The Green House – Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa’s classic early novel takes place in a Peruvian town, situated between desert and jungle, which is torn by boredom and lust. Don Anselmo, a stranger in a black coat, builds a brothel on the outskirts of the town while he charms its innocent people, setting in motion a chain reaction with extraordinary consequences.

The Green House, Llosa’s second novel, was the fifth of his I have read and it demonstrates all the hallmarks of his work: a long time span, interwoven plots, intersection of purity and corruption, and nicknames designed to allow the action bleed together, and a story that didn’t pull together until near the end. The Green House had its moments, but yet came across as a promising work rather than a masterpiece, falling short of The Feast of the Goat, The Time of the Hero, and The Bad Girl.

The quote that opens the post comes from the dustcover and it is a game effort to capture some of this deeply inexplicable novel. The factual details are true, but it doesn’t capture the story at all. Even the eponymous brothel, which exists in two iterations, features as a setting with some symbolic weight, but is largely a prop in the story rather than a central feature. Of course, The Green House is a particularly difficult book to summarize because there are at least seven plots that are interwoven, sometimes overlap, and sometimes have a collapsed chronology such that the characters will be having two conversations decades apart on the same page without warning. The effect is dizzying. Llosa’s flaunting of an easily-followed narrative bleeds over into the descriptions of the locations. Simplistically, there are three settings: Piura, a town of moderate size (and growing) between the jungle and the desert, and Santa María de Nieva, a small jungle town on a river, and the rivers and native villages they border. However, in one scene a village (including Piura) will be devoid of electricity, while, the next, characters will wield flashlights and hail taxis. The colors and textures and climates remain the same, but the shapes of the towns are in flux.

“Really, Don Anselmo?” Wildflower asks. “You were born there too? Isn’t it true that the jungle’s beautiful, with all the trees and all the birds? Isn’t it true that people are nicer back there?”

“People are the same everywhere, girl,” the harpist says. “But it is true that the jungle is beautiful. I’ve forgotten everything about what it’s like there now, except for the color, that’s why I painted my harp green.”

More than setting and plot, The Green House is a character driven story. There is the criminal-cum-leper Fushía, the goodhearted and loving Lalita, the boatman Aquilino, and the pilot Adrian Nieves. However, using the eponymous Green House as the central unifying feature of the story, there are two stories that drive the novel, one from the outset and one at the conclusion. From the outset, there is the story of Bonifacia, a native girl (whose father also appears) who is raised by nuns, expelled from mission and raised by Lalita, marries, is raped [arguably more than once] and becomes a prostitute at the Green House, even while her husband is forced to watch on. She bears slights big and small and does so with infinite compassion and perpetual innocence. On the other end there is the story of Anselmo and, by extension, his daughter Chunga, the proprietors of the first and second Green Houses, respectively. These two entertain the people of Piura–Anselmo with his harp-playing and the offerings of his establishment, Chunga with her establishment and allowing her father to play–and both have their sympathies, but there is a callousness to both characters. This, combined with the issue of morality, arouses the ire of the local priest, Father Garcia, who lives long enough to see what the Green House is, why he sermonized against it, become part of mainstream culture.

I should note that I had some difficulties with the chronology that could be due to the book’s publication fifty years ago this year. It is probable that when it was published there would have been a clear terminus ante quem, as it were, a date that the events clearly took place before, which then makes the early stories fall into a clearer sequence. As it was, I spent too long trying to figure out when the most recent story was set, because it could have been 1960 or 1980, which affected how old the characters were, etc.

This issue with chronology should not distract from the story itself, which certainly has its moments, and I found the ending particularly affecting, but, for me, The Green House tried to do too much–and did too much too successfully, with the result that I suffered from sensory overload. The Green House is a difficult book to read, both for its bewildering structure that, to be honest, still has me trying to piece together things that happened in the first half of the book because the story seemed like a jumbled mess, and for its atmosphere. Even the moments of fun and levity are layered with a sense of oppression and sadness. I might reread The Green House at some point to let myself get lost in its complexity. For now my opinion is that it is a fascinating novel and one that grows with reflection, but not quite a masterpiece. Nothing about it diminishes my excitement about diving into another Llosa novel, The Way to Paradise, in the near future.

Next up, I am about a third of the way through Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants and enjoying it immensely.

Present, meet past

Let me begin with five loosely bullet points.

  • I am particularly wary of the adages that posit recurring pasts and arguments of immediate pecuniary or political value to studying the ancient past.
  • My dissertation is a regional history of of Ionia in fifth, fourth and early third centuries BCE. The project examines the position of these twelve majority Greek communities on the Anatolian coast and heavy islands in relation to each other and in relation to a series of imperial entities that exerted control over the region.
  • A couple of years ago I got the idea from another scholar on Twitter to set up a Google-alert for the subject of my research. Since then, I have been getting daily updates about bodies washing up on Chios and boatloads of refugees fished out of the sea around the island.
  • A few weeks back, I decided that I am going to dedication my dissertation and, if I reach that point, the resultant book, to the Syrian refugees passing through Ionia.
  • Yesterday, Turkish police raided an illegal factory that was making life preservers from non-buoyant material using child labor. Life preservers that do not float made by refugee child labor. Words cannot express how repellent this is.

Objectivity as a historian is a nice idea, in theory, but is quixotic in practice. One is always going to be influenced by whatever s/he is exposed to. This can be as simple as reading good prose improving the “ear” of the writer to more complex and subtle influences such as the theoretical framework one views the world or his or her moral universe rendering judgement. Frequently, the issues one holds close draws attention to particular details in a source that otherwise would have passed by.

When we think of the connections between the Ancient Near East and the Aegean, it is common to think of the maritime trade routes that ran from Egypt to Phoenicia, Cyprus, the Aegean, and then up to the Black Sea. These routes are critically important for trade and the spread of ideas, but (to my knowledge) were not the usual way to transfer people. Travel by sea was expensive and risky, unless transporting bulk goods. Thus people were often more likely to travel by land. Ambassadors, refugees, and people who aspired to overthrow the Persian King from both the Greek states and the Persian Empire frequently traveled from the Aegean to Syria or beyond and then back by one route: a path that took them from Ephesus or Erythrae (or sometimes another polis), which were connected by road to to the Lydian city of Sardis. There, they picked up the Persian Royal road, which took them the length of Anatolia and then across the Taurus mountains and into Syria, usually to Damascus and from there to anywhere else in the Persian Empire. My source material is usually more focused on people from the Aegean taking this path toward the interior of the Persian Empire, but the road ran both directions.

The constant updates have heightened my awareness and interest in population movements, which is a difficult issue to measure in ancient Greece, and in that it is easy to demarcate (falsely or otherwise) borders between countries or between east and west, but the people don’t care about that. Rostovtzeff described the Ionian communities as fragments of the Western World on the fringe of the Eastern, but that gives the impression of an actual difference on either side. The Ionians were peripheral to Persian and Athenian systems, but throughout the fifth and fourth centuries they also served to link the two together.

A spruced-up variation on these thoughts will appear in the introduction or preface of my dissertation.