Sunday, November 01, 2009

Captain Pantoja and the special service – novel by Mario Vargas Llosa

I have just finished reading this yet another extraordinary novel by my favourite Latin American writer Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru. The story is unusual and provocative.

Captain Pantaleon Pantoja is a model officer in the Peruvian Army known for his discipline, seriousness , commitment, military pride and organisational skills. He does not smoke, drink, or give in to other temptations. He is a faithful husband devoted to his wife and a caring son looking after his mother. These traits make him as the ideal and foolproof candidate for a special and secret assignment. He is asked to raise a Special Force of Visitadoras ( sex visitors) to provide service to the garrisons in the remote parts of the Amazon. The objective of the special force is to quench the sexual thirst of the soldiers who become a menace to the women and animals in the Amazon region, stimulated by the local food and humidity. In the language of the report of Pantoja, this is to address the primary psychological and biological needs of the forces in isolated areas. To protect the honour of the army, Pantoja is asked to organise the service secretly and without his uniform and without any overt link with the armed forces. Pantoja applies his military skills and personal integrity to the new job with enthusiasm and enterprise. He plunges into the sordid world of brothels and pimps to get a first hand knowledge of the trade. He organises the special service methodically with proper military rules and systems. He recruits the service providers personally through a rigorous system of interview, physical examination and , of course, intercourse .... He does it in a detached professional manner without letting himself be emotional. He does it as a sacrifice and duty and as a not-for-pleasure professional obligation. He manages to discipline the bunch of wild and temperamental girls and makes them work under a set of military rules. The visitadoras are happy that Captain Pantoja has provided them with a regular income and working hours. They are thankful to him for freeing them from the risk and hazards of their vocations and cruelty of pimps. They are delighted with their new dignity as Armed Forces Specialists. Pantoja does a scientific survey of the sexual needs of the soldiers, does exhaustive research on the subject and evolves an effective logistical system for efficient delivery of services. He works out an optimal solution based on demand and supply with mathematical precision. Each visitadora provides pleasure to 20 soldiers a day and the timing of each service is limited to 20 minutes. To speed up the service, Pantoja arranges reading materials to the soldiers, while they are waiting, so that they are sufficiently stimulated and prepared. The service fees is deducted from the soldiers´s pay. Pantoja sends his special force through a boat and hydroplane to the utility centres, which are located in the remote areas of Amazon. The special service is run efficiently and methodically. Captain Pantoja is always devising new systems and improvisations to make optimal use of the limited resources to satisfy the unlimited demand of the soldiers and achieve the strategic objectives of the military. He sends regular reports of the functioning of the service with military jargon, precision and details to his superiors in top secret communications. The special service has even its own Hymn !!

Pantoja’s special service becomes a hit with the soldiers and achieves the objective of the project successfully. But then things go beyond his control. The special force becomes a special farce. Obviously, in such a small place, it cannot remain a secret. The local radio jockey, tries to blackmail the captain but when Pantoja refuses to give in, he publicises and starts a public campaign on moral grounds. The church and the society women are up in arms. The naive wife and mother of Pantoja are targets of ridicule. The officers of the army ask why only soldiers?..why not extend it to the higher echelons?. The civilian men in the towns too clamour for the special services. Even the senior citizens of the region ask ¨what about us ?¨. Things come to a head and Pantoja´s wife leaves him. The frustrated but still innocent and principled Pantoja becomes human. He falls in love with one of the service providers Olga, popularly known as the ¨Brazilian ¨, because she had returned from providing service in Manaus in Brazil. Olga is pretty, charming, mischievous and full of delightful tricks up her sleeve. Pantoja gives special privileges to the Brazilian and she takes care of him physically and emotionally. With her quick wit and street experience she provokes him to think beyond his narrow military framework. As a special favour, she is given reduced duty for servicing only ten soldiers while others do for twenty. But she complains that this has reduced her income. In the end, she gets killed in one of the attacks on the boat by a gang of men who want to rape the visitadoras. This is the turning point for Pantoja. He throws out the veil of secrecy, puts on his uniform and organises her burial with special military honours. He makes a formal and emotional memorial speech eulogising the patriotic service rendered by Olga to the nation, saying ¨we have worn our noble uniform of an officer in the Peruvian army to accompany you to your last dwelling place, with our head held high and with a full sense of responsibility to proclaim that you had fallen as a valiant soldier in the service of our beloved country Peru. You are an unfortunate martyr to the fulfilment of duty. Your spirit guides us daily and stimulates us to the completion of our duty with the selflessness and perfection with which you performed it¨. This hits the headlines of the national media and all hell breaks loose in the army headquarters. The army recalls Pantoja and disbands the special service. But Pantoja is unrepentent and stands by his decision to honour the specialist of the special service.

Alongwith this main plot, Llosa has woven a parallel story of a mad evangelist who excites the population of Amazon with his religious fanaticism. With his ¨Son of the Cross¨sermons, he makes the followers to sacrifice animals on a cross. This goes beyond control and human beings are crucified. The victims are worshipped as saints. This becomes a serious problem for the police and the army since even soldiers and the visitadoras become fanatic followers of this new sect. It ends with the priest putting himself on the cross and dying like Christ. This subplot is similar to the story in the other novel of Llosa ¨The war of the end of the world¨.

Llosa has interwoven the professions of sex, military and religion in an entertaining and provoactive way. It is a hilarious and thought provoking satire on the service providers of sex, defence and religion. Llosa has transformed the outrageous and absurd situations into readable and laughable stuff but within a cultural and intellectual framework. He has juxtaposed the profane with the profound and let the readers imagine and think.

Llosa brings out the flaw in the military system in which subordinates are required to blindly obey the orders, even when they do not agree with the judgement of the superiors. In the name of order and discipline, men and and women of the military are trained to do what they are told to do. Similiarly, the prophets and evangelists make their flock pursue the chosen and the only path blindly and without questioning. In both the military and religion, there is no option of free thinking. Individuality becomes a casualty to decision from the top and and wisdom from the chosen one. So long as these lead the individuals in a positive and constructive way there is no problem. But history, including the contemporary one, is filled with tragedies caused by wrong military ideas and false prophets.

In this novel, Mario Vargas Llosa has exceeded my expectations with his dextrous handling of this explosive theme. Llosa has handled it like an explosive expert, controlling the process of explosion and letting it explode like firecrackers, amusing and entertaining the readers from the beginning to the end.

Llosa has chosen many such unusual and provocative themes in his other novels and has handled them all with his characteristic satire, irony and humour.

This novel was made into a film in 2000 with the same title by the Peruvian director Francisco Lombardi. I saw it sometime back. It is also entertaining. But the book leaves a deeper impact.

In my view, Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Amado ( Brazil) are the only two great Latino geniuses who could transform sexual service to sublime and aesthetic levels of understanding and appreciation. I recall the novel ¨Eleven minutes¨in which the famous Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho has chosen theme of a call girl. But this theme stands out awkwardly unable to blend with the spritual flow of Coelho.

Mario Vargas Llosa is, in my view, the most talented and versatile contemporary Latin American novelist, in the same league as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He should be next in the line for the Nobel prize for literature....