Richard found the read "highly intoxicating" and Emily concurred. Sarah is not ready to throw in the towel yet but admits to having a bit of a struggle with this one. Wendy marked it DNF and moved on. And I am inclined to borrow Richard's words here to describe what was a reading malaise-crushing joy.
Lately, many of the book choices before me have left me cold, all marked by a debilitating blandness and a self-conscious effort to create a product rather than a work of art. Now granted, not every work can or wants to be a work of art and I would be a demanding wench to expect that, but the books I have been thinking about are the ones included in this year's Tournament of Books - popular literary fiction. The commentary has been provocative and intelligent but, with few exceptions, the books so uninspired that the unfolding of the tournament has left me cranky and a bit off my game. And then the quandary over what to make of the genre-defying Nox quietly suggested a whole host of worries about contemporary fiction.
And then I picked up this book, the March read for the Wolves, and within 100 pages regained a lapsed joy in reading something challenging and inventive and utterly impressive in its craftsmanship. Although the book weighs in at over 600 pages of what most describe as bleakness, I felt nothing but the energy infused in this story of Peruvian corruption, a systemic corruption that rests not just in the elite ruling stratum but an "overall degradation and frustration" that prompts each social division within this society to inflict its own unique brutality to those beneath them. Some have mentioned that the cruelty of the treatment to animals or the sexual abuse of a domestic that occur right in the beginning of the book were disturbing, but the introduction of these pieces was not gratuitous but just an illustration of how the frustrated strike just below them with their own perpetuation of injustice. The man who beats the dogs is such a castaway that only animals exist beneath him. And adolescent progeny of the powerful may choose to abuse the household maid until they rise to the positions of power enjoyed by their parents. But everyone shares in the degradation.
The novels unfold as a conversation between Santiago and Ambrosia in a bar that is the named cathedral of the title. The latter was a once an employee of the former's father's household, and the layered conversation that unfolds in multiple, simultaneous tracks is not always easy to follow but leaves one with a not unpleasant slightly dazed feeling that we are to assume is a constant state of being to the residents of this place. Many voices and thoughts converge through social differences to reveal identical moral lapses. It is quickly disclosed that Santiago has rejected the privileges of the social standing he was born into in choosing the wrong university, occupation and wife. His parents, not seeing their own moral bankruptcy, are mystified as to why their son might reject their way of life. His quest is all the more poignant because it is shown to be one not commonly embarked upon.
This appears to be a complete damning of 1950s Peru, but I do not have the historical background to assume that for sure. What I do know is that Vargas Llosa delivers a virtuoso performance here that employs an entire literary arsenal to deliver a verdict on his home. "Whether Peru is governed by dogmatists or by intellectuals is irrelevant. Peru will always be a screwed-up country. It began badly, and will end disastrously." A unique and powerful read.