“You know very well they disappear people here and nothing happens because the terrorists are to blame for everything.”
Mario Vargas LLosa’s novel, The Neighborhood is a look at the dirty politics of Peru through the lives of a handful of characters. It’s the 1990s in Peru, Alberto Fujimori is president, and two affluent couples, Marisa and businessman Quique (Enrique), Chabela and lawyer Luciano are good friends. Cachito, who was also in Marisa and Chabela’s stratified circle, was kidnapped two months ago, and his release is currently being negotiated. But even though someone from their circle has been kidnapped, the darker, more terrifying aspects of Peru remain, more or less, a spectacle for these four people:
They were having a whiskey on the terrace, watching the sea of lights of Lima at their feet, and talking, naturally, about the subject that obsessed every household in those days, the attacks and kidnappings of the Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, the MRTA, the blackouts almost every night because electrical towers had been blown up, leaving entire districts of the city in darkness and the explosions the terrorists used to awaken Limeños at midnight and at dawn. They recalled having seen from this same terrace, a few months earlier, on one of the hills on the outskirts of the city, the torches light up in the shape of a hammer and sickle, a prophecy of what would happen if the Senderistas won this war.
Wealth and status are protections against many of the dangerous aspects of society, but they are also magnets for opportunists, and not long after the book begins, Quique is approached by Rolando Garro, the owner of a sleazy tabloid known for its vicious, career-destroying attacks on various people involved in the entertainment industry. Garro, who has photographs in his possession of an orgy starring Quique, blackmails Quique who then turns to his lawyer and best friend, Luciano for advice.
The meeting between Garro and Quique unleashes powerful, dark manipulative forces within the Peruvian government, and while a lot of the plot concentrates on the wealthy–Marisa, Quique, Chabela and Luciano, other characters enter the story, including the opportunistic Shorty and the shadowy figure of the Doctor. The character of Shorty (Julieta), a reporter “capable of killing her own mother for a scoop, especially if it was dirty and salacious,” is arguably the most interesting person in this story, and it’s through her that the question is posed: what makes one person corrupt and another take a stand?
Her idea of journalism came from the small yellow scandal sheets displayed in the newsstands in the center of town, which people stopped to read–or rather look at, because there was almost nothing to them beyond the large, glaring headlines–and to contemplate the naked women showing off their buttocks with fantastic vulgarity, and the panels in strident red letters denouncing the filthy things, the pestilential secrets, and the read or imagined vile acts, thefts, perversions, and trafficking that destroyed the reputations of the most apparently worthy and prestigious people in the country.
The book begins with an extended sex scene and while it put me off the book, I pushed on. The sex sub plot is far less interesting than the novel’s political thread, and the somewhat lengthy descriptions of sex seem gratuitous especially since this subplot led nowhere. Ultimately, however, I decided that the trivial drama between these two bored, superficial, decadent society wives, juxtaposed with the reality of Peruvian politics, illuminated the contrast between the classes. Here’s Shorty dragging herself up from the grimiest poverty, doing anything to survive while Marisa and Chabela (in between Italian classes, society dinners and vacations) start an affair. It’s a “how-the-other 1% live” study in contrasts, but still the detailed sex didn’t add to the book’s merit.
Translated by Edith Grossman