by Reggie Peralta
Part of LibroMobile's Tiny Review series
The Neighborhood is a deceptively multifaceted offering from Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa. A murder mystery novel, the book is one of the the few—if not the only one—to take place in Peru during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori. Drawing from his own perspective on life in his homeland as well as his antipathy toward Fujimori and the right-wing authoritarianism he represented, Vargas Llosa adds a unique twist on what easily could have been a typical crime story; the terror of Fujimori’s authoritarian rule and the extreme, almost fantastical divide between classes that characterized his regime threaten to unmoor the reader’s grasp of fact and fiction in a murder mystery tale. Indeed, it isn’t the conventional mystery elements like attempted blackmail, unexplained homicide, and illicit affairs that stand out to readers so much as the world the characters live in and the way Vargas Llosa characterizes it.
The book offers a window into the stratified nature of Peruvian society, seamlessly shifting from the sophisticated affluence of engineer “Quique” Cardenas, his friend Luciano, and their wives Marisa and Chabela to the less-privileged lifestyles of characters like tabloid journalist Shorty and the disgraced reciter Juan Pienta. Vargas Llosa gives us a taste of the fine wines and conservative attire enjoyed by Quique and his friends, but he also calls attention to the street emolientes sought out by Shorty and the garish outfits worn by her boss Rolando Garro, drawing simple, stylistic contrasts between the different social spaces
that the characters inhabit. Similarly, he includes numerous references to high and low Peruvian culture alike, from the waltzes and poems of Felipe Pinglo beloved by Juan Pienta to the folk marinera dances that Luciano’s grandmother is said to have performed. Blending the cosmopolitan with the common, Vargas Llosa creates a mixture that’s as appropriate as it is insightful in a story about the high, the low, and the place where the two collide. It also gives insight into what Vargas seems to view as the Fujimori regime’s exploitation of class differences, manipulating wealthy and poor Peruvians against each other lest they unite against their common enemy.
The book captures the tense, forbidding atmosphere of Fujimori’s Peru, with the characters caught between fear of the radical leftist groups terrorizing the country on one hand and, on the other, fear of the brutal secret police led by Fujimori’s right-hand man “The Doctor.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the words scrawled on a prison wall, so beautifully ominous that Quique wonders if they are “biblical” : “And when he hoped for the good,/Evil suddenly occurred;/When he hoped for the light,/Darkness came.” On a considerably more pleasant note, Vargas Llosa relishes in relating Maria and Chabela’s love scenes; the elevated language he uses to describe their secret trysts in imparts them with a refinement that’s sensual and not just sexual.
A snapshot of the anxiety and suspicion that dominated 1990s Peru, The Neighborhood makes clever use of crime fiction conventions to expose how tyrants like Fujimori divide and conquer their people.
A Santa Ana native, Reggie Peralta's writing has been featured on HonorSociety.org, The Frida Cinema, and The Grindhouse Cinema Database.