Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 906

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After reworking a mammoth 1500-page manuscript, Vargas Llosa found a publisher for The Time of the Hero with the most prestigious Hispanic publisher, Seix Barral of Barcelona. When the novel came out in 1963, having already been awarded one literary prize, Vargas Llosa proved that the recent international attention focused on Latin American fiction had not been misplaced. In Latin America, the novel—unlike many internationally acclaimed novels—was an instant bestseller. Critical reception has been wholly enthusiastic and ranges from appreciation for the subtlety of Vargas Llosa's social critique to his ability to utilize modernist techniques and further ''El Boom.'' Some critics credit Vargas Llosa's novel with moving the boom in Latin American literature into its second wave. Carlos Fuentes heralded the boom with his 1958 novel, Where the Air Is Clear, and García Márquez's 1967 novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, marked the start of the final wave.

In his acceptance speech for an award for The Green House in 1967, Vargas Llosa postulated that the writer is under obligation to help society improve by airing its dirty laundry. He believes that by exposing human failings in fictional form, people can better see what they need to do. As Charles Rossman says in ‘‘Mario Vargas Llosa's The Green House: Modernist Novel from Peru,’’ Vargas Llosa has always felt this way but The Time of the Hero ‘‘neither conveys a simple, didactic message nor recommends an explicit course of action.’’ Still, Vargas Llosa's first novel was a huge success and more than verified his authorial theory: he had exposed military culture and they responded in kind.

''One thousand copies were ceremoniously burned in the patio of the school and several generals attacked it bitterly. One of them said that the book was the work of a 'degenerate mind,' and another, who was more imaginative, claimed that I had undoubtedly been paid by Ecuador to undermine the prestige of the Peruvian Army,’’ Vargas Llosa recalls in a New York Times article, ''A Passion for Peru.’’ While the military was busy vilifying Vargas Llosa, critics were in raptures over the technical, specifically narrative, sophistication of the work. Jose Miguel Oviedo explores the prescience of Vargas Llosa's insight into the role of the military, showing that the author reveals the way in which military life ‘‘reproduce[s] itself, deformed and monstrous, on the other side of the social body. What allowed the military to survive destroyed the essence of civilian life, asphyxiating it under the hateful norms of imposition and supremacy that many times have been singled out as great regulators in the narrative world of Vargas Llosa.’’ For Oviedo, the revelation of this insight makes the novel a moral one.

J. J. Armas Marcelo explains how Vargas Llosa uses secrecy as a technique to expose the military hegemony Oviedo sees exposed. Oviedo's two sides of society become, in Marcelo, the world of appearance and the world of secrecy. ''These two worlds are within the same forge of the narrative structure of the work, shaping, to a greater or lesser degree, the symmetry or asymmetry of the elements that constitute the novelistic whole.’’ Not only does Vargas Llosa expose military culture but he immerses the reader in that culture by employing secrecy and ambiguity around the central crime in the novel.

Other critics have picked up on the bipolarity of Peruvian society as presented by Vargas Llosa. The novel, writes D. P. Gallagher, ''is never better than when it is showing how for young Peruvians social intercourse presupposes the jettisoning of one's best instincts.’’ Raymond Williams says, ‘‘The plot and structure makes inevitable an awareness of Peruvian society and a judgment of the characters' actions.’’ Williams adds that Vargas Llosa's techniques successfully force ‘‘adjustments in the reading process to understand ... temporarily suspending traditional assumptions about'' how novels work. Sara Castro-Klaren notes that Vargas Llosa's characterization technique mimics the chivalric tale where characters ‘‘often act under an assumed name or a disguised identity.’’ The disguise, subsequently, turns out to be a truer representation of the character's real self. Thus, we remember Jaguar as the kingpin and not as the kind man offering to help an old friend.

Because of the candid way Vargas Llosa has admitted to being influenced by European existential writers as well as writers of the American South, critics have often attempted to make comparisons. Efrain Kristal compares The Time of the Hero to William Faulkner's Light in August, one of Vargas Llosa's favorites. Like Faulkner, Vargas Llosa's plot hinges on the revelation of ''a hidden fact at a particularly timely moment.’’ R. Z. Sheppard says that García Márquez is Faulkner while Vargas Llosa is ‘‘aesthetically, if not stylistically, [Peru's] Dreiser’’ and his first novel ‘‘was a brutal slab of naturalism.’’

There were some negative reviews. Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann characterize The Time of the Hero as obsessively "realist." They view the novel as ‘‘a desperate search for wholeness. A sort of vicarious return to the womb of a lost reality.’’ Despite this early review, Vargas Llosa enjoys a positive reputation even though his subsequent works have not been ceremoniously burned. John Updike explains this continued favor, noting that ''the Peruvian man of letters, Mario Vargas Llosa, is almost too good to be true; cosmopolitan, handsome, and versatile, he puts a pleasant face on the Latin American revolution in the novel, and ... makes everybody, even North Americans, feel better about being a writer.’’

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