The Perpetual Orgy 
by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Helen Lane.
Faber, 240 pp., £9.95, July 1987, 0 571 14550 7
Show More
Captain Pantoja and the Special Service 
by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ.
Faber, 244 pp., £3.95, June 1987, 0 571 14818 2
Show More
Show More

‘Writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles.’ The weighty agonies and agonisings of Flaubert, most famously over the details of Madame Bovary, have made him an exemplary writer for other self-conscious writers, and this unlikely simile is quoted in a recent work testifying to that detailed interest: Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) made a clever novel out of a preoccupation with the minutiae of Flaubert’s life, inventing a biographer-narrator to fight a long rearguard action against the death of the author. Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Perpetual Orgy (first published in 1975, and only now translated into English) is the work of a novelist whose creative imagination more than equals that of Barnes in complexity and abundance: yet it is what is called, sometimes regrettably, ‘secondary literature’, and Llosa is there in what seems person more than persona, autobiographically forthcoming, to convey, through an impressive array of details, his notion of the meaning of a novel by which he is obsessed – Madame Bovary. His novelistic vocation is not too much narrowed in his operation as a critic: The Perpetual Orgy is an expansive and self-reflecting book, a generously-ranging consideration of what fiction does and is for, and its critical reconstruction of Flaubert’s hampered processes of composition shows a convincing insight and a grasp of detail like those of Llosa’s fiction.

Critics can err by making over their subject-author in their own image. But there are cases and cases, and it should be admitted for honesty’s sake that every really interesting critical argument has an element, however refined, of distortion, of selectiveness, of calculated simplification, which is responsible for much of its interest, even if we wish not to lose sight of the question of its accuracy. Llosa’s multitudinous evidence, in concatenations of instances, gives his argument a sufficiently solid basis of fact to make his interpretations plausible, while his personal and professional urgencies, including his explicit taste for ‘rebellion, violence, melodrama and sex’, inform the writing with an attaching distinctiveness of approach. He is at an advantage with Flaubert in respect of combining passion with accuracy, for the book is partly an avowal of profound influence; even those for whom the critical picture is different will at least admit that Llosa, over the years, thoughtfully and with reservations, has taken trouble making himself as an author in the image of Flaubert – has worked at some of the same problems, and with a broadly similar perspective – before making Flaubert back in his own image here.

Flaubert emerges in the book, mainly through copious quotation from his letters, as an arch-combiner of accuracy and passion, fact and imagination; an assiduous collector and includes of material from the real world who then turns round and claims – with some reason, because of his constant alterations – that ‘Madame Bovary has nothing true in it. It is a totally invented story.’ Llosa is sensitive to this element of invention, or rather of transmutation, not only as part of Flaubert’s creative process, but also, on another level, as his heroine’s main business in the novel (and the relation of Flaubert’s creativity to Emma’s is constitutive). The moment at which Emma admits to her second lover, the clerk Léon, that there has been a first, apparently a true confession made on impulse, is shown by Flaubert as bearing its due burden of falsehood and subterfuge. She has loved before, but speedily revises the baldness of stating it with operatic flourishes: ‘ “pas comme toi!” reprit-elle vite, protestant sur la tête de sa fille qu’il ne s’était rien passé.’ (Llosa acutely discusses Flaubert’s habit of signalling typographically the clichés and vulgarities to which his characters succumb.) For present convenience, Emma suppresses Rodolphe’s name as well as the intensity and bustle of their affair, and goes on to lie romantically to the feeble Léon about what the aristocratic lay-about Rodolphe does: Il était capitaine de vaisseau, mon ami. Flaubert comes in here with a pointed question: ‘Was this not to discourage all inquiry, and simultaneously to raise oneself to a great height by claiming to have exerted a fascination on such a man, who must be by nature dominating and used to extracting the deference of others?’ The lie, when its egocentric motives are laid bare, tells us more than the truth: only it documents its psychological origins rather than its ostensible subject.

Llosa’s book, whose title refers to Flaubert’s opinion that ‘to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy’ is the only way to tolerate existence, has illuminating things to say about the workings of the paired and simultaneous impulses in the master’s fiction: the impulses towards a representation of the existing world and a complete artistic metamorphosis of it. Llosa quotes with prominence the declaration that ‘I would like to write everything I see, not just as it is, but transfigured. An exact account of the most magnificent real fact would be impossible for me. I would still need to embroider it.’ We can trace such a double attitude down into Llosa’s own recent novels: into the substantially documented but imaginatively embroidered pursuit of ‘magnificent real facts’ in The War of the End of the World (first published in 1981), based on a bizarre and violently stirring episode in Brazilian history which had already been greatly recorded in Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertoes; or into the bewildering elaboration of revolutionary circumstances investigated and simultaneously transfigured in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (first published in 1984), an account of historical detective work which takes force from the honesty with which it throws its own procedures, its necessary embroiderings, into deep question.

