From Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa comes The Neighborhood, a politically charged detective novel weaving through the underbelly of Peruvian privilege. The novel is set in the 1990s, during the turbulent and deeply corrupt years of Alberto Fujimori’s presidency, and centers on two wealthy couples of Lima’s high society that become embroiled in a disturbing vortex of erotic adventures and politically driven blackmail. In this excerpt we meet Enrique Cárdenas, a high-profile businessman, when he receives an unwelcome visit from a tabloid magazine editor who brings an unsettling remnant from Enrique’s past.
As soon as he saw him walk into his office, the engineer Enrique Cárdenas—Quique to his wife and friends—felt a strange discomfort. What bothered him about the reporter who approached with his hand extended? His Tarzanesque walk, arms swinging and shoulders swaying like the king of the jungle? The ratlike little smile that contracted his forehead beneath hair that had been gelled and flattened against his skull like a metal helmet? The tight purple corduroy trousers that clung to his skinny body like a glove? Or those yellow shoes with thick platforms to make him look taller? Everything about him seemed ugly and vulgar.
“Delighted to meet you, Engineer Cárdenas.” He extended a soft little hand that perspired so much it left Enrique’s hand damp. “Finally you’ll allow me to clasp those fingers after so many requests on my part.”
He had a shrill, high voice that seemed to be mocking him, small shifty eyes, a rachitic little body, and Enrique even noticed that he smelled of underarms or feet. Was it his odor that made him dislike this individual so much from the very start?
“I’m sorry, I know you’ve called very frequently,” he apologized, without much conviction. “I can’t see all the people who call me, you can’t imagine how crowded my schedule is. Please, have a seat.”
“I can imagine very well, Engineer,” said the little man; his high-heeled boots creaked when he walked, and he wore a very tight blue jacket and an iridescent tie that seemed to choke him. Everything about him was tiny, including his voice. How old was he? Forty, fifty?
“What a fantastic view you have here, Engineer! That hill in the background is San Cristóbal, isn’t it? Are we on the twentieth or twenty-first floor?”
“It must give you an enormous feeling of power to have Lima at your feet”
“The twenty-first,” he specified. “You’re lucky, the sun’s out today and you can enjoy the view. Normally, at this time of year, the fog makes the whole city disappear.”
“It must give you an enormous feeling of power to have Lima at your feet,” the visitor joked; his little gray eyes darted about, and it seemed to Quique that everything he said revealed a profound insincerity. “And what an elegant office, Engineer. Allow me to have a look at these pictures.”
Now the visitor walked up and down, calmly examining the mechanical drawings of pipes, pulleys, water tanks, and gasoline pumps with which the decorator Leonorcita Artigas had adorned the walls of his office with the argument: “Don’t they look like abstract etchings, Quique?” The charm of Leonorcita, who at least had alternated those impersonal, hieroglyphic drawings with attractive photographs of Peruvian landscapes, had cost him a fortune.
“Let me introduce myself,” the little man said at last. “Rolando Garro, a lifelong journalist. I’m director of the weekly Exposed.”
He handed him a card, always with that half smile and a shrill, high-pitched voice that seemed barbed. That’s what bothered him most about his visitor, Enrique decided: not his odor but his voice.
“I know who you are, Señor Garro.” The businessman tried to be pleasant. “I’ve seen your television program. It was canceled for political reasons, wasn’t it?”
“It was canceled because it told the truth, something not tolerated in Peru today, or ever,” the journalist stated bitterly, but still smiling. “They’ve already canceled several of my radio and television programs. Sooner or later they’ll also cancel Exposed for the same reason. But I don’t care. It’s part of the job in this country.”
His shifty little eyes looked at Enrique defiantly, and Enrique regretted having agreed to see this man. Why had he? Because his secretary, sick of so many calls, had asked him: “Shall I tell him then, Engineer, that you’ll never see him? If you’ll forgive me, I can’t stand it anymore. It’s driving all of us in the office crazy. He’s been calling five or six times a day, every day, for the past few weeks.” He’d thought that, after all, a reporter could sometimes be useful. “But dangerous, too,” he concluded. He had a presentiment that nothing good would come of this visit.
