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

Having endured deep family and personal stress, Rigoberto 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 teen-age son, Fonchito, an accomplished voyeur, is probably still Lucrecia’s sex partner. Superficially, they are just 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 (some call it pornography), but the picnic is without sexual innuendo. 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. (And the picnic is just about the only episode that doesn’t allude to sex.)

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, wander into a local garbage dump and 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. Photo/Andina Defusion. This photograph confirms Vargas Llosa’s suggestion that like the garbage-strewn Rimac, modern life is filled with detritus.

The culminating mishap occurs when Rigoberto wades into to the Rímac’s swift current, slips, and looses 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 sipping 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, and passionately make love, Vargas Llosa is daring (warning) his readers that they might not be happy for long.

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