The Construct of Military Masculinity as it Displaces Machismo

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2022

The Time of the Hero , with its militaristic anthem and its critical investigation of masculinity, puts one in mind of those stories which support the warrior code. Many early reviews said that the novel was anti-military but only because it showed the messiness behind the uniforms. In point of...

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The Time of the Hero, with its militaristic anthem and its critical investigation of masculinity, puts one in mind of those stories which support the warrior code. Many early reviews said that the novel was anti-military but only because it showed the messiness behind the uniforms. In point of fact, the novel takes no position on the military—it simply describes how homosocial networks function within the very hierarchical environment of the military and reflect a pre-established hypocritical ideology surrounding the marriage institution. Each example of parenthood shown to us reveals a fractured state of marriage whose affect on the surviving boys is a further denigration of that institution and of women specifically. Vargas Llosa shows how military constructions of masculinity in mid-twentieth-century Peruvian culture spill over into civilian life and into the lives of young boys. The gender strategy of the novel is very specific: boys become men insofar as they reject feminine sensibilities, reject the mother who is also resented by the father. In such a divisive domestic atmosphere, the authoritarian nature of the military brings order and regulation first to masculinity and then to the household. Before reviewing the novel for the way in which it explores masculinity molded by the military, it would be instructive to note another highly militaristic culture and its literary component.

One of the major factors that brought about the end of the Great War was the threat of revolution at home. Germany's structural integrity, for example, received a challenge in the form of a working-class colony supported by the remnants of the navy in the north, and various pockets of Polish, Estonian, and Latvian nationalists inspired by Wilson's Fourteen Points and the Russian Revolution. There was also a remaining thread from the Russian Red Army. Chancellor Ebert hired men from the upper class with military training or those who had graduated from military academies and formed the Friekorpsmen to reestablish order—the army was full of the working class and could not be trusted. Their enemies were the disgruntled working classes dissatisfied with the existing order and anyone else who might have caused Germany's defeat. They pursued this goal vigorously from 1918 to 1923 but survived the non-war years to form the core of Hitler's SS. In his 1977 opus, Male Fantasies, Klaus Theweleit records his analysis of a cache of novels written for and about the Friekorpsmen in Germany.

The Friekorpsmen were elite soldiers, well trained, and ruthless in their mission. That the German State used force to put itself back together is not the issue but the mentality and identity they created to do this is interesting to anyone seeking to understand military regimes and their impact on gender roles. The Friekorpsmen, as Theweleit finds, are fresh young men (some just out of the academy) ‘‘whose 'manhood' was half-brutal and half-comical.’’ They developed a subconscious wherein the communist and socialist women were not to be trusted but assaulted, raped, or just killed. Prostitutes were a tolerated necessity for letting off steam. The women to be revered and left nearly chaste were the ‘‘white women"—women of the upper class (oftentimes sisters) who supported the Friekorps mission and served as their nurses. Such sexual tensions fill innumerable novels written for and about Friekorps adventures. The hierarchical sexual taxonomy of the Friekorps melded well with Nazi ideals but the proposition that Theweleit offers showing that militaristic regimes accompany sexual politics helps us to relate the sexual elements in The Time of the Hero to the military manhood being formulated in Peru. Where civilian structures break down or appear to weaken and there is a self-regulating institution capable of resorting to force, that militaristic group absorbs civilian society.

Critic Jose Miguel Oviedo, in ‘‘On Vargas Llosa's Intellectuals and the Military,’’ notes succinctly that the military ‘‘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.’’ The relationship, as Vargas Llosa shows, is not a simple one. The political and economic disruption wracking Peru during the twentieth century—the loss in war or the weak position it holds on the world stage—lead parents to conclude that their boys are in jeopardy of emasculation. Rich parents send boys to the academy and poor parents hope to give their boys more opportunity. Once there, all the psychological tensions the boys have absorbed from their corrupt households—each of the main boys' parents have enormous marital difficulties—is played out on each other.

As with the Friekorps, the military authorities at the Leonicio Prado Academy feel, on behalf of Peru, that their existence is threatened unless they have a strong military force supporting the state. This goes beyond the Colonel's personal battles over the status of the academy. Rather, the military officers believe that Peru is ill-prepared in military terms because its boys are sissies, civilians run the country, and enemies surround the nation. Such is the discussion between Captain Garrido and Lt. Gamboa as the pivotal wargames are being set up. In sum, ‘‘it doesn't mean a damned thing to be a soldier in Peru any more.’’ Little do they know that in a few years the military will run the country; for the moment, however, their efforts are achieving results. As if realizing their frustration, during the exercise a weak element among the cadets is eliminated. The cadet known as the Slave is killed because he failed to be a man. The struggle among the cadets over being able to be identified as a man reflects the larger societal tensions.

The other cadets arrived at the Academy as boys, almost women, and were immediately pounced on by the older boys and initiated. The Jaguar, however, ‘‘defended them ... They were scared to death of the initiations, they trembled like women, and I taught them how to be men.’’ The Jaguar taught them loyalty to the group, how to establish a black market, and how and where to have sex—at Golden Toes' who counts off the number of cadets that day and says, ‘‘I must be you guys' mascot.’’ The Jaguar enforces group loyalty through cruelty and The Circle backs him up. A continuous example is made of the Slave who is incapable of profiting from the lessons he is offered in masculinity.

The Slave remembers a formative playground moment which seems to belie the Spanish title of the novel, the city and the dogs. He remembers how the other boys would surround him during recess: ‘‘their mouths were like fierce muzzles ready to snap at him.'' The boys shouted at him to ''Go on'' and cry. In frustration and fear, he did. Once he tried to fight back but his body refused to oblige and he was beaten. Since then he has given up but he sees in the antics of the cadets in the academy to what extremes such pack-like behavior can go. Boys form gangs just like men form armies. To be an integral member of a gang is to be a man.

Meanwhile, the boys carry their abusive mindset into the city where they meet with the approving glances of women and men. They define themselves first in the relationship where they saw their fathers act as men, by neglecting their mothers. Alberto shows happiness toward his mother when she relays money from his father; ''his mother had not seen him naked since he had become a cadet.’’ She had not seen him weak or dependent. He performed masculinity in a simple act of shyness. The mother, in response, ministrates to him. At every turn of the transition from boyhood to manhood there must be a woman to mark the progression. Whether it is the old woman who disapproves of Jaguar beating Teresa's friend, Jaguar's sexual initiation at the hands of his aunt, or Teresa's aunt wishing the man calling on Teresa were a real man, a soldier—old women regulate the definition of manhood. This is ironic given that Mr. Arana assumes it is the military that gives that designation. Thus, the brutalization Ricardo experiences in the academy was unnecessary—he just needed Teresa to love him and he knew that. The world of the dogs will not let him have such an easy life.

A man is formed in the city among the dogs. He becomes a man first to the degree to which he adopts a negative attitude towards his mother and secondly, the degree to which he can adapt and manipulate the politics of whatever group he is in. At first, a boy must master his neighborhood gang. An intensification of this is the military academy. In his interaction with the gang, part of his stature involves the way he interacts with women. On the one hand, he partakes in the traffic of illicit sex so that he can brag about having visited Golden Toes. On the other, he has to have a legitimate love interest. For Jaguar, Slave, and Poet, this interest is the virginal maiden Teresa who is awaiting rescue from her impoverishment. On the topic of Teresa, the sexual dynamics of masculinity are clearly delineated. Jaguar and Poet dream of being with her but not of having sex with her. In fact, to masturbate the cadets use nasty stories and the images of whores, and should Teresa's face appear they grow ashamed and limp. Boa, the most explicit, says intercourse is ''more like a game'' where the penis simply tries to penetrate chickens, llamas, fatboys, friends, whores, and enemies.

