By Mario Vargas Llosa. Translated from the Spanish Elogio de la madrastra by Helen Lane.
149 pages
New York: Penguin Books, 1990
ISBN: 0-1401-5708-5

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2003

See also my comments on his book: Death in the Andes

Rigoberto’s wife has died and he has married Lucrecia. They live an idyllic and very sexy life in their gracious home with Rigoberto’s young son, Alfonsito (Foncho), and a servant, Justiniana. Lucrecia has just celebrated her 40th birthday and the two lovers have only been married for four months.

In the early chapters we are introduced to the passionate and liberated love life of Rigoberto and Lucrecia. However, it isn’t really “their” love life in one sense. He creates erotic fantasies, and Lucrecia lives out the character she has been chosen to be. She loves the eroticism and sex, but is vaguely uncomfortable in never being HERSELF, but someone else. Only young Foncho recognizes her for who she is.

The writing of Mario Vargas Llosa is simply brilliant. In these early chapters he rotates between the present and past or the fantasy world. First we have the passionate and abandoned sex of the two main characters, then we retreat into the fantasy story from which that particular episode of Roberto and Lucrecia’s passion has imitated.

Not only is the parallelism fascinating, but this novel uses not only words, but famous paintings as well. Much of Rigoberto’s fantasizing grows out of famous paintings and stories that surround them. The reproductions in the text are in color, on beautiful paper, and it is obvious that Llosa makes these central to the plot.

There is an interesting phenomenon in that two of the paintings are fully abstract paintings:

  1. A strange abstract painting of a bat-like creature. Painting: Head I by Francis Bacon, (1948).
  2. The second, a totally abstract painting: Road to Mendieta 10 by Fernando de Szyszlo, (1977).

Rigoberto and Fancho give “realistic” understandings of these abstract paintings, converting the drawings into realistic images. Since they give erotic interpretations of the paintings it reminds me a great deal of the old joke of the therapist showing a patient ink blots, and the patient interpreting each one as some odd sexual practice. The doctor finally tells the patient he has a dirty mind and the patient responds: “But you’re the one showing me the dirty pictures.”

Yet in the hands of Llosa it is all elevated to something very sophisticated by both the language and the plot setting of the interpretations. Llosa seems to use this ploy to show us just how much the two characters use the subjective understanding of the paintings to give some justification, or in Fancho’s case, persuasiveness, to the understanding of sex that is in their minds.

Rigoberto and Lucrecia seem to have given up on (or never tried) finding the meaning of life in anything except sex, eroticism and the body. Lucrecia says: “’I shall never grow old,’ she prayed as she did each morning at her bath. ‘Even if it means having to sell my soul or anything else. I shall never be ugly or miserable. I shall die beautiful and happy.’”

Rigoberto’s body-centeredness is much more radical. He has despaired of any visions of the meaning of human existence being in some communal notions of perfection, but he embraces the small areas of human individual perfections.

In his youth he had been a fervent militant in Catholic Action and dreamed of changing the world. He soon realized that, like all collective ideals, that particular one was an impossible dream, doomed to failure. His practical turn of mind led him not to waste his time waging battles that sooner or later he was bound to lose. He then conjectured that, as an ideal, perfection was perhaps possible for the isolated individual, if restricted to a limited sphere in space (cleanliness or corporeal sanctity, for example, or the practice of eroticism) and in time (ablutions and nocturnal emissions before going to sleep).

For Rigoberto the great evil to deal with is nature, which brings aging, imperfections and eventually death. His relationship with Lucrecia is part of this seeming of the meaning of existence in the PHYSICAL. So is his phenomenal notion of “ablutions” before bed each night.

He attends his body with neurotic care, plucking every nose or ear hair, scrubbing his feet carefully with a pumice stone and so on. Perhaps the wildest of these attentions to the perfection of the body is his idealization of having a bowel movement. It is one of the great triumphs of writing in this Llosa novel:

His stomach was a Swiss watch: disciplined and punctual, it always emptied itself at this particular time, totally and effortlessly, as though happy to rid itself of the policies and the detritus of the day's business. Ever since, in the most secret decision of his life -- so secret that probably not even Lucrecia would ever be privy to it in its entirety -- he had resolved to be perfect for a brief fragment of each day, and once he had worked out this ceremony, he had never again experienced asphyxiating attacks of constipation or demoralizing diarrhea.

