Cinco Esquinas (Five Corners) by Mario Vargas Llosa almost won me over in a wonderful chapter toward the end where he masterfully collides multiple plot lines into an authorial stream-of-consciousness, placing every group of characters into rolling, rollicking, high-contrast relief. I frankly loved his skill and humor in managing this trick with no transitions between subplots. He is, after all, a superb writer, and he is able, as Philip Roth once said of himself, to do anything with fiction that he wants to do.
But I said “almost,” didn’t I? So what’s that about? In fact, what’s the novel about? In the broadest sense, it is a study of the Fujimori years in Peru, when Fujimori’s intelligence chief, called “the doctor” in this novel, ran roughshod over politics, the media, the military, and commerce. Here the doctor help sets up an exposé of a major mining magnate that gets out of hand. A slimy editor is murdered as a consequence. The mining magnate is humiliated (this is a photographic/graphic exposé). The murder ultimately is hung around the neck of a poor fellow who once made a living reciting poetry. The major mining magnate’s wife starts an affair with his best friend’s wife. The major mining magnate–once clear of his public humiliation–turns out to be the perfect mate for two women in love. And the sleazy female star reporter of the dead editor’s almost defunct journal boldly reveals that the guy behind almost everything is the doctor, who is ruined while she becomes a kind of gossipy TV queen.
In a way the trouble with synopses of all novels is that they are crimes against literature. Moby-Dick is a book about a guy who has a thing about whales. Don Quixote is a book about a guy who has a thing about windmills. Remembrance of Things Past is a book about a man who has a thing about cookies.
It’s just that Five Corners is expertly written in the service of characters who are either repugnant or simply featherweights. There’s lots of sex here and a great deal of technical Spanish that enlarged my vocabulary and wore out my dictionary (what exactly are they doing to each other? why is that the term for it?) and there is a flow Vargas Llosa achieves through short paragraphs and just right dialogue. But other than the chapter I mentioned above, only one extended passage has horrifying weight–the mining magnate’s brief stay in a jail in Lima.
In contrast, Vargas Llosa’s Conversations in the Cathedral, also about Peruvian politics, is novel of deeply disturbing and sinister impact. It whispers nasty things to the reader for hundreds and hundreds of pages.
Vargas Llosa, of course, lost the presidency to Alberto Fujimori, and Fujimori’s wonderfully named intelligence chief, Vladimiro Lenin Ilich Montesinos, surely did Vargas Llosa no favors, so one senses that twenty plus years later, Vargas Llosa decided to settle some scores. The problem is that in this case the historical record outclasses the fictional proposition. Five Corners should have been a nightmare. But for that to be the case, we would have to have some sympathy for someone and the only candidate is the pathetic reciter of poetry, not a very compelling guy.