The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto by Mario Vargas Llosa

faber and faber, 1999, 308 p. Translated from the Spanish Los Cuadernos de Don Rigoberto by Edith Grossman

 The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto cover

A very odd piece, this. I’m tempted to add very South American; but it does focus on love and sex (especially the sex) – two of the triumvirate of big novelistic concerns.

Don Rigoberto is a legal director of an insurance company with an interest in collecting books and works of art but he never has more nor less than the same amount of either. Each new purchase must be balanced by the disposal of a previous one. Rigoberto has an extensive set of notebooks where he has inscribed his reflections on all he has seen or read. At the book’s start Rigoberto is estranged from his second wife Doña Lucrecia due to an indiscretion involving Alfonso, Rigoberto’s son from his first marriage, still a schoolboy but one who has an unhealthy fascination with the life and work of the artist Egon Schiele – to the extent he believes he may be a reincarnation.

The novel depicts sessions where Alfonso is visiting Lucrecia with a view to effecting a reconciliation between his father and stepmother, mixed in with Rigoberto’s memories and fantasies of life with Lucrecia and his notebooks’ polemics against aspects of modern life and the timid aspirations and attitudes of the general mass. One of these is a railing against pornographers, who pervert the higher aspects of love and sex, commodify the impulse and therefore desacralize the act of love and make it banal. In the same piece he absolutely nails Margaret Thatcher “not one of whose hairs moved for the entire time she was Prime Minister” (though it has to be said describing her as a delectable source of erotic desire is a perversion far too far.) Another of the Don’s reflections is an aside on the difference between a eunuch and a castrato.He also thinks, “The obligation of a film or book is to entertain me. If … I begin to nod or fall asleep when I watch or read them, they have failed in their duty and they are bad books, bad films.” By this criterion The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto could be a bad book, as I began to nod or fall asleep several times while reading it. Mind you I had been dotting about the country like a blue-arsed fly during the week when I read it and consequently was prone to tiredness. But that’s my fault, the book is still worth reading.

The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto is a consciously literary work, scenes are described from different viewpoints simultaneously, the shifting taking place from sentence to sentence, signalling a certain unreliability in narrative viewpoint (or a touch of magic realism.) Those with a prudish sensibility might want to give it a miss, though.

Pedant’s corner:- maître d’s (surely the plural of maître d’ is maîtres d’?) ambiance (x2, ambience,) a missing full stop before the quote mark at the end of a piece of direct speech x2, depilitated (x3, depilated,) corolla (x2, used in the sense of areola, but corolla is a botanical term,) Saint Vitus’s dance (x2, Vitus’s,) motorcross (motocross.) “They had know each other” ~(known,) “the American Harley-Davidson and Triumph” (implies Triumph is an American marque,) checked flag (the usual term in motor racing is chequered flag,) CD’s (there is no need for that apostrophe, there is no letter missing; CDs,) “the only anthem that can move me to tears are the sounds” (“anthem” is singular; so, is. On the other hand “sounds” is plural and the verb to be implies equivalence; so, are. Better to have something like “expresses the sounds of”,) “a sort of cowl, even, even, the head” (one of those “even”s is extraneous,) a missing end quote mark, “pubises trimmed and dyed” (the pubis is the bone, not the hair of the pubic region. Pubes is the noun to depict the region or its hair, though in English it’s liable to mispronunciation. I assume its plural is “pubes” still, compare the plural of sheep,) offpring (offspring,) a supposed newspaper report has, “A twenty-four year old teacher in New Zealand was sentenced to four years in prison for carnal relations with a ten-year old boy, a friend and classmate of her son’s” (that implies she would have given birth when she was fourteen; possible I suppose, but unlikely,) will-o’-the-wisps (wills-o’-the-wisp.)

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