Review: The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Time of the Hero [1963] – ★★★★The Time of the Hero

The Time of the Hero is a controversial novel written by the Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa. The fictional story takes place in Lima, Peru at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, a military educational establishment once attended by the author. In the story, a group of cadets is trying to steal the questions to the forthcoming chemistry exam, while being involved in a number of other similar “illicit” activities, such as fighting among themselves, bullying younger year groups and drinking. Little everyone knows that one careless action while trying to copy the exam leads to one irreparable tragedy and the shocking cover-up. It is without any doubt that The Time of the Hero is a literary work of great importance. The novel may not be easy or enjoyable to read, but its message is powerful, its themes – timeless, and its simple story is all the more significant for portraying what it means to be human and good in a society where cunningness, forcefulness and competitiveness are encouraged and lauded.  

The centre of the story is the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, a place where boys are meant to be “made into men”, and where “the true military spirit consist[s] of three simple things – obedience, courage and hard work” [Mario Vargas Llosa, 1963: 44]. This is a kind of place where first-year cadets are “dogs”, gruesome “initiation” procedures are a daily occurrence, and weekend passes are the only things to look forward to. One protagonist explains in the novel “what was horrible was this imprisonment, this vast exterior solitude that he had not chosen, that had been imposed on him like a strait-jacket” [Mario Vargas Llosa, 1963: 123]. The main characters include cadets Ricardo, nicknamed the Slave, and Alberto, nicknamed the Poet. They belong to the same section, and the most ruthless and domineering of the cadets is the guy named the Jaguar, who is surrounded by his entourage of Boa, Cava and other boys. It is no accident that Ricardo and Alberto are the main characters. These two find each other and develop a strange friendship, and the love for one girl binds the two cadets together. They are the odd ones out from the group because Ricardo does not know or want to learn “the rules of the jungle” of the Academy in order to survive, and Alberto also shuns from them inwardly, but knows them well to pass as an ordinary mischievous cadet. In that way, Ricardo is evidently “weak”, while Alberto only pretends to be “strong”. It is no wonder, therefore, that when the Jaguar organises the stealing of the questions to the chemistry exam, both Ricardo and Alberto become implicated in the painful affair. What started as an ordinary ploy turns deadly as hatred, envy and savageness triumph over kindness, honour and justice.

The Time of the Hero is also, in some way, a coming-of-age story which focuses on a love-triangle and familial relationships. Alberto and Ricardo pursue the same girl – Teresa, and the story is such that sometimes we glimpse in a flashback the childhood of one of the boys. Here, the author presents no illusions when it comes to the world beyond the confines of the military, which is sometimes depicted as a prison. Outside, the cadets are forced to witness and endure their fathers’ extra-marital affairs, beatings and deception. The women are presented as being wholly dependent on their men, but they are also the ones who express the truest sorrow and feeling for other human beings and circumstances. Mario Vargas Llosa makes it perfectly clear that, although the women’s voice is heard, it also carries no weight and is unimportant. Thus, girls and women hardly feature in the story, apart from being clear love and sex interests, or mothers, of the cadets.

The controversial element of the story is that Mario Vargas Llosa does not make one person or even a few individuals the objects of his criticism and shaming. He makes the whole society bear the responsibility. In the author’s eyes, the Military Academy represents the segment of the society and stands for it. Thus, the novel, through the story, criticises the Academy’s self-interest, corruption and the promotion of male chauvinism. In the story, individual and collective values clash, and the themes of guilt, indifference, denial and cynicism are well-explored.

The Time of the Hero is not an easy read because Vargas Llosa utilises a number of characters and character perspectives to tell the story. His story jumps from a first person narrative to a third-person narrative randomly, and the timeline is also a bit chaotic. All this makes for a perplexing read, and some descriptions are such that it is a bit difficult to grasp what exactly is going on, especially when the story focuses on the Academy. The language used does not help to clarify matters, but, perhaps, this is partly due to the translation. Having said all that, if the novel is not an easy read, it is also fascinating in its innovative or experimental approach to tell the story. No introductions are made to the characters or settings, but we can still feel the powerful message that the author tries to convey. We sense the horrific implications behind the most mundane of sentences uttered by the characters, and the context becomes everything.

It is also hard to enjoy reading The Time of the Hero because some events it depicts are quite distressing. There is plenty of violence and deprivation, and, in its content, it now slightly resembles both A Few Good Men [1992] and Sleepers [1995]. However, if the novel is not a wholly enjoyable read, then it is certainly a very important read, which brings up some unforgettable, vivid images and messages. It becomes an easier read half-way through and the last one hundred or so pages are quick to read because the story’s drama is at its highest.

The Time of the Hero is an example of that kind of literature whose power is great and undeniable. The writing may be “loose” (there are some unnecessary subplots) and the reading may be a bit difficult both literally and emotionally, but the message it conveys is clear and brave. The heart-breaking account may not be a read one will pick up to relax, but it will be a read one would be glad to have finished because of the significance of what is being conveyed. In The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa strips away all the idealism and makes his readers think deeply about the uncomfortable issues, such as how far removed the concepts of bravery and honour really are from the implicitly accepted societal definition of manhood. 

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