“Tell me what I can do for you, Señor Garro.” He noticed that the journalist had stopped smiling and stared at him with a glance both submissive and sarcastic. “If it’s a matter of advertisement, let me say that we’re not involved with that. We have a subcontract with a company that takes care of all the publicity for the group.”
But evidently the visitor didn’t want ads for the weekly. The little man was very serious now. He said nothing and observed Enrique in silence, as if searching for the words he would say next, or maintaining suspense in order to make him nervous. And in fact, as he waited for Rolando Garro to open his mouth, Enrique began to feel not only irritated but uneasy. What did this vulgar little man want?
“Why don’t you have a bodyguard, Engineer?” Garro asked suddenly. “At least, there are none to be seen.”
Enrique was surprised, and he shrugged.
“I’m a fatalist, and I value my freedom,” he replied. “Let whatever has to happen, happen. I couldn’t live surrounded by bodyguards, I’d feel like a prisoner.”
Had this person come for an interview? He wouldn’t give him one, and pretty soon he’d kick him out.
“It’s a very delicate subject, Engineer Cárdenas.” The reporter had lowered his voice as if the walls could hear; he spoke with studied slowness as, in a somewhat theatrical manner, he opened the faded leather briefcase he was carrying and took out a portfolio held shut with two thick yellow bands. He didn’t hand it to him immediately; he set it on his knees and again fixed his rat eyes on him, in which Enrique thought he could now see something obscure, perhaps threatening. Whatever had possessed him to make this appointment? The logical thing would have been for one of his assistants to see him, listen to him, and get rid of him. Now it was too late and perhaps he would regret it.
“I’m going to leave this dossier with you so you can examine it carefully, Engineer,” said Garro, handing it to him with exaggerated solemnity. “When you look at it you’ll understand why I wanted to bring it to you in person and not leave it with your secretaries. You can be certain that Exposed would never publish anything as vile as this.”
He paused for a long time, not moving his eyes away, and continued in his falsetto voice, which became lower and lower:
“Don’t ask how this came into my hands, because I won’t tell you.”
“Don’t ask how this came into my hands, because I won’t tell you. It’s a question of journalistic obligation, I suppose you know what that is. Professional ethics. I always respect my sources, although there are reporters who sell them to the highest bidder. What I will allow myself to tell you again is that my insisting on seeing you in person was due to that. There are in this city, as you know all too well, people who want to do you harm. Because of your prestige, your power, your fortune. In Peru these things are not forgiven. Envy and resentment flourish here more vigorously than in any other country. I want only to assure you that those who wish to sully your reputation and injure you will never do so because of me or Exposed. You can be sure of that. I don’t engage in despicable or base actions. Simply put, it’s a good idea for you to know what to watch out for. Your enemies will use this and even worse obscenities to intimidate you and demand God alone knows what.”
He paused to take a breath, and after a few seconds he continued, solemnly, shrugging his shoulders.
“Naturally, if I had lent myself to this dirty game and used this material, we would have tripled or quadrupled the number of issues. But there are still some journalists in Peru who have principles, Engineer, happily for you. Do you know why I’m doing this? Because I believe you’re a patriot, Señor Cárdenas. A man who, through his enterprises, makes a nation. While many others, frightened by terrorism, run away and take their money overseas, you remain, working and creating employment, resisting the terror, raising up this country. I’ll tell you something else. I don’t want any compensation, if you offered it to me I wouldn’t accept it. I’ve come to give this to you so that you yourself can toss this trash into the bin and sleep peacefully. No compensation, Engineer, except my having a clear conscience. I’ll leave now. I know you’re a very busy man, and I don’t want to take up any more of your valuable time.”
