By Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 256 pp.
In the Midst of Winter: A Novel
By Isabel Allende, translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
Atria Books, 2017, 352 pp.
In Peru in the 1990s, a sinister, unscrupulous presidential adviser, Vladimiro Montesinos, entrapped Lima’s elites in elaborate schemes built around salacious gossip, blackmail, and bribery. For readers unfamiliar with Peruvian politics, The Neighborhood, which recounts a fictionalized version of Montesinos’ machinations, is an entertaining introduction to the era’s multilayered, exquisitely Machiavellian plots. But the book also shows why Vargas Llosa, a Nobel laureate in literature, has his share of detractors in his home country. The novel renders Peru as a place with few redeeming traits. He freely appropriates recent Peruvian history but gives it a false twist: in his story, a single, vengeful journalist from the tabloid press undoes the corrupt, increasingly authoritarian regime of Montesinos and his president, Alberto Fujimori. In the more compelling, if more complex, real life events, the regime was toppled by the combined efforts of Peruvian civil society groups, the mainstream media, and a number of international organizations and foreign governments.
Like Vargas Llosa, Allende, a Chilean American writer living in California, uses fiction to address contemporary political issues. In her latest novel, she refracts American debates over immigration through the relationships among three characters whose lives collide in present-day Brooklyn. Each of them has an immigrant history: Richard, a professor of Latin American studies at New York University, is the child of refugees from Nazi-controlled Europe; Lucia, a visiting academic at the university, fled her native Chile during the bloody dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s; and Evelyn, an undocumented immigrant, ran away from Guatemala after the infamous MS-13 gang killed her two brothers. The three share their stories of flight from brutality and predation, of fearsome journeys, and of recurrent nightmares. Yet hope resides in the healing powers of honest conversation and loving relationships. There are evil people in Allende’s narrative: murderous soldiers, brutal gang members, and callous human traffickers. But the immigrants themselves are innocent victims, worthy of respect and welcome.