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Book Review: 'The Discreet Hero'


Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa has just published a new novel. It's called "The Discrete Hero," and it's translated by Edith Grossman. The new title prompts our reviewer Alan Cheuse to make a confession.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: I admit it. When I see the name Mario Vargas Llosa on the cover of a novel, it's nearly impossible for me not to like the book. The Peruvian Nobel Prize-winner is a central figure in modern fiction, and he's changed my life as a reader and as a writer. And this time around, I was enthralled. This is the tale of two Peruvian businessmen, both of whom find themselves late in life on the verge of life-changing situations. A trucking company owner from the provincial northern desert city of Piura - he's called for Felicito - is in a rather lifeless arranged marriage, has two sons - one of them rather troubled - and a young and beautiful mistress. When we meet him, he's just become the apparent victim of an extortion threat. The other businessman, Ismael Carrera, a Lima insurance executive and a widower, finds a new love and finds himself in the middle of a war with his two spoiled and rather nasty playboy sons. As we go back and forth between these two men, the plot builds with a tension usually reserved for novels about war and politics. One of the colleagues of the insurance executive, a dear friend and deep thinker, puts it this way.

(Reading) My God, what stories ordinary life devised, not masterpieces to be sure. They were doubtless closer to soap operas than to Cervantes and Tolstoy, but then again, not so far from Zola, Dickens or Galdos.

Somewhere between soap opera and Dickens and Zola - not a bad place to be - this peerless novel about ordinary people wrestling with the nature of fate, happiness, success - this big book about ordinary people living out big modern themes is the best new novel I've read in many, many months.

GONYEA: The book is "The Discrete Hero" by Mario Vargas Llosa. Alan Cheuse had our review. His latest novel is "Prayers For The Living." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.