We’re in a very good era for tabloids. Years ago, publishers of illicit affairs and murderous plots just provided guilty-pleasure reading material. But when major media networks are reporting on a pornstar suing the president of the United States, it seems the whole world has gone tabloid. In this context, Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel The Neighborhood, a book that examines the danger and inevitability of gossipy news, feels very of the moment.
Like any good pulp fiction, The Neighborhood starts with sex, revolves around sex and ends with sex, with a good dash of violence in the middle. And while it might sound derisive to call it “pulp fiction” when it’s the 18th novel written by a Nobel Prize-winning author and translated from Spanish by the masterful Edith Grossman, it’s perfectly accurate. The plot uses all the common tropes of the genre, with lies, secrets and even shady government conspiracies.
Set in Lima, Peru, during the 1990s, the novel follows a sizable cast of characters, with each chapter shifting focus to a different person. The protagonist is Enrique, a rich and powerful engineer whose life is nearly destroyed when he’s blackmailed by Rolando, a newspaper editor. Rolando has obtained pictures from years before of Enrique at a drunken orgy and threatens to publish them if Enrique doesn’t publicly invest in Rolando’s newspaper. When Enrique refuses, the pictures are published in the newspaper, and he’s nearly destroyed by scandal.
That’s not the only salacious behavior going on. Enrique’s wife Marisa has begun an illicit affair with Chabela, who happens to be the wife of Enrique’s best friend Luciano. Then, the four must together weather the storm of scandal after Enrique’s orgy pictures are published, with no lack of drama within the group. Chabela gets jealous of Enrique, and Luciano reveals his own dark secrets. Unfortunately, the lack of personality and the abundance of wealth cushioning them all makes the central four characters the weaker part of the novel.
The real interest in The Neighborhood lies with those who live on the outskirts of the story. There’s Shorty, one of Rolando’s reporters who writes the article about Enrique. As she comes to terms with what it means to have exposed a powerful man, she begins to fear for her life. There’s also Juan, a poor man whose career was ruined a decade earlier by Rolando, who lives the rest of his life as nothing more than Rolando’s sworn enemy.
In the background of all of these stories is a brutal dictatorship led by President Alberto Fujimori and enforced by a man known only as “the Doctor”. The country also faces terrorist acts from Shining Path, a Maoist insurgent group, and MRTA, a Marxist-Leninist group. These groups are only mentioned in passing, but they add to a base-level fear felt by everyone in the novel. It’s a shame that a book that seems to delight in dark underbellies spends more time on rich hedonists than those who are actually forced to come face-to-face with the negative forces at play in Peru.
While you may choose to read books without knowing much about the authors, this novel is worth reading in the context of Vargas Llosa’s life. For one, many of his other novels deal with real events. His earlier works include Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which is based on the period of his life when he eloped with his aunt, and The Feast of the Goat, which is about the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and is Vargas Llosa’s most critically acclaimed book. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at the circumstances around his newest novel.
While most notably a novelist, Vargas Llosa has also had a political career in Peru. And he wasn’t just a minor player in the country; he ran for president in 1990 and lost to the dark horse candidate Alberto Fujimori. Yes, Fujimori, the president who is often referred to as a widely hated dictator in The Neighborhood. In real life, Fujimori divided the country with scandal, and his human rights violations are still making headlines in 2018, almost two decades after he left office. While Fujimori doesn’t appear as a character beyond mentions of his name in The Neighborhood, this political background is worth keeping in mind.
Vargas Llosa is also an enemy of the other dark force in this book: tabloids. He’s recently been in the news for leaving his wife and marrying Isabel Preysler, the mother of Enrique Iglesias. He forced the New York Times to retract erroneous information about him selling a story about this relationship to Hola!, a Spanish-language celebrity news magazine. And when his name appeared in the Panama Papers, seemingly linking him to off-shore accounts, he defended himself by saying it was an error. The Neighborhood, then, might have been a tool used to settle some scores for Vargas Llosa.
The Neighborhood is an entertaining novel, and while it doesn’t have the impact of Vargas Llosa’s earlier work, it does keep you reading. Though some of the characters come across flat, and the sex scenes are more gross than anything (“Their tongues became confused in a vehement encounter” is not sexy), you’re catapulted along the narrative by a chain of mysteries. One moment you’re wondering how Rolando got those pictures of Enrique, the next you want to find out who knows about Marisa’s affair. This book that serves as a warning about the poisonousness of tabloids is successful, perhaps ironically, in how it uses tabloid tropes. The reader’s desire to learn more about the characters’ lives and lies keeps them reading. Vargas Llosa knows the irresistible pull of tabloids; Enrique, whose life was almost destroyed by them, still can’t resist the allure of gossip by the end of the book. The heart of the novel is captured in a speech by Rolando, in which he explains to Enrique why he should invest in the newspaper:
It may not be about real people like a tabloid would be, but this morbid curiosity is why, as they reach the end of the novel, the reader is left wanting more dirty details about all those who live in The Neighborhood.