Review

Seedy tale of sex, politics and yellow journalism set in Lima

FICTION

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

By Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan US)/Hardcover/244 pages/$29.95/ Major bookstores from Feb 27/

3 stars

In his 18th novel, Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa mixes up sex, politics and yellow journalism in a sordid tale that unfolds in 1990s Lima, as terrorists run amok and residents live in fear of curfews, kidnappings and the shadowy autocracy that manipulates their lives.

Wealthy engineer Enrique Cardenas finds himself blackmailed by sleazy tabloid editor Rolando Garro, who has got hold of photos of him at an orgy.

Garro wields his magazine Exposed as a weapon of ruin. By slandering someone in its pages, he can destroy the person's career.

Now, he wants Cardenas to invest in his magazine or be publicly humiliated in its pages.

A desperate Cardenas consults his friend and lawyer Luciano, unaware that his wife Marisa is having a torrid affair with Luciano's wife, Chabela.

The novel takes place in the sunset years of deposed Peruvian leader Alberto Fujimori's regime, though its concerns are quite contemporary, given the rising threat of fake news in today's post-truth climate.

Fujimori himself is curiously absent.

Vargas Llosa is known for his scathing portraits of dictators - the Dominican tyrant Rafael Trujillo in The Feast Of The Goat (2000) comes especially to mind - but he seems disinclined to get up close and personal with his old nemesis.

Instead, villain duties are fulfilled by Fujimori's intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, who appears here as the sinister Doctor.

The story is anchored by reporter Julieta "Shorty" Leguizamon, whom Vargas Llosa sketches with surprising warmth.

Shorty, tough as nails despite her child-like physique, rises from the gritty streets of Five Corners to earn her stripes as Garro's star muck-raker.

It is with a kind of horrified respect that we watch Shorty at work, ferreting for damaging gossip, fending off creeps on the bus by threatening to stab them in the fly with a needle and, ultimately, facing off against the regime's ruthless masters.

The same cannot be said of Marisa and Chabela, the wives whose clandestine affair is the source of most of the novel's steamy sex scenes.

Shallowly realised, their chief distinguishing quality is that one is blonde and the other is a brunette.

Vargas Llosa has little interest in exploring their relationship outside of the sex and there is a voyeuristic quality to their erotic encounters, as if a male observer might jump in at any time (and it is no surprise that one eventually does).

The lurid relish with which Marisa and Chabela's coupling is depicted becomes inextricable from the obsession with scandal that the novel indicts elsewhere.

One finishes The Neighbourhood feeling in need of a bath. A good mindset with which to wade warily through the fake news of the world.

If you like this, read: The Feast Of The Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa,translated by Edith Grossman (Picador US, 2002, $26.73, Books Kinokuniya), a brutal political epic that recounts the events surrounding the assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2018, with the headline 'Seedy tale of sex, politics and yellow journalism set in Lima'. Print Edition | Subscribe