With “ Accidental Hero” the narrator transports us to Peru to introduce us to two charming men, two “quiet” heroes whose destinies inexorably intersect. One is Felicito Janake, a modest owner of a transport company who becomes a victim of extortion. The other is Ismael Carrera, a powerful insurance company owner in Lima who is plotting revenge against his greedy, lazy sons. The novel also features many of Vargas Llosa's familiar characters, and two of them, Sergeant Lituma and Captain Silva, will involve the reader in an extraordinary criminal intrigue.
Mario Vargas Llosa is among the greats of Latin American fiction. His novels are artful genre amalgams, and his stories inhabit the border between modernism and postmodernism. Vargas Llosa combines crime mysteries with historical facts, political allegory with unflinching social criticism - all this infused with a brilliant sense of humor. Works such as "Who Killed Palomino Molero?" and "Lituma in the Andes" and now "Unwilling Hero" testify to the writer's engagement with the painful subject of the nature of Peruvian society and its dehumanized mechanisms of subjugation and control.
Felicito Janake, owner of the transport company Nariuala, left his home that morning at exactly half past seven - like every weekday after the regular half hour of qi kong exercises, a cold shower and the usual breakfast of coffee with a little goat milk and toast with butter and a few drops of molasses syrup. He lived in the center of Piura and Arequipa Street was already buzzing with everyday noise - the high sidewalks were filled with people going to work, to the market or to take their children to school. Several devout women had made their way to the cathedral for the eight o'clock mass. The street vendors were getting used to offering candy sticks, lollipops, fried bananas, pies and all sorts of trifles, and on the corner under the eaves of the old colonial style house, blind Lucindo was already sitting with the alms jar at his feet. Everything like any other day since time immemorial.
With one exception. This morning someone had taped a blue envelope to the cased wooden door next to the bronze knocker, on which, written in block letters, the owner's name could clearly be read: DON FELICITO YANAQUE. He couldn't remember ever having a letter left for him like this before - attached as a subpoena or fine notice. Usually the dealer let him in through the crack in the door. He unsealed the envelope, opened it and with a slight movement of his lips read the letter:
Mr Yanake, The success of your transport company "Nariwala" is a source of pride for Piura and its public. This, however, entails a certain risk, for every flourishing enterprise is exposed to encroachments and misdeeds on the part of offended, envious and malicious people, and such, as you well know, are not lacking here. But don't worry. Our organization is ready to ensure the safety of "Nariwala", your family and you personally against any possible attacks, troubles or threats from the criminals. The remuneration for this activity is 500 dollars per month (a modest amount, as you can see, compared to your growing we alth). We will contact you in time to clarify the payment method.
We don't need to stress to you how important it is to remain completely silent on this matter. Everything should stay between us.
God bless you.
Instead of a signature, there was a clumsy drawing that resembled a spider. Don Felicito read the letter several more times, written in uneven letters and spotted with ink stains. Surprised and even amused, he had the vague feeling that it was some kind of bad joke. He crumpled the letter together with the envelope and started to throw it into the bin on the corner next to the blind Lucindo. Then he gave up and after smoothing it, put it in his pocket.
There were a dozen straight lines from his home on Arequipa Street to the firm's office on Sanchez Cerro Boulevard. This time he didn't go over the day's tasks in his head like he always did because the letter with the spider was running through his head. Should he have taken it seriously?
Shouldn't he file a complaint with the police? The extortionists wrote to him that they would contact him to specify the "payment method". Wouldn't it be better to wait for them to call and then go to the precinct? It could just be some scoundrel playing a fat joke. On the other hand, crime in Piura had really increased lately-house robberies, street thefts, even kidnappings, which, according to rumors, white families in the we althy neighborhoods of El Chippe and Los Ejidos quietly arranged without much fanfare. Although he felt confused and indecisive, he was sure of one thing - under no circumstances, under any circumstances, would he pay a cent to these thugs. And like so many times in life, Felicito remembered her father's last words before he died: “Never let yourself be trampled on, son. This advice of mine is your only legacy." He had listened to him and never allowed himself to be trampled upon. And after more than half a century behind him, he was too old to change his habits. He walked so absorbed in his thoughts that he scarcely nodded to the poet Joaquín Ramos and hurried past him, although at other times he stopped to exchange a few words with this hardened bohemian. He must have spent the night in some bar again and was just now coming home, with glazed eyes and his eternal monocle, pulling the goat he called his gazelle.
