Felicito Yanaque is a self-made man. He lives in the city of Piura (an isolated outpost not unlike a kind of Peruvian Perth), and is the owner of a small transport company that he has built up from scratch into a modestly successful enterprise. He is incensed one day when he receives a letter politely asking him to pay certain shadowy others a sum of money in return for "protection" from the kind of harm that might befall a successful businessman. The letter is signed with a drawing of a spider.

Meanwhile, Don Rigoberto, soon to retire from his senior management position in an insurance house, is dumbfounded to be asked by his elderly boss to serve as a witness to his wedding. Senor Ismael Carrera has two sons, twins and equally unsavoury of character, and Rigoberto predicts they will take the news of the wedding and their disinheritance very badly.

Both Rigoberto and Yanaque are decent men who have not courted the troubles that afflict them but who don't flinch from confronting them. Yanaque takes a public stand against the extortionists and doesn't waver as he begins to suffer the consequences. And Rigoberto stands up to the bullying sons of his employer, even though it means he must postpone the quiet life full of refinements - music and art and travel to Europe - that he has been anticipating.

The double narrative is cleverly managed, with each strand moved forward at a complementary rate. There is suspense aplenty but no melodrama. Llosa employs an interesting technique whereby narrative of past events infuses the present: it could be confusing, but it is not.

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And quite apart from the natural suspense arising from the main stories, there is a metaphysical element. Rigoberto's quiet, intense son, Fonchito, claims to be being regularly visited by a mysterious, middle-aged man calling himself Edilberto Torres, who seems to know everything about him, who asks him disconcerting questions about the nature of good and evil and who weeps unaccountably. Rigoberto and his wife are naturally concerned about this mysterious stranger, and quite unable to decide whether he is an invention of Fonchito's, a real person, or some apparition, malevolent or benign.

The plots collectively thicken, although the mystery of Senor Torres seems unresolved at the end, where there is a twist worked in the space of three or four lines with a marvellous linguistic sleight of hand. You finish this intriguing, entertaining novel with as much admiration for Edith Grossman, the translator, as for the author. She has trod the difficult line between rendering idiomatic Spanish literally and losing the richness in translation. A quirk of Piuran speech - the apparently random insertion of the phrase "hey, whaddya think" into ordinary sentences - threatens to become annoying, but was plainly necessary. And in the end, the effect is to play to a strength of the novel: a depiction of contemporary Peru that is far more vivid and compelling than any travel guide.

The Discreet Hero
by Mario Vargas Llosa
(Allen & Unwin $36.99)

John McCrystal is a Wellington reviewer.

- Canvas