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The Cubs by Mario Vargas Llosa
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Los cachorros was one of the first stories that I read in Spanish, and I was glad to find a cheap copy of it the other day. It’s a short novella about a group of late-elementary school kids and their new friend Cuéllar. He gets mauled by the school´s dog in the groin and, as the kids grow older and begin to pass through adolescence and notice girls, his plight becomes sadder and sadder. For me, the highlight is middle section of the story, when the boys begin one by one to make their move on different young women and Cuéllar´s lack of interest or desire to engage the opposite sex becomes more and more apparent. He reacts very, very strongly to each one of his friends’ entry into romantic (and sexual) life, he lashes out at them, and they struggle to deal with his outbursts while he tries to prove his masculinity through alcohol, fast cars and athletic feats. It’s all very sad, and it’s interesting not only to see his life without his manhood, but to see his friends and their girlfriends struggle to put up with him and understand what he’s going through. They always try to forgive him and want to be his friend even as his behavior becomes wilder and stranger; I think in part because they were friends before the dog attacked him, they continue to see themselves in him, and don’t want to acknowledge what has happened. It’s an interesting story, and it remains one of my favorites by Vargas Llosa.

He does a really good job of illustrating the time when friends start having girlfriends, and even without the mauling, it would have been an interesting story. I mean, Cuéllar finally finds a girl that he’s really in to, and even if he were just really shy, the story wouldn’t have changed much. It still would have been excruciating to watch him, as all his friends and their girlfriends are encouraging him and pushing him to ask her out, still unable to work up the nerve to make his move. But the fact that he’s been neutered by a big dog makes the whole thing grotesque and sickening. Vargas Llosa does a good job of telling a story that could have been told in a very similar way if it were presented normally, but he adds an extra element that makes it all very shocking and disturbing. I always remembered this story for the mauling and the subsequent struggles of the victim, and that exceptional event is all the more jarring in what is essentially a very typical coming-of-age story about a group of upper-class Peruvians who grow up, meet women and get married.

I understand that it was one of his first books, and he employs an interesting experimental technique throughout: he alternates back and forth between the third person plural and the first person plural, as in the first paragraph of the story: “Todavía llevaban pantalón corto ese año, aún no fumábamos, entre todos los deportes preferían el fútbol y estábamos aprendiendo a correr olas, a zambullirnos desde el segundo trampolín del “Terrazas,” eran traviesos, lampiños, curiosos, muy ágiles, voraces. I wonder how I was able to twist my mind around this when I was just beginning to learn and read in Spanish. I didn’t recall this peculiarity from my previous reading of this book, but I imagine that I really struggled for the first few pages before I caught on. It’s actually a very nice technique in my opinion, it fits the length of the story (in a longer novel it might not be so great) and widens the perspective of the story to make it feel as though you were both looking from the outside in, and also in the middle of this group of kids, all at the same time.

I’ve been a somewhat ambivalent fan of Vargas Llosa the novelist (I am intrigued by Vargas Llosa the literary critic, and have been thinking about buying Viaje a la ficción for quite a while as an introduction to that side of his work). While I can’t think of any reason not to like him, and while I have thoroughly enjoyed the books of his that I’ve read, I don’t consider him to be one of my favorites. I don’t know why, though. He’s a really great storyteller and I’ve liked all of his books that I’ve read. He reminds me a bit of Dostoyevsky. He’s able to work a short novella just as well as an epic, dark novel, and he is both readable and thought-provoking. I remember being surprised by how quickly the pages passed by when I read Crime and Punishment in high school, because I thought reading it would be such hard work. Dostoyevsky really immersed me in the characters and their interactions, and it was a really engrossing story. I’ve had similar experiences with Vargas Llosa in books like Conversación en la catedral and La casa verde: what I had thought would be hard, arduous reads turned out to be real page-turners. I think maybe what bothered me about Vargas Llosa was I thought about him as a wealthy man who wrote brilliant novels while sitting in a nice, air conditioned room or something like that. He didn’t seem tortured or gritty enough for me. But that’s not really fair, and I’m ready to try some more of his books and have a more open mind about an author who has always thoroughly impressed me with his storytelling skills. ( )
  msjohns615 | Aug 31, 2010 |
A short story about the comming of age of a group of upper middle class peruvian youths. As usual in this series of the spanish publisher Catedra, the book is put into the wider social and literary context by an informative and well written introduction ( )
  FPdC | May 24, 2010 |
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This is only the short story "The cubs" and no other. Esta es la edición de "Los cachorros" únicamente.
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Book description
The Cubs and Other Stories is a collection of stories that are unrelated in plot and character, but share themes and setting. The title story, "The Cubs," is about a youth in Peru growing up after having been emasculated in an accident, and the frustration he feels knowing he can't share the sexual experiences of his peers. This is followed by "The Leaders," about a group of high school boys who try to organize a school strike in protest against the principal's unfair policies. Their efforts, however, are impeded by the rivalry amongst the boys for influence and supremacy.

Most of the rest of the stories deal as well with Peru's urban youth, depicting their adolescent frustrations and self-destructive behavior. The author is perhaps also metaphorically representing the helplessness and frustration of the Peruvian people who were, at the time of his writing, under the heels of a military dictatorship.

The stark, masculine realism of Vargas Llosa's early stories should appeal to anyone who likes Hemingway.
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