The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, Grove Press Inc, 1966, (originally published in Barcelona, 1963, translated from the Spanish by Lysander Kemp), 409 pp
I read my first book by this author in 2002. The Green House, his second novel, was one of the challenging literary novels I was starting to read in those years, having somewhat satisfied my desire for trashy, escape reading. I was rekindling my aspirations as a writer and wanting to read Literature. It was around that time that I invented My Big Fat Reading Project. Vargas Llosa was one of the celebrated authors of the Latin American boom and went on to win the Nobel Prize in 2010.
The Time of the Hero is his first novel and also a challenge to read: multiple characters, a disjointed time sequence, switches from third to first person and back again. Often I was not sure who was who, especially since many characters had real names and nicknames. OK. Enough whining. I did catch on and was spellbound by the end.
Most of the book takes place behind the walls of the Leoncio Prado Military Academy on the edge of Lima, Peru. It follows a group of cadets through their four years there, the equivalent of high school. The boys come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and were sent there for various reasons but the underlying intention is to produce soldiers. Peru has a long history of war and unrest.
The titular "hero" was placed in the Academy by his mostly absent, philandering father for the purpose of "making a man of him" and steering him away from the suspected unmanliness of his poetry writing. (Vargas Llosa himself was sent to a military academy by his father for similar reasons. Just goes to show you.)
About eight of these boys stay together as a sort of gang for the duration. They give each other nicknames like The Jaguar, The Boa, Curly, The Slave, and The Poet. The Jaguar is their leader, a tough sociopath who is the best at never getting caught and never giving a fuck about anyone. They drink and smoke, they joke constantly about sex, they have sex with each other (consensual and predatory), all without their teachers and officers catching on.
One night this rowdy group of pubescent male creatures draw straws and send the loser to steal a chemistry exam from the school building. Good grades are one of the conditions of getting leave. Another cadet informs on the guy and is ultimately murdered by one of the boys.
What a gnarly tale! Along the way the back stories and family lives of several characters are revealed including their romantic/lustful encounters with young girls in Lima. The authorities conduct an investigation after the murder and all comes to light but they decide on a cover up to protect the reputation of the Academy, the officers, and the military in general. This includes throwing the most principled and honest officer under the bus.
The novel is a morality tale, a mystery, and a treatise on what constitutes heroism. In the end, the murderer is revealed to the reader as is the fate of The Poet. It is only then that it becomes clear which back story goes with which cadet. I had not seen the denouement coming, the sign of a good novel.
I was left somewhat in awe of how Vargas Llosa constructed such a novel for his first time out. It is perhaps a bit overdone, a bit pretentiously obfuscating, but it shows deep thinking about Peru, life, and big ideas like good, evil, honor, truth, and love.
This quote from Jean Paul Sartre, the epigraph before Part One, sums it up well:
"We play the part of heroes because we're cowards, the part of saints because we're wicked: we play the killer's role because we're dying to murder our fellow man: we play at being because we're liars from the moment we're born."
(The Time of the Hero is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)