Robert Minto in Open Letters Monthly:
Mario Vargas Llosa’s father was a cruel man who abandoned Mario and his mother for ten years and then returned to tyrannize them. Vargas Llosa became a writer in order to annoy him. In his memoir A Fish in the Water he writes,
It is probable that without my progenitor’s contempt for literature I would never have pursued so obstinately what at the time was a game, but was gradually to turn into an obsessive and pressing need: a vocation.
But is the struggle of a son with his father an honorable source of direction for life? Or does Vargas Llosa’s origin story undermine his whole life’s work by identifying it with childish rebellion? In his new book The Discreet Hero, he seems to be wrestling with this problem. The Discreet Hero is two stories told in alternating chapters which intersect only in seemingly unimportant ways but really serve the purpose of commenting on shared themes. In Letters to a Young Novelist, he calls this structure by the odd term “communicating vessels.” He names it one of just three or four of the “primary techniques” of novel writing: a clue to any reader of his own novels about just how seriously he takes the doubled narrative. The other clue is that fact that he’s used the technique over and over again, even in his autobiography (which splices the story of his boyhood together with the story of his campaign to become President of Peru).
…In The Discreet Hero, the very tool Vargas Llosa uses for the analysis of power is turned on his own power by examining what is for him the foundational struggle of the vocation for literature. Would the healthy outcome for him have been, back when he first began to write, to confess to his father that it was all a lie, and never to write again, like Fonchito and Edilberto Torres? This is the kind of earnest reflection a literary mind conducts at the age of 79. It is a reason to read The Discreet Hero on its own account and — especially — as self-reflection on the origins of a great artist. I, for one, am glad Mario hated his father.