The parallels between the military elements in Peru and Germany are not exact. Every society with a military complex will have some of the components Theweleit sees in the Friekorps and that Vargas Llosa reveals in his tale about a military academy. The degree of infiltration, however, differs. In Peru, the military plays a larger role than it does, say, in America, even during the build-up of the 1980s when every boy aspired to be Rambo. The point is that in Peru, where hypocritical family members obsessed about the masculinity of their boys rather than fix their corrupted marriages, the military academy was viewed as a curative. The academy was seen as a "reform school" to which "half of them are sent here so they won't turn out to be gangsters ... and the other half, so they won't turn out to be fairies." Instead, they turn out to be brutalized men with strange conceptions of loyalty, friendship, and sex, begging for the rigors and authenticity that men like Lt. Gamboa represent. When military dictatorships take over such societies, men such as Alberto or his father are not oppressed but, like the Friekorpsmen, get what they ask for.

The boom in Latin American literature as well as the political turmoil of twentieth-century Latin America have been marked by male perspectives and male dictators. The central theme of The Time of the Hero is masculinity or how a boy in Peru becomes a man and what that means. Each primary character experiences molding masculine forces and similarly rejects maternal forces. The novel exposes the way in which masculinity works but no decisive criticism is advanced—that is for the reader to do. Masculinity has several operatives. First, although the principle is rife with irony and qualifications, ''a man has to accept the responsibility for his actions.'' He cannot squeal and he must pull his fair share of the group's weight whether that weight is a theft or a brawl. Second, he must be sexually active while preserving the good woman, his chaste wife. He can sleep around so long as he preserves and protects his family and makes his boy into a man.

Source: Jeremy W. Hubbell, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.
Hubbell has an M. Litt. from the University of Aberdeen and is currently pursuing a Ph. D. in history at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Of How To Be and What to See While You Are Being: The Reader's Performance in The Time of the Hero

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4539

Reading is never a natural and innocent activity. The condition of the reader is to come after, to be constituted as reader by the repertoire of other texts, both literary and non-literary, which are always already in place and waiting to be displaced by a critical reading. —Jonathan Culler

In literary critical circles, a contemporary author's reputation customarily rests more on his recent works than on his earlier efforts, however well received they might have been. Too often we critical readers forget our initial enthusiasm for a work in our rush to assess more current pieces. We tend to establish hierarchies of quality across the works of a single author and, once such niches are fashioned, to ignore the works that occupy those artificial categories, concentrating instead on the creative publications as yet uncatalogued.

This, in brief, is the regimen to which all novelists, at least in Latin America, subject themselves as they write and continue to write. However, there are reactions to literature, and there are reactions. Of all of the novels published in Latin America since 1960—during the period called the "boom"—no work that I know of has engendered more observable reactions than Mario Vargas Llosa's La ciudad y los perros (The Time of the Hero). Outside Peru the novel was well received, was heralded as a literary happening, and was even awarded a literary prize in Spain where it was published. Meanwhile, some Peruvian readers, especially residents of Lima, were aghast to find in that first edition a street map of their capital city (the setting of the action in the novel) together with a photograph of Leoncio Prado Academy (a prestigious paramilitary school that exists to this day in Lima). These two visual aids, along with the vividly portrayed cheating scandal that comprises the central narrative sequence of the novel, were perceived as nothing less than a brash insult to ''the institution.’’ Hence, with zeal worthy of any vice-regal Inquisitor in colonial Spanish America, the cadets and officials of Lima's Leoncio Prado burned a pile of these ''illustrated'' editions in protest.

Those visceral responses to his work must have delighted Vargas Llosa, who remarked during a round-table discussion dedicated to The Time of the Hero, ‘‘I do not admire novelists who keep the reader at a distance.'' Clearly, Vargas Llosa's book-burning readers suffered not from excessive detachment from the created reality, but rather from what Erving Goffman terms engrossment, ''the matter of being carried away into something.’’ Such total involvement in a fictive world calls to mind that paragon of reader-participants, Don Quixote, who destroyed the puppet theater of Master Pedro (Part II, chapter 26) in his zealous efforts to assist damsels in distress (puppets though they might be). Cervantes' beleaguered knight and Vargas Llosa's incensed readers share a lack of aesthetic distance, that is, ‘‘the reader's awareness that art and reality are separate.’’ Yet it is involvement, not aesthetic distance, that is the hallmark of most accomplished narratives. In fact, Vargas Llosa attributes the generic supremacy and the novelist's primary challenge to the possibility of such engrossment: ‘‘the novel is ... the genre that installs the reader at the very heart of the reality evoked in the book. The author's obligation is to keep him there.’’

My memory of the initial reactions to The Time of the Hero, together with my encounters with other texts in the intervening years, prompts this revaluation or re-vision of the novel. I want to focus particularly on this engrossment or involvement, to analyze what I perceive to be essential markers within the work that determine the reader's performance. As I begin the description of the reading process, I am reminded of Clifford Geertz's comment that ultimately critical reading is ‘‘not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.''

The primary conceptual vehicle for considering this involvement is the notion of framing. Although "framing" is a metaphor appropriated from the pictorial arts, it and its consequences are fundamental to fiction. Boris Uspensky's comments on the frame are useful to our understanding of the organization of a novel and the ways we learn ''how to be’’ readers:

We may say that the frame of a painting (primarily, its real frame) belongs necessarily to the space of the external observer (that is, of the person who views the painting and who occupies a position external to the representation)—and not to that imaginary three-dimensional space represented in the painting. When we mentally enter the imaginary space, we leave the frame behind, just as we no longer notice the wall on which the picture is hung; for that reason, the frame of a painting may possess its own independent decorative elements and ornamental representations. The frame is the borderline between the internal world of the representation and the world external to the representation.

Following this logic, we can say that the boundaries of the narrative world are marked (and thus enclosed) by the narrator of a novel. Indeed, it is the narrating function that provides the reader with a psychological orientation toward the events recounted therein. However, in fiction the narrator is also the nexus between interior and exterior, between the demands of the created reality and the expectations that the reader brings with him to the act of reading. It is the successful structuring of this frame that induces the reader to accept the norms and premises defining the interior coherence of a novel. What is more important, as Goffman points out, ''frame ... organizes more than meaning; it also organizes involvement.’’

Though we virtually take it for granted, the title of a novel is often one of the first clues to the quality and direction of the reader's conceptual involvement and properly should be considered integral to the frame of the work. The ultimate meaning of the title, replete with connotations that the work can lend to it, is necessarily completely perceived only after the reading experience. In the case of Vargas Llosa's novel, however, the title provides an essential clue to one of the primary organizational principles in the work, a clue that is deleted from the frame of the English translation. Conversations with the novelist after the publication of this novel reveal that he debated at length over the title (a fact that confirms, to some extent, the importance of even that one line). Initially the work was to be called La moroda del héroe (The Hero's Dwelling ), whence the title for the English translation. Later that was changed to Los impostores (The Imposters), a more explicitly sarcastic reference to the problems treated in the novel. Finally, the Spanish edition was published with the title La ciudad y los perros (The City and the Dogs), a phrase, Monegal asserts, that highlights the tension between the characters and their environment (Monegal). Undoubtedly, that is one aspect of the significance of the title. I would suggest that, more than merely communicating a univocal message to the reader, the title as it finally appeared establishes very subtly the basic narrative format of the novel. Spatially, the episodes all occur either in the city or at the academy. The connection between the two major settings (ignoring the subsettings that actually exist within each) is always one of the ''dogs,'' the cadets now in their fifth year who reacted to their third-year initiation into the academy by organizing all manner of subterfuge against the other cadets and the school officials. The term dog would normally refer to the third-year cadets, but for the reader it comes to designate the small group of cadets who are involved in the cheating scandal that results in one cadet's death. Essentially, the fictive present includes all of those events that follow chronologically the theft of the chemistry examination (the event that opens the novel), and the central narrative sequence ends with the cadets' departure from the academy. The Epilogue of the novel focuses once more on two of the cadets (Alberto and the Jaguar) after they have left the academy, and affords the only projection into the future, into the lives of the characters beyond the academy.

