The Peruvian-born author’s latest novel is an impressive logical extension of the seriocomic romances (e.g., Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, In Praise of the Stepmother) that are among his most appealing books.
It’s the story of a grand passion, nursed for several decades by its protagonist and narrator Ricardo Somocurcio, who rises from humble beginnings in Lima to a distinguished career as a globetrotting translator for UNESCO and later success as a novelist. The object of his lustful affection is a Chilean beauty named Lily, who captures his heart (without giving herself fully to him) when they are teenagers, then complicates his life during subsequent years when he encounters her—or versions of her—in various locations. “Lily” thus becomes an Eternal Feminine figure (somewhat reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s elusive “V.”). Wherever duty sends Ricardo, Lily shows up—initially teasing him and holding him at bay, later consenting to make love with him (before fleeing again). In Paris she appears as radical revolutionary Comrade Arlette, then as Parisian diplomat’s wife Madame Arnoux. In Tokyo, she’s Kuriko, mistress to a sadistic Yakuza boss whose violent pleasures destroy her health. In London, she’s Mrs. Richardson, this time a British diplomat’s spouse. Years pass, political allegiances are embraced then abandoned, and as Lily fails physically and emotionally, Ricardo, though never freed from the erotic spell she has cast over him, manages to move and grow beyond her. Though the novel sometimes feels like a semi-autobiographical summary of the author’s life, opinions and emotions, it’s energized by crisp writing, wry humor and a brilliantly deployed cast who variously enable, frustrate and mirror the experiences of the two principal characters. And it’s capped by a sublime metafictional moment that creates a heart-wrenching crescendo.
A contemporary master remains at the top of his game.