The telenovela touches keep coming. When people are upset or frightened in this novel, their teeth chatter. Or they faint. Or froth at the mouth. Or retch. Or pee in their pants. This novel is no austere orgy of minor-chord emotion. Vargas Llosa, now 81, is playing to the balconies.
Below and beyond the tragicomedy, in this translation from the Spanish by Edith Grossman, Vargas Llosa is pressing a familiar point. He has long been a critic of tabloid excesses in Latin America, particularly so when the tabloids are manipulated by authoritarian political leaders in order to silence their critics.
Vargas Llosa has himself felt the sting of tabloid headlines in recent years, after he left his wife of 50 years and picked up with Isabel Preysler, the pop singer Enrique Iglesias’s mother, and when his name appeared (erroneously, he has argued) in the Panama Papers, which exposed international tax havens.
No deep soil is overturned in “The Neighborhood,” but two things keep one turning the pages. For one, it’s a confident book and confidence is contagious. It’s filled with cliffhangers — when the journalist is murdered, Enrique is the prime suspect — and over-the-top incident. For another, it is warm to the touch, particularly as regards sex.
This novel chronicles, in detail as damp as the bad guy’s handshake, an unexpected lesbian affair that develops between Enrique’s wife and the wife of his best friend and lawyer. The author seems to agree with Eve Babitz, who wrote that having affairs is the only creative thing most people will ever do.
Vargas Llosa’s novels have always been enlivened by earthy detail. I tend to think of him during flu season, recalling that John Updike praised one of his early novels for the way his characters caught colds realistically.
In “The Neighborhood,” the sex is hot and the beer is cold. His characters happily consume ceviche and tripe and pork rind sandwiches with onions and chili peppers. They drink Campari and pisco sours. They eat at a seafood place called Seven Deadly Fins. In a novel as contrived and uneven as this one, the human touches go a long way.
Arriving alongside “The Neighborhood” is “Sabers and Utopias: Visions of Latin America,” a book of essays, most of them political, written over the past five decades.
In these pieces, Vargas Llosa considers the dubious legacies of leaders such as Fidel Castro and Augusto Pinochet and Papa Doc Duvalier. He champions free speech and liberal democracies. He deplores homophobia and applauds laws to legalize marijuana.
This book is, sad to say, all but unreadable. Vargas Llosa’s op-ed voice is not his best voice (it is few people’s best voice) and these pieces, read years after they were composed, are essentially dead on the page.
There are a handful of alert moments in these essays, which have been translated by Anna Kushner. In a 2012 essay, he deftly sticks a hatpin into Julian Assange. In another essay he considers the effects his generation — the so-called Latin American Boom writers — had on the literary world. He notes, in a moving aside, that he’s among the few members of that group still standing.
Vargas Llosa has been a frequent critic of Latin America, but he sorely misses it when he is away. In one essay, composed in Switzerland, he asks what that country has given us except cuckoo clocks and fondue.
Latin America, on the other hand, has given the world “a Borges, a García Márquez, a Neruda, a Vallejo, an Octavio Paz, a Lezama Lima, a Lam, a Matta, a Tamayo, and we’ve invented tango, mambo, boleros, salsa, and so many rhythms and songs that the whole world sings and dances.”
Vargas Llosa is too humble, a rarity for him, to add his own name to this list of cultural treasures. So I will do it for him.Continue reading the main story
Renaissance cookbooks like Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera Dell’Arte del Cucinare name a fair number of methods for cooking beef tripe, the upper stomachs of grazing cows. But in modern Rome, it is prepared by one method only: honeycomb tripe, called cuffia locally, is simmered with tomato and menta romana, a variety of local mint, or mentuccia, a mint-like herb, then seasoned with Pecorino Romano. Trippa alla Romana is so entrenched in the local cuisine that unlike many other classic dishes, its elements almost never waver. Book tripe, called centopelli, is rarely used. Roman chefs declare it cat food, a possible dig at Florentines, who prefer it to other tripe forms.
(Serves 4 to 6)
2 pounds honeycomb tripe, washed
¼ cup sea salt, plus more as needed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 cup white wine
1 (14-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
Leaves from 4 sprigs fresh mint, chopped
1 1/2 cups grated Pecorino Romano
Place the tripe in a large pot and add cold water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat. Drain and repeat. Drain again. Return the tripe to the pot and again add cold water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium-low heat. Add the salt and simmer until the tripe is fork-tender, about 3 hours. Drain, rinse under cold water, then cut the tripe into 1/2-inch strips.
Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium-low heat. When the olive oil begins to shimmer, add the onion and carrot. Season with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until the onion and carrot are softened, about 15 minutes. Add the wine and cook until the alcohol aroma dissipates, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the sliced tripe and cook for about 1 hour. Turn off the heat, add the mint and 1 cup of Pecorino Romano, and mix well. Season to taste.
Plate and sprinkle each portion with the remaining Pecorino Romano. Serve immediately.
Tip: While menta romana is hard to come by outside of Rome, mentuccia, which goes by lesser calamint and nepitella, can be found in the U.S. In the absence of either herb, you’ll do perfectly fine to substitute standard mint.
Originally published in Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City.