Not only does the Spanish title circumscribe the spatial aspects of the novel; in its duplicating construction it also hints at the temporal skeleton of the work. In addition to the alternation between those episodes set in the city and those which take place at the academy, there is a corresponding alternation between episodes that advance the central narrative sequence (the cheating scandal) and others that provide social backgrounds for three of the cadets (Alberto Fernández, the Jaguar, and Ricardo Arana). Each of these episodes belongs to a fictive past remote from the central action of the novel. Somehow one expects such background information to provide clues to or causes for the fundamental problems set forth in the novel. But the reader's expectations are not fulfilled, for the details of each cadet's earlier life outside the academy seem to pertain to individuals that hardly resemble those whom we meet inside the academy. Each of the narrations terminates with the youth's decision to enroll at Leoncio Prado: three cadets, and three distinct reasons for subjecting oneself to the discipline and rigors of paramilitary life.

Before I suggest the results of Vargas Llosa's contrapuntal narration, let me specify those units that I am calling episodes. The Time of the Hero consists of two lengthy sections, each having eight chapters, and an Epilogue. Heading each of the long sections is an epigraph, which is yet another means of orienting the reader toward the novelistic world. Each chapter in turn is divided into numerous subsections separated from one another by the typographical conventions of blank spaces and (in the Spanish edition) the capitalization of initial words in the following section. Only the last chapter of Part I is of one piece; it recounts the field maneuvers (‘‘war games’’) during which Ricardo Arana is killed. Two of the chapters (chapter 4, Part I, and chapter 1, Part II) are divided into ten sections each. This organization into episodic sections within the larger chapter divisions facilitates the movement among multiple temporal and spatial settings.

The principal result of such temporal fragmentation is that the reader experiences a constant interplay between past and present, between actors in the primary setting (the academy) and others in the secondary location (the city). Throughout the novel the central narrative provides an axis around which all other events revolve. Flashbacks to earlier moments in the academic lives of these cadets and regressions to childhood memories both reflect the continuing problems provoked for cadets and officials alike by the theft of the examination. Through this contrapuntal rhythm the stress is placed on simultaneity, on the shifting center of the fictive present and the confounding effects of such movement. The ultimate result is the blurring of temporal and spatial categories, the interpenetration of time and space. Sharon Spencer's summary of this process is relevant to the narrative organization of Vargas Llosa's novel:

The spatialization of time in the novel is the process of splintering the events that, in a traditional novel, would appear in a narrative sequence and of arranging them so that past, present and future actions are presented in reversed, or combined, patterns; when this is done, the events of the novel have been "spatialized," for the factor that constitutes their orientation to reality is the place where they occur.

It should be noted that this structural format and its effects are not unique to Vargas Llosa's first novel. In The Green House (1966) and Conversation in The Cathedral (1969), this technique achieves its fullest development and becomes almost a trademark of Vargas Llosa's narrative style.

Beyond the title, which simultaneously heralds the reader's involvement and, in this novel, initiates that process, there are other markers that shape and determine reader response in The Time of the Hero. At least one critic has noted certain resemblances between this novel and the detective story format; in fact, the work is best viewed in the context of one long literary tradition of the riddle or puzzle. Vargas Llosa refracts, even multiplies, the puzzle format until it not only contributes to the structural frame of the work but also affects the conceptual apprehension and ultimate interpretation of the novel. I would point out that this mystery/riddle/puzzle technique has received mixed responses from critical readers. Luis Harss, for one, regards it as bothersome and questions the effectiveness of such ‘‘seductions’’ of the reader. Harss goes so far as to assert that ‘‘Vargas Llosa has the bad habit of witholding vital information.’’ To his complaint I would reply that this organization and expositional technique is successfully integrated into the system of the narrative world and performs both structural and cognitive functions, both of which contribute to the reader's comprehension of the significance in the novel. In Jonathan Culler's terms, however, my expectations of the work are tempered by a textual repertoire different from that of Harss.

Despite the fact that the initial impetus of the action is a misdemeanor (which the reader ‘‘witnesses’’) that results in the death of Ricardo Arana and prompts the investigation that occupies the second half of the novel, the most significant aspects of the puzzle frame relate only tangentially to those events. Structurally, the work draws on detective fiction but in fact moves well beyond the conventions of that genre. It is important to indicate that even in this little novel the conventions of detective stories, since they should be familiar both to reader and author, serve as another orienting device and lead the reader to expect ‘‘an ongoing continuity of values.’’ The detective story frame, however, is relegated to the background about midway through the novel. Thereafter the invention of the work takes over, and the reader is guided through a process that (in any good mystery) would lead to the resolution of conflicts, the answers to persistent questions, and a stabilized outcome favorable to most of the characters.

In The Time of the Hero, however, ambiguity and paradox remain unresolved. Rather than being lucid sources of illumination for the reader, the narrators in this novel generate conflicting meanings. Instead of one meaning or one truth, the novel provides clues to a range of meanings and possibilities of truth that call attention to the means by which we each arrive at our own personal world-views. Ultimately, we are reminded in multiple ways that ‘‘imaginative truth’’ is often ‘‘a lie which [we] value.’’

Returning to the puzzle frame, I want to present two examples of the questions that arise within the first two chapters of the novel, answers to which are only revealed in later chapters. The first concerns the identity of one of the characters, not himself a narrator, but rather an optic through which the reader views a sequence of events in the fictive past. After the initial narration of the theft of the examination, the scene changes to Salaverry Avenue in Lima and the childhood of someone named Ricardo. Until that moment the reader has encountered no character by that name. Nor is anyone revealed to be Ricardo in the section that follows. Among the characters we have met, it could be the Boa, the Jaguar, or the Slave, none of whom has been called by his given name up to that point. Before the end of chapter 1 we can eliminate the Boa (we think), since he performs a narrating function of his own utilizing first-person pronouns. The final identification of this Ricardo is made at the end of chapter 2, when the Slave gives his name as Ricardo Arana.

I would underscore the fact that there is one characteristic of that first episode that persists throughout all of the sections devoted to the Slave. The key to the temporal position of these episodes is to be found in the phrase ''El Esclavo ha olvidado'' (‘‘The Slave has forgotten’’) and its variant ‘‘El Esclavo no recuerda'' (‘‘The Slave doesn't remember’’). The latter we find in the section of chapter 1 that details the initiation of the cadets, told indirectly through the eyes of the Slave before the reader can positively identify him as Ricardo Arana. In a world of shifting narrators and settings, the reader begins to search for connections between the episodes, and an observant reader would probably note the similarity between the two phrases. By the time we are certain of his identity at the end of chapter 2, we have already encountered one oblique indication of Ricardo Arana's schoolboy nickname.

Each of the sections concerning Ricardo begins with the phrase ‘‘The Slave has forgotten’’ (my translation), which, by virtue of its recurrence, becomes part of the narrative frame. (In a like manner, those episodes dealing with Alberto's childhood tend to include an early reference to Diego Ferré Street, and thus promote the reader's orientation within the narration.) It is interesting that one element of this framing device does not survive the translation process. Semantically, the frame remains unchanged; syntactically, it is altered. The translator chooses to maintain the narrative past tense in English and thereby deletes the verbal aspect of the phrase. (Compare ‘‘The Slave has forgotten,’’ my translation, with ‘‘The Slave had forgotten,’’ copyrighted translation.) What always follows these present-tense assertions by the omniscient narrator is a past-tense account of Ricardo's childhood. What, then, is the vantage of this narrator? There must be something in the fictive present that permits him such statements as preludes to past narrations. The last episode in Ricardo's childhood recounts the day his parents announced their decision to enroll him at Leoncio Prado. That section is in the same chapter (Part II, chapter 1) in which the other cadets learn of the Slave's death. The end of his childhood memories coincides with his premature death at the academy. Therefore, if we maintain the introductory phrase in its present tense, the collective memories take on the repetitive qualities of a litany, a linguistic device that blends with the ongoing narration and still provides reinforcement of the cadet's death.

