the 1966 novel The Green House (La casa verde) by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa (born in 1936. Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010) is thought by some – though not by me – to be his masterpiece. In his fiction Vargas Llosa frequently throws readers into the middle of several stories, leading the reader to sink or swim, figuring out where the reader is, who the characters are, and what their relationships with each other are.
I don’t remember which Vargas novel it was in which there was an alternation between stories with each sentence, The main alternation between an Amazon jungle landing in Aguaruna country and the bone-dry northern Peruvian city of Piura occurs between sections and is less disorienting than the switching back and forth between sentences, but still seems disorienting to me.
Not least in finding a 1986 Peruvian bus ticket in the book, I know that I read The Green House on my first visit to Perú. I have not gotten as far north in Perú as Piura (which is practically in Ecuador) or deep down in the Amazon jungle (though in gorges in which the water was headed for the Amazon and, thence, the Atlantic, rather than the nearby Pacific Ocean).
Partly I was curious about whether the Policia Nacional corporal Lituma from Lituma in the Andes (Death in the Andes) was the same character. At the end of the latter book Lituma was being reassigned from the mountains to the jungle, always hoping to get back to his native Piura. The Lituma in The Green House has served in the mountains and jungles, but does not seem to me to be the same character as in the novels (also Who Killed Palomino Morales?) written later than The Green House.
Having read the chapter about The Green House in Vargas’s A Writer’s Reality before taking up The Green House again, I knew that the native leader Jum, who was publicly humiliated for daring to try to form a co-op among the natives to get better prices for hides and rubber they brought in to sell really existed and was mistreated as in the novel. Jum’s public humiliation seems to be in the past through most of the novel and then to be repeated. At least I don’t think that his being hung up in the square neat the end is a flashback. I wondered if I would have understood (did understand in 1985) what happened to Jum just from reading The Green House.
The Green House itself, a brothel across the river from respectable Piura also existed when Vargas Llosa lived in Piura, when he was nine. He and his agemates covertly watched the clientele. In the novel there is a priest, Father García, who railed against it and was involved in burning down one incarnation (the bordello was rebuilt and again painted green in maximal contrast to the white sands of Piura. The builder of the first Green House’s success, Don Anselmo, becomes a harp player there and at all fiestas on the rough side of the river).
The book includes a lot of harsh joking, rape and beatings recur, and a major theme is that the indigenous girls “rescued” and “educated” in the Catholic faith by the nuns cannot go back to their people, so are either taken on as prostitutes in places like the Green House or as domestic servants–who are likely to be raped. (The main exemplar whose history is traced from being seized in the jungle to an unsatisfactory life as a “civilized” Christian is Bonificia.)
Vargas Llosa’s chapter in A Writer’s Reality makes clear that, like Jum’s torture, the dilemma of what to do with detribalized Indian girls after the nuns made them unfit to return to their homes led to their serving — generally sexually — criollo men.
Having persevered through the long book (in cloud forest rather than jungle), I can’t say that I liked it or that it heightened my appreciation of Peruvian culture. In my estimation there are too many characters, paragraphs are far too long (often running multiple pages) with confusing teknomy and anaphora. (There was one chapter that it took me 4-5 pages (without any paragraph breaks) to figure out who “he” and “she” were.)
The basis for division into chapters is opaque to me. Strings of rhetorical questions succeeding one another annoyed me. Puzzling genealogical connections between characters is somewhat clarified in the (lengthy) epilogue, though these revelations are still questioned by characters.
BTW, my favorite Vargas novels are much funnier: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and Captain Pantoja and the Special Services (both of which have been made into movies, the former an American one titled “Tune In Tomorrow”),