Monday, June 7, 2010

Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras (Mario Vargas Llosa) (8.5/10.0)

For native gringos, like myself, who occasionally stray into Spanish-language fiction, I think Mario Vargas Llosa is by far the most accessible of the Latin American fiction writers. This is true for two reasons: first, for his straightforward prose (though calling him Hemingway-esque is probably unfair to both), and, second, for the tasty themes that Vargas Llosa chooses to treat, which are usually some combination of military and sexual. For anyone who has struggled to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Miguel Angel Asturias in Spanish (and I love them both), Vargas Llosa is quite a relief both in terms of complexity and humor.

But back to the theme—it is the development and introduction of an efficient prostitution ring into the Peruvian military that provides the back story in Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras, which was translated into English in 1990 as Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. You can just see Vargas Llosa’s very first notes on the novel now, “Peruvian army hires prostitutes—hilarity ensues.” And it does. Now, before you sit down to draft your angry letters about the objectification of women, please note that the book is pure satire. Its purpose is to show the farcical nature of applying military strategy to issues which are ... well ... decidedly non-military. And the prostitutes, who take center stage and one of whom tempts Captain Pantoja to consider infidelity, are some of the best-drawn characters in the book.

PantaleĆ³n y Las Visitadoras is perhaps my favorite of Vargas Llosa’s works, though I am also partial to La Ciudad y Los Perros, which treats the subject of young boys growing up in a Peruvian military academy. Either is a great (and relatively easy) read in Spanish for anyone with even conversational skills in the language. But if you want a good laugh or two along the way, I’d recommend Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras.

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