The second riddle, one which for many readers is unsolved until the Epilogue, is the identity of the narrator who is the friend of Skinny Higueras and is always around Bellavista Plaza. We encounter this first-person narrator in chapter 2, Part I. What we learn about him in this initial section is that he has a brother, that his father is dead, and that he studies with a girl friend named Tere. Again, a process of elimination is put to work, and we recall that, given the characters we have met, this person could be the Boa (unlikely) or the Jaguar. By this stage in the novel, however, it is clear that Alberto is to be one of the principal figures, and certain intuitions (perhaps a desire to give him a voice of his own instead of hearing him through the mediating omniscient narrator) lead us to suspect that these passages may be yet another view of Alberto's childhood. Conflicting information should allow the reader to eliminate this possibility by chapter 5 of Part I. This narrator's father is dead; Alberto's is not. The confusion is promoted by Alberto's involvement with Teresa. Are there two Teresas? Unlike the accounts of Ricardo and Alberto's childhood (both narrated in the third person), this account continues well into Part II of the novel. The final installment in this third series of flashbacks is in chapter 7, Part II. Like the other two, this series also terminates with the narrator's decision to enroll at Leoncio Prado. Still, no positive identification has been confirmed by information available in other sections of the novel. The reader can only surmise who this narrator might be. The Epilogue solves the riddle unequivocally; in fact, the answer is in the very last section of the novel. The Jaguar and Skinny Higueras are once again together, reviewing each other's experiences. This time the narration is third rather than first person, and the Jaguar's name is mentioned near the beginning of the section. The pieces fit; the problem is solved. Yet the solution to the narrator's identity only highlights how little these accounts of childhood experiences actually contribute to our understanding of the cadet's conduct within the academy. The vital information, which in a detective story would set one's mind at rest, only renews—even heightens—the reader's perplexity in The Time of the Hero.

For observant readers, however, this narrator's identity should come as no surprise. There are at least four clues lodged in other sections of the novel, minor details which, taken together, establish rather clearly that Skinny Higueras' friend is the Jaguar. First, Alberto admits at one point that he attended La Salle Academy before he came to Leoncio Prado. The first-person narrator reports seeing the La Salle students on the street one day. This narrator could not be a La Salle student, therefore not Alberto. Second, Alberto is from Miraflores (an upper-class suburb of Lima) while the narrator seems to be from Bellavista. We can thereby eliminate Alberto. (Now the reader's task changes from elimination to confirmation.) Third, the Boa remembers that the Jaguar once said that he was from Bellavista, and in the same breath comments that the Jaguar uses his head and feet to fight. Fourth, the description of the Jaguar during the initiation emphasizes his fighting style (head and feet). The first-person narrator reveals that his brother taught him to use his head and feet to fight.

Such a detailed inventory of clues and counter-clues might seem to digress from the central concern of framing and involvement. But it is precisely the presence of the detective-story frame and its operational modes with which the reader is familiar that encourages this quest for clues.

There is at least one more characteristic of the narrative frame in Vargas Llosa's novel that does not survive translation. I present this because I believe that it may be the key (at least a key) to the overt reactions to the publication of the novel in 1962. Earlier I mentioned the liturgical opening of all of the sections that recount Ricardo Arana's childhood. Recall that in Spanish the use of the present tense at the beginning of those passages creates a temporal texture that is absent from the passages cast in the narrative past tense in English. Several critics have noted that tense alternation—even indiscriminate usage of verb tenses—is a hallmark of Vargas Llosa's style. In The Time of the Hero, Vargas Llosa's tense alternation is not at all random or without purpose. There are, in fact, specific instances of narration in the present tense, passages that describe recurrent scenes (dawn and reveille at the academy, chapter 2, Part I) or present elements of the setting that may exist outside of the novel (the description of Diego Ferré Street). In the following paragraph, which is the translator's version, consider the perceptual effects of substituting the present tense which Vargas Llosa himself used, for each of the italicized past-tense verbs:

Diego Ferré Street was less than three hundred yards long, and a stranger to it would have thought it was an alley with a dead end. In fact, if you looked down it from the corner of Larco Avenue, where it began, you could see a two-story house closing off the other end two blocks away... At a distance, that house seemed to end Diego Ferré, but actually it stood on a narrow cross street, Porta. (my emphasis)

Induced to accept the immediacy of the scene by the use of the present tense, the reader accompanies the narrator on a walking tour of Diego Ferré Street, not merely a setting for Vargas Llosa's novel, but rather an apparently "real" neighborhood into which one might venture at any time. In the first edition of the novel, this attitude on the reader's part, or the facilitation of this attitude, was reinforced by the inclusion of the city map. This contrast between verbal tenses establishes the transcendence of the setting and, at the same time, endows the events with a presence and presentness that they might not otherwise display.

The product of this narrative technique is a double-edged sword. Clearly, the reader is drawn into the world of the novel because of this strategy. It also enlists the reader's capacities to visualize, thereby rendering the novelistic space more vivid. However, such a technique also leaves open the possibility of some spatial projection beyond the realm of the novel, beyond the covers of the book or the boundaries of the reader's imagination. For the cadets and officials of Leoncio Prado, the implied resemblance (and explicit coincidence) between Vargas Llosa's academy and their own prompted an indignant public reaction designed (I would assume) to deny any such relationship. Their demonstrated disapproval served more to spotlight than to suppress that social critical possibility.

In The Time of the Hero, the success of Vargas Llosa's presentation depends, in large measure, on the careful implementation and integration of familiar structural frames that induce the reader into involving himself in the created reality. The narrative stress patterns established by means of the alternating rhythm create an interface, a zone of significance between two poles of meaning. The reality of the novel is not a Manichean world; neither the reader nor the characters are permitted the luxury of all-or-nothing attitudes, of yes-or-no answers. The reader's involvement points out the existence of growing gray areas, actions that defy categorization, social responsibilities that threaten individuality, and individual behaviors that menace the established social order. The moral and social dilemmas that circumscribe the world portrayed in the novel are paralleled in the reader's experience by the subversion of the initial behavioral frame (the detective story, mystery, or puzzle) that was to guide him through the novel. While the frame overtly involves the reader in the novel, it also covertly affords him the experience of implication and deception that are integral to the social drama comprising the work.

Vargas Llosa manages to station both the characters and the reader in an interstitial, interstructural zone in which we struggle to discern the shadows and specters of behavioral demands that will operate within the world of the fictive academy and, perhaps, could extend beyond the experience of this novel. The narrative frame erected in The Time of the Hero is sustained by means of multilevel alternation: third-person narration vs. first-person narration, fictive past vs. fictive present, past-tense verbs vs. present-tense verbs, the city vs. the academy. Reading Vargas Llosa's novel becomes a retrogressive procedure in which the reader is required to retreat three steps and retrieve lost pieces of the chain of events in order to advance four steps in pursuit of the accelerating action. Frustrating and puzzling though it be, it is the reader's involvement in and response to the operational modes of the work that permit him to perceive its ''configurative meaning.’’ As Wolfgang Iser summarizes, the novel is ''the genre in which reader involvement coincides with meaning production.’’

Source: Hilda L. Baker, "'Of how to be and what to see while you are being': The Reader's Performance in The Time of the Hero," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XIX, No. 4, Winter, 1997, p. 396.

The Secret Self: Boa in Vargas Llosa's La ciudad y los perros

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1416

All narrative has a minimal pair of essential characteristics: ‘‘the presence of a story and a storyteller’’. Narrators assume diverse voices and perspectives in telling their tales. A useful distinction in this regard is between narration in which the narrator is present as a character, and that in which the narrator is absent from the tale. When a protagonist narrates a portion of a work of fiction, part of our notion of his character arises from the perception of him in the role of storyteller. Analysis of a fictive narrator's comments may reveal aspects of the character's personality that remain hidden in the accounts of his actions in the novel.

Mario Vargas Llosa's first novel, La ciudad y los perros (1963), has been described as a work in which ''Few characters are delineated in any great depth.’’ Nevertheless, two figures, Jaguar and Boa, reveal much about themselves in their roles as narrators in the novel. Their commentaries, comprising about twenty percent of the work, provide refracted yet substantive self-portraits. In the wealth of critical studies devoted to the novel, the figure of Boa generally has been neglected. A review of the statements that he makes as storyteller reveals a characterologic complexity and diversity that merit critical consideration.

