Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Neighborhood was published in 2016 by Alfaguara under the title, Cinco Esquinas (Five Corners).
We have for the first time the English translation by Edith Grossman, courtesy of Farrar, Strauss and Giraux. It is strange that the title has been changed from Five Corners to The Neighborhood, but presumably it was done to make English-speaking readers feel less lost as to the meaning.
“Cinco Esquinas” refers to a traditional colonial neighborhood in Lima, a few blocks away from the National Congress. The name originates, if it isn’t obvious enough, from the intersection of five different street corners and is part of what locals refer to as “old Lima.”
In Vargas Llosas’s novel, the characters intersect with each other much like these street corners, close but never really touching. The story is set in the 1990s, during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, where two of Lima’s high society couples are inevitably entangled in a tale of government corruption and disturbing political agendas.
Enrique Cardenas is a wealthy businessman whose financial luck resides in the expansion of productive mines throughout Peru. His wife, Marisa, affectionately referred to as Blondie by her husband, is a beautiful woman whose charmed life serves as a shield from the ugliness of Peru’s politics, in which kidnapping and assassinations are a common event. Enrique’s lawyer, Luciano is a man whose conservative and “good boy” manners, both bore and amuse his wife Chabela, who seeks a little bit more from her everyday life as a mother and useful society wife.
From the first page we know that Marisa and Chabela have found a way to spice up their menu du jour when one night, unable to leave Marisa’s house after a government imposed curfew, Chabela spends the night with Marisa in her bed (Enrique is conveniently out of town). The two women begin a sleepy and sensuous foreplay that ends in unexpected, torrid sex. So unexpected that Marisa asks herself after Chabela slips away, if the encounter was real or just a dream, wondering how on earth it all started:
Hadn’t Chabela made the first move? She had only put a hand on her leg, it could have been something accidental, without purpose, with no bad intention. It had been Chabela who had taken her hand and made her touch her there and masturbate her. How daring!”
As the two women ultimately reconcile and confess to each other that their actions were purposely driven while making plans to travel to Miami together to enjoy a few days alone in their newfound affair, Enrique receives a visit in his office from Rolando Garro, the editor of a supermarket rag magazine that specializes in scandals and malicious gossip of high profile people. Garro presents Enrique with photos that if allowed to be seen, would destroy his career not to mention his marriage. Garro tells Enrique that either he invests in his magazine, or the photos will be published in the front page of the next edition.
As Enrique desperately contacts Luciano for advice, and both men’s wives are too gloriously wrapped up in their new liaison to know of Garro’s blackmail, the story is told rapidly from the points of view of all the people involved including Garro. Even though we can’t condone his nastiness, not to mention his low morals, the flashbacks of his past partly reveal the reasons behind his actions.
Vargas Llosa’s critique of Alberto Fujimori’s government is no secret. In 1990, he was defeated by Fujimori in the second round of the presidential elections, so it’s no surprise that The Neighborhood oftentimes reads like a manifesto of all-out criticism against Fujimori’s government, philandering millionaires like Enrique or scandal producing machines like Garro.
The novel’s plot takes a turn into mystery and intrigue when after the photos are inevitably published, Garro is found dead in a Lima street , his body grossly disfigured and battered. His right-hand woman, reporter Julieta Leguizamón, nicknamed Shorty, publicly accuses Enrique of Garro’s assassination.
Real life characters from Peru’s political arena of the time make cameos, such as a figure called “The Doctor,” who bears a striking resemblance to Fujimori’s main henchman and head of the National Inteligence, Vladimiro Montesinos. His was a name that inspired fear in every Peruvian, including judges, the press, company CEOs, the opposition and everyone who dared speak out against Fujimori or the government. Montesinos ruled with an iron fist, bribing prominent members of Peruvian society, using yellow journalism as a tool to humiliate and expose.
In the end of The Neighborhood, there seems to be little vindication for the innocent. People are used and later dumped or worse when their usefulness runs out, the rich are useful stooges of government corruption and the poor are mere props to be paraded as guilty or insane, as the forces ruling the government see fit.
Somewhat trampled by Grossman’s less than acute translation, The Neighborhood is a story of government corruption and the deterioration of the social classes. While the rich act under the protection of their financial status, the poor often have no recourse but to seek leverage in the form of either blackmail or compliance.
Vargas Llosa’s story is to be heeded as a warning of the effects when absolute corruption corrupts absolutely.