Captain Pantoja and the Special Service

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1808

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.

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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 comment on all this, and the characters are so involved in the events that they cannot maintain the distance necessary to see the absurdity of the situation.

The novel also presents a delightful portrayal of the fervent bureaucrat. Captain Pantoja is a simple, childish man who always wanted to be a “soldier-administrator.” When he gets this job, which he must execute as a sort of undercover agent, he throws himself into his task with an amazing enthusiasm. He sends out formal questionnaires to the soldiers to determine exactly how many “services” will be needed in a given week. He strives for efficiency by placing the prostitutes in the right place at the right time and then checking the results to find out if the right number of minutes were allotted for each service. In other words, he tries to anticipate the demand and adjust the supply in a very orderly manner, as if he were charged with distributing shoes and socks instead of sex.

When Pantoja discovers that the demand for sex is greater than the supply, he works for greater efficiency. He distributes pornographic literature to the candidate-users waiting in line for their utilization activity, so that they will be more aroused and require less time with the specialist. This is a clever presentation of what happens when things become official. The Special Service was established to satisfy the men so that they would not be dominated by their unfulfilled sexual urges, yet the result is quite different. Their sexuality becomes their most important concern, and the system tries to find ways to increase their sexual urge rather than to decrease it. In effect, the product and the way it is marketed become more important than the consumer for whose sake the agency was created.

In exploring and satirizing the bureaucratic process, Vargas Llosa is doing what many other novelists have done. However, he goes beyond his predecessors, primarily because he selects as his “case study” an example which is both absurd and socially controversial. The paternalistic army command sets out to satisfy through official channels this particular need of the men in its charge—the need for frequent sexual relations. The inanity of the impersonal administrative procedures becomes more apparent and more humorous than usual, because of the incongruity of applying the bureaucratic mentality to the most intimate of human activities. At the same time, the sanctimonious reactions from certain sectors of the community reveal the hypocritical notions about sexuality that pervade Western society. The religious interests of the region are shocked by the rumors of an official brothel sanctioned by the army, and also by the spreading hysteria of a religious cult led by Brother Francisco—a fanatic who instructs his followers to crucify insects, animals, and people. Even a large number of the soldiers and some of the prostitutes are secretly converted to his Brotherhood of the Ark.

The novel is particularly interesting for this analogy between the activities of the Special Service and the attitudes toward sexuality of the religious institutions of this society. In establishing the official agency to take care of the men’s sexual needs, the army is attempting to compartmentalize the biological urge. Give the men a regular diet of sexual activity, at an appointed time, and even stimulate them as much as possible as they wait in line, and then there will be no problem with sexuality at other times. This is precisely what the religious zealots would try to do—separate the sexual urge from the rest of life, isolate it, and hide it so that it will not offend polite society. In either case, it is an attempt to control people by regulating their private lives.

Vargas Llosa’s novel is a very humorous version of the theme of man’s nature in conflict with the civilizing forces of Western society. The army creates an agency to harness the destructive flaw of man, his biological need for regular sexual release. This “weakness,” with its potential for destroying the mechanized efficiency the army hopes to attain in its soldiers, is reduced to a programmed activity that constantly must be refined to create greater productivity and efficacy.

The problem is that this bureaucratic mechanization of man’s nature does not work. Despite all the official reports and documented studies, the project exudes the very sensuality that it attempts to control. Everyone, soldiers and civilians alike, becomes so obsessed with the agency and the regulations that the system dissolves into chaos. Captain Pantoja contributes to the disintegration of this bureaucratic invention because he cannot maintain an impersonal stance. He cannot let a day pass without trying out one of his “recruits,” and he finally destroys his career because he falls in love with Olga.

Even in this mechanized, depersonalized bureaucracy, man and woman play their roles of the tempted and the temptress, the hunter and the hunted. Brother Francisco attracts followers like flies because he offers what the Special Service threatens to take away, the earthy experience of unbridled nature. In spite of all attempts to turn him into a programmed machine, man inevitably returns to his original sin of animalistic sensuality.

In the last chapter of the novel, Vargas Llosa develops an extraordinary satire of society’s hypocrisy. Pantoja is censured not because of his role in maintaining an official whorehouse for the army, but for having publicly acknowledged the existence of the Special Service. The narrator shifts the scene from each army officer scolding Pantoja to that officer commenting on the scandal as he instructs his own favorite prostitute just what to do to increase his own sexual pleasure.

The novel is a very effective treatment of sexual mores and of the ways in which people in power attempt to control what other people do. The Special Service is a failure because of what Captain Pantoja is. He is too naïve and emotionally involved in his work to be a good bureaucrat. In effect, Pantoja is not the impersonal, disinterested, lethargic director that every good agency needs to function inefficiently and perpetuate itself indefinitely.

Vargas Llosa succeeds in revealing some truths about human nature and the inevitable forces of society. This is a novel about the individual and the system, but it is particularly interesting because the novelist has chosen a system that cannot work because it attempts to control a part of human nature that will always defy all such efforts. This premise allows Vargas Llosa to portray, somewhat pessimistically but with a great deal of humor, the essential flaws of man and of the society he has invented for himself.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30

Booklist. LXXIV, January 1, 1978, p. 732.

Library Journal. CIII, February 1, 1978, p. 387.

Nation. CCXXVI, April 1, 1978, p. 377.

New Republic. CLXXVII, May 20, 1978, p. 36.

New York Times Book Review. April 9, 1978, p. 11.

Saturday Review. V, February 4, 1978, p. 32.

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