Boa Valdevieso narrates thirteen segments of the novel. Initially his monologues provide the reader with scabrous but factual generalizations about cadet life at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy. In detailing specific incidents, such as Cava's abortive attempt to steal a chemistry exam, and Richi's death while on manoeuvers, Boa's visceral reactions serve as an emotional barometer that reflects his function as ‘‘una directa emanación de la masa colegial.’’ Valdevieso's disparate narrations thus reveal a careful structuring that combines generality with specificity in a cohesive story unit.

In addition to contributing significantly to plot development, Boa's monologues reveal much about the teller of the tale. At the novel's outset, he is described from outside the frame of his own narration: ‘‘un cuerpo y una voz desmesurados, un plumero de pelos grasientos que corona una cabeza prominente, un rostro diminutivo ...’’ Later he is observed in action as a potential buyer of Alberto's pornographic novelettes, and as the lone defender of the beleaguered Jaguar. Almost everything else that the reader learns about his character is gleaned from his own narrative.

For his peers, Boa is epitomized in a word: "bruto." This characterization is corroborated partially by his own testimony. He himself recalls participating in an incident in which cadet Cava rapes and kills a chicken. Later, he confirms his attempt to aid his companions in the sexual assault of a cadet, and reveals that he deliberately broke the leg of his dog.

Boa's worship of the machismo code represents another facet of his brutish nature. Although he fears and at times hates Jaguar, he admires him as ‘‘un hombre de pelo en pecho.’’ He glories in exertion that causes him to perspire heavily, since ‘‘así transpiran los machos.’’ Commenting on the exasperated weeping of his French instructor, Fontana, he reveals that for him, the shedding of tears implies effeminacy: ‘‘Y entonces cerró los ojos y cuando los abrió, lloraba. Es un marica.’’ In contrast, instructors who respond forcefully to students, such as Lieutenant Gamboa, are viewed distinctly. After enduring harsh physical punishment ordered by the Lieutenant, the cadet's impression of the officer differs markedly from his view of Fontana: ‘‘Gamboa es formidable, ahí nos dimos cuenta de lo formidable que es Gamboa.’’

Boa's racist commentaries reveal another aspect of his churlish nature. As a cholo, he views Whites with scorn: ‘‘Los blanquiñosos son pura pinta, cara de hombre y alma de mujer, les falta temple.’’ The serranos, Indian mountain peasants, receive even greater abuse. His comments on their attributes form a litany of ignorance and prejudice:

Los serranos son tercos ... Los serranos son un poco brutos. Yo creo que el colegio le contagió las pulgas a laperra, las pulgas de los serranos. Los serranos son bien hipócratas ...

The cruelty, machismo, and racism that Boa's own musings verify as aspects of his nature appear to paint a sordid portrait of a sadistic personality. Nevertheless, the cadet's own words reveal another side of his character, one that contrasts with, and to some extent ameliorates the brutish element. His cruelty, for example, is mitigated by his ingenuous, puerile nature. In this respect, his narrative has been compared to that of ‘‘la voz primaria y anormal del Benjy de The Sound and the Fury.’’ Symptomatic of his naïeveté is a fear of spirits and goblins. When plans go awry, he rationalizes that ‘‘El diablo se mete siempre en todo con sus cachos peludos.’’ He believes that his dog can protect him from ghosts: ''me hubiera gustado tenerla a mi lado en la glorieta, para espantar el miedo: ladra perra, zape a los malos espíritus.’’ Additionally, he associates Jaguar's features with a devil: ‘‘El diablo debe tener la cara del Jaguar, su misma risa y además los cachos puntiagudos.’’ When causal explanations are lacking, the cadet's reaction is one of superstitious fatalism: ‘‘Estaba visto que nadie se salvaba, ha sido cosa de brujería.''

Such child-like superstitions and fears are those of an immature or underdeveloped mind that does not always act according to logic or reason. Viewed in this light, Boa's demonstrations of brutality assume a different dimension. He rarely commits premeditated acts of violence; rather, they result from anger, frustration, or from attempts to please other cadets. During the aforementioned attempted rape of a cadet, for example, Boa's monologue reveals that the incident was initiated by Jaguar, Rulos, and Cava. His role, though not laudatory, was limited to the physical restrainment of the victim.

Although he participates in the humilliation of Professor Fontana, his monologues reveal that Jaguar and Cava were the major instigators of these incidents. Boa expresses satisfaction at the baiting, yet eels compassion for the victim: ‘‘A veces da compasión, no es mala gente, sólo un poco raro ... Es un uen tipo.’’

When he actively participates in violence, such as the maiming of his pet, Boa accepts responsibility for his actions: ‘‘Le di la mala, con intención.’’ He likewise expresses sincere regret for his deed: ‘‘Es un animal bien leal, me compadezco de haberla machucado.''

Valdevieso's prejudice against serranos, outlined above, stems from impressions gained by witnessing the results of a beating inflicted upon his step-brother by Indians: ‘‘Será por eso que los serranos siempre me han cído atravesados.’’ Despite an inculcated hatred, Boa comes to respect el serrano Cava as a friend. Boa, the oaf presumed idiot, is conscious of this radical change in attitude, and chronicles it in his monologue: ''Pobre serrano, no era mala gente, después nos llevamos bien. Al principio me caía mal, por las cosas que le hicieron al Ricardo [suhermanastro].’’ Ultimately, the cholo proposes friendship to the Indian: ‘‘Y después yo fui hasta la cama del pobre Cava y le dije: 'oye, quedamos como amigos.' Y él me dijo: 'por supuesto'". At this juncture, the brutish cadet transcends his base nature, forming a bond of human affection based upon personal experience rather than on untested stereotypes.

Like many characters in La ciudady los perros. Boa is not what he appears to be at first glance. His peers view him as a brute whose strength and atavistic cruelty are to be feared, respected, or exploited. Were it not for his monologues, Boa's second self would remain as hidden from the reader as it is from the academy cadets. As a narrator who ostensibly directs his comments only to himself or to his dog, he reveals that he can act responsibly and demonstrate affection. Dramatic irony is achieved through the reader's dual perception of Boa's bestial façade together with a glimpse of the isolated cadet who loves his scraggly pet and who remains loyal to Jaguar and Cava.

Prior to its publication, one of the tentative titles proposed for La ciudad y los perros was, Los impostores. While Boa's narrative provides essential information with regard to plot, the revelation of aspects of the cadet's own personality that surface in his narration also verifies his need to conceal his inner feelings, his hidden self, and to become yet another imposter in the savage environment of the Leoncio Prado Academy.

Source: Roy A. Kerr, ‘‘The Secret Self: Boa in Vargas Llosa's La ciudad y los perros,’’ in Romance Notes, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Winter, 1983, p. 111.

Secrecy: A Structural Concept of The Time of the Hero

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2335

Constructed on the basis of an apparently chaotic duality of time and space, Mario Vargas Llosa's novel The Time of the Hero could be assigned, as José Promis Ojeda correctly has done, to the ‘‘long literary tradition characterized by the presence of the 'enigma.';’’ Generally, the plot of the novel corresponds to the following episodes:

a) Theft of an exam at a military school (the Leoncio Prado).

b) Collective punishment. Weekend leaves are suspended for the cadets in the section in which the robbery occurred until the thief or thieves should be discovered.

c) Denunciation of the thief by a cadet of his section before the military authorities of the school.

d) The informer's violent death during military maneuvers.

e) A new accusation of the presumed assassin by other cadets before the same military authorities.

f) Pertinent investigation is begun.

g) The investigation is suspended. The military authorities determine that the cadet's death was an accident.

But going beyond the simple boundaries of a superficial reading of the plot—in which ''the city'' and ''the school'' appear as the central spaces of the narration—other darker, more profound, more functional and more labyrinthine worlds emphasize the ambiguous characteristic of duplicity (personal, temporal, conceptual and functional), so that the same characteristic will be the center of contradiction, the grounds for two opposite poles, for two strata that fuse together and split apart simultaneously and constantly during the narrative process. This gives rise to a dual structure which is bipolar, oppositive and presented in a clear process of diminution that will continue fragmenting into two halves, always smaller as conceptual units—those levels that we are discovering and analyzing in the novel.