When I got to the office of the transport company "Nariuala", the first buses to Sulyana, Talara and Tumbes, to Chulucanas and Moropon, to Catacaos, La Union, Sechura and Bayovar, as well as the vans to Chiclayo and the trucks to Paita. There were still a handful of people passing packages or checking afternoon schedules. His secretary Josefita-a lover of plunging blouses, with wide hips and playful eyes-had left on the desk his list of appointments and duties for the day and a thermos of coffee that he would drink until lunchtime.
– How are you boss? she asked instead of a greeting. "Why is that face?" Did you have nightmares last night?
“Trouble,” he replied as he took off his hat and jacket. He hung them on the hanger and sat down, but as if he remembered something urgent, he jumped up again, put on his jacket and put on his hat.
– Hey, I'm coming back now – he waved to the secretary as he walked towards the door. – I'm going to the police to file a complaint.
– Didn't you get robbed? - Josefita opened her lively bulging eyes. - There are robberies in Piura every day.
– No, no, I'll tell you later.
Felicito resolutely headed to the lot, which was also on Sanchez Cerro Boulevard, just a few blocks away. It was still early and the heat was tolerable, but he knew that in less than an hour these sidewalks full of travel agencies and transport companies would be baking like an oven and he would be back drenched in sweat. His sons Miguel and Tiburcio had told him many times that it was madness to always dress in a waistcoat, jacket and hat in this city where rich and poor wore shirts all year round. But ever since he had found the firm of which he was very proud, he had maintained a dignified appearance, and in winter and summer he wore a hat, a jacket, a waistcoat, and a tie with a small knot. He was a small thin man, reserved and industrious. In Iapatera, where he had been born, and in Chulukanas, where he had finished elementary school, he had walked barefoot. He first put on shoes when his father brought him to Piura. Now fifty-five years old, he was still he althy, able to work, and agile. He thought it was because of the qi kong exercises that his friend, the late shopkeeper Lau, had taught him. He had never played any other sport except that he walked a lot. Could these slow motions actually be considered a sport? They did not even move the muscles, but represented a more special way of breathing. He arrived at the police station sweaty and angry. Joke or not, but the writer of the letter was failing him all morning.
The area was like an oven, the windows were closed and everything was in semi-darkness. There was a fan at the entrance that didn't work. At the reception desk, a beardless young man asked him what he wanted.
– To speak to the boss, please – answered Felicito and handed him her business card.
– The commissioner is on leave for a few days – the policeman informed him. – Sergeant Lituma, who is temporarily in charge of the precinct, will see you if you want.
– I'll talk to him then, thanks.
He had to wait a quarter of an hour until the sergeant deigned to receive him. When the policeman told him to come in, Felicito's handkerchief was wet with sweat. The sergeant did not rise to greet him. She held out her full wet palm and pointed to the empty chair in front of the desk. He was a plump, plump man, with a good-natured look and a growing double chin, which he occasionally pinched caressingly. His khaki uniform shirt was unbuttoned, with wet patches under his arms. There was a fan spinning on the small table, and Felicito gratefully put her face under the fresh stream.
– What may I do for you, Mr. Yanake?
– I just found this letter. It was stuck on the door of my home.
Sergeant Lituma put on glasses that made him look like a scribbler and calmly read it.
– Well, good – he said finally. – These are the effects of progress, sir.
Noticing Yanake's confusion, he added, waving the letter in his hand:
– When Piura was a poor town, such things did not happen. Who would then think of asking a merchant for a racket? And now rich people have arrived, bandits are spreading their claws and rushing to steal money. It's all the fault of the Ecuadorians, Don Janake. They have no faith in their government and come here to invest their money. Thanks to our city, they fill their pockets.
– That doesn't comfort me, Sergeant. And listening to you, one would think that the impoverishment of the people in the city is a misfortune, not a sign of prosperity.
– I said no such thing – interrupted the sergeant significantly. - Simply everything in this life is paid for. And this is the price of progress.
