Mario Vargas Llosa

The Time of the Hero

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The Time of the Hero Summary

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Mario Vargas Llosa’s debut novel, The Time of the Hero (1963), is titled La Ciudad y Los Perros (“The City and the Dogs”) in the original Spanish. The novel is set at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Lima, an actual military academy that Llosa attended himself as a teenager. The novel’s negative portrayal of the school prompted the school’s leaders to burn copies of the book, denouncing it as propaganda. Llosa won a Nobel Prize for literature in 2010.

The novel begins as four cadets play dice in the barracks room of the Leoncio Prado Military School in Lima, Peru. They are playing dice to see who will sneak into a locked classroom to steal an upcoming chemistry test. The four boys form a group known as “The Circle”: Boa, Porfirio Cava, Alberto “the Poet” Fernandez, and the group’s leader, Jaguar, who devised the plan. In the end, Porfirio loses the game; during his attempt at theft, however, he breaks a window. The school’s officials figure out what has happened, but not who has committed the theft. They round up the cadets who had been on guard duty the day of the theft and confine them to their barracks indefinitely. When the thief comes forward, the rest of the boys will be freed.

The academy’s cadets, at different times, tell their backstories, describing their pre-military academy lives. Many of them miss their families. Some of them fantasize about girls they had fallen in love with – like Ricardo Arana, known as “the slave” because of his non-aggressive temperament. Jaguar, the resident tough guy, admits that he ran with a group of thieves in the past, and seems to have had a particularly hard life. He was sent to Leoncio Prada to reform his ways after being caught stealing.

After many weeks, the boys are still in confinement; Ricardo finally breaks. He tells the officers who stole the test, for which he is rewarded with an afternoon leave. Porfirio is suspended from the academy for his part in the theft. Jaguar, incensed that one of the boys has squealed, resolves to exact revenge on the culprit. During a combat training exercise a couple of days later, he does just this, shooting Ricardo in the head and killing him.

Unexpectedly, the investigation into Ricardo’s murder uncovers nothing. The academy’s officers attribute Ricardo’s death to himself – he was clumsy and somehow managed to shoot himself. In fact, the officers want to prevent a scandal; they lie to avoid betraying their own negligence in the run-up to local elections. Alberto doesn’t buy the story, suspecting that Jaguar – who after all had vowed to find the snitch – is the murderer.

Alberto notifies Lt. Gamboa of his theory, in hopes of finding justice for his dead friend. He tells of many other problems rife among the cadet ranks as well: smoking, drinking, fighting, theft, and truancy. Lt. Gamboa decides to call an investigation into Alberto’s allegations. Sure enough, the investigators find cigarettes, alcohol, and other evidence supporting Alberto’s claims. To his surprise, Lt. Gamboa is chastised rather than rewarded by his superiors for his findings – they will only bring shame on the academy. Leoncio Prado’s reputation is more important than the petty crimes of the boys – it is even more important than bringing Ricardo’s killer to light.

Things don’t go well for Alberto after his whistleblowing. Officials, finding that he has been writing pornographic stories for other cadets in exchange for payment, use this to blackmail him into silence. He is placed in a cell with Jaguar, and there accuses Jaguar, to his face, of killing Ricardo. Jaguar attacks Alberto, hurting him badly. The other cadets suspect Jaguar is the reason the academy officials have been searching through their things – and that they’ve subsequently been punished. Jaguar refuses to “snitch” however, as it goes against his personal code of honor.

Eventually, Jaguar does admit that he shot Ricardo. However, by then, Lt. Gamboa can do nothing; he has been reassigned to another outpost. Its remote location is a punishment for his meddling. Alberto, persuaded to drop his charges, graduates as normal. Jaguar is never punished for his crime and, in fact, prospers after leaving the school; he marries and takes a job at a bank.

Llosa’s depiction of Leoncio Prada is scathing in its unsparing emphasis upon the academy’s dysfunction and outright corruption. However, aside from that, he has attracted considerable attention for the unusual yet fluid structure of The Time of the Hero, which is non-linear and frequently told by unidentified narrators. One of these turns out late in the story to be Jaguar, complicating the depiction of him given up until that point.