The asymmetry of the formal structure that Vargas Llosa utilizes in the novel has been pointed out with some insistence, as if—on managing as he pleases a great number of technical elements—the arbitrariness of the author exercised complete dominance over it and unbalanced the narrative discourse with marked anarchy. One deduces from this criticism that the author at times loosens the reins of discourse, because the text becomes the master of the situation, because the story itself becomes the agent that forges its own strategy. On the other hand, there are those who point out the constant presence of the author suffocating his creation, the actions of his characters and the way in which episodes and protagonisms are arranged within the novel. Nevertheless, it is here, at this exact point of conceptual confluence, that I see that Mario Vargas Llosa has tried to situate the narrative totality: between ambiguity and determinism. This conceptual duality accentuates even more the standard of bipolarity that sums up the novel at whatever level one tries to arrive at analytical dissection. It is quite possible that, during the first phase of creation, Vargas Llosa did not insist rationally on this two-dimensional process, but that the process of creation itself included within its essence the project of rupture with a single, linear dimension.

On one hand, Luis Harss classifies Vargas Llosa as a novelist ‘‘stubbornly deterministic and anti-visionary,’’ incapable of forcing his characters to overcome those situations which "determine" that his ''individuals ... are lost in the density of their environment. There are no persons, but rather states of consciousness that are manifest only through the situations that define them.’’ In the same vein, Rosa Boldori, determined to analyze the novel through the prism of magical and one-dimensional fate as deus ex machina, catalogues The Time of the Hero as a ''novel of environmental determinism'': chance, accident, fate decide the actions of the characters.

On the other hand, José Miguel Oviedo, one of the most profound critics of the works and literary personality of Mario Vargas Llosa, observes that it is liberty—at times conditioned by the environment or by situations in which social pressure exerts its power, at times dissolving itself nervously in the doubt of the characters—that will make of The Time of the Hero an existential novel, one that frames within its interior the humiliating conditioning of rules and collective environments and the irrational rebellion of those who, placed in a determined "situation," dodge the difficulties and freely choose the best personal way to escape the labyrinth. It is, then, in that ''mixture of two totally different philosophies: social determinism and existentialism,’’ perceived by McMurray, that the factor is rooted which forces the characters many times to configure as luck or ambiguity (but by their own will) those actions or reactions that function as key elements in The Time of the Hero. The same factor, independently of the strings that the author controls through the complicated mechanism of creation, forces each concept in The Time of the Hero (attraction or rejection, confinement or dissociation) to provoke its opposite, makes each concept function in the role of its opposite in order to contrast the problematic and maladapted personalities of the protagonists and to define them in bipolarity, in the symbiosis of violence and serenity, of appearance and secrecy, the fusion that marks within the novel the pendulum-like movement taking it from one concept to another, from one pole to its opposite.

We understand that chance is not, then, the key element in the total conformation of The Time of the Hero, and that, at the same time, it does not structurally exercise any organizing function in the narrative discourse. Neither is it possible to establish adequate, serious and profound analytical consequences starting from the unidimensional suppositions of deterministic criticism. It would seem much more coherent to examine the structural functionality of a work from the point of conceptual bipolarity of the opposing contexts. In this sense, two distinct worlds move within the novel: the world of appearance and the world of secrecy, areas to which we have referred earlier. 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.

If we enumerate now, analytically, the characteristics of the first eight chapters of the novel (part one), we will observe that these proportionate, symmetrical, objective characteristics shape an interior world which responds to secret codes, to different readings of the world of appearance. As an inherent consequence of these same characteristics, there flows, in this first part of the novel, a fundamental concept in which criticism has not placed sufficient interest: secrecy. If we examine part two of the novel, the second eight chapters, we will observe in it characteristics opposite to those indicated in the first part of the novel. Here reign subjectivity and spontaneity, that is, the denunciation which wears down the secret passages of the clandestine world of the cadets, a subterranean world with its own laws, with codes of honor created in the image and likeness of their organizers. Critical analysis determines that in the first eight chapters the action is somehow moved along by a personal and collective consciousness which respects to the greatest extent those secret codes that shape the world of the cadets. No other person in The Time of the Hero will have access to this clandestine world, because only the cadets have the ability to be absolutely knowledgeable of the rules of their world; only they, within their different personalities, can consent to and complete the secrets which they themselves offer in order to shape and constitute a different world, distant, opposed to that of appearance with rules imposed from without, at first from a familial basis and later from the school's military basis.

Consequently the code of values of the cadets is basically supported by secrecy: all the cadets are, to some extent, accomplices of all the clandestine acts of the Circle; they all participate in its benefits and its prejudices. But the cadets, as a group, merit a more profound study, in this case, with respect to their behavior. Without a doubt they are the group of actors that has the most meaning in the work. The world of The Time of the Hero is completely tinged by pressure from the cadets who act as the real, the only protagonists in the story. Around them revolve action and relationship; they direct the dynamism of the narrative discourse, marking the point of action and the counterpoint of relationship; they impose their perspective. Other characters in the work, who are many times only excuses to explicate the plot that connects the adolescents, are arranged in relation to the cadets and their behavior; they will be the ones actually responsible for their action, for the choice of their "situation." They are, finally, the authors of a secret code of values, of their secret world, a world closed, blind, without the solution of continuity, a world which connects them with a universe created by themselves, first, in order to escape family pressure, then second, to make fun of military rules. Their vital motives will impose themselves through the course of the narration, and finally they (except the propitiatory victim, the Slave) are the ones capable of fleeing toward maturity, that relative independence of individual liberty (Alberto, Jaguar ...). They are the ones who arrange and disarrange, who choose and who feel disdain, who keep silent or denounce. The cadets take it upon themselves to emulate their elders (familial and military) upon breaking those binding pacts that demand the internal coherence of the group, and they avoid, up until the moment of denunciation, the conceptual counterpoint of treason. They are the sardonic witnesses of family discord, of which they will take advantage, and the silent accomplices, the mute shapers of the apparently strict world demarcated by military rules. They themselves are responsible for internal disagreements, the victims also (the Slave, for example) of the deeds which individual sentiments end up imposing upon the collective code, upon their apparent and fictitious camaraderie.

Thus, the cadets themselves will dissolve their secret world. After Alberto's denunciation before Lieutenant Gamboa (part two, chapter three) will come the discovery of that clandestine world the cadets have concocted and the consequential dismantling of the values which, for the cadets, constitute manliness: the escapes (contras), the cigarettes, the alcoholic drinks, the thefts, "business," the violent sexual world of masturbation and bestialism. That denunciation is based on one of the principal events of the novel: the death of the Slave. Denunciation and vengeance are products of the same youthful strategy. When Alberto denounces the Circle's activity, he emphasizes the secrecy of school life:

‘‘They drove [the Slave] crazy, they bullied him all the time, and now they've murdered him!" ... Alberto said. ‘‘The officers don't know anything about what goes on in the barracks.''

‘‘Everybody in the Academy smokes,’’ Alberto said aggressively ... ‘‘The officers don't know a thing about what goes on.''

‘‘Pisco and beer, Lieutenant. Didn't I tell you the officers don't know what's going on? The cadets drink more in the Academy than they do when they're on pass.’’

‘‘Who killed him?’’

‘‘The Jaguar, Sir, the leader ...’’

‘‘Who is the Jaguar’’ Gamboa asked. ‘‘I don't know the nicknames of the cadets. Tell me their right names.''

