Posted by: istop4books | March 23, 2011

In Praise of the Stepmother, Martin Vargas Llosa

This short novella centers around 4 characters who live in a large home in Lima, Peru, Rigoberto, a widow recently remarried to Lucrecia, Alfonso (Foncho) his prepubescent son, and Justiniana, the maid.

As the book opens, we learn of the erotic and sexual lives of Rigoberto and Lucrecia, much of which is driven by Rigoberto’s fantasies formulated from paintings. Through the use of exquisite colored plates, 4 nudes and 2 abstracts, Rigoberto weaves erotic fantasies, and colors his love life with Lucrecia in a world more imaginary than real, of what he wishes she were than what she really is. He showers her with affection but the reader is left wondering if he truly knows her, or if he has created an illusion of her. (Reading the book requires detained observation of these plates.)

Parallel to this, we learn of the obsessive rituals that Don Rigoberto performs on a nightly basis, each day of the week concentrating on a different part of his body. This is one area where he feels wholly and completely in control. “His iron will to control the unpleasant arbitrary acts of his body, forcing it to exist within certain aesthetic rules, never going beyond limits fixed by his sovereign taste – and, to a certain extent, Lucrecia’s – thanks to techniques of extirpation, trimming, expulsion, irrigation, friction, tonsure, polishing, et cetera, which he had finally mastered, as an excellent workman masters his craft, isolated him from the rest of humanity and produced in him that miraculous sensation – which would reach its apogee when he joined his wife in the darkness of the bedroom – of having escaped from time.” The writing is fascinating and held me in its grip even as I read, with a degree of astonishment, the incredibly detailed account of, among other ablutions, the evacuation of his bowels. Three page’s worth of intricate descriptions of this task. It blows my mind to think that anyone could include this in a short book and make it work. Vargas Llosa does just that.

So far so good. Enter the uncomfortable, controversial, creepy arena of the novel. Very quickly we learn of the intense relation erupting between Lucrecia and her prepubescent, cherubic, angelic looking, innocent stepson. His age is not specified, however, at one point Lucrecia has to kneel so that their heads are at equal levels. 10, 11 years old? Alfonso spies on his stepmother during her nightly bath and manipulates a situation through hugs, kisses and threats – a bit of a stretch for me – until achieving his purpose. OK – this made me horrificably uncomfortable having brought up 3 boys of my own. On the other hand, Lucrecia, who has recently turned 40 (and from experience I totally understand how traumatic that birthday can indeed be), has vowed to never grow old and ugly – to remain beautiful at any cost. It is in this frame of mind that Lucrecia alters reality to justify her needs, throws caution to the wind, comes up with a moral justification to the behavior that she knows to be immoral. In doing so, she reinforces her perception of youth, and perceives Foncho’s cherubic, innocent face as validation that what she was doing was justifiable. After all how can anyone so beautiful be diabolic? Impossible.

And so it is that the surreal world created by Rigoberto and Lucrecia cracked.

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