The Cubs, and Other Stories

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The Cubs and Other Stories includes a novella written by Mario Vargas Llosa in 1965 and six of his early short stories written between 1953 and 1957. Except, in some respects, for “On Sunday,” the short stories, completed before the author was twenty-two years old, do not compare in quality with the novella, entitled “The Cubs.” Thematically, however, the entire collection deals in interesting ways with coming of age, especially with the “rites of passage” experienced by upper-class Peruvians approaching manhood. In virtually every story, boys or youths encounter danger or death in tests that they and their peers subconsciously feel they must meet before they can go on with the living and reproduction of life. The challenge to danger is an essential element of these rites because to be a man traditionally means to engender and protect life, a role constantly challenged by death. Repeated failure to meet and transcend such tests denies meaning to the life of the youth who fails, since he cannot fulfill what seems to him the natural purpose of his existence.

In addition to themes, “On Sunday” and “The Cubs” share surroundings—the upper-class neighborhoods of Lima and its environs. In general the atmosphere is paradoxically one of anxious boredom; the need for excitement, to break the seemingly endless days experienced by the young, fills the air. In that atmosphere arise the challenges that become rites of passage. For Miguel, the protagonist of “On Sunday,” the excitement and tests come when he becomes enamored of a girl named Flora. Rejected when he asks her to be his steady, he becomes livid on learning that rather than go to the movies with him, she intends to visit the home of his friend and rival, Rubén. Out of this adolescent, melodramatic opening, Vargas Llosa builds a surprisingly touching story of a youth learning, in desperation, self-assertion and courage. To prevent Rubén from going home where he would meet with Flora, Miguel challenges his imposing rival to a drinking contest that soon leads to a more serious trial.

In a thoroughly realistic style, Vargas Llosa describes Miguel’s successful struggle against Rubén, the elements, and especially himself. The beer-guzzling ending in a draw, the intoxicated youths continue their confrontation, now only secondarily concerning Flora, in the cold winter sea. Challenging Rubén, a champion swimmer, to a race in the dangerous waters, Miguel finds himself in a contest with death for both his own life and his friend’s. Struck by a cramp, Rubén calls for help, and Miguel, himself already close to drowning, conquers his own fear of death and pulls the other boy to safety. Miguel, therefore, proves his manhood, not merely by equaling Rubén in a drinking bout or beating him in a reckless race, but by preserving life through the strength of his own character. Moreover, he confirms his newly won manhood by hiding the fact of the rescue from their friends to avoid humiliating Rubén. In this way, Miguel preserves Rubén’s dignity, allowing the latter to prove himself at some other opportunity. Although “On Sunday” lacks sufficient originality in structure, plot, and imagery, Vargas Llosa’s effective psychological portrait of Miguel foreshadows the fine characterization in the author’s mature novella, “The Cubs.”

While Miguel successfully completes his rite of passage and looks forward to fulfillment in life, P. P. Cuéllar of “The Cubs” is sadly denied that fulfillment despite his constant contention with the dangerous and with death itself. Rites of passage being socially mandated, Vargas Llosa’s use of neighborhood youth as a chorus to narrate Cuéllar’s life gives an appropriate perspective to the novella. Using a complex innovative technique, the author writes from the point of view of the first person plural, giving the impression that an entire group, rather than a representative individual, tells the tale. Despite this, individual voices from past and present come to the fore as if in a conversation interspersed with recordings of dialogue from Cuéllar’s life. Out of all this talk emerges the main character, first a child—possessing the intelligence, industriousness, and physical abilities valued by society—then an adult—underemployed, rebellious, and isolated. Cuéllar’s failure as an adult, in his society’s terms, results from a horrible attack he suffered as a boy.

Emasculated by a Great Dane, Cuéllar finds the way to manhood forever closed to him. As a result of his castration, he becomes obsessed with the rites of passage to the state that he can never sexually fulfill; for example, immediately after recovering from the attack, he loses interest in his studies and becomes preoccupied with soccer, a masculine endeavor. As Cuéllar grows older, the inevitable problems arise from his incapacitation and the expectations of society. The increasing isolation and despair he feels, as each of his friends becomes attached to a woman, completely infect the reader. To compensate for his physical loss, he begins to surf daringly, to drive and drink wildly. These masculine, though often antisocial contests with danger continue until Cuéllar unexpectedly falls in love. For a time, he behaves himself as he hopelessly woos Terry Arrarte; but knowing the relationship can never come to...

(The entire section is 2186 words.)