The high stink of something rotten comes off Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel of political corruption and personal duplicity. We are in Lima, Peru, sometime in the 1990s, when President Fujimori’s rule has descended into chaotic strife: blackouts, kidnappings and terrorist bombs have become the norm, while a police curfew keeps the populace in a roiling terror. Even the rich can’t afford to be caught on the streets after dark, which is why Marisa insists that her friend Chabela stays the night, sparking an erotic encounter that takes both of them by surprise. A tricky development, this, given that their husbands – industrialist Enrique and hotshot lawyer Luciano – are best friends.
Their secret affair is merely the first panel in a busy fresco of betrayal and retribution, though Vargas Llosa’s handling of his material isn’t wholly assured. The colouring can be rather crude, and his tendency to repeat scenes and phrases is surprising in a writer awarded the Nobel prize in 2010. Take, for instance, his depiction of Rolando Garro, editor of a notorious Lima scandal-sheet called Exposed, a driven, friendless man who delights in smearing celebrities and public figures. He has a “ratlike smile”, a damp handshake, a shrill, high voice and a body that smells of “underarms or feet”. Do you get the sense the author dislikes him? Garro has turned up at Enrique’s office with a sheaf of incriminating photos of the industrialist enjoying himself at an orgy, which he intends to splash across the front page unless Enrique agrees to invest in his magazine. A few chapters later they meet again, and all Garro’s unappealing traits – the wet hand, the grating voice, the awful clothes – are disgustedly revisited. By all means put a villain in your story, but does he have to be such a caricature of loathsomeness?
Vargas Llosa uses a mystery plot to investigate Lima society from high to low. Juan Peineta, an elderly widower, now lives in penurious obscurity with his cat in the crime-ridden “neighbourhood” of the title. He was once a high-earning TV star, before Garro’s tabloid destroyed his reputation; now he writes embittered letters to the papers attacking his tormentor. So when Garro is found savagely beaten and stabbed to death outside a gambling parlour, suspicion hovers over Peineta as the guilty man. One of the few people to mourn the editor’s death is his star reporter, who sets about trying to bring his murderer to justice. But in a toxic atmosphere of rumour and misinformation – Peru, as someone remarks, is “a nation of gossips” – the likelihood of getting at the truth is slim. Also fingered as a suspect is Enrique, who finds, like Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, that wealth is an unreliable protector once political expediency kicks in.
The story, while moderately diverting, never achieves a truly compulsive rhythm. The eye keeps snagging on formulas in seeming rotation. For instance, when Peineta learns that the police are looking for him, he has a sensation that “this wasn’t happening, that it was a nightmare and at any moment he’d wake up”. Three pages later, Enrique finds himself in a squalid police cell – “He thought he was having an incomprehensible nightmare that couldn’t be happening to him”. Untidy ruckles in Edith Grossman’s translation keep tripping up the reader – “an intense going and coming” sounds pretty much the wrong way round, and “French champagne” is a pleonasm, there being no other sort.
The trail of corruption leads, perhaps inevitably, to the apex of the state pyramid. We are introduced to the satanic figure of “the Doctor”, clearly modelled on Vladimiro Montesinos, head of Peru’s intelligence service in the 1990s and henchman of the disgraced Fujimori (who in 1990 defeated Vargas Llosa in the second round of the presidential elections). Peru is presented as a chronic case, a place of moral, sexual and political banditry that taints everyone within its orbit. The tabloid press is revealed to be a stooge of the state. Against the odds a kind of hero, or rather heroine, emerges from the teeming murk, though within the novel’s time frame very little seems to change: the rich have their love triangles and shopping trips to Miami while it’s the poor wot gets the blame. I don’t doubt the moral, but I could have wished for a more nuanced entertainment to illustrate it.
Anthony Quinn’s latest novel is Eureka (Jonathan Cape). To buy The Neighbourhood for £16.14 go to guardianbookshop.com.