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Mario Vargas Llosa (pronounced Yosha) is Peru’s literary genius. His most successful and well-known novel is Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. I think what distinguishes Llosa’s writing is its diversity – no two books are exactly alike in subject, style or effect, and yet they are patently his books (a neat trick, that). From the comic entanglement of soap opera and a real life soap opera-esque love affair in Aunt Julia, to the apocalyptic vision of The War at the End of the World and its messianic madman’s journey that is coloured in the finest, most detailed brushstrokes of character and narrative, Llosa retains a cast to his writing that is recognisable in its diversity. In Praise of the Stepmother is a parable, a study in good and evil, innocence and deviousness, art and life; and it is a comic, erotic tale of the body, an examination and exploration of the processes and orifices of the human animal, a fantasy of art and sex. Dona Lucrecia has recently married Don Rigoberto. She is now the stepmother of young Alfonso, and mistress of the house, presiding over her attendant maid Justiniana. Worried about whether or not Alfonso will accept her into the household and the family, Lucrecia is delighted to receive a letter from him declaring his love for his stepmother, and promising to do well in school in order to make her happy. She visits him before bedtime, in her nightgown, and initially thinks little, although she notices them, of his ardent embraces and his fluttering kisses. She returns to her marriage bed and awaits Don Rigoberto, who is performing (for it is an art) his detailed, sensuous, erotic ablutions, the evacuation of his bowels and the swabbing of his earholes. He comes to their bed already enthralled by a fantasy of Lucrecia inspired by a painting of Heroditus’ telling of Gyges’ exposing of the Queen’s lovely bottom to his general. The chapters of the novel alternate betw
een the story of Lucrecia’s relationship with Alfonso, descriptions of Don Rigoberto’s ablutions, and fantasy narratives each of which is linked to a famous painting. The pictures that the fantasies are based on are reproduced at the beginning of each chapter, so one is able to make the connections with the picture, and the pictures themselves are a clever selection of erotic art spanning the last few centuries of classical and modern painting. Having the paintings in the book, especially in the hard cover edition, makes the books itself something a little more special than the average novel. The three elements of the novel interact, each affecting the others, so that what Llosa offers is a consideration of the ethics of sexual love. He uses Fonchito to illustrate the ambiguity of beauty and innocence: cast as a golden-curled, bronze-limbed, red-lipped cupid, Fonchito’s motives are never as clear as his beauty. Is his adoration of his stepmother as innocent and well-meaning as it seems, or is it as knowing and calculated as it also sometimes seems to be? Is Dona Lucrecia the corruptor or the corrupted? Is Don Rigoberto, in his scrutiny of himself, and his indenture to fantasy, enriching or impoverishing his sexual relationship with his wife? Justiniana, although she is not the narrator, is the still centre of the novel. She roams the house, in her capacity as maid, and sees and hears more than we, the readers, do. By the end of the novel, it is her judgement you must trust. I love this book. The first time I read it, I was surprised by the transformation of a little erotic novel into a grand, but entertaining and exciting (in the best sense), treatise on the ethics of intercourse, real or imagined. There is a power in Llosa’s simple style and lyrical language that only becomes apparent as you exit the book. You will enjoy it as you read (some liberation required, it needs to be said), but you will love it once you
An erotic novel in which, little by little, the shadow of perversion darkens the extraordinary happiness and harmony of the characters. The mysterious nature of happiness and the corrupting power of innocence are the book's main themes.