The rationale behind the peculiar kind of transforming ‘realism’ involved here is one of substitution and replacement, at least in Llosa’s version: he sees the movement from the ‘real reality’ of the world to the ‘fictitious reality’ of the novel as hostile and subversive in intention. Flaubert’s ‘descriptive frenzy’, for example, is ‘not an end in itself but a procedure the narrator uses to destroy reality and re-create it as a different reality’. It is not love of the world which inspires such fullness of description, that is, but ‘radical disillusionments’ leading to the desire to supplant reality. Llosa confesses near the beginning to a temperamental requirement for ‘definitive overviews, wholes which, thanks to their bold structure, arbitrary yet convincing, give the illusion of being a total picture of reality, of summing up all of life’; and the power of such summings-up is in their bold substitution of a somehow better world for the real, mundane one of experience. The ‘improvement’, though, may frequently mean not better material conditions but, on the contrary, a strongly salutary clarification or intensification of things that brings with it the worst sufferings imaginable in the grimmest of permutations. The reality principle has a firm say in such strenuous imaginative exercises.

For the Peruvian Llosa, this artistic truth has a special national bearing, explicit in Mayta, a novel which sympathetically views its forlorn hero’s Marxist schemes as necessary fictions woven, like those of Emma Bovary, in response to an intolerable local reality. Llosa shows ‘information’, in a Peru of some years from now, under the stress of an impending political chaos (which the latest news from Lima, of banks invaded by tanks, brings disturbingly nearer), dissolving by a like embroidering process into the proliferations of rumour, realising itself as ‘pure fantasy’: ‘It’s an attempt to make up for our ignorance of what’s going on – which in our heart of hearts we understand is irremediable and definitive. Since it is impossible to know what’s really happening, we Peruvians lie, invent, dream, and take refuge in illusion. Because of these strange circumstances, Peruvian life, a life in which so few actually do read, has become literary.’ When the realm of fact loses its grip on its subjects, the area of deliberated fiction – where lies are told which all know to be lies – may be preferable. Llosa, who has recently become politically active with his outspoken resistance to the nationalisation of the Peruvian banks, and who is even being tipped as a future president, may have felt this more than ever in September, when he seems to have been misled by rumour into making a mistaken accusation against President Alan Garcia, alleging, wrongly, that the importation of his novels was being restricted.

Llosa sees the novelist as more truthful than the ordinary misinformer because novels, honestly, make no historical truth-claims; the truths of or about history which may come into a novel are there voluntarily and gracefully, not under compulsion and by law. The narrator of what was originally titled La Historia de Mayta, tracking down those associated with his subject at the time of his failed coup d’état, is asked why, if he’s writing a novel rather than a biography, he is taking such trouble with research: ‘Why not just lie and make the whole thing up from top to bottom?’ His reply reflects Llosa’s sense of fiction as functional, as bearing a reasonable relation to the real world (a respect in which he’s more a humanist than Flaubert): ‘ “Because I’m a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it,” I explain. “That’s how I work. And I think the only way to write stories is to start with History – with a capital H”.’ But, as the novel asks, where is ‘History’ to be started with?

Is it what happened or what is said to have happened? Those whom the narrator interviews in Mayta were there in History, but through malice or ignorance or self-interest or delusion they are fallible narrators of what happened, and they can’t share the integrity a novelist can find in telling explicitly fictitious tales. Even if you stay around for an answer, you may never find out what is truth, except negatively. ‘Each version is just someone’s story, and ... all stories mix truth and lies.’ Often, then, novelistic invention, when channelled by a care for verisimilitude, may provide the only answers to mysteries which History cannot solve (Mayta’s narrator muses that ‘I, in this case, am history, and I know that things aren’t that simple, that time doesn’t always let the truth come out’). Llosa’s novels leap to a satisfying hypothesis about their central enigma, but make it clear that it’s only a hypothesis, only fiction. Perhaps the intensest wish satisfied by any realist narrative, including those of Llosa, is the wish that the world become a story, that a sequence should take coherent form out of the tangle of human circumstances and be tellable – though the assumption of authority necessary to the writer attempting this has increasingly given rise, and very notably in Llosa, to a rebellious counter-impulse towards the inclusion of doubts and the retention of some of the tangle’s intransigence in untold complexities.

Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, a lively experiment in complexity, was first published in 1973 and translated in 1978; it is reissued now on the strength of Llosa’s success since Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (though without any acknowledgment of the translators – just as The Perpetual Orgy fails to identify its translator, and two of Picador’s three reissues of other works by him leave theirs anonymous). Like many of Llosa’s novels, Pantoja looks back to Peru’s military 1950s, and the episode it uses to evoke what Mayta calls ‘that unbelievably complex web of causes and effects, reverberations and accidents that make up human history’ is the bizarre effort of the captain in question to regulate and assuage the rampant sexual appetites of soldiers stationed in the steamily arousing Amazon jungle by strictly organising an army prostitution force (the ‘Special Service’ of the title). He does so in the doggedly unreflective spirit of Bouvard and Pécuchet. At the same time, and separately, a Brother Francisco is amassing a huge religious following in the region, of a mad and dangerous kind, which requires the crucifixion mainly of small animals, but later of babies and grown-ups too. Llosa’s technique is at full experimental stretch in weaving a convincing tangle out of the luridly coloured threads in this story of two sorts of deep human requirement getting out of hand. He strings together verbs (‘Captain Pantoja talks to himself on the street, falls asleep at his desk, fantasises, terrifies Mother Leonor with his thinness’) in a way that extends Flaubert’s sets of imperfects, which in the critical book he praises for their inclusiveness of repeated actions in the past, their teasing equivocation between particular occasion and general practice.

Pantoja is a cut-and-dried army man; his new assignment in Iquitos forces him into disreputable civvies and low dives, while the jungle’s ‘warm humidity, that excess of nature’ comes to represent a ‘flood of semen’ which he attempts to time with stopwatches and control with ‘flow charts’. Llosa conveys his bureaucrat’s wish to dry out this unmanageable moisture through an inventive translation into euphemistic high militarese and pseudo-scientific jargon which is an ideological mopping-up of inconvenient spillage from normal containments. ‘Virile plenitude’ in those ‘unmarried with marital capacity’ is to be relieved by ‘the virile act’ – that is, a ‘simple and normal service’ by a ‘specialist’ – in the hope of achieving ‘virile totality’, an ideal rate of discharge. The comedy lies in the inadequacy and incongruity of this statistical attempt at control; the at first respectably-married Pantoja turns the Special Service into ‘the most efficient unit of the armed forces’, but gets carried away into lurching depravity by his ‘professional inspections’ of the specialists, and of one in particular, while the area’s civilians find out what’s going on and clamour for inclusion in the scheme. It all ends, naturally, in tears – though of soldierly pride and familial sentiment as well as deep confusion and hopeless gloom.

Llosa’s singling-out of the Agricultural Show scene in Madame Bovary as one that he admiringly returns to, its power deriving from the cross-cutting to and fro between the intimate, romantic tosh of Emma and Rodolphe’s tête-à-tête and the public, political guff of the visiting speaker Lieuvain, a minor functionary, has a relevance to the method of Pantoja.

  ‘Oil-cake’, the president continued.

  He began to go faster:

  ‘Flemish fertiliser – Flax – Drainage – Long Leases – Domestic Service’.

  Rodolphe was no longer speaking. They looked at each other. A supreme desire made their lips tremble; and softly, effortlessly, their fingers intertwined.

  ‘Catherine-Nicaise-Elizabeth Leroux, of Sassetot-la-Guerrière, for fifty-four years’ service at the same farm, a silver medal – worth twenty-five francs!’

Flaubert’s proto-cinematic montage crashes the two centres of interest against each other to vividly ambiguous effect. Is the sphere of received ideas in which grinding ‘Domestic Service’ is valued something against which Emma’s adultery is an authentic revolt? Or are the lovers’ motions really as mechanical as – really parallel to – those of the hollowly politic world Lieuvain exemplifies? What sort of comparison does Flaubert’s pointed arrangement want us to make? Llosa draws on the potential of such juxtapositions throughout Pantoja, whose sections of narrative (rotating in turn with official documents, private letters, nightmares, radio broadcasts and newspaper reports of Joycean emotiveness) switch dazzlingly but lucidly, often paragraph by paragraph, from character to character, place to place, and time to time. Pantoja’s wife leaves him, taking their child, when she discovers the nature of his secret mission, and his repeated inspections of ‘the Brazilian’, one of the operatives; his mother takes his part, sentimentally, while on his part the sex itch is out of control.

