(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Compatriots of Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa who fear he may have taken a turn toward pornography will likely find confirmation in The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. The novel features one titillating sex scene after another, each building to its own kind of climax in the style of pornographic movies. Yet the scenes are definitely inventive—variations on a theme, with a good deal of fetishism thrown in—and one could argue that they stop short of bad taste, or at least only skirt the edges. Instead, one might describe the novel as a virtual smorgasbord of soft pornography.

All the sex scenes in one way or another feature Doña Lucrecia, the estranged wife of Don Rigoberto, the novel’s protagonist. In the first of these scenes, Doña Lucrecia’s lover smears her with honey and allows a flock of kittens to arouse her by licking it off with their rough little tongues. In the second, a lovesick former suitor of Doña Lucrecia splurges his savings to take her on a week’s jaunt to New York, Paris, and Venice; she rewards him with a seven-day striptease, letting him see and touch a little more each night until the final big night. In the third, the flashy public- relations director of Don Rigoberto’s insurance firm tries to rape Justiniana, the pretty maidservant, whom Doña Lucrecia saves and consoles by taking to bed. In the fourth, Don Rigoberto and his brother swap wives for the night. In the fifth, a daredevil motorcyclist unmanned by a horrific accident persuades Doña Lucrecia to give him the pleasure of hearing her urinate. The novel continues in this vein for a total of ten or eleven such episodes in nine chapters.

Yet, the reader might think, this material is too funny to be pure pornography. The kittens almost tickle poor Lucrecia to death. And why, at the weirdest time, does her former suitor on their jaunt break out into song—“Torna a Sorrento,” “O sole mio,” “Caminito,” “Allá en el rancho grande,” and other 1950’s hits? Moreover, as it turns out, Don Rigoberto’s brother only uses Lucrecia to warm him up for his own German wife, a voracious Valkyrie named Ilse. In addition, the machomotorcyclist always had his peculiar fetish, and now he can indulge it without danger to his machismo. Yet the thrill that the motorcyclist gets is nothing compared to the orgasm that a young woman in the last chapter experiences by sucking and biting on Don Rigoberto’s nose.

In addition, the material is not only funny but also fantastic. Indeed, somewhere in the book—probably not too far along—it dawns on the reader that the sex scenes are all Don Rigoberto’s fantasies (in case it does not dawn on the reader, it is all explained on the book’s jacket cover). Not only that, but he is writing the fantasies down in notebooks that are referred to increasingly in the novel’s second half. The fantasies account for the novel’s sudden shifts in perspective, time, and character, which make it difficult for the reader to separate illusion from reality. In the mind of Don Rigoberto, the shifts occur effortlessly, as they do in everyone’s dreams and fantasies. This is not pornography but rather the liberated postmodern novel.

Moreover, the novel is dignified by a serious theme: the plight of the middle-class male in the era of self-indulgence, media modeling, and sadomasochistic feminism. Don Rigoberto is the contemporary Everyman, and he is pathetic, if not pathological. An insurance executive by day, he has no satisfaction from his job; he lives to get home at night to his fantasies and notebooks. His job’s only attraction is that it pays him well enough to live his comfortable lifestyle and to pursue his other hobbies, travel and art. Although his travel and art make him more cultured, they serve much the same purpose as do the common person’s mass media: They furnish his imagination with settings and models for his fantasies. Basically, Don Rigoberto’s life revolves around sex— which he does not have.

An analysis of his fantasies reveals how pathetic this man is. In most of them, other men—or women—are making love to his estranged wife. Probably these fantasies represent a commonplace worry of separated or divorced couples that the estranged spouse is having more fun. Yet they also reveal a jealous side of Don Rigoberto, as if he was always suspicious of his wife...

(The entire section is 1779 words.)