November 21, 2020: “The Cubs” by Mario Vargas Llosa, Translated by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ

Happy Saturday, Story366!

Today began the Scout tree lot I’ve been talking about lately, as 461 freshly cut trees arrived from Michigan. Me and fifty other members of our troop family—Scouts, parents, siblings, friends, etc.—unloaded the trees from the truck and stacked them into connexes (connex?), which took a couple of hours. We set up the stands and lights and even put a sled on top of the trailer, which we’ll adorn with garland and lights. We were going to cut trees and get them ready for selling for a soft opening tomorrow, but it’s supposed to be thirty degrees and pouring down rain, so we decided to forego the soft opening and just open hard on Black Friday. We’ll probably get everything ready on Wednesday, when the Scouts are off and most adults are, too, including me. I can practically taste it, the tree lot, the sales, the pine smell (I smell like pine right now), and the feel of a sixty-pound Fraser fir on my shoulder, lugging it to the saw horses for a fresh cut.

What all of this isn’t is sitting at a computer and typing. No offense, Story366, I love you, but coupled with all the Blackboard work and Zoom meetings I’ve endured this term because of COVID, I’m super-glad to be getting outside, working with my hands, and breaking a sweat. I adore my job and enjoy working with the students, but at this point of the year, my butt, fingers, and eyes are sore from all this sitting around and typing and thinking. Tree lot, like the beer-vending gig every summer, allows me to work in a different way, to exert myself physically instead of mentally, and to learn some new skills—like chain-sawing, drilling, knot-tying, and salesmanship. Given the lack of any beer vending this past summer, I’m super-eager to get out to the lot this year, to shill some timber. By the end of the season—especially if it’s a rainy or cold month—I’ll be more than happy to get back to my computer. Until then, though, who wants to bring home some family memories? We got that.

For today’s post I’m reading the oldest book I think I’ve ever read for this (save Rosellen Brown’s), The Cubs and Other Stories by Mario Vargas Llosa, out in 1979 from Harper & Row (remember that version?) and translated by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ. Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010 and is one of Peru’s, and South America’s, most prestigious writers—he even ran for president back in 1990 and narrowly lost. I ran across his book a while ago at a used bookstore, and seeing how old it was, almost didn’t buy it as I lean toward contemporary titles. But come on! This book is called The Cubs! How could I resist? As I’m winding down the year, and this project as a daily venture, I want to explore every title and author I can, and if that includes reading a Nobel laureate, then I’m a lucky reader.

My main reading today involved that title piece, “The Cubs,” which is actually long a novella, and is about five boys growing up in Peru, tight friends for life. The crew includes Choto, Chingolo, Manny, Lalo, and Cuéllar, all of them attending Champargnat Academy, a Catholic brothers school, all of them working hard to play soccer, to make the school team, to be like the heroes they’ve seen on TV and in the grand stadiums. They all have varying degrees of skill, right down to Cuéllar, who is not athletic or coordinated at all. But he works at it, well enough to make it, anyway.

This is where Cuéllar starts to become the focus of this story, separated out from the other four. Sadly, this is most evident when Judas—the evil Great Dane who lives on the property alongside their practice field—gets out and chases the boys into their locker room. They devise a plan to trap the beast in a shower stall, closing and locking a door. Tragically, their friend Cuéllar is stuck in the stall with Judas and Judas bites him in the penis. Blood is everywhere, Cuéllar is traumatized, but overall, he gets through the incident.

Except that everyone starts calling him P.P. after that, a nicknaming that haunts Cuéllar for a whole chapter (yes, this novella is cut into chapters), until he finally reckons himself with it, months later, suspicious when someone calls him by his give name.

From there, the boys start to get interested in girls, each of them gradually finding someone that they will date for the rest of their lives (except one swap later on). This starts during their freshman year of high school, the last one—aside from Cuéllar—finding someone in college. Celibacy causes Cuéllar to start acting oddly, whether it’s showing up drunk to Christmas mass or surfing down the local river, Cuéllar transforming from an odd little boy into a weirdly dangerous man.

Relief almost comes in the form of Terry, a girl the boys all know who kind of likes Cuéllar. She pursues him for a long time, and he even pursues her, but whatever rules of courtship the boys, and Vargas Llosa, follow, he has to ask her to go steady or it’s not a real thing. The four remaining Cubs do everything in their power to push Cuéllar toward the pairing they think will settle him down and bring him happiness, but it just doesn’t happen. Maybe that dog biting his yank when he was a kid has something to do with it? Maybe. Cuéllar has no problem visiting whores (Vargas Llosa’s word) before … and during … and especially after the Terry courtship, when he blows it and she starts dating another guy.

Losing Terry, even though it’s his own fault, doesn’t do anything for Cuéllar’s mental state, and he just degrades from there. He gets involved in auto racing, but more like the street-racing type. I won’t go any further into the plot, as that’s far enough, but I can’t help leaving this story thinking that young Cuéllar’s life would have been different if that Great Dane never gnawed his gack off.

I should note that this novella isn’t just the story, but the style in which it’s written. The whole thing is a hybrid first-person-singular-plural/third-person mix, written in long paragraphs, paragraphs that are often one chaotic sentence, running on and on. This gives the story a stream-of-consciousness effect, one character, one storyline, one train of thought bleeding into the next. It’s quite an experience, reading this story, falling into Llosa’s patterns and voice, seeing a genius at work.

I’m glad I picked up The Cubs and Other Stories and got to know Mario Vargas Llosa’s work a little today. I think he has more landmark books than this old collection of stories, books I should probably check out. If he has one called The Bears, I might have to hit that one up next.

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