Mario Vargas Llosa’s first published novel, La ciudad y los perros, ends with something of a twist, as we discover that one of the book’s central characters is also one of its principal narrators, a boy who’s been telling us a fairly sad but quite sweet tale about his love for a young girl who lives near him. This comes as a shock because when he is portrayed by others, it is as the ringleader and tough guy of a student gang at Lima’s Leoncio Prado Military Academy, where much of the novel is set. Fully deserving his self-appointed nickname of “the Jaguar,” there he is uncompromising and absolutely unsentimental, quick to jump on the slightest weakness or avenge any slight or infraction. He may well have gone so far as to murder a classmate whom he suspects of snitching. As another gang member puts it, a guy who could be the Jaguar’s best friend if only he had friends rather than merely henchmen and enemies: “Nothing surprises me about the Jaguar, I knew he has no feelings” (317). Hence the surprise indeed when we discover that this hard-bitten delinquent is in fact a closet romantic, whose voice we’d heard but hardly recognized. How much do we, or anyone else, know him after all? We never even discover his real name.
In part, Vargas Llosa is playing with the basic illusion that we can know any character in literature, or even that there are characters to be known. All we have are textual effects. The Jaguar has no “real” name, because he doesn’t exist outside of a text in which any such name is perpetually with-held. Or to put this another way: the Jaguar’s function in the novel is to be a character whose “real” name can only be the subject of conjecture. That’s how the character was written, and if we were to be given his name, it would be less a question of our knowing more about him (as though he really existed, outside the text) than of his becoming a different character with some other function. Likewise, the point is less that we should try to reconcile the apparent divergences between the Jaguar as he is portrayed by others in the Academy, and the character as he is made to reveal himself through first-person narration. It is more that we shouldn’t really be expecting consistency in the first place. The notion of character as a consistent set of attributes and dispositions that endures over time and space is itself a literary fiction, a narrative device.
To put it yet another way: the kind of fractured, non-linear, distributed narration employed by a book such as La ciudad y los perros, with its abrupt shifts of style, point of view, location, and temporality, makes us question the forms of subjectivity that other modes of literary fiction (realism or costumbrismo, for instance) had presented as natural or self-evident. The characters inscribed in Vargas Llosa’s novel are both excessive and elusive: we know too much about them, and find this excessiveness untidy and ambivalent; and yet we also realize that we can never really know them, that they do not exist to be known. In a novel that is obsessed with faces (and above all with “saving” face), we are reminded that neither the Jaguar nor anyone else in the book has a face unless the narrative deigns to describe it. Which is of course how it can get away with its long-delayed twist: the Jaguar is never given a face, so we are unable to recognize that the same character spans two sections of the text. Again, we are reminded of what is left out of the narrative. Or rather, once more, it is not so much that the Jaguar has a face that is simply never shown to us; his facelessness is a constitutive characteristic of his inscription on the page.
All this suggests perhaps other modes of subjectivity, other ways of conceiving the self or selves. An inconsistent, self-contradictory, and faceless self. For all selves are fictions of one sort or another, and we could imagine the effects of different narrative strategies on the construction and presentation of the self. In a fight near the end of the book (a strange, wordless struggle between two of the schoolboy cadets), the Jaguar mutilates the face of one of his classmates: “He’s destroyed his face,” an observer says, “I don’t understand” (382). But it may be that this is the Jaguar’s function more generally (the “jaguar effect,” if you like): an assault on all our faces; a violent desecration of outmoded notions of the subject.