Picks and Pans Review: In Praise of the Stepmother

updated 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Mario Vargas Llosa

When Vargas Llosa lost Peru's presidential election earlier this year, followers of Latin American literature could only be glad that he had kept his day job. The author of nine other novels, including Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (which was turned into the current film Tune in Tomorrow...), he has been a consistently surprising, graceful and witty writer.

This bizarre, frequently offensive novel, however, suggests either that Vargas Llosa has been distracted or that he put more of himself into his speeches than is customary for politicians these days and drained his creative impulses.

The book is about a Peruvian boy who is prepubescent but not prepubescent enough that he can't seduce his glamorous stepmother. This is "seduce" not in the sense of getting her to buy him some more video games, but in the sense of the kind of hugging and kissing more typically associated with post pubescent activities.

These seductions are not explicitly detailed—all small favors are appreciated—but Vargas Llosa does dwell on the obsessions of the boy's father, an insurance executive, Don Rigoberto. Those obsessions, alas, include cleaning his ears, analyzing his bowel movements and clipping his nose hairs. The ablutions are described in appalling detail: "Using his handkerchief, he blew his nose, hard, first one side and then the other, and with his index finger he blocked the opposite nostril each time, till he was certain that his nose was free of mucosities and watery secretions."

Before the moment when Don Rigoberto discovers that his son and wife are getting on rather too famously, Vargas Llosa intersperses the burgeoning love affair with these bathroom play-by-plays, as well as even more extraneous digressions.

One of them is about an armless, legless man who notes: "My sex organ is intact. I can make love, on condition that the young fellow or the female acting as my partenaire allows me to position myself in such a way that my boils don't rub against his or her body, for if they burst they leak stinking pus and I suffer terrible pain." Thanks for sharing, Mario.

If this is (as one hopes it is) a parody, what is it a parody of? Since this book, with its idle-to-disturbing thoughts, was published in Peru in 1988, it's amazing Vargas Llosa got as many votes as he did—2,713,442. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $18.95)

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