This excellent translation of the 1973 novel Pantoja y las visitadoras is a significant contribution to the substantial body of Hispanic fiction that has been made available in English in recent years. Mario Vargas Llosa is not as well known in this country as some other contemporary Latin American prose writers, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortázar. The publication of this translation should enhance his reputation among English-speaking audiences.
Captain Pantoja and the Special Service presents clear evidence that Vargas Llosa is very much a part of the Latin American group, for there are many similarities between his approach to the creation of a fictional world and theirs. His experimentation with narrative techniques is reminiscent of Carlos Fuentes’ in The Death of Artemio Cruz and of Manuel Puig’s in Heartbreak Tango. Much of the storytelling is developed through a montage of letters, official communiques, and news reports reproduced verbatim with annotations by the correspondents of those documents. When the narrator does speak, his voice is objective and his role is limited to presenting the dialogue without commentary. He always speaks in the present tense, and constructs a broad view of concurrent happenings by moving freely within a passage from one set of characters to another.
This combination of official documentation and objective present-tense narration gives the novel a sense of immediacy and authenticity. Because the narrator is so unobtrusive, almost all the information comes from the characters themselves. There is no authoritative voice to tell the “truth” about the world of Captain Pantoja, nor is there a subjective narrative opinion to distort the reality. The reader witnesses the events as they occur or as they are reported by the characters who participate in the action.
The reader of serious contemporary fiction is surely acquainted with this type of narrative and will recognize these techniques as typical of the work of the Latin American novelists. Because Vargas Llosa is participating in a trend and developing his fictional reality in a familiar way, his challenge to be innovative is much greater. The originality that he achieves is due to the story that he tells. His novel is ingenious primarily because the plot material is directly related to the familiar techniques of contemporary fiction that he uses to tell the story. There is a clear relationship between form and content.
The novel presents the story of Pantaleón Pantoja, an army lieutenant who is promoted to captain and charged with creating the Special Service—an official corps of prostitutes to serve the army men stationed in the remote areas of Peru. Pantoja moves his wife and mother to Iquitos, where he does an extraordinary job, always working undercover in civilian dress. After the local radio announcer broadcasts a sensationalist exposé of the Special Service, Pantoja’s wife leaves him; he subsequently falls in love with Olga the Brazilian, the most beautiful of the prostitutes. When Olga is killed in the line of duty, Pantoja delivers a eulogy at her funeral in military uniform. The army command immediately demotes him and refuses to acknowledge its complicity in the creation and maintenance of the Special Service. Pantoja, convinced that he has acted honorably and served his country well, returns to Lima to a reunion with his family.
The novel is primarily a story spotlighting the bureaucratic process at work. The narrative techniques enhance the plot material, for the devices used to tell much of the story are the forms of the typical government agency. The development of the Special Service is told in great detail through official reports written in superb bureaucratic jargon. The prostitutes are “specialists.” The soldiers are “candidate-users” who engage in “utilization activities” with the specialists. This is a “pilot project” the success of which will be evaluated once it has reached its “maximum operational volume.” Obviously, this is all rather ludicrous, since the Special Service is in fact just a group of whores dedicated to satisfying the sexual desires of the soldiers. The humor of the novel is derived from the fact that Vargas Llosa begins with a ridiculous premise and then proceeds to deal with it as if it were not ridiculous. There is no narrator to...
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