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.

February Reading Recap

I have a chapter due soon and should really be working on it, but have decided to write up this post as a writing exercise anyway. I read five books, four fiction, one non-fiction last month.

A Curse on Dostoevsky, Atiq Rahimi
Rassoul is an Afghani who studied Russian literature in St. Petersburg during the Russian invasion. Now that Afghanistan is torn between rival warlords he is in Kabul and, in the opening of the novel, kills Nana Alia, who has been prostituting his betrothed, Sophia. As he kills Nana Alia, Rassoul thinks about Crime and Punishment and, through the next weeks of his life, lives out the plot of Dostoevsky’s novel. Some of the individual characters in the work, including family members, friends, and a variety of Taliban members, some of whom support Rassoul, some of whom want to kill him for knowing Russian, were engaging, but the overall plot of the story was not particularly engaging. Perhaps if I had read Crime and Punishment I would have had different feelings.

Inverted World, Christopher Priest

Reviewed here, Inverted World is a dystopian science fiction novel from the 1970s that revolves around the questions of technology, civilization, and relativity in the perception of others. At no point did it feel like a spectacular novel, but it also moved quickly and built toward a really satisfying conclusion. The longer I think about this one, the more likely it is to appear on my list of favorite novels (albeit likely toward the end).

The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa

The Jaguar, the Slave, and the Poet are classmates in their final year at Leoncio Prado Military academy in Lima. They are not friends, though in their first year they banded together to help each other. The Poet manages to keep others away from him with his glib tongue and willingness to write letters. The Jaguar is a vicious leader. The Slave is viciously mocked and harassed by his classmates, unwilling and unable to defend himself. The jokes, pranks and mockery always had a sadistic edge, but tensions escalate after a copy of a test is stolen in the middle of the night and the cadets are confined to the base. Someone squeals, someone dies–and the tension is not only about resolving who did it, but why.

the Time of the Hero was a scandalous book when it was published in 1963 and Llosa does a good job of keeping the reader guessing throughout, even as the characters, unknown to each other, are bound by mutual acquaintances on the outside. The first half of the novel dragged, but it really picked up in the second half. The book it most resembled was Lord of the Flies, which was probably part of the reason that it took me so long to get into it (I hated LotF in high school). However, The Time of the Hero is more complex and sophisticated, building on how the characters got into the school in the first place and offering the academy as a microcosm of Peruvian society–in which the most honest, most morally upright characters suffer for their goodness.

Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher

My favorite of the month, Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel about the contemporary state of the humanities. Jay Fitger is a creative writing professor at the fictional midwest school, Payne University. The English department is being further staffed by adjuncts, its building is under renovation with them still inside, and Fitger’s students are in all manner of straights, for which he writes them an incessant stream of recommendation letters. More than three thousand of them. Fitger’s letters are glib, impertinent, sarcastic, and marginally focused, but impeccably polite. From the tone of his letters, particularly to repeat recipients, there is a sense that Fitger is by nature a contrarian and not easy to deal with, but the letters are funny for an outsider to read and true to form about much of the circumstances of modern academia.

Going into reading this book, I feared that Schumacher would make Fitger come across as too cynical, academia too fully broken, and the presentation of his relationship with students and colleagues too much of the worst stereotypes about academics. Where she succeeds most is in making Fitger an absolutely flawed, not particularly pleasant person who wants the university to survive, wants the best for his students, and generally has his heart in the right place even when there is someone he doesn’t like.

God and Man at Yale, William Buckley

Admittedly, a strange choice for a fun reading book, this is Buckley’s diatribe against the standard moderate-left consensus of the university. In it he argues that, by teaching the values of economic collectivism and religious atheism, Yale had violated its founding mission and the wishes of the alumni base. He starts with the fundamental position that free-market economics and Christianity are in all ways good things for civilization and continues into the argument that “academic freedom” should be governed by the free market. Namely, Buckley believes that there should be the liberty to research however the professor wants, but that, so long as their research is being funded by teaching students, the professors must only teach the values and ideas sanctioned by the board of trustees. So long as the professor has the option to resign, then he says mandating particular curricula does not violate academic freedom.

Buckley has some interesting and sometimes valid points scattered throughout this book, including that the idea of academic freedom blurs between liberty to teach and to research without interruption, but three points jumped out at me. First, he names graduate instructors by name and dresses them down for what they taught. The thought of this terrifies me in this new age of social media. Second, I largely disagree with Buckley on the issue of Christianity versus Atheism, but it is also interesting to note how these cultural issues vary in the sense of us against them and suspect that one could remove atheism, add islam and republish it with minimal changes so that it would appeal to people today. Third, I couldn’t help but note that Buckley doesn’t have a problem with a standard convention that will indoctrinate young people. His major problem is with what that convention is.

Noted above, I have a chapter due, so whatever I read next will have to wait. Right now I’m not sure what that will be.