Sex, money, scandal, and power dance through this uneven tale of gossip and politics among the high-enders and media lowlifes of Lima, Peru.
The Nobel Prize–winning author opens with two wealthy women, Marisa and Chabela, discovering the amorous benefits of their friendship. Marisa’s industrialist husband, Enrique, faces blackmail in the next chapter when some nasty photos from a drunken orgy fall into the hands of a scandal-sheet editor named Garro. Enrique’s problems escalate because he refuses to pay up and the photos appear in print. His wife’s anger eventually subsides enough to reward him with a three-way with her and Chabela. Meanwhile side stories develop involving Garro’s top reporter, Julieta, aka Shorty, and an old man named Juan whose livelihood was destroyed by Garro’s media attacks. Enrique will come under suspicion when Garro is found brutally murdered; he spends a brief nightmarish time in jail. But it is Shorty who leads the book to what is often for Vargas Llosa (The Discreet Hero, 2015, etc.) the inevitable political freight when she is summoned to a session with Vladimiro Montesinos, aka the Doctor, the actual powerful head of Peru’s intelligence service in the 1990s and right hand of President Alberto Fujimoro. Vargas Llosa was politically active and even ran for the presidency of his native Peru, losing to Fujimoro. There may be elements of payback in this novel, although it comes late—the historical denouement occurred in 2000—and seems superfluous given the known fates of the two officials. The story’s strongest moments and characters revolve around the impoverished Barrios Altos neighborhood of Lima, especially Shorty and Juan and a few minor characters. By comparison, the lurid, telenovela lives of the wealthy supply only broad, unresolved ironies about class—in more than one definition—and some cringe-inducing sex scenes.
A colorful but confusing and ultimately disappointing work by a great writer.