Jack’s Naughty Bits: Mario Vargas Llosa, In Praise of the Stepmother

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Jack's Naughty Bits

you haven’t already read Mario Vargas Llosa’s In Praise of the Stepmother, you damn well better get cracking. If I had my druthers — and legal permission — I’d reprint the whole novel here for your reading pleasure. But alas, bitter constraint limits me to three hundred words, with which I can excerpt only one of its many succulent scenes.

The novel as a whole is remarkable in the scope of its sensuality. Here is a book where we see the unfaded passions of a man of middle years, not only for the armpits, ass and vulva of his incomparable wife, but for the mundane rituals of daily existence: the trimming of nails, cleaning of ears and, in his estimation, the sublime pleasure of taking a shit. Nor is he the only one in the house with hightened empirical faculties: his prepubescent son Alphonso cloaks some pretty grown-up desire for his heavy-breasted stepmother in the guise of naive youth. And then there is the stepmother herself, a gloriously crafted character with whom I am still irremediably in love. As to the playing out of their accelerated Oedipal triangle, I won’t tip the hand, but I assure you it is not without surprises.

Interspersed in the unfolding of the primary narrative are a number of loosely connected vignettes, occasioned and accompanied by single page reproductions of great paintings from history. The scene below weaves a story behind the image in the great Francis Bacon canvas Head 1. It is a mini treatise on the erotics of revulsion, the draw of the horrible, the subcutaneous pull of the abject. The passage is unlike any other in the novel, and, I would argue, unlike virtually anything else in literature. Few authors can portray the sexuality of the hideous; fewer still can capture the gravity of its allure.

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From In Praise of the Stepmother
by Mario Vargas Llosa

translated by Helen Lane

My left ear was bitten off in a fight with another human being, as I remember. But I hear the sounds of the world clearly through the thin slit that remains. I also see things, though only obliquely and with difficulty. Because, even though not apparent at first glance, this bluish

protuberance to the left of my mouth is an eye . . . I ought to be doomed to perpetual darkness, since all the survivors of the great fire . . . lost both their sight and their hair . . . I had the good fortune to lose only one eye . . .

I have no arms or legs, but my four stumps are nicely healed over . . . My sex organ is intact. I can make love, on condition that the young fellow or the female acting as my partenaire allows me to position myself in such a way that my boils don’t rub against his or her body . . . I like to fornicate, and I would say that, in a certain sense, I am a voluptuary. I often have fiascoes or experience a humiliating premature ejaculation, it is true. But, other times, I have prolonged and repeated orgasms that give me the sensation of being as ethereal and radiant as the Archangel Gabriel. The repulsion I inspire in my lovers turns into attraction, and even into delirium, once they overcome — thanks almost always to alcohol or drugs — their initial prejudices and agree to do amorous battle with me in bed. Women even come to love me, in fact, and become addicted to my ugliness. In the depths of her soul, Beauty was always fascinated by the Beast, as so many fantastic tales and mythologies recount, and it is only in rare cases that the heart of a good-looking youth does not harbor something perverse.

© Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1990