According to expectation, Don Rigoberto assumes a picnic is always happy. However, the hero of  Vargas Llosa’s Don Rigoberto’s Note Books stretches his imagination not to believe otherwise.  

Having endured deep family and personal stress, Rigoberto, insurance salesman by day and photographer by night, tries to celebrate his newly found happiness. For the moment, at least, the family’s sexual anxieties (lavishly described by Vargas Llosa) are not frothing. Don Rigoberto still has a mistress; his second wife, Lucrecia, has a lesbian lover; and his teenage son, Fonchito, an accomplished voyeur, is probably still Lucrecia’s sex partner. Superficially, they are like other families in Lima heading out of the city for a day in the country. (La, de, da.)

Most of the novel involves graphic sexuality, but the picnic is without sexual innuendo. The picnic is just about the only episode that doesn’t allude to sex. instead, as Rigoberto’s newly found happiness is turned on its head, you get the sense that this is an aberration, especially because Rigoberto (inexplicably) develops a sense of humor.

Problems are immediate: the heat in Lima is sweltering, the polluted air is dense, and traffic crawls. They lose the route to the Rímac River in Chaclacayo, and when they find it, they wander into a local garbage dump and an outdoor latrine. Though none of these unfortunate facts conforms “to the pastoral expedition anticipated by Don Rigoberto,” he is “armed with unassailable patience and a crusader’s optimism.” With uncharacteristic optimism, he persuades the incredulous Lucrecia and Fonchito “not to be disheartened by difficult circumstances.”

The Rímac River is Lima’s most important water resource. Photo/Andina Defusion. This photograph confirms Vargas Llosa’s description of the Rímac at Chaclacayo.

The Rímac River is Lima’s most important water resource. This photograph confirms Vargas Llosa’s suggestion that, like the garbage-strewn Rimac, modern life is filled with detritus. Photo/Andina Defusion.

The culminating mishap occurs when Rigoberto wades into the Rímac’s swift current, slips, and loses the picnic basket. Gone are the spicy ceviche, the rice and duck, the crepes with blancmange, and the wine. Gone is the checkered cloth and napkins especially selected by Dona Lucrecia. Everything. Miraculously there are no recriminations, and when they get home, they have another picnic in the kitchen, eating avocado-with egg-and-tomato sandwiches and drinking cold beer.

Imagining otherwise, Rigoberto thinks his family picnic “wasn’t so disastrous after all.” Maybe. Though Rigoberto, Lucrecia, and Fonchito might laugh off the picnic’s disasters, Vargas Llosa is daring (warning) his readers that they might not be happy for long.

You cannot avoid wondering if this picnic among garbage is a metaphor for the novel.

Featured Image: A Merry Company on the Banks of the Rímac (1780/1805ca.) Oil on Canvas. Brooklyn Museum of Art. Two centuries before Rigoberto’s picnic, an unidentified artist of the Lima School painted A Merry Company on the Banks of the Rímac, a happy picnic in which elegant aristocrats engage in lovemaking. Perhaps a scene such as this was the source of Rigoberto’s expectation.

See Mario Vargas Llosa. The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. Translated by Edith Grossman, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998