In celebration of the life and work of Mario Vargas Llosa, Atlas Network's Templeton Leadership Fellow emeritus, on his 80th birthday on March 28, a series of tributes were presented in his honor. One of them, by Istituto Bruno Leoni Director General Alberto Mingardi, is translated into English below.
Don Felícito Yanaqué, when he was a schoolboy, never had shoes. When we meet him, age 55, in Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2013 novel The Discreet Hero, first published in English in 2015, he is the self-made man next door. He has a wife that never made him happy, two sons, and a little transport business. People like him rarely appear in novels. If they do, it’s almost invariably as a denunciation of the despicable materialism of the petite bourgeoisie.
Great fortunes are accumulated through great tricks. More often than not, writers since Honoré de Balzac have seen wealth as the hypocritical cover-up of ruinous passions, or the legacy of a predatory past, or just the ultimate result of inexhaustible, heartless greed. The “higgling of the market” — that is, the daily workings of entrepreneurs and the many little decisions of customers — appear somewhat too dry to be interesting.
Don Felícito Yanaqué is not hiding any destructive passions; wealth is not the suit of respectability he wears to live in society. He has but one passion: his Mabel. But not even Mabel, with the exhilarating power of beauty and the discovery of lust, can change in Don Felícito what happens to be its true substance. Don Felícito is a bourgeois.
Mario Vargas Llosa has been celebrated as a giant in contemporary literature, which is rather obvious, and as a powerful spokesman for freedom. He has not, however, been celebrated as a powerful spokesman for freedom in his role as a novelist. And yet he is. Think about his depiction of the authoritarian diseases in The Feast of the Goat. Or his splendid travel into the self-inflicted illusions of utopia in The Way to Paradise.
In The Discreet Hero, I think he has given us a powerful, contemporary exemplification of those “bourgeois virtues” that are, as the economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey has amply illustrated, the necessary underpinning of a free society. The Christian virtues (hope, faith, and charity) keep society together and forward-looking, but the four pagan virtues (justice, temperance, courage, and prudence) are all what Don Felícito is about.
The businessman is prudent indeed: He buys low and sells high; he measures his steps. Don Felícito’s business grew little by little. But it grew, and in order to have growth he needed temperance: He was calm and modest in his pursuits, and built brick after brick. Don Felícito’s temperance may elicit admiration, but also irritation in his beloved one, as the readers of this novel already know.
Don Felícito lives on a clear idea of justice. He doesn’t falter from the legal principle of suum cuique tribuere (rendering to each his due), and it is this sense of justice in retribution, a sense that honestly earned profits should not be left at the mercy of the thieves and the unindustrious, that feeds his courage. This courage, much like in the pursuit of a new business venture, can also — as we’ll see — make him adamant in his private undertakings. When he’s blackmailed, he reasons that the point of resisting is not the money, but the refusal to let somebody take advantage of him.
The Peru that Vargas Llosa describes in The Discreet Hero is a country in which economic growth is erupting. The cause of the wealth of nations is a matter that scholars have long explored. But writers explore it, too, and Vargas Llosa, in this novel, points to many little entrepreneurs that, despite not being a Walt Disney or a Steve Jobs, make a difference every day. These people are the preachers of the cult of dedication and thrift. They turn lights off when they exit a room, and they wake up earlier than they could — because if they don’t, they would feel like slackers. Don Felícito is all the many things that, in different proportions, make such entrepreneurs: the memory of his childhood poverty, a strict father, a sense of duty and self-help.
The Discreet Hero tells the story of a man that reached relative prominence, and relative wealth, without surrendering any of his values. Wealth needs not be the result of unscrupulous contrivances. And so also tells us Armida, the other main character of the story, who moves from servant to heiress with charm and good heart. Wealth is not necessarily dissolute, and you can actually rise to the bourgeoisie by living a moral life.
A literary mind is used to contemplating the complexity of the human heart and human action, so it is only surprising at first glance that Mario Vargas Llosa entered politics by raising the flag of the rule of law against an attempted nationalization of banks and insurance companies. Since then, he has embodied a thoughtful response to the flabbergasting simplicity of populism — whose narrative is always a drastic simplification of things, turning the wide-ranging novel that is reality into a simpler swashbuckler story.
The central planner, the bureaucrat, and the social engineer systematically undervalue the richness of human experience. Theirs is an urge to save “wholesale” humanity, with little interest for the stories of individual human beings. Like the small entrepreneur, the petit bourgeois live a life of calculations, of big and small trades. This is a life of moral choices, of virtues indeed.
The point is not just that any and all human beings have dignity of their own, and thus are not pieces to be arranged on a chessboard. The point is that any and all human beings have interesting stories of their own. Mario Vargas Llosa has told many of these interesting stories. Dreary as sometimes they may be, all these stories are a celebration of the human freedom that social engineers can never fully understand, let alone appreciate.