‘Captain Pantoja and the Special Service’ (1973) by Mario Vargas Llosa

by Jaime Grijalba

Even if the last time I was reviewing a Mario Vargas Llosa novel I said that ‘Conversations in the Cathedral’ was the one book that he had to write for him to receive the Nobel, I think that I’m finally understanding why people like this peruvian writer so much, specially after reading this particularly funny follow-up novel. Being funny was something that Mario Vargas Llosa has always flirted with, but he had never made a completely funny (in the sense of laughing out loud) novel until this one came along, I’m not sure if he repeated the formula, and even if I don’t think that this particular experiment in writing is as good as his serious novels, and specially not as good as his previous effort, it is something different from the Nobel prize winner, and for a dubious and always criticizing reader, I find it miraculous when a writer can turn around its image and reputation to the one who is following him, maintaining a great level of quality and at the same time hinting here and there to the same themes that he has always been pointing at, but with a much more needed refreshing new look at things, as well as a new spin to the dialogue, the writing style and the genre, that is what Mario Vargas Llosa has given us with his wonderful and surprisingly touching/funny/weird/hot novel ‘Captain Pantoja and the Special Service’, whose original title is the much more simple ‘Pantaleón y las visitadoras’, and here, once again, we have a title that is lost in translation, but at the same time I can understand the changes made… for example, we have that the original title translates literally to english as ‘Pantaleón and the visitors’, and while Pantaleón and Captain Pantoja are exactly the same person, I can think that Pantoja is somewhat a more relatable surname than the name Pantaleón, the inclusion of an accent in the name makes it distant inmediatly for the english market. Then we have the issue of ‘the visitors’, and for those who are unfamiliar with the novel, and when you read ‘visitadoras’, the only thing you can think of is female visitors, but who are they? In the english title they have gone above the problem that the ‘visitors’ couldn’t possibly had a genre attached to them (au contraire in the spanish language, where almost every noun has a genre attached to it, and an equivalent in the opposite genre), so they just nickname the ‘visitors’, the ‘special service’, something more akin to the title of ‘Captain’, but what does it actually refer to? Well, let’s see.

Well, the story that the novel tell us through our highly likeable characters is the one of the Captain Pantaleón Pantoja of the army of Perú, who has been recently assigned with a top secret mission in the squadron that is guarding and having soldiers in the amazonian jungle part of Perú. His mission is so secret that he can’t even tell his own wife and mother, and since he’s always been an obedient militar man, he listens, obeys and puts all his strength into the mission that he is put into: the creation of a ‘special service’ for the soldiers that are in the Amazon jungle. The high powers of the military in Lima, the capital of Perú, have heard enough complaints from the civilans living in small towns of the biggest jungle in the world, reports of rapes, bestiality and even sodomy coming from the ranks of soldiers stationed there (this in a time of less tolerance towards homosexual behaviour, even if in the military this is still condemned and mocked at every turn that they have at it), so they decide that they must create an institution that will hire prostitutes that would tour the facilities so that they can aliviate the needs of all the soldiers present, and so avoid problems like the ones stated before. This is a funny world the one in this novel, in which sex and the prostitution are seen under military eyes, where the needs of a man and a soldier can be quantified in time and sex opportunities as well as the maximum amount of acts per month so the soldiers can be ‘satisfied in a manly way’, everything seems to be sorrounded by sex, and people just can’t seem to live long enough without getting some, and the clinical look at it is what makes it hilarious. Our main character, Pantoja, has a real personal and moral problem when he assigned this task, but as he is an obedient captain, he has to follow the orders to the maximum of his capacity… and he manages to create the best and biggest whorehouse that Perú has ever known, just because of his military efficiency, and it’s funny how the high elements of the planning and intelligence of the transport and hiring of the prostitutes is mixed up with the low-life elements that are usually connected with the life of the prostitution, it’s a mix that makes up for the best comedic elements.

Most of the novel is told via reports and letters written by the characters, most of them in technical language about how the prostitutes are treated either like cargo that needs to be shipped from place A to place B, or like soldiers that need to be respected as they are serving a great purpose to the country, that whole dicotomy of course is not only present in the reports, specially when Pantoja asks for more and more prostitutes to hire, as in a way to expand the service to all the soldiers, but also that can be found in the dissent that can be felt through the priests and other elements of the small towns of the Amazonia, that voice their concerns either by letters or through radio shows, whose transcripts make up a long part of the novel in its middle, when the issue of the secret of the mission here is in trouble, specially towards his family. At the same time as we see the huge expansion of ‘Pantilandia’, as is the empire that Pantoja created called by the common people, we also see the morality of the Captain Pantoja fail as he feels more and more immersed in the world of prostitution, he even falls for one of his own, the one that is called ‘the Brazillian’, and it’s funny how much of the revelations towards the state of the enterprise, his relations and how his personal life is going is not done through his own personal narration or accounts, but through the informations, letters and reports made by other people, like when every prostitute had to be able to serve 20 soldiers in a day in a particular, the Brazillion only has to do 10 (the minimum according to the rules created by the captain himself), and we are told that via a report where it is stated that the repartition of the soldiers was hard, specially since there was an inequate number of services done per ‘visitor’, as they are always called, and we are told that before we see any advance of him unto this particular girl, but it’s quickly clear what’s going on. It’s amazing and funny how we don’t actually see the main character we love fail in person, but through second-hand accounts that don’t actually depict the act of betrayal towards his wife. Impressive.

A final note before recommending this book to everyone that is reading this (because it’s a really impressive and funny book). This novel was written at the same time that the film was directed based on the same story, and this was also directed by the writer himself (alongside friend and partner José María Gutiérrez Santos to whom the novel is dedicated), the film ‘Pantaleón y las visitadoras’ (1975) remains the only excursion into directorial work by the writer to this day, the film is also so rare to find that the only clips available on youtube seem to be filmed at a theatre where an old copy was playing: decolored and scratchy we may never actually see this film soon. There was also a more famous and critically lauded adaptation under the same name ‘Pantaleón y las visitadoras’ (2000), directed by Francisco J. Lombardi, who had also directed another film based on a Vargas Llosa novel, ‘La ciudad y los perros’ (1985), based on the first novel of the peruvian writer. The novel does not only feature the acts of military and prostitutes, but also has a subplot that delivers the necesary cultural needs of a novel based in peruvian territory, about a sect of people who grows and grows (at the same time as ‘Pantilandia’ grows) that crucifies little animals as a way of getting closer to God and apeace his rage, but suddenly it all becomes crazier and crazier… but anyway, I’m getting sidetracked, get this novel, it’s short, my edition has only 326 pages, and as you can see, I read them quite quickly compared to the pace I had other times in these reviews of the novels of Llosa.

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