  ‘If she hadn’t stolen little Gladys from you, you wouldn’t be this way,’ Mother Leonor opens the street door. ‘Maybe I can’t see how you’re eating yourself up alive with sorrow for your little girl, Panta? Go, leave right now’.

  ‘I can’t put up with any more – quick, quick,’ Panta climbs the gangway of the Eve, goes down to the cabin, falls on the bunk, murmurs. ‘Where I like it, there. On my throat, on my ear. Not just nibbles, but real slow bites. C’mon now!’

The change of scene (to sex with ‘the Brazilian’ aboard the unit’s boat) isn’t immediately apparent, so that an Oedipal image flickers for a moment in the reader’s hesitating mind, in between the successive ideas of Panta as family man and Panta as urgent lover. Llosa contrives the ambiguity of reference in ‘I can’t put up with any more’ to suggest the complexity of the workings of the cultural multiple-standard which drives Pantoja and which he can’t ultimately sustain. His mother tells him early on, ‘Once again, Panta, you’re not enough of a man,’ maternity purveying machismo; at a late stage, in a sex game aboard the Eve, conducted in mock-Chinese accents, he plays at being his daughter Gladys while ‘the Brazilian’ plays his wife Pochita: ‘What pletty baby. I sclatch yol head. I give you kisses. You want suck on titty?’ Prostitution and the family, and probably religion too, aren’t so far apart here, then: his wife tweely calls all-the-way intercourse ‘business business’ and uses sex as a currency within marriage. In this dense weave the terms in which things are perceived, it seems, may be a large proportion of the problem: an officer describing the problem of the jungle soldiers’ indiscriminate rapes explains that ‘every skirt is spoken for in the Amazon settlements.’ ‘Skirt’ says more than its utterer means. As it says in The Perpetual Orgy, ‘when they utter phrases such as this, the characters lose their identity as individuals and embody an entire community.’

Llosa’s account of Pantoja’s tour of duty in the field of pleasure is a tour de force, but we can be glad that in recent years he has applied his technical verve to writing less coldly and farcically on more humanly involving subjects. His latest fiction to be translated into English, published as yet only in America, is a short detective novel, Who killed Palomino Molero? Its impressionable and innocent hero is the half-breed Guardia Civil Officer Lituma, who investigates with his cleverer superior Lieutenant Silva the gruesome killing of a young mixed-blood airman at the northern coastal tip of Peru, near Piura and far from Lima. Chandler and Faulkner have gone into this nightmarish tale, but it has a wonderfully desolate sense of its own place and time, of its perversely disciplinarian and racially divided society, which makes it a truly original, and grimly overwhelming, achievement.

The horror of the mutilated corpse found at the opening taints the whole story of the inquiry conducted by these underfunded policemen – who have to take a taxi or hitch a ride or simply trudge to every destination, having no official vehicle – into the complex of harshly élitist sexual attitudes operating on the privileged white Air Force base at Talara. They discover ‘how things work’ with a vengeance. Lituma and Silva are profoundly disturbed by the murder, haunted by its image, and invest imaginatively in the investigation, which pits them against their social superiors, against the world as it is. Lituma suffers so from his pity for the victim that ‘he couldn’t be the easy-going guy from La Mangacheria again until he understood how there could be people in the world that evil’ – which is the question asked by the book. At the crisis, watching Silva confront the probable killer, he trembles with an all-comprehensive pity and fear: ‘He was so sorry for the whole world he felt like crying, damn it.’ The instability of truth in a world where ‘there’s no justice’ is a refrain seems important for Llosa here as elsewhere. Silva teaches his bewildered sidekick that ‘nothing’s easy ... The truths that seem most truthful, if you look at them from all sides, if you look at them close up, turn out to be either half truths or lies.’

Lituma and Silva, unlike Pantoja not military but civil, seem, again unlike him, genuinely heroic and conscientious though humanly bemused and far from perfect figures. They struggle to cope with an appalling, recalcitrant and deeply confusing case, doing their job beyond the point at which their bosses would like them to stop, and with a persistent low-keyed indignation in which Llosa seems to find real value. Like Pantoja, Lituma ends being transferred in disgrace to a mountain posting: here, though, it may be the price of an integrity not merely made up of second-hand phrases and ideological knee-jerks, but driven by a rebellious passion for truth and justice. On the other hand, Llosa is too canny not to allow in this overpowering text for less sanguine interpretations of the policemen’s motives in their quest, motives thoroughly mixed with sexual obsession and class resentment: in this insinuation of a shadowing ambiguity, as well as in his rebellion against the frightfulness of the world, he is a true inheritor of Flaubert.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences