Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Discreet Hero – novel by Mario Vargas Llosa

'The discreet hero' is the latest novel of Mario Vargas Llosa and the second one, after he won Nobel Prize in 2010. It has two parallel stories of two different protagonists: Don Felicito Yanaque living in a Peruvian provincial town Piura and Don Rigoberto in the capital city Lima.

Yanaque, a self-made owner of a transport company receives an extortion threat from a gang. Felicito, who sticks stubbornly to his late father's advice, "never  let anybody walk all over you", gives a defiant newspaper notice saying he would not give in to blackmail. The gang sets his company property on fire and later kidnaps his young mistress Mabel. The police investigation finds that it was one of his own disgruntled sons Miguel who is behind the criminal plot. What is worse, Miguel forces Mabel to be his lover and makes her an accomplice in the kidnap drama. After this devastating news, Felicito confirms his long-held suspicion that Miguel was not really his own son. 

The second story is that of Rigoberto, the chief of an insurance company about to retire and looking forward to pursue his passion for art. Ismael Carrera, the owner of the insurance company, comes to know after a heart attack that his two wayward twin sons are anxiously waiting for his death to inherit the company. Enraged by this, Ismael, who is a widower in his eighties, decides to marry his young live-in maid servant Armida. The couple take off to Europe on secret honeymoon, leaving behind a sensational scandal. Ismael sells his company to an Italian multinational and writes a will bequeathing his entire fortune to his wife. Ismael's sons harass Rigoberto accusing him of being  an accomplice to their father's marriage. Ismael returns to Lima and assures Rigoberto that he would sort out the problems created by his sons. But he dies of a sudden heart attack. His widow, disappears fearing assassination by Ismael's sons and lands up in the house of Felicito in Piura. She surprises Felicito saying that she is actually his wife's real sister. Eventually the sons of Ismael agree to a negotiated settlement with their stepmother. Lady Armida then moves to live in Italy and invites Felicito and her wife to be her guests there and invites Rigoberto's family too.

Rigoberto, Lucrecia and Lituma are familiar characters from Llosa's other novels. The erotic conversations between Rigoberto, the hedonist and his sensual wife Lucrecia are extensions of their fantasies in the other novels 'the notebooks of Don Rigoberto' and ' In praise of the step mother'. Police sergeant Lituma is from the earlier novels ' The Green House' and ' Death in the Andes'. Don Felicito, the discreet hero has emerged as another memorable Llosa character.  

Llosa has given a deep insight into the Peruvian society and culture through the narratives of hard working and principled men who seek pleasure from young mistress and maidservant but face painful problems from spoiled children. Especially interesting is the contrast between the sophisticated urbane art lover Rigoberto in Lima and the provincial ethos of Piurean characters such as Felicito, the police officers and Adelaida the spiritual soothsayer. The reader gets a feel of walking in the hot and humid streets of Piura and tasting the authentic Peruvian dishes in the famous restaurants in the culinary capital Lima. Rigoberto realizes that small spaces of civilization like he has created for himself with his artistic pursuits 'would never prevail against the immeasurable barbarism' around. 'When Piura was a poor city these things did not happen', laments the police sergeant referring to the violence and crime which grow with prosperity, a phenomenon, seen across Latin America. 

I was anxiously waiting to read this latest book published in 2014 and its english version in March 2015. This is not one of the best of Llosa who is among my favorite Latin American writers. I did not feel stunned as I felt after finishing ' The war of the end of the world'. But I felt entertained by this light hearted thriller-like optimistic story with funny characters and engaging twists and turns.

Can we expect more from Llosa, given his advanced age of 79? I was in for a surprise when I read his recent interview to Paris Review in which he says " My greatest fault, I think, is my lack of confidence, which torments me enormously. It takes me three or four years to write a novel—and I spend a good part of that time doubting myself. It doesn’t get any better with time; on the contrary, I think I’m getting more self-critical and less confident". 

Monday, June 08, 2015

Pacific Alliance, a new business and cultural partner of India

Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile, the four members of the Pacific Alliance (PA), is called by some as the Pumas of Pacific. It is the latest addition to the new power house of Asian Tigers, Indian Elephant and the Chinese Dragon.

PA is the new kid in the block in Latin America which has four other regional groups: Mercosur, Andean Community, Alba and Sica. PA stands out as distinct from the other four blocs as the most vibrant, dynamic and ambitious group while they are struggling with existential difficulties. 

The members of the PA distinguish themselves qualitatively from the other Latin American countries. 

The macroeconomic fundamentals of PA countries are stronger and more solid than the other Latin American countries. They have higher growth with lower inflation. They are projected to grow by three percent and more in 2015 while Latin America as a whole is expected to grow only by about one percent. The average inflation of PA region is less than 4% and half of the annual Latin American inflation.

The policies and tax regimes of the PA countries are more stable, transparent and predictable as well as investor-friendly. The four countries are the leaders of the region in the World Bank Ease of Doing Business Survey 2014. Their global rankings ( Colombia-34, Peru-35, Mexico-39 and Chile-41) are way ahead of India's lowly 142nd rank.

They have lower tariffs, more liberal foreign trade policies and have signed the most number of FTAs. Chile has signed FTAs with 60 countries, Peru with 50, Mexico with 44 and Colombia 30. All the four have  FTAs with US as well as European Union. Mexico, Peru and Chile are in the TPP and Colombia is also keen to join. Chile and Peru have FTAs with China and Colombia has just announced its intention to negotiate a FTA with China.

The Indian business is attracted by the large and growing market of PA which has a total population of 214 million, GDP of 2 trillion, trade of one trillion and average per capita GDP of over ten thousand dollars. 

India's trade with PA has been growing rapidly reaching 15.4 billion dollars in 2014 accounting for forty percent of the trade with Latin America. It has the potential to double to 30 billion in the next four years. Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile are the second, third, fourth and fifth largest destination of India's exports in Latin America. Mexico and Colombia have become regular source of crude oil while Chile and Peru are the sources of copper and gold imports for India. 

Over thirty Indian companies have invested in PA in areas such as IT, Pharmaceuticals, energy, mining and manufacturing. Ten companies from PA have invested in India. The most notable is Aje from Peru which has successfully entered the cola drinks business in the Indian market with its brand ' Big Cola'. 

What could be done to improve the win-win partnership with the Pacific Alliance? India could sign FTAs with Mexico, Colombia and Peru to enable its exports competitive vis-a-vis the products imported by PA countries from their FTA partner countries. India already has a PTA with Chile which is being widened and deepened. India should open a large line of credit of at least 500 million dollars to promote and facilitate investment and project exports of Indian companies. India has become a observer in PA since 2014. Using this status, India could engage with the group and consider participation in the next summit of the PA to be held in Peru this year.

India could learn from the Mexico Pact under which a dozen major reforms have been brought about in the last two years under an unprecedented consensus between the ruling and the opposition parties. The success of Mexico in making itself as a manufacturing hub of the Americas has lessons for the 'Make in India' campaign. The Left in India could find inspiration from the success of the leftist governments of President Michelle Bachelet of Chile and President Olanta Humala of Peru who pursue pragmatic and balanced mix of pro-poor and business-friendly policies. 

The four PA countries account for five out of the six Nobel Prizes for literature won by Latin Americans. Chile has won twice while the other countries have won one each. This includes Octavio Paz who was Mexican ambassador to India and has written essays and poems on India. His book ' Vislumbres de la India'( In the light of India) was the first major book on contemporary India by a Latin American and it was an eye opener. Satish Gujral had learnt from his apprenticeship in Mexico with Diego Rivera. Building on these, India could enhance the literary and cultural interaction with the countries of Pacific Alliance.