Mario Vargas Llosa - The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto
Don Rigoberto and Dona Lucrecia have recently separated. Dona Lucrecia, in a moment of weakness, extended their game of nightly fantasy and exploration into reality, allowing herself to be seduced by Fonchito, Don Rigoberto's young son from a previous marriage. Now, both Don Rigoberto and Dona Lucrecia are miserable, living apart when all they want to do is be together.
The novel is constructed with several timelines, only one of which is easily identifiable. The main thread of the narrative explores Dona Lucrecia's guilt, but also her growing awareness that Fonchito is the seducer par excellence. He uses his young, lithe body as a constant tool for seduction, and as he learns what makes his stepmother blush and what makes her cringe, he develops his language such that Dona Lucrecia is constantly confused as to just what it is this young man wants from her.
Fonchito's obsession with Egon Schiele, an Austrian figurative painter from the early twentieth century, forms another layer of the novel. He is incredibly knowledgeable about this tortured figure, quoting him incessantly and showing his stepmother Schiele's paintings, a large number of which are erotic or nudes. Fonchito believes that his own life will mimic that of Schiele's, which is to say that he will die of Spanish Flu at twenty-eight. It is worth noting that throughout Schiele's short life, his work was considered obscene, due to the explicit nature of his paintings.
The other, most easily definable aspect of the novel is Don Rigoberto himself. Very often, we learn of Don Rigoberto through his erotic, fantasy-filled discussions with his wife. We are given the impression that the bedroom is where Don Rigoberto comes to life, it is where he is truly a man - outside of it, he is described as ugly, as bland, as grey. But through the erotic coupling of man and wife, Don Rigoberto reveals a passion for drama, for fantasy, for impression.
It is unclear whether Don Rigoberto's discussions with his wife are about fantasies they share, of experiences she has had, or whether the entire situation itself is a fantasy. Vargas Llosa weaves his tale in such a way that we are left - not confused - but guessing. Do all these extremely varied and erotic encounters really happen to Dona Lucrecia? Why does Don Rigoberto allow them if, by his own admission, they tear his heart and wound his soul? Are the stories just that - devices for mutual titillation?
The passages where Dona Lucrecia describes her adventures to Don Rigoberto are usually extremely erotic, as well as beautifully written. Vargas Llosa does not shy away from even the most taboo of taboos, so a brief warning should be made. While the writing is always tasteful, and more often than not ambiguously shrouded with metaphor and simile, there is no denying that topics such as bestiality, incest and so forth might be too much for some readers.
We come to learn of Dona Lucrecia and Don Rigoberto's relationship best through their bedtime conversations. There is the gentle give and take of the married couple, the words left unsaid and the ones that shouldn't have been mentioned. There is an overwhelming sense of comfort and knowledge that is often touching - these scenes are written by a man with a clear eye for the erotic awareness that a couple must surely have after ten years together.
If you were to strip the eroticism out of the novel, there would not be much left - this is a novel on love alone. A passage towards the end, titled 'Letter to the Reader of Playboy, or A Brief Treatise on Aesthetics', is the clearest statement of the entire piece. This is Vargas Llosa's impassioned cry for the secretive withdrawal of eroticism, the sacred bond that a couple shares with one another. He decries the commerce of these magazines, recognising that they de-mistify, but also de-eroticise what should be the magic and splendour of sex and love. He says, 'pornography strips eroticism of its artistic content, favors the organic over the spiritual and mental, as if the central protagonists of desire and pleasure were phalluses and vulvas and these organs not mere servants to the phantoms that govern our souls and segregates physical love from the rest of human experience.'. We can but only agree.
Possible the greatest difficulty of the novel is that we don't know what to trust and who to believe. There are early indications that Dona Lucrecia's grand adventures - a week-long trip to New York and Paris among the greatest inventions - are completely fictional, but there are also hints that they might all be true. As the novel progresses, we are exposed to greater, less likely situations, and in these, the language used indicates still further the dreamlike quality of the narrative. But is it a dream? Does it all come down to what is recorded in Don Rigoberto's notebooks? The answer, when it comes, is both surprising and expected. The novel ties itself into a neat bow and really, it couldn't be any other way.
The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto is a fascinating journey through the sexual lives of a couple that are both sexually and emotionally comfortable with one another. While erotic, it is never vulgar, and deserves a place alongside Marquez' magnificent essay on love, Love in the Time of Cholera, Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Roth's The Dying Animal.
||Mario Vargas Llosa
||The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto
(Original Title: Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto)
Other titles by Mario Vargas Llosa under review include:
---Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
---Death in the Andes
"for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat"
-Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 Citation