He waved the letter in the air again, and Felicito Janake thought his swarthy, plump face was written with mockery. A yellow-green flame flashed in the sergeant's eyes like the eyes of an iguana. From the bottom of the section, someone loudly declared, “The best asses in Peru are here in Piura! I'm ready to sign, dammit!" The sergeant sneered and pointed to his temple. Felicito remained serious. He was claustrophobic, the two of them barely fitting between the smoky wooden partitions plastered with messages, memos, photographs and newspaper clippings. He smelled of sweat and old age.
– This swindler knows how to spell, said the sergeant, looking at the letter again. – At least I don't find any grammatical errors.
Felicito felt his blood boil.
– I'm not very good at grammar and I don't think it matters much, he muttered angrily. – What do you think will happen from here on?
“Still nothing,” the sergeant replied flatly. – I'll save your details just in case. If someone just has a crush on you and wants to piss you off, the matter can end with this letter. Or it could be something more serious. They write that they will contact about the payment. If they do, come again and then we'll see.
– It seems that for you this story is of no particular importance – Felicito was indignant.
– That's it for now, agreed the sergeant with a shrug. “A crumpled piece of paper and nothing more. Plain stupidity. But if the situation becomes more serious, the police will intervene, I assure you. And now to work.
It took some time for Felicito to dictate her personal details and those of the company. Sergeant Lituma wrote them down in a green-covered notebook with a pencil that occasionally spat. Yanake answered the questions more and more despondently - they seemed pointless to him, he was only wasting his time with this complaint. The cop wouldn't do anything. And didn't they say that the police is the most corrupt public institution? Hadn't the spider crawled out of that fetid hole? When Lituma told him he should keep the letter as incriminating evidence, Felicito jumped:
– I want to make a photocopy first.
– We don't have a photocopier - explained the sergeant and pointed to the monastic setting with his eyes. - In several places up the boulevard they make photocopies. Snap it and come back, sir. I'm waiting for you here.
Felicito went out to "Sánchez Cerro" and near the Halles he found the place he needed. He had to wait quite a while while some engineers made photocopies of a whole stack of blueprints. Then he decided that he had no desire to be questioned again by the sergeant. He handed the copy to the young man at the counter and instead of returning to the office, he walked towards the hot center, full of people, motorbike taxis, cars, blaring horns, loudspeakers and rattling trolleys. He crossed Boulevard Grau, passed under the shade of the tamarind trees in the Plaza de Armas, and resisting the temptation to enter the El Challan patisserie and eat a sorbet, headed for the old quarter of La Gallinasera to the slaughterhouse by the river, the neighborhood of his youth. He prayed Adelaide was in the shop. Talking to her would do him good. It would lift his spirits, and perhaps the fortuneteller would give him some useful advice. The heat was already unbearable, and it was not yet ten o'clock. His forehead was wet, and it felt as if a piece of red-hot iron had been driven into the back of his head. He walked briskly, with quick little steps, bumping into the people who filled the narrow sidewalks that smelled of urine and fried food. Some radio was blasting the popular salsa "Merecumbe".
Felicito had thought many times, he had even told his wife Hertrudis and his sons, that in order to reward him for his efforts and hardships, God had put two people in his way - Lau, the fortuneteller, and Adelaide, the fortuneteller. Without them, he would not have succeeded in his work, opened the transport company, created a respectable family, nor enjoyed iron he alth. He wasn't very outgoing, and since some intestinal infection had taken poor Lau to the other world, he had only Adelaide left. Fortunately, she was there - looking at the pictures in some magazine behind the counter of the little shop, full of herbs, flower icons, chincaleria and all sorts of knick-knacks.
– Hello, Adelaide – greeted with an outstretched hand. - Give me five. Good to find you.
She was a mulatto woman of indeterminate age-short, broad-rumped, and large-breasted, with straight, sharp hair reaching her shoulders, no shoes, and dressed in her eternal tunic of raw brown cotton, ankle-length like a cassock. She had huge eyes with a piercing gaze, softened by her good-natured expression, which earned people's trust.
– If you came, then something bad has happened to you or will happen to you – laughed Adelaide and patted him on the back. – What happened, Felicita?
He handed her the letter.