I have enjoyed Vargas Llosa’s books before and this novel has many of the attributes that make them fine, insightful works. But I found this a bit leaden, unconvincing and, dare I say it, pervy (a British euphemism for a display of slightly creepy sexual interest).

The protagonist is a Peruvian man who leaves Peru to live in Paris and become an interpreter. I love the way Vargas Llosa summons up the atmosphere of Latin American countries. He does it here, just as he does it in The Feast of the Goat and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. And there is much to enjoy in his descriptions of Paris and the expatriate South Americans who live there, and of his career as an interpreter.

Interpreting and translating are, in my opinion, much under-appreciated professions. By definition, their practitioners are self effacing about their own thoughts, always striving to reflect correctly those of others. So this is a nice sub-theme of the book.

But the main plot is about a girl whom the narrator meets first in Peru and then in different and strange circumstances throughout his life. She is, of course, incredibly beautiful (how many books have a main female character who is anything else?) and they become on/off lovers. The perviness, to my mind, lies in the rather gratuitous detail about their sex acts. The writer seems to be writing a middle-aged male fantasy about her vagina – how small and tight it is, how he feels when he is having sex with her, how much she loves oral sex. This is all well and good and I would be the last person to object to writing about sex. But it didn’t seem relevant and, as I say, it felt as if it was being written for the writer’s benefit rather than the reader’s.

Some of the action, especially in Tokyo, is silly and the denouement is predictable. So, all in all, not one of Mario’s best.

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