Don Rigoberto half closed his eyes and strained, just a little. That was all it took: he immediately felt the beneficent tickle in his rectum and the sensation that, there inside, in the hollows of his lower belly, something obedient to his will was about to depart and was already wriggling its way down that passage which, in order to make its exit easier, was widening. His anus, in turn, had begun to dilate in anticipation, preparing itself to complete the expulsion of the expelled, whereupon it would shut itself up tight and pout, with its thousand little puckers, as though mocking: "You're gone, you rascal you, and can't ever return."

Don Rigoberto gave a satisfied smile. Shitting, defecating, excreting: synonyms for sexual pleasure? he thought. Of course. Why not? Provided it was done slowly, savoring the task, without the least hurry, taking one's time, imparting to the muscles of the colon a gentle, sustained quivering. It was a matter not of pushing but of guiding, of accompanying, of graciously escorting the gliding of the offerings toward the exit. Don Rigoberto sighed once again, his five senses absorbed in what was happening inside his body. He could almost see the spectacle: those expansions and retractions, those juices and masses in action, all of them in warm corporeal shadow and in a silence interrupted every so often by muffled gargles or the joyful breeze of a mighty fart. He heard, finally, the discreet splash with which the first offering invited to leave his bowels plopped -- was it floating, was it sinking? --into the water of the toilet bowl. Three or four more would fall. Eight was his Olympic record, the consequence of an extravagant lunch, with murderous mixtures of fats, sugars, and starches washed down with wines and spirits. As a general rule he evacuated five offerings; once the fifth was gone, after a few seconds' pause to give muscles, intestines, anus, rectum, due time to assume their orthodox positions once again, there invaded him that intimate rejoicing at a duty fulfilled and a goal attained, that same feeling of spiritual cleanliness that had once upon a time possessed him as a schoolboy at La Recoleta, after he had confessed his sins and done the penance assigned him by the father confessor.

This entire fantastic chapter on his “ablutions” is sort of a bodily version of St. Francis Xavier’s spiritual exercise for the soul. If we make that comparison it would turn out on Llosa’s view that both are forms of substitutions for sex and sexual sensuality.

However, there is trouble within this sexual and sensual utopia. Within the games that Rigoberto plays, Lucrecia is always not herself, but the woman in the imaginary scene Rigoberto is playing out in his mind. She wants to be HERSELF, not someone else. It is only Foncho who says he loves her for whom she is not for whom she isn’t.

And that brings us to the relationship between the very young teen, Foncho and his stepmother, the very title notion of the novel. Foncho develops a fetish for her, and slowly wins her to him until he has a full-blown sexual relationship with her. I won’t detail this relationship since it spoils the plot, but it is important to understand that not only is his innocence and beauty part of the attraction, but the very fact that Foncho loves her for who she is and not for who she is pretending to be, or whom Rigoberto is pretending she is.

Once Rigoberto is confronted with living not in his idealization of both Lucrecia and his versions of utopian sex, he has the same sort of collapse that he had toward communal political idealism. But, no more of that, I don’t want to ruin the plot for those whom may still read this challenging and delightful novel.

At first I thought it was just going to be a standard raunchy novel. Shame on me; I knew Llosa was a world-celebrated writer, I should have known better. This is a simply awesome book, a power and beautiful exploration of so many themes:

It is quiet a marvelous read.

This contemporary Peruvian household would be by our standards a very very very liberated, even libertine family where sex is one of the lead motifs of life. But, the relatively same scenes played out in ancient Greece are just ASTONISHING in how much farther they take sensuality and sexuality. The contrasts are phenomenal. When one compares the THREE

Well, we come out just how we are: simpering little sex-staved and sex-terrified repressed folks. These Peruvians are or appear to be civilized libertines, whom most of us would approve of in that their obsessions are carried on behind the closed doors of their (gigantic) mansion. (Some would be disturbed by the sex between the young teen and his stepmother, even though it is fully instituted by the boy.) We would also be terribly jealous of them and see them as hardly "real." The Greeks, on the other hand, we would tend to see as simply SHOCKING and virtually depraved. Ourselves? Well, part of much of our own sexual suppression is we don’t do much looking into that mirror.

Llosa seems to embrace a view that sex is at the absolute center of human existence, but that it isn't SEX we want, we want sensuality and sexuality, not sex per-se. This fascinates me. In our lifetimes the U.S. pop culture has gone from significant sexual repression of the 1950s, into a "liberation" in the 1960s that sort of glorified orgasmic sex, and that sort of became the end and meaning of sex and was/IS celebrated and the primary purpose of sex.

Both the Peruvian family and the Greeks of this novel are INFINITELY less interested in orgasmic sex than lives with all-pervasive rich sensuality and sexuality. The whole treatment raises lots of questions about our own contemporary concepts of sex and sensuality.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett