Saturday, April 30, 2022

Mario Vargas Llosa, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973)

So the Peruvian army has a problem: their troops stationed in remote areas are sexually frustrated, with few women around, rape is commonplace, and generally the whole situation is bad for morale.  Captain Pantoja isn't really interested in this, but he is extremely dilligent and devoted to the army, so he is assigned to create a "Special Service" of prostitutes to try to ameliorate the situation.  This is made even more difficult for him by the fact that he's not allowed to reveal his ties to the army, and he's not allowed to tell his family what he's really doing.  Seems rough, but in fact, due to his conscientious nature, he succeeds beyond anyone's wildest dreams.  It's probably not much of a spoiler, though, to reveal that everything does not end up going wholly according to plan.

The description on goodreads calls this a "delightful farce," which is more than a bit reductive (I get the impression that that's also what that cover image is going for).  There are certainly funny moments--this one came directly after Conversation in the Cathedral, and you suspect that Vargas Llosa wanted to do something a bit lighter--but unless you think that it HAS to be pure comedy just because of the premise, and because it has a surprisingly semi-happy ending...well, it's not, really.  There's torture and there's killing (and there's all my bad reviews).  There's this whole subplot involving a Christian cult in the area run by a guy named Brother Francisco, sort of contrasting reactions to the Special Service and to this group, and the inevitable massive hypocrisy of the entire armed forces is...well, it's funny in a sense, but I don't know that I'd call it "delightful."

I will say that the one reason to perhaps be a bit ambivalent about this book is the treatment of the prostitutes themselves.  And I'm not trying to be evasive when I say I really, really don't know what to think about it.  None of them--even the one Pantoja ends up involved with--have much character, and if you think the book is going to probe the ethics of prostitution or really deal with any of their feelings on the matter...well, you'll be disappointed.  So that's something to know going in.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed this a great deal.  The idea of industrializing sex like this--and the way that comes up against the inevitable human factor--is very interesting, even if I'm not so sure that something like this could REALLY work as well as it does here.  And the writing is very good; the chapters alternate between correspondence between various people and ones where dialogue from different conversations is interspersed.  There's an extent to which you feel like Vargas Llosa is showing off a bit, but you can't deny that it works.  I suppose this is a less heavy book than the others of his novels that I've read, but I still probably liked this one best.  Unlike, well, all the others, I think there are few real missteps here.


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