Based in part on Vargas Llosa’s experience as a cadet in the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Lima, Peru, from 1950 to 1952, The Time of the Hero is a fictionalized portrayal of a group of adolescent boys at the school during a three-year period which coincides, roughly, with the author’s own stay there.
The Time of the Hero is divided into two parts, of eight chapters each, and an epilogue. It has four narrators: an omniscient third-person narrator; two first-person narrators, Jaguar and Boa, whose identity is discovered only in the last part of the book; and a fourth voice, that of Alberto, who communicates with the reader through several internal monologues.
The book begins during the boys’ third and last year at the school. They are there for various reasons. Alberto’s father, a middle-class dandy, somewhat dismayed at his son’s interest in books, decides that what the young man needs is an education that will prepare him for adult life in the real world; the Leoncio Prado, the father believes, will do precisely that. Ricardo Arana is there because his absentee father considers him effeminate; the boy has been reared by a devoted mother and an aunt, and the father insists that he is in need of the discipline and toughening that a military education can provide. Jaguar, who comes from a family of thieves and is a budding juvenile delinquent, ends up in the academy as an alternative to reform school after he is caught stealing. As the novel begins, an omniscient third-person narrator relates how several boys are about to carry out a carefully planned maneuver designed by Jaguar, the undisputed leader of the school’s student gang known as “the Circle.” Their aim is to steal an important chemistry exam. They succeed in getting the exam but break a window in the process, thus exposing the theft. Pending the discovery or confession of the guilty parties, school authorities suspend all leaves.
The severing of the lifeline with the outside world becomes the catalyst for the novel; it tests the partnerships, relationships, and loyalties that had been established and upon which the Circle was built and impels the characters to act in ways which express their true nature. Ricardo Arana, “the Slave,” so called because of his lack of aggressiveness and courage as defined by the other boys, cannot bear giving up his plan to get away from the school and the boys whom he detests and visit his beloved Teresa. He informs and thus breaks the honor code of the Circle. He is subsequently wounded by a bullet during the school’s military exercises. He dies shortly thereafter. Following a superficial investigation of the incident, school authorities conclude, wrongly, that the Slave’s death was caused by the accidental firing of the victim’s own gun.
Alberto, “the Poet,” Ricardo’s only friend among the cadets, is certain that Ricardo’s death was not an accident but rather Jaguar’s revenge against the Slave for informing. The Poet, in turn, informs Lieutenant Gamboa of his suspicions about Jaguar and takes advantage of the opportunity to expose all the petty infractions and violations of the regulations carried out by the group: the gambling, drinking, illegal furloughs, and contraband. While Gamboa believes Alberto, he is unable to persuade his superiors to reopen the case. They are concerned about the good name of the school and the bad publicity that a full investigation might attract. They urge Alberto to withdraw his accusations, threatening to expose him as a pornographer, a reference to Alberto’s sideline as a writer of erotic tales. Alberto succumbs and withdraws his...
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charges. The lieutenant, in turn, is transferred to a distant post, a plan that causes him and his beloved family great hardship. He accepts the transfer with true dignity, which serves to highlight the contrast between the corruption of the upper echelons of the military hierarchy and the naive honesty of its more humble ranks. Alberto himself also becomes an informer when he tells Gamboa the truth about Jaguar. As for the leader of the Circle, his own comrades turn on him, give him a severe beating, and accuse him, falsely, of having revealed the details of their illegal rackets.
The epilogue of the work serves to tie lose ends. Alberto, feeling no guilt over his retreat from responsibility, plans to pursue technical studies in the United States and will eventually marry a suitable middle-class young woman. Jaguar confesses about the shooting to Gamboa before the lieutenant leaves the school; the latter decides not to expose him. Jaguar also becomes “respectable.” He works at a bank and marries his childhood sweetheart Teresa, the same Teresa who had moved Ricardo to inform, setting off the chain of events described above, and who, at the same time, had been romanticaly ensnarled in a relationship with Alberto behind the Slave’s back.