The Time of the Hero

by Mario Vargas Llosa
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291

The novel is a scathing critique of the hypocrisy and corruption of Peruvian society in general, of which the Leoncio Prado is a microcosm, and of its military establishment in particular. The events of the book transpire during the real dictatorship of General Manuel Odría, who ruled Peru for eight years beginning in 1948, after a military coup. Although the novel appeared several years after the Odría regime, its publication touched a raw nerve; the novel was attacked as antipatriotic and, presumably, several copies of it were burned in the courtyard of the Leoncio Prado.

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The novel is also about growing up; about honor, loyalty, bravery, and love. The group of adolescent boys whose stay at the school the book chronicles, is a cross section of Peruvian—and Latin American—society, from a sociological and political perspective. The boys will grow up, which in the novel means that they will fulfill the roles that society has designed for them. There will be no surprises, and not one of the boys will ever overcome his assigned task. This sense of fatalism pervades the novel; growing up means coming to terms with this reality, conforming to one’s fate. The first-year recruits, the “dogs” of the novel’s original Spanish title (literally the city and the dogs), receive from Jaguar the impetus to challenge their script; he offers to protect them from the system that seeks to humiliate those at the bottom of an inevitably cruel hierarchical structure. The boys accept his leadership and its benefits only when he is strong; the moment he needs their help and support, they turn on him and break their dependence—in preparation for life outside the school—on what is, after all, a lower-class boy.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1291

Masculinity
According to Lt. Gamboa, half the boys are sent to the academy ‘‘so they won't be gangsters ... and the other half, so they won't turn out to be fairies. It's their parents' fault.’’ Gamboa's comment leads to a discussion about the difference between soldiers and cadets. Soldiers can be physically beaten until they are so civilized an Indian only appears to be Indian. Cadets, which cannot be so abused, are not quite so accomplished but they do learn one thing: being a man depends on whether a boy is s—— or he s—. In military terms, the ultimate sign of manhood is murder. However, his parents determine the degree of a boy's success either by letting him grow up—like Tico or Skinny—or telling him to become a man. Towards that end, parents send their boys to an academy where the boys must negotiate a paradox. They are expected to be soldier-like men but they are not soldiers, they are not killers.

The Slave does not succeed in becoming a man because the deck is stacked against him. He has a nearly Freudian relationship with his mother, indicated by his awareness of her kissing him on the lips: ‘‘Why does she kiss me on the mouth?’’ He learns the hard way that his parents are merely separated and suddenly sees ''his mother and a man were ... kissing.’’ Slave, in undeclared rebellion, refuses to kiss his father. Later, he tries to defend his mother against being beat up. He loses and is unable to fight another man again; he is impotent. Such docility causes his father to send him to the military academy where he hopes they will make ''a man out of him.’’ His father blames the mother, declaring, ''There's nothing like a woman to ruin a boy's life''.

In contrast to the Slave, the Poet does not take his mother's side. He does kiss his father's cheek. Consequently, Poet's father acknowledges him: ‘‘He's a man now.’’ Thereafter, Poet imitates his father's attitude toward his mother by neglecting her. The Jaguar is successful because he has no father to compete with and is acknowledged early on as a man. His aunt ensures his success as a man by sleeping with him—s——other people is an essential component of being a man. Skinny helps by teaching Jaguar how to manipulate others and how to fight. All of this helps Jaguar be the man to teach his fellow cadets how to survive. He has only one more step to take: murder.

The Poet tries to help the Slave overcome his docility but instead reveals that what makes him most manly is fear. "But you're a soldier here whether you like it or not. And the thing in the army is to be real tough, to have guts... S——them first before they s——you. There isn't any other way. I don't like to be s—." Being s—can be literal—as with Boa's rape of chickens, dogs, and a first-year named "fatboy." But it is also metaphorical. The Jaguar's enslavement of Slave—the Slave does the Jaguar's work—is a form of emasculation.

