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The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto

by Mario Vargas Llosa
259 pages,
ISBN: 0140283595

In Praise of the Stepmother

by Mario Vargas Llosa
149 pages,
ISBN: 0312421303


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Probing and Prodding Eroticism
by Michael Greenstein

Love triangles are rarely symmetrical, and the one at the centre of Mario Vargas Llosa's In Praise of the Stepmother and its sequel, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, is no exception. Set in Lima, these erotic novels focus on the domestic affairs of Don Rigoberto, his second wife Do帶 Lucrecia, and his precocious son Alfonso, who is in love with his stepmother. In its polymorphous perversity, In Praise of the Stepmother is heir to the tradition of Huysman's A Rebours (Against Nature); in its meticulous style, it goes to great pains to differentiate itself from pornography, and emerge as a fascinating study of eroticism.

CTsar Moro's Amour a mort provides the epigraph to the novel: "One must wear one's vices like a royal mantle, with poise觢eauty is a vice of form." Don Rigoberto fastidiously practices and preaches beauty's vices. The novel opens with Alfonso's letter honouring his stepmother's beauty on her fortieth birthday. While Do帶 Lucrecia reads his letter on her pillow, her husband remains in the bathroom performing his ablutions after midnight. "(Next to erotic painting, bodily cleanliness was his favorite leisure-time pursuit.)"

This leisurely alternation between husband, wife, and child prepares for the detailed amorous relationships throughout the novel. Alfonsito's stepmother goes to his bedroom to thank him, and they caress: "a different sensation suffused every last confine of her body齻er breasts, her belly, the backs of her thighs, her neck, shoulders, cheeks." In Vargas Llosa's anatomy of folly, all parts become exposed in great detail. This innocent dalliance between stepson and stepmother eventually becomes consummated, and when Don Rigoberto discovers what has been going on under his roof and oversized nose, he separates from his beloved Do帶 Lucrecia.

What keeps the reader off guard and prevents the eroticism from slipping into pornography are the shifting narrative modes and illustrations. Thus, the second chapter switches to the mythological realm of Candaules, King of Lydia (Turkey), yet linked to Peru by virtue of the King's wife, Lucrecia. The focus of Candaules' kingdom is Lucrecia's "croup", which is reinforced by a full-page colour reproduction of Jacob Jordaens' painting, Candaules, King of Lydia, showing his wife to Prime Minister Gyges (1648). Jordaens' picture is meant to speak a thousand words for Vargas Llosa: the brightest light focuses on the wife's naked flanks, elongated back, and enlarged "croup" surrounded by folds of flesh, drapery, and baroque wooden furniture. The red drapery of the bed's canopy intertwines with the curvaceous brown wooden bedposts. With a coy glance, Lucrecia looks back toward the painter, her gaze meeting ours, but vying with another set of gazes from left to right: a light-coloured lapdog looks across at the darkened figure of Gyges lusting after Lucrecia, while Candaules lurks in the background behind Gyges. In the centre of the floor between the Queen's bare foot and her slippers is a chamber pot, a leveling reminder of baser needs associated with the erotic amplitude of her buttocks.

Excessive and obsessive, the painting speaks for the narrative, which shifts back to Don Rigoberto's "ear ritual." His oversized ears and nose complement Lucrecia's enlarged croup, and represent hyper-developed sensuousness and sensuality. He devotes one night a week to caring for them, and we get all the details of that cleansing ritual. Another chapter details Don Rigoberto's ablutions from toilet to toenails and teeth.

Boucher's Diana at the Bath (1792), Titian's sumptuous Venus and Cupid with Music, Francis Bacon's Head I (1948), Fernando de Szyszlo's Road to Mendieto 10 (1977), and Fra Angelico's The Annunciation (1437), are interspersed among the chapters of the novel, offering commentary on the narrative and preventing the novel from lapsing into pornography.

Justiniana, Do帶 Lucrecia's maid, heightens the dalliance of the mTnage a trois by provoking encounters between stepmother and stepson. How innocent is young Alfonso (Fonchito), who seduces and betrays his stepmother by reporting his sexual conquest to his father? After hearing about his son's escapades, Don Rigoberto dismisses his beloved wife, thus fulfilling Fonchito's ulterior Freudian motive of separating his father from his stepmother.

The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto picks up where the earlier novel leaves off, and like most sequels, it fails to measure up to the accomplishments of the original. Don Rigoberto's fantasies continue in the absence of Do帶 Lucrecia, while Fonchito acts as a go-between, seeking reconciliation between his father and stepmother. Montaigne's words serves as epigraph to this novel: "I cannot keep a record of my life through my actions; fortune has buried them too deep: I keep it through my fantasies." The boundaries between realism and fantasy are blurred; in addition, Vargas Llosa inserts many discursive digressions in each chapter, so that this novel seems less focused than the first one. Take the transition from the first to the second section of the opening chapter. Do帶 Lucrecia has been fondly remembering her former life with Don Rigoberto in their little house: "The images came and went, dissolved, changed, entwined, followed one after the other, and it was as if the liquid caress of the nimble jet of water reached to her very soul." The entwined form and subject of The Notebooks follow the course of that sentence, which prepares for the section, "Instructions for the Architect." In this expository section, Don Rigoberto wants his architect to reverse his priorities: instead of giving primary consideration to the inhabitants of the house, the architect should first consider its objects such as books and pictures.

From this architectural inversion, Rigoberto moves on to "The Night of the Cats", a fantasy with cats, Greek honey, and lovemaking to Do帶 Lucrecia. Pergolesi's music forms part of the background for this scenario because of its association with eighteenth-century Venetian decadence in which cats, disguises, and confusion were reigning elements. In the midst of their lustful encounter, Don Rigoberto evokes in memory Balthus' languid girl, Nu avec chat, Botero's Rosalba (1968), and FTlix Valloton's Languor (1896)鼉ach image combining a cat and a nude female. These allusions lend an added dimension to the immediacy of the sexual involvement, and by providing a historic context, comically distance the reader from falling into any trap of Don Rigoberto's imagination. The larger historical frame parodies pornography, distances the reader from the bedroom, and makes us aware of our own tendencies toward voyeurism.

Similarly, the last section, "The Name Fetishist", plays with the protagonist's aesthetic fantasies: "Rigoberto! A laughing cascade of transparent waters. Rigoberto! The yellow joy of a goldfinch celebrating the sun." The chapter closes with a black and white sketch of a naked male body. Such sketches at the end of each chapter provide a light coda to the narrative entries of the "notebooks" and contrast with the more elaborate colour reproductions of the earlier novel. This obsession with painting extends to Fonchito's identification with Egon Schiele throughout the novel.With all the "stripping" in both novels, Vargas Llosa comments: "Pornography strips eroticism of its artistic content, favors the organic over the spiritual and mental, as if the central protagonists of desire and pleasure were phalluses and vulvas Pornography is passive and collectivist, eroticism is creative and individual." Vargas Llosa's intelligence guarantees erotic pleasure.

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