A parody of the writer

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
by Mario Vargas Llosa
translated from Spanish by Helen R Lane

This was a book group choice and typically the meeting happened during the nasty cold snap we have had and I decided not to brave the freezing rain to attend. I did however have a brief Twitter chat about the book. Not quite the same but fun!

I knew pretty much nothing going into this book. I didn’t even read the blurb so the format came as a surprise. It’s the semi-autobiographical story (I learned that from Twitter; the copy of the book I had gave no indication) of Mario, a young man juggling a law degree, working full-time for a radio station in Lima, writing short stories and developing a relationship with an older woman (the Aunt Julia of the title, who is not strictly his aunt, but is always known as such). He largely manages this juggling act by never going to university and frequently skiving from his job, none of which seems to bother anyone nearly as much as him dating a 32-year-old divorcee.

(Incidentally this made me, having recently turned 32, feel pretty old. Not that I would dream of dating an 18-year-old, in fact that seems icky, but I do object to being considered old!)

Mario’s story is alternated with the radio serials written by Pedro Camacho, the scriptwriter of the title. This isn’t made clear though, so the first time the story switched I was a bit thrown, especially when it descended into melodrama. Camacho himself is an enigmatic character, with a mysterious background and very high-strung artistic temperament, not to mention some unusual working methods. And his radio serials are a huge hit:

“When I asked them why they liked soap operas more than books, they protested: what nonsense, there was no comparison, books were culture and radio serials mere claptrap to help pass the time. But the truth of the matter was that they lived with their ears glued to the radio and that I’d never seen a one of them open a book.”

Despite the element of auto fiction, there are some clear literary allusions at work. The radio serials are ridiculous but Mario’s real life becomes as crazy and farcical as the radio scripts had been to begin with. And there are various types of writing for a living explored. Camacho writes his radio soaps at formidable speed, churning out ten different storylines. Mario and his assistant rewrite news stories for radio. Mario writes short stories that are never published (usually based on real-life stories he has been told, in a bit of symmetry with the origin of this novel) and he dreams about moving to Paris to live in a writer’s garret. Despite being snide about the radio serials he admires Camacho’s dedication to his art:

“How could he be, at one and the same time, a parody of the writer and the only person in Peru who, by virtue of the time he devoted to his craft and the works he produced, was worthy of that name? Were all those politicians, attorneys, professors who went by the names of poets, novelists, dramatists really writers, simply because, during brief parentheses in lives in which four fifths of their time was spent at activities having nothing to do with literature, they had produced one slim volume of verses or one niggardly collection of stories? Why should those persons who used literature as an ornament or a pretext have any more right to be considered real writers than Pedro Camacho, who lived only to write?”

I found the main character a little frustrating, as 18-year-olds are wont to be, and would have preferred to learn more about Aunt Julia and the scriptwriter, who