Masculinity depends on acknowledgment by older men and women of one's manhood. It also depends on the stature a boy can hold among his fellow gang members. Except for Jaguar, the cadets are in an awkward position. Teresa's aunt echoes the commiseration of Lt. Gamboa: ‘‘The Academy! ... I thought he was a man.’’ However, one can beat that trap since ''a man has to accept responsibility for his actions ...’’ The recognition of the Jaguar's accomplishment will not come from the gang he formed; it must come from outside. He realizes that and confesses to Gamboa. He is not punished but freed to build a life with Teresa: the surest proof of manhood, the family.

Secrecy
Along with masculinity, secrecy is the most prevalent theme in the novel. From the start, the world of the cadets exists ''in the uncertain glow'' of a lightbulb. Secrecy is what allows the next generation to form: ‘‘The officers don't know anything about what goes on in the barracks.’’ This is natural. Gamboa doesn't seem concerned about his lack of information or about their nicknames even though early in the novel he says, ''I know them as if they were my own kids.’’ However, as the Poet continues to tell him what the cadets do in secret and how they exist, this concerns Gamboa. The level of secrecy that marks the culture of the barracks mirrors that of the thieves in Skinny's band. Secrecy maintains the foundation of group loyalty and the foundation of the Academy. Secrecy is supported with physical pressure and taunting.

The Jaguar, the focal point of secrecy, explains all of this to Gamboa. He explains it because he realizes that he no longer needs a group to sustain his personal identity but he does need the understanding of a very well-respected officer like Gamboa. Jaguar realizes this after Arrospide identifies him as a squealer: ''You're a traitor, a coward ... you don't even deserve to have us beat you up.’’ Jaguar realizes there is no gratitude from the group he created. He tells Gamboa the ultimate secret, that he killed the Slave because the Slave was an insult to masculinity, to the section, and to him personally. In response, the exiled Gamboa—the only officer of integrity—sets Jaguar free. The secret is kept because they both know that if the secret were revealed to the Colonel, the Academy would be destroyed.

Friendship
Because of the masculine discourse wherein a man is the s——or the s—, the idea of friendship becomes charged with uneasiness and confusion. The intricacies of masculine loyalties betray the finer notions of what being a friend is all about. This begins with Alberto's reminiscences of his childhood. Having been invited to partake in soccer games, his recollections are a series of tales of bravado: broken windows, running from the authorities, having a girlfriend, or negotiating a steep cliff. At the academy, this intensifies. Boa defines friendship by fighting: defending the Jaguar, winning approval, and being tough. The Poet and Slave almost escape this cycle but the Poet, corrupted by barracks discourse, is too homophobic and full of subterfuge. Poet just wants Teresa.

The Slave admits that the Poet has won his confidence: ‘‘You're the only friend I've got ... the only person I like to be with.’’ Such an honest admission makes the Poet uneasy at several levels. Most immediately, it challenges the notions he holds about masculinity: ''That sounds like the way a fairy says he's in love with somebody.’’ But the Slave does not allow the discourse of the abusive barracks to intrude. Instead, he continues to be a friend—generous with himself and his cigarettes—and the Poet enjoys responding. Against his will, the Poet enjoys talking with the Slave without needing to perform with all the machismo required by Boa or Jaguar. However, the Poet has learned, from the Academy, that friendship must include pain and, perversely, he clings to this by not telling the Slave about stealing Teresa. Ironically, the only one hurt by the secret is the Poet.

Realizing the value of the Slave's gift, the Poet mourns him openly. Jaguar mourns him too, in his own way. Both young men have tasted genuine humanity in the Christ-like Slave. Poet admits all this to Teresa, proclaiming, ‘‘He was my friend.’’ Worse than that, the Slave ''thought I was his friend and I" was using him in the same way everyone else used him. The Slave gives self-knowledge to the Poet and to Jaguar. As a result, neither is the same nor are they able to run with the crowd.

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Summary

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Characters