Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Book Review: The Time of the Hero

As I discussed in my earlier post on The Time of the Hero, I didn’t enjoy Vargas Llosa’s first book as much as some of his other novels when I read it for the first time. As I picked it up to read it for my class, though, I was determined to start fresh with the novel and give it a fair chance. After finishing the re-read, I was glad that the class forced me to return and reevaluate the novel; I enjoyed The Time of the Hero a lot more once I was prepared to consider its more crude elements from new perspectives (read my earlier post for more on this). I also simply found the novel more interesting and engrossing once I was able set aside my initial impressions of certain (sexual) scenes.

Beyond what I’ve already said on this subject, I started thinking about how a lot of the more seedy and sexual elements of the novel follow the conventions of literary Naturalism. Naturalism grew out of realism, which is essentially the attempt to portray reality more straightforwardly than Romantic or Surreal literature, but Naturalism purposefully contains more crude and sordid subject matter in its attempt to illustrate how social conditions and other elements of one’s environment, as well as heredity/genetics, are extremely important factors in the development and determination of a person’s character.

The Time of the Hero addresses this idea in very complex ways – the boys in the military academy come from very different socio-economic backgrounds and have very different family situations, yet all of them become corrupt and degenerate participants in the military academy culture once their freedoms are restricted and their dignity is constantly threatened. As suggested by the epilogue, once the boys emerge from the company of their fellow military academy cadets, they also seem much more capable of leading normal, less degenerate lifestyles. The implication is that something about the social environment at the military academy are what prompt these boys to act in more crude, violent and animalistic ways (a la Lord of the Flies) – which for some reason is shocking to the military leaders who run the academy.

Even after reading the novel twice, though, I am not convinced that The Time of the Hero expresses a completely unavoidable, deterministic relationship between social environment and the development of an individual’s character, though. Especially because the character Ricardo Arana never behaves in the same violent and crude ways as his fellow classmates, it seems as though Vargas Llosa may have been agreeing with the philosophies of the Naturalists on one level, while challenging an entirely deterministic philosophy/worldview on another level.

Once I begin to understand how certain sexual scenes (which I initially found to be quite distracting) contribute to the novel’s themes of corruption and degeneration, I was not only able to appreciate the relationship between Vargas Llosa’s writing and the European Naturalists, but other ways in which the author made use of genre and literary tradition in The Time of the Hero. Stylistically, Vargas Llosa makes it clear that he admires the Modernists, with his forays into stream-of-consciousness writing in certain passages and the unusual structure of the narrative. Clearly, he’s been reading his Europeans and his Modernists – Woolf, Joyce and Proust, and he’s paid particularly careful attention to his Faulkner.

But Vargas Llosa doesn’t only make use of the conventions of “high brow” literature – one thing that we touched on in class was that the novel actually plays into the Detective Novel/Crime Fiction genre in many ways. This was interesting for me to consider because while I love my Sherlock Holmes, my Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels, and have even enjoyed my share of Lord Peter Whimsey, I don’t consider myself a big fan of Detective Novels or well-versed in the Crime Fiction genre overall. I am a much bigger fan of adolescent fiction, so while the “who-done-it” suspense may have been what drew others into the second half of the novel, I was simply absorbed in the more general development of the characters by that time and was focused on comparing the boys in The Time of the Hero to Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. I’m not sure if this is a particularly unusual way of reading this novel, but I think I try to understand most (if not all) teenage boys through the lens of Holden Caulfield. It was interesting to realize that Time of the Hero essentially puts the adolescent novel into dialog with certain conventions of Crime Fiction, while adding a certain Latin American flavor to the mix as well. In fact, I think that this is what made me enjoy the novel so much the second time – the combination of compelling (re: confused, confusing) adolescent characters and a vague was-it-really-murder? mystery.

In the end, I would encourage readers (again) to set aside any scruples that they might have regarding sexual content, and to appreciate the many excellent qualities of The Time of the Hero. This novel is both disconcerting and engrossing, and while it isn’t light reading to throw in your bag and take to the beach, it entertains even as it reveals the seedy underbelly of adolescence and the disturbing potential of society to reduce us all to primal creatures. It isn’t cheery, but it’s four stars…

This post participates in my Mario Vargas Llosa Reading Focus.

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