Furthermore, the cadets, as a collective entity, not only carry out the complicated mechanisms of the content, nor are they limited to manipulating only the functionality of the anecdote: upon analysis, there exists a gradual parallelism between the internal coherence of the cadets' world—which, I repeat, is founded on secrecy—and the proportionality of the formal structure of The Time of the Hero. On attending the disintegration of the code of values they secretly invent and sustain in the Academy, we are attending the slow dissolution of the proportionality of the formal structure of the novel, still prevailing in almost all of part one. As long as the collective codes of the adolescents remain intact and their content is respected by the cadets, we can speak of the proportional equilibrium of the novelistic structure; as a counterpoint, it will be from the basis of the dissolution of those codes—which have made possible the union between the cadets and their secret world—that the proportionality, the certain regularity in the structural levels of the novel, disintegrates in order to give way to the formal incoherence of the structure. Thus it can be determined that the concept of secrecy exercises a structural function in The Time of the Hero.

When does the regularity, the structural proportionality of the novel, begin to crack? Two episodes mark the boundary of this rupture: first, for personal reasons, Ricardo Arana, ‘‘the Slave,’’ denounces the theft of the chemistry test (part one, chapter six). The collective complicity breaks down, and, second, the same Arana suffers a fatal accident during military maneuvers (part one, chapter eight). But these are only conjectures, and only the collective complicity has broken down here. The cadets and the reader will not realize, until much later, that those two episodes are marking the beginning of the dissolution of the honor code, precipitating motives and counter-motives, accusations and denunciations that finally will bring about the disintegration of the secret world of the adolescents. It will be from the point of the news of the Slave's death (part two, chapter one) that the novel's plot, moving toward its denouement, shows us—to us the readers and to the officials of the school—the secret world of the cadets. Simultaneously that process of conceptual dissolution will influence directly the structural parameter of the work. The irregular behavior of the principal group of actors in the novel leads simultaneously to an irregular structure at formal levels.

This functionality of the concept of secrecy in the formal structure of the novel constitutes, without a doubt, one of the fundamental characteristics and, at the same time, one of the most outstanding stylistic features of The Time of the Hero.

Source: J.J. Armas Marcelo, ‘‘Secrecy: A Structural Concept of The Time of the Hero,'' in World Literature Today, Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1978, p. 68.

Aristotle and Vargas Llosa: Literature, History and the Interpretation of Reality

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2983

The relations between history and literature have concerned man since he first developed what might be called a historical consciousness. Aristotle has said:

It is, moreover, evident ... that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen—what is possible according to the laws of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.

Now certainly no historian would accept Aristotle's hierarchy, nor, probably, his distinction into particular and universal. It is not at all certain that Aristotle meant this distinction in the bald terms cited. The fact remains, however, that the historian and the social scientist deal in the collection and interpretation of verifiable data, whereas the novelist, poet or dramatist is usually totally unconcerned with such phenomena. How then may these areas be related? In what way is literature valid as source material for non-literary investigations? And, to go a step further, in what way or ways do the literary critic and the historian share an interest in literature?

It is obvious that much criticism and many critics share no such interest at all and would reject such questions as invalid. The New Critics, for example, and formalist criticism in general are remote from such matters. But few of us are exclusively formalists, and nearly all of us sometimes read for other purposes. Usigli's Corona de sombra is a most interesting experiment in dramatic form and stage technique; it is also, and this must not be forgotten, an attempt to interpret all Mexican history after the French Intervention in the light of the events of that Intervention and the brief Empire. Clearly, there is here an area of considerable mutual concern.

Corona de sombra has been subjected to criticism by historians because of Usigli's tinkering with verifiable fact. Without resuscitating the old chestnut about how historical is a historical novel, it is fair to say that Usigli commits virtually every sin in the literal-minded historian's catalogue. He alters chronology, attributes invented ideas and speeches to historical figures and, in general, recreates history in a highly idiosyncratic fashion.

He cometido diversas arbitrariedades e incurrido en anacronismos deliberados, que responden todos a un objeto. Por ejemplo, Pío IX sólo alcanza la aceptación de la infalibilidad pontifical después del 70, y en mi pieza habla de ella en 1866. Vista a la distancia, reducida a las cuatro presurosas y heladas líneas de los mortuarios enciclopédicos, y amplificada por la memoria y la actualidad, la gran acción, la línea maestra de la vida de Pío IX es ésa. Su obra en definitiva es haber contrarrestado en lo posible la pérdida del poder temporal de la iglesia con el reconocimiento de los dogmas. Dudo que pudiera reprocharse a un sonetista el encerrar su tema en catorce versos, y este procedimiento me parece teatralmente intachable. ^Que es Pío Nono sino el símbolo original de la infalibilidad del Papa?

The fundamental opposition is made clear in a ''Carta crítica'' by Marte R. Gómez, published in the same volume, in which Gómez holds the position that literature must at all times be literally faithful to recorded history. Usigli's answer denies this petty-fogging approach and spells out his belief in the function of the writer when he speaks of ‘‘la historia, que desatiendo en el detalle, pero que interpreto en la trayectoria del tiempo.’’

Obviously, Usigli's point of view is that the writer is a trustworthy interpretor of reality. This does not seem to me as potentially dangerous a thesis as might at first appear. We do not suggest that the artist is the one source of revealed truth in regard to anything, but certainly his perspective on reality is an important one. Who better than Quevedo makes us shudder at the grim spectacle of a high culture in decline, a great empire falling into ruin? In our own South, long before the nation realized the enormity of racism, Faulkner captured the complex social relations racism produces. These are only two of the giants who have captured the spirit of an epoch or a culture, who have shown reality from an admittedly partial but nonetheless valid point of view, but they illuminate the point. Nor need the works be of such stature; the astonishing plays of the Rosas period would be an invaluable source to the historian of Argentina. If, to return to Aristotle, tragedy is ''an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude ...,’’ is not all art an "imitation" of some portion of the artist's world? Is not literature truly a mirror of the world, if we speak of the giants such as Cervantes or Shakespeare, or at least a partial vision of reality, in the work of any serious artist?

There are important applications of these notions when we deal with the work of such younger writers as Mario Vargas Llosa. Students of his novels repeatedly refer to them as microcosms. It would be a serious error to regard a novel such as La ciudady los perros as some sort of marvelous code which would explain for us the vagaries of things Peruvian, but the book undeniably contains much which is important in this respect: hostility toward the serranos, the frivolity of the bourgeoisie, urban poverty, the intransigent self-seeking of much of the military. There are implications for all Latin America: the rigidly defined social classes and inveterate machismo are only two examples.

But these are all, to use Aristotle's term, particulars, and it might be argued that there is something in La ciudady los perros which transcends the particular. We may well be appalled at a monstrosity such as the Colegio Leoncio Prado, but it does exist, and its governing officials chose to burn publicly a thousand copies of the novel. But the benighted gentlemen who saw fit to respond in the time-honored fashion of the closed mind to what they considered an attack on their institution, were completely mistaken. Ironically, the real significance of the novel is more drastic still. The arsonists may have been correct when they maintained that it was not literally true; but the literal truth of the Leoncio Prado is secondary to the higher truth which is undeniable, the spiritual horror which no amount of book burning can hide. Whether those responsible were in any way connected with the coup which ousted the government of President Belaúnde Terry is unknown, but when Vargas Llosa portrayed all Lima as a military establishment, he accurately captured the spirit of the city's ruling caste.

It is in this sense that La ciudad y los perros speaks of Aristotle's universals. As Emir Rodríguez Monegal has said of ‘‘The new novelists," "Their novels are mirrors and, at the same time, anticipations.’’ Lima is, for Vargas Llosa, a regimented inhuman society which forces even its youth into a moral and intellectual straightjacket: ‘‘Así, la historia de un grupo de adolescentes se convierte en una radiografía de la crueldad en las relaciones humanas y por extensión de la sociedad que la justifica como parte de su entrenamiento necesario. De un modo u otro se reconoce que los jóvenes deben ser duros porque la vida es dura, implacables porque la sociedad empuja a los débiles y los aplasta.’’ This is, after a fashion, Horatio Alger in reverse; innocence is exploited and the traditional values mocked. It would perhaps not be too exaggerated to see the novel as the destruction of the myth of bourgeois education. Rodríguez Monegal has written eloquently of the falsification of honor which lies at the heart of La ciudad y los perros, of the manner in which all the characters are alienated and driven to adopt behavior which is essentially contrary to their natures. He has spoken of the work as an allegory of honor, of ‘‘códigos y contracódigos.’’ The moral corruption which permeates the novel speaks to the heart of the problem.

