"The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto," by Mario Vargas Llosa. Translated by Edith Grossman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 260 pages. $23.
Don Rigoberto, an insurance executive by day, is by night an aesthete and sensualist. He is married to the "magnificent" Dona Lucrecia, a marriage that has been broken by a "moment of lunacy" between Dona Lucrecia and Don Rigoberto's pre-pubescent, Luciferian son Fonchito, who at 10 is already in ,, thrall to Eros. Overlooking the scene is Justiniana, maid and Jamesian "ficelle." Mario Vargas Llosa's deeply erotic, speculative novel moves persistently from these shreds of plot to Don Rigoberto's notebooks, compendia of quotations from works of literature, details of famous paintings, bits and pieces of culture, and sexual fantasies - all in the service of Eros, which flourishes in "the slow, the formal, the ritualized, the theatrical."
In this encyclopedia of Eros, both the notebooks and Mario Vargas Llosa's novel itself, emotions simmer between the conscious and the dream life, even as people act on impulses civilization would repress. Vargas Llosa returns to his 1977 theme of the sexual attraction between a boy and an older female relative ("Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter") as Lucrecia's "nostrils breathed in that adolescent odor of soccer games, hard candies, and d'Onofrio ice cream." Our guide Justiniana confesses: "There's something about that boy, it fills your head with sin." Yet Lucrecia loves his father Rigoberto despite his outsized nose and Dumbo ears. The aesthetics of eroticism defy the culture's tepid standards of beauty.
In the time zone of the imagination, Dona Lucrecia revels in sex amid a crowd of mewing kittens. Voyeurism, female homosexuality, incest, the menage a trois, foot and shoe fetishes, no expression of human eroticism fails to find a home in Don Rigoberto's notebooks. Emptying the bladder inspires "amorous desire." The "clumps of fleece" in a woman's armpits may send a man to jail. Even the "castrato" finds his place in the landscape of Eros. Lucrecia is heroine because "nothing in the tangled labyrinth of human desires shocked her."
Decadent Lima breathes outside the drawn curtains of sanitized rooms where characters pursue pleasure, and politics cannot intrude. Freud winks. Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer, contributes a thought: "the duty of all things is to give joy; if they do not give joy they are either useless or harmful." Religion is anathema because all religions "restrict human freedom and attempt to rein in desire." Yet Vargas Llosa cannot help but "affirm that people make love much better in religious countries than in secular ones." Don Rigoberto works as a businessman because economic need is anathema to the fulfillment of "fantasy, pleasure, and liberated desire," his "only homeland."
So assents exiled author Mario Vargas Llosa, who once aspired to the presidency of Peru, to political activism in the bosom of his beleaguered country, but now, annually short-listed for the Nobel Prize, pursues literature in London. "The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto" is a startling, richly imagined and sexy book with a dark truth, a Freudian reality, at its center. The "happy family" is one that acknowledges the viper at its heart, the inevitable canker in the rose, yet flourishes in the understanding that the price of pleasure, the fulfillment of the unbridled imagination, demands nothing less than the roaring collapse of all traditional morality.
Joan Mellen, author of 13 previous books, has just completed a memoir titled "An Enemy in the House." She teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Pub Date: 5/03/98