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Captain Pantoja and the Special Service by…
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Captain Pantoja and the Special Service

by Mario Vargas Llosa

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One of Mario Vargas Llosa's earlier novels, at first it appears to be a light farce, albeit an extremely well written one, but it evolves and develops into something much deeper and more moving.

The story is about the straitlaced logistics officer Captain Pantoja who is assigned to set up mobile brothels in the Amazon to divert the troops from pursuing (and often raping) local women. Captain Pantoja brings his astonishing efficiency to the task, with such steps as surveys about how often men need the services, timing how long it takes, experimenting with factors that can reduce the time, and using all of this to calculate the resources he will need and how to deploy them. All of this grows well beyond his initial imagination as he becomes increasingly embroiled in the world.

The chapters are organized in a number of different ways. The opening and some subsequent chapters are a shifting, multiple perspective dialogue where almost every paragraph is in quotation marks but they narrate a series of conversations, often shifting back and forth, not just one. Some of the other chapters are letters or radio broadcasts And many of the other chapters are in the form of military dispatches, hilarious for the precision and military jargon around prostitution and other aspects of sex. Some is particularly farcical, like the prostitutes creating a "Hymn" for the group, called the "special service," that refers to the Peruvian Army but not the Navy. Given the Navy's support for the operation, they are upset and want themselves named in the "hymn" as well. This leads to a series of letters, apologies, and ultimately the problem being rectified. As such, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service has a comfortable place in the satire of military life from Catch-22 to MASH.

But it ultimately transcends it and does so much more, particularly with the character of Captain Pantoja and how he treats the prostitutes with dignity, creates an esprit de corps like in the Army, and makes them feel patriotic--all of which he does in the face of significant pressure by just about everyone to the contrary.

Also of some interest is that many of Vargas Llosa's subsequent books are in here in some form or another. This is most clear with Brother Francisco, a renegade religious figure who develops a following in the Amazon--prefiguring the Counselor in The War of the End of the World. And Iquitos, the wild Amazonian city, plays a big role here--like it does in The Dream of the Celt. And finally the story itself seems like something Pedro Camacho from Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter would have dreamed up, including a character (the assistant to the madam) who is reminiscent of Camacho himself. ( )
  jasonlf | Apr 7, 2013 |
בדיחה קטנה ולא תמיד מצחיקה, גם טכניקת הכתיבה המודר​ניסטית של יוסה היא לפעמים לטורח​ ( )
  amoskovacs | Oct 19, 2011 |
Captain Pantoja is ordered to Iquitos to deal with a military problem, he has to stop the frustrated servicemen jumping on the local women. His orders are to organise a brothel for the soldiers.

For this they need a captain with a clean record and good organisational skills. Pantoja applies his military ethos to the task in hand, making "Pantiland", as his enterprise becomes known, a great success. In keeping with his determination to treat the enterprise as a military mission, he organises the "special service", where "specialists" provide "services" for the soldiers, even giving the girls a uniform and painting the vehicles they use the colours of the service.

The Service becomes a victim of its own success, with it inevitably becoming public knowledge, known as “Pantiland”, its fame even reaching Brazil. The girls seem to enjoy working there as they are given protection, better wages and don't have to deal with pimps. Pantoja tries to maintain a professional distance between himself and the job, but the arrival of the Brazilian, a woman who has already driven 2 men to take their own lives, makes him waver in his resolve.

Pantoja begins to crack under the strain, not least as the Service is criticised by the good burghers of Iquitos and the clergy. His wife and mother find it hard not being able to socialise with the other military families.

A second thread is that of a religious cult, that of Brother Francisco and a spate of crucifixions. Even Pantoja's mother is caught up with their group.

Vargas Llosa mixes styles in the novel. The first is a narrative which weaves different conversations into one text. As with Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, the reader needs to giving the book their full attention, or they could become lost. The second is made up of Pantoja's reports and the responses to them, it is these which underline the humour of the book as Pantoja diligently tries to apply army norms to his work. The third is of the press, from Sinchi, the local D.J. And moral compass to newspaper articles. These combined are a multi-layered book, allowing the author to show the situation from different angles and highlighting the absurdity of the situation.

This is an amusing satire on army life in a remote posting, I just loved the euphemisms for prostitution, it made it even funnier. Good for those wanting an introduction to the Nobel Laureate's work. I have seen the most recent film version, which is faithful to Pantoja's story, but cut out most of the religious subplot, rather stressing the clashes between the locals and the military. ( )
  soffitta1 | Jun 1, 2011 |
I had so much fun reading this book, and I'm quite sure Vargas Llosa had a lot of fun writing it! Pantaleon Pantoja has just been promoted to captain in the Peruvian army's Quartermaster Corps, and despite his steadfast devotion to the army and his genius at organizing, systematizing, and making anything run efficiently, he is horrified to learn that his new assignment will be to start a prostitution operation to serve soldiers in remote Amazon posts who have been creating problems for the army by raping the local women. Of course, to carry out this order he must appear to have nothing whatever to do with army itself, which is a source of great sorrow to him. At the same time, Brother Francisco is gathering supporters for his religious movement, crucifying insects, small animals, and the occasional person in the belief that this will bring good to his band of "brothers" and "sisters."

A satire of both the military and religion (and implicitly of the similarities between them), this novel includes narrative sections (with Vargas Llosa's typical mixture of various speakers and situations within the course of several paragraphs), army memoranda, radio programs, and newspaper reports. Needless to say, Pantoja becomes totally absorbed in his assignment, always wanting to build the best, most efficient, and largest possible "special service," but with his success come problems of various sorts -- lack of support from his army superiors even as he calculates the need for a larger and larger operation, blackmailing by the local radio commentator, obsession with his star "specialist," an unhappy wife and mother, etc.

All in all, it is a rollicking read, with memorable characters, both broad and subtle humor, and some interesting ideas underneath the fun.
12 vote rebeccanyc | Dec 12, 2010 |
Fabulously funny book. The style is extremely effective for the humor. Reading only reports, letters, newspaper articles, etc. makes the book even funnier. Vargas Llosa is definitely a favorite now. ( )
  JCO123 | Jan 29, 2010 |
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"Una esplndida stira y una reflexin moral-- Pantalen, estricto cumplidor del deber que le ha sido asignado, termina, llevando el celo a sus ltimas consequencias, por pulverizar el engranaje que ha puesto en movimiento"--P. [4] of cover.

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