Dealing with a sensitive and controversial topic, prostitution, Mario Vargas Llosa utilizes humour and elements of modernism to highlight the conflicts and irony that the protagonist faces in completing his job as an Army captain. Masterfully combining comic, tragedy, satire and irony, the Nobel prize winner presents moral questions relating to the existence and exploitation of prostitution – a topic that is as hard to discuss now as it was in 1973.
With a fluid and flexible format, ranging from linear story telling to segments of military documents, radio broadcasts, dialogue etc., the novel portrays different and varying positions on the Special Service that captain Pantoja is assigned to create and manage. To the captain, this is simply an order from the Army that he must complete and therefore his approach and view at the beginning of his assignment is methodological and objective. The character displays no moral opinion of the subject and proceeds with careful analysis and calculations of supply and demand and planning the logistics of the prostitution service. To the religious people of Iquitos and surrounding areas, the women in the service are “those who dishonorably deal in their own body” and is an abhorrent and unacceptable practice. The women are considered shameful and disgraceful, filled with sin and utterly dishonourable. To the women themselves, service for the military is stable, low risk, well paid: “security working with the soldiers, feeling yourself protected by the Army”. These opposing views rooted in extremely different motives present the main conflict of the novel that the protagonist finds himself in. The captain struggles between orders from the general, pressure from religious groups and his own military discipline, which is further complicated by his lustful instincts, and pressure from his family. As the conflict builds up and escalates, ironically because the protagonist had “converted the Special Service into the most efficient unit of the armed forces”, the central question of the novel presents itself subtly: “should prostitution be accepted?” Llosa does not answer this but merely presents readers with story line and character branches that are vibrantly developed, charged with energy and strong motivation for the opinions they hold.
This chaotic environment is managed ingeniously by Llosa’s light and farcical tone, which worked extremely well for the topic at hand, one that stirs emotionally and heated debate. Due to the comical tone throughout the narration, the novel allows readers to take in the topic with a relaxed and open mind, hence making the novel effective at communicating different points of view. Most importantly, it has the effect of making Pantoja appear likable; if a more serious and grim tone had been employed, he would have been perceived gravely by the readers right from the start from organizing the service, in other words, being a “pimp”. The novel eases in to such serious topic playfully, but never normalizing or diminishing the importance of the novel’s central theme. However, half way through the novel, a drastic change in tone marks and foreshadows tragic endings. As Pantoja’s nightmare plagues him, the use of strong words such as “terror, distrust, frightened, devil, torture” marks the shift of the story’s direction.
The tragedy that happened to the Special Service has deep thematic implications. Up until that point in the novel, the Special Service has never been described as being a violation of another’s body and they have always been escorted with secure measures. However, the prostitutes’s attack, rape and murder reinstates the vulnerability of the women, placing them in the same danger they had been when they were working outside the army. In addition, the assailant of the women signifies a failure of the army to protect the people who rely on it, and work for it, and symbolically, combined with the bureaucratic implications in the army from the beginning of the novel, is a strong criticism of the Army’s inability to achieve its goals. The crucifixion of the beautiful woman can be interpreted as religion’s role in the danger that women in prostitution face: religion cannot make prostitution go away, and provides little help for the women in such situation.
Mario Vargas Llosa ultimately leaves it up to his readers to take a moral stance on the subject of prostitution. In the end, Pantoja is portrayed as a hero, one with compassion for the women he recruits and strong sense of discipline in the job he undertakes. He is a hero for standing up for the women under his control, by bravely saying to his General Scavino, “And as for the women who carry out this work with true self-denial, what they do has never been acknowledged.” He is a one of a kind hero, a controversial one no doubt.