He stood, held out his hand, and Enrique, disconcerted, again felt the dampness left behind by contact with those soft fingers, that palm wet with perspiration. He saw the little man move toward the door with bold, certain strides, open it, go out, and without turning his head, close it behind him.
He was so confused and so irate that he poured a glass of water and drank it in one swallow before he looked at the portfolio. It was on the desk, right under his eyes, and he thought his hand trembled as it removed the bands that held it closed. He opened it. What could it be? Nothing good, judging by that individual’s little speech. He saw photographs, wrapped in transparent tissue paper. Photos? What photos could they be? He began to remove the tissue paper carefully, but after a few moments he became impatient, ripped off the paper, and tossed it in the basket. The surprise caused by the first image was so great that he let go of the pile of photographs, which fell off the desk and scattered on the floor. He slid off his chair on all fours and picked them up. As he did he looked at them, quickly hiding each photo with the next one, stunned, horrified, returning to the previous one, skipping to one farther on, his heart pounding in his chest, feeling that he needed air. He remained on the floor, sitting and holding the twenty or so photographs, looking at them again and again, not believing what he saw. It wasn’t possible, it wasn’t. No, no. And yet there were the photos, they said it all, they seemed to say even more than what had occurred that night in Chosica and was resurrected now, when he thought he had forgotten about the Yugoslav and what had happened a long time ago.
He felt so upset, so disturbed, that as soon as he stood up he put the pile of photographs on the desk, took off his jacket, loosened his tie, and dropped into his chair, his eyes closed. He was sweating heavily. He tried to calm down, to think clearly, to examine the situation rationally. He couldn’t. He thought he might have a heart attack if he couldn’t manage to relax. He sat like that for a while with his eyes closed, thinking about his poor mother, about Marisa, his relatives, his partners, his friends, and public opinion. “In this country even the stones know me, damn it.” He tried to breathe normally, taking in air through his nose and releasing it through his mouth.
He tried to calm down, to think clearly, to examine the situation rationally. He couldn’t.
It was blackmail, of course. He had stupidly been the victim of an ambush. But that had happened a couple of years back, maybe more, there in Chosica, how would he not remember? Was that Yugoslav named Kosut? Why had these photos turned up only now? And why by way of this repulsive individual? He had said he would never publish them and wanted no compensation at all and, of course, that was a way of letting him know he planned just the opposite. He insisted he was a man of principles in order to inform him that he was an unscrupulous criminal, determined to rob him blind, to skin him alive, terrifying him with the threat of the scandal. He thought of his mother, that dignified, noble face shattered by surprise and horror. He thought of the reaction of his brothers and sisters if they saw these photographs. And his heart shrank imagining Marisa’s livid face even whiter than normal, her mouth open, her eyes the color of the sky, swollen with so much weeping. He wanted to disappear. He had to talk to Luciano immediately. My God, the embarrassment. Wouldn’t it be better to consult another lawyer? No, what an idiot, he would never put photos like these in the hands of anyone but Luciano, his classmate, his best friend.
The intercom buzzed and Enrique gave a start in his chair. His secretary reminded him that it was almost eleven and he had a board meeting at the Mining Society. “Yes, yes, have the driver wait for me at the door, I’m coming down now.”
He went to the bathroom to wash his face, and as he did so he thought, torturing himself: What would happen if these photos reached all of Lima through one of those papers or magazines that thrived on yellow journalism, bringing into the light of day the dirty secrets of private lives? My God, he had to see Luciano right away; besides being his best friend, his law firm was one of the most prestigious in Lima. What a surprise, and how disappointed in him Luciano would be: he’d always thought that Quique Cárdenas was a model of perfection.
Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” He has also won the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s most distinguished literary honor. His many works include The Discreet Hero, The Feast of the Goat, The Bad Girl, and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, all published by FSG.
Edith Grossman has translated the works of the Nobel laureates Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez, among others. Her version of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote is considered the finest translation of the Spanish masterpiece in the English language.
Photo by Jaroslav A. Polák.