But how may the historian utilize this material? There is the obvious danger that he suffers from misconceptions about the nature of literature. In a recent article in the New York Times Book Review, John Lukacs said that

the novelist's description of certain contemporary scenes is often first-rate historical evidence. I have often thought that Stendhal's ... description of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma ought to be required reading in our military colleges, since it is such a powerful corrective to abstract schemes of battle orders, as well as to the false image of the 19th century battle being one long melee of brightly uniformed soldiers, punctuated by the flashes of bayonets, the sabers of cavalry, and the Beethovenian sound of cannon in the background.

But this is not the point; literature is not some sort of documentation. Lukacs is closer to the mark when he states approvingly that Lampedusa's The Leopard ‘‘tells us more about the 1860 'revolution' in Sicily ... than what most liberal historians tell us.’’ But what are we to make of his astonishing assertion that ''the artistic task of the historian is greater [than that of the novelist], because his restrictions are greater?''

This is a radical misunderstanding of what literature is all about, a disregard for that which is most characteristic of art, the process of artistic creation. It is not, however, my purpose to debate hierarchies of creative value, whether Aristotelian or Lukacsian. Rather, I suggest that the novel, the play, the short story and the poem may be sources of crucial insights into the complex reality of the world about us. There is probably no better means to understand many of the causes and certainly the fundamental fact of the Mexican Revolution than Yáñez' Alfilo del agua. Yáñez, Rulfo, Fuentes, Paz and two or three others ought to be required reading for anyone who wishes to study Mexico from any point of view or any discipline, simply because they are enormously illuminating perspectives on the very complicated fabric of Mexican reality. They are not statistics and cannot be substituted for statistics, but it is doubtful that any amount of statistical or archival research will ever give the insight into Mexican reality which we receive from their work.

It would be naive not to recognize that the novelists themselves are cognizant of this aspect of their work; the social commitment of younger Latin American writers is notorious. Vargas Llosa has stated, ‘‘Creo que ambos—el intelectual y el creador—deben ocupar un puesto en la lucha pro la liberación nacional, en cuanto ciudadanos.’’ The key words here are ‘‘en cuanto ciudadanos’’; Vargas Llosa distinguishes between the artist as artist and the artist as citizen. It would be erroneous to infer that he and his generation are writing political or social tracts. On the contrary; the artist is a perpetual non-comformist who will be critical of any social or political organism.

Es preciso ... recordar a nuestras sociedades lo que les espera. Advertirles que la literatura es fuego, que ella significa inconformismo y rebelión, que la razón de ser del escritor es la protesta, la contradicción y la crítica. Explicarles que no hay término medio: que la sociedad suprime para siempre esa facultad humana que es la creación artística y elimina de una vez por todas a ese perturbador social que es el escritor, o admite la literatura en su seno y en ese caso no tiene más remedio que aceptar un perpetuo torrente de agresiones, de ironías, de sátiras, que irán de lo adjetivo a lo esencial, de lo pasajero a lo permanente, del vértice a la base de la pirámide social. Las cosas son así y no hay escapatoria: el escritor ha sido, es y seguirá siendo un descontento. Nadie que esté satisfecho es capaz de escribir, nadie que esté de acuerdo, reconciliado con la realidad, comentaría el ambicioso desatino de inventar realidades verbales. La vocación literaria nace del desacuerdo de un hombre con el mundo, de la intuición de deficientias, vacíos y escorias a su alrededor. La literatura es una forma de insurrección permanente y ella no admite las camisas de fuerza. Todas las tentativas destinadas a doblegar su naturaleza airada, díscola, fracasarán. La literatura puede morir pero no será nunca conformista.

But the serious writer does not come easily to this position, nor is he simply a gadfly. Vargas Llosa has given testimony of the internal tensions created by this double vocation.

Pero entiendo que en el caso del creador se plantea un desgarramiento irremediable, ya que en el creador el elemento determinante no es nunca racional, sino espontáneo, incontrolable, esencialmente intuitivo. Y el escritor no puede poner ese elemento al servicio de nada de una manera premeditada. En cierta forma, el creador se plantea así una verdadera duplicidad, o por lo menos una terrible tensión: quiere ser fiel a una determinada concepción política y al mismo tiempo necesitaser fiel a su vocación. Si ambas coinciden, perfecto, peso si divergen se plantea la tensión, se produce el desgarramiento. No debemos, empero, rehuir ese desgarramiento; debemos, por el contrario, asumirlo plenamente, y de ese mismo desgarramiento hacer literatura, hacer creación. Es una opción difícil, complicada, torturada, si se quiere, pero imprescindible.

I suggest that precisely in this tension, we may find invaluable intuitions about the nature of Latin America today. These intuitions are radically different from those we find in the novels of forty years ago, which are often closer to sociological studies than to literature. As Rodríguez Monegal has pointed out, the new novelists ''han concluido de una vez por todas con el realismo documental, con la no vela de la tierra, con la denuncia social de tipo panfletario, con la escisión maniqueísta del mundo en personajes buenos (los explotados, siempre) y personajes malos, con la mediocre prosa de altas intenciones.’’

Again, we must not confuse the perspective on the world which we find in these younger writers with some sort of preachment. No one will ever understand what literature is until he learns the lesson which Kitto points out: ''When therefore we say that the Greek dramatist was an artist, we are not using a tired platitude meaning that he preferred pretty verses and plots to ill-made ones; we mean that he felt, thought and worked like a painter or a musician, not like a philosopher or a teacher.

The new novelists are just such artists, and their works are artistic wholes. Not only is it ludicrous to attempt to abstract information from the plots while ignoring the fact that these plots form part of a work of art; such a procedure overlooks the fact that in the form, too, there is meaning. Vargas Llosa's predilection for the chivalric novel is little short of notorious. This is not simply a matter of pardonable aberrant criticism, but a vital link in his creative process. His fascination is rooted in the effort to capture the whole of reality:

Lo que más sorprende al lector en las novelas de caballería, es la habilidad del narrador para capturar la realidad a todos sus niveles. Ahí vemos transcurrir la vida cotidiana de la Edad Media ... estas novelas, escritas en un lenguaje a veces bárbaro, son como tentativas de abarcar la realidad a todos sus niveles, pretender decirlo todo, quieren abarcarlo todo. Yo creo que las mejores novelas son las que se han acercado a esta posición, es decir, las que expresan las cosas desde todos los puntos de vista que se pueden expresar. .

Is this not what La ciudad y los perros or La casa verde are really all about, a total experience? Complexity may be captured only through complexity. Vargas Llosa's use of different techniques for different characters, the intricately interwoven plot strands, the wildly mercurial and almost irrelevant chronology, and the deliberate withholding of crucial pieces of information, may all be literary tricks, but they are tricks which help the reader to capture the spirit of a whole society through the microcosm of the Colegio Leoncio Prado. Vargas Llosa has said that the best novels ''convierten la lectura en una experiencia del mundo.’’ This experience of the world, expressed through the artist's capacities, gives us an unrivalled intuitive perception of the reality around us and it is a source of rare insight. This is the real value of literature to the historian of the social scientist: not as documentation, but as a source of intuitions, of revealing insights into the fabric of the writer's world. Insofar as the critic or the historian would perceive the nature of our world, not through a mass of accumulated data but through the revealing perception of which the artist is supremely capable, so they share a common interest, whatever other professional concerns may also lead them to literature. As Joseph Sommers has said so aptly, ''the novelist is somehow connected with history, ... by channels of intuition, psychology or spirit he participates in his times. Paradoxically, however, the extent to which he respects his craft, treating the novel as an autonomous creation, is the degree to which he may convey indirectly a significant interpretive commentary on his times.’’

Source: Frank Dauster, ''Aristotle and Vargas Llosa: Literature, History and the Interpretation of Reality,'' in Hispania, May, 1970, p. 273.

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Critical Overview