In 1958 (at the age of twenty-two), Mario Vargas Llosa won first place for his short story ‘‘The Challenge’’ in a fiction contest sponsored in Peru by Revue française. His prize was a trip to Paris, a city he had longed to visit and to which he later returned to seriously pursue writing.
Among the themes common in Vargas Llosa’s fiction is that of establishment of power by means of violence. Although ‘‘The Challenge’’ was written very early in his career, this idea is already forming. In the story, the Gimp demonstrates his strength, power, and believability by killing the man he challenged, Justo. That the Gimp wants his opponent to surrender rather than be killed has less to do with the theme of power than with the particular character of the Gimp. The sense of disillusionment often portrayed in Vargas Llosa’s work is also present in ‘‘The Challenge’’; when Justo loses the fight, his father is left with the hollow victory of knowing that his son fought bravely.
As the story opens, the narrator, Julian, is sitting at the River Bar with his friends Leon and Briceño. Leonidas, an older man, arrives and joins them. He informs them that Justo (another member of the group) will be fighting the Gimp at the raft that night. When Leonidas leaves, Briceño says that Justo is likely to lose, and the others tell him to be quiet.
Julian goes home briefly, changes clothes, wraps up a knife and puts it in his pocket, and tells his wife he will be back later. He returns to the River Bar, where he talks to the owner, Moses, who has already heard about the fight. Because Justo is his friend, Moses offers to help in any way he can. He fears for Justo and tells Julian that the Gimp and his friends were in the bar the previous night, bragging about how they were going to get Justo. When they finish talking, Julian notices Justo sitting alone. Justo tells Julian how he ran into the Gimp and his friends and how they challenged him to the fight. Julian shows Justo the knife he has brought, and Justo says he will use his own. They finish their beers and go to meet Leon and Briceño.
Leon and Briceño show confidence in Justo’s ability to win the fight with the Gimp, despite earlier doubts. The four young men arrive at the raft, which is actually a huge carob tree that fell into the river years ago and moves only slightly every year. They see that the Gimp and his group are already there, and members of the two opposing...
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