Then, about twenty pages into the book, I was rudely reminded of what had soured me on the novel before.
The Time of the Hero is about a group of high school cadets in a military academy in Lima and these boys, like many bored teenage boys, do some things that would shock anyone who is not now or has never been a teenage boy. They are constantly smoking, drinking, gambling, reading erotic literature and they even sneak out to see a prostitute from time to time. Okay, fine. I’ll just be honest up front here – no one who wants to remain innocent and unaware of sexual escapades should make a habit of reading literature by Latin American men. Deviant/wild sexual practices (as judged in comparison to traditional Western practices) abound in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa, among others. So you’ve been warned.
Even though I’ve read Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman, I was unprepared for the scene twenty pages into The Time of the Hero – and I’m going to go ahead and spoil it for those of you who don’t want to be taken unawares. Our group of extremely restricted and bored teenage boys aren’t just relieving their sexual tension by visiting a prostitute from time to time, which is something that seems to be more common and acceptable for fifteen year-old-boys in Latin America than it is in the United States. The boys decide to steal a chicken and… relieve their sexual tension using the poor bird.
So while I started to get engrossed within the first nineteen pages or so, I found this scene more than a little disturbing and to be honest, it tainted the rest of the novel for me when I read it two years ago.
During my current reading, however, when I reached and continued reading past this scene, I asked myself why this scene might be justified, necessary, important or at the very least “admissible” (for lack of a better word). In other words, what might Vargas Llosa’s motives have been when including this scene, whether or not he personally found it disturbing? Why should I bother reading the rest of the novel if this scene bothers me? (I know that many people would simply put the book down after encountering something like this, and for some of you, that’s perhaps a valid choice.)
To answer this question, I think that it is important to consider that when it was first published, The Time of the Hero was denounced by officials at the Leoncio Prado Military School, which Vargas Llosa had actually attended during his adolescence, and the novel was publicly burned. In other words, Vargas Llosa was writing from his own real-life experiences and many Peruvian generals and other military officials weren’t excited that the façade of their disciplined, polished military operation was being torn away to reveal a very slimy under-belly. Military officials are supposed to have control of their cadets, but the teenagers in this book are so desperate for any type of freedom that they end up involved in some pretty despicable activities – screwing a chicken being the most notable, but many of the initiations that they inflict upon younger students are also pretty disturbing.
But think for a moment – why do most teenagers taunt and torture kids who are younger and weaker than themselves? Why does a bully become a bully?
Because s/he feels powerless.
And that’s what this novel is really about – the kind of corruption that develops when those who have power use that power to bend others to their will, the kind of cultural degeneration that occurs when leaders take away the basic freedoms of other human beings, rob them of their dignity and their ability to have a say in their own fate. (Most of) these teenage boys have been sent to a military academy against their will, have been deprived of free time, any recreation or human affection that was formerly theirs, and forced to accept cruel displays and abuses that quickly wear away at their dignity. The only way to maintain their self-respect is to return cruelty with cruelty, violence with violence. These boys are under the thumb of their superiors at the military academy, so they turn around and abuse those in the classes below them. They are looking for something that will help them to feel less powerless, help them regain their dignity.
And so, while the scene in which the boys abuse the chicken certainly jolted me out of a comfortable reading reverie, I think I now understand better why that scene is actually somewhat important to include in the novel. Vargas Llosa needs readers to understand the extent of the corruption and degeneration of both the leaders and the students at the military academy – this depravity is both a context and a catalyst for the events in the rest of the novel. If readers do not understand the degeneration and desperation of these boys, the death that follows mid-way through the novel will seem random – but by describing the boys’ sketchy pastimes, the novel is able to communicate that the tragedy has some very specific causes, including the culture in which these boys are being raised. As the quote paired with the epilogue emphasizes much later in the novel, “in each lineage / deterioration exercises its domination” (Carlos German Belli).
This post participates in my summer Reading Focus on Mario Vargas Llosa.
Note: As I read longer novels, I will sometimes post thoughts about the book before I finish reading it, then still write a separate review. These are some of my initial thoughts from as I read the first half of The Time of the Hero, which is why I have not yet included a rating. Check back over the weekend for a full review of the novel.