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Review: The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Cover of The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa
3 Stars

I'm about to write a huge sweeping statement that I really shouldn't but here goes.

I just don't do well with South American authors.

That's not fair. I've only read three or four, I think. But I never have a clue what's actually going on. What's real, what's not, what the "not real" things are supposed to represent--I'm just lost. I'm sure it's not them, it's me. But my brain and understanding is all I have to work with, and I just don't get it.

I read this for a reading challenge last year. I did better than I expected but I still have questions.

The "discreet hero" of the title is Felícito Yanaqué. He owns a transportation/trucking business that he built from the ground up. He becomes a hero of the little people when he refuses to bow to the gang that is trying to extort "protection" money from him. Instead of paying the money for the gang to protect his business (i.e., not burn it to the ground themselves), he complains to the police and makes a stand. I could follow Felícito's story and even enjoyed it. He's a feisty little guy who's worked hard all his life and tried his best to do the right thing.

There are two other storylines here, both featuring Don Rigoberto. Don Rigoberto is drawn into the family drama centering around his boss and friend, Ismael Carrera. Ismael has decided to marry his housekeeper and disinherit his worthless sons. Of course the sons fight this decision with every means, legal and illegal, at their disposal. They even make Don Rigoberto's life miserable just because he was a witness at the wedding. As all this is going on, Don Rigoberto is also dealing with his son, Fonchito, and the mysterious man who keeps appearing to him. No one else has ever seen this mysterious stranger. Don Rigoberto doesn't know if his teenage son is losing his mind or having visitations from the devil.

I don't know if he's losing his mind or having visitations from the devil! This is the kind of thing that just loses me. It's just there. I can't make sense of it. I can't see how it relates to one other thing in the novel.

Felícito and Don Rigoberto are in different cities and their stories don't overlap at all. It was like I was reading two completely different books at the same time. I was about to give up hope when there was finally a connection! A straightforward connection that I could understand!

I did enjoy each man's story individually. Well, not the stuff about Fonchito's mysterious visitor, but other than that, I was interested to see whether Felícito would be able to stand firm and hold on to what was his. The same could be said of Don Rigoberto. He's practically under siege but he tries his best to remain loyal to his friend.

The two cities did come to life in these pages, I have to say. I could smell the food cooking, the unsavory smells in the heat of the day, picture Don Rigoberto's house overlooking the beach and imagine the hang gliders floating past his windows. Peru itself is a character in this novel.

This was well-written and Edith Grossman's translation was well done. It was interesting enough but I do prefer my narratives to be a little more straightforward. If you do understand magical realism more than I do, by all means give The Discreet Hero a try. If you're more like me and just want a linear, concrete story, you might want to pass on this one.

Read an excerpt.

Buy The Discreet Hero at

I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop's, my local independent bookstore located in beautiful downtown Asheville, NC; and Better World Books. I will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site. My opinions are completely my own.

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