the International Foreign Fiction Prize. As one of the members of the Shadow Jury, I rate the story 6 out of 10, the writing 8 out of 10, and the potential longevity 7 out of 10. For, as Maria herself says, she longs to read “…the literature that time has sanctioned and miraculously authorized to ensure beyond the briefest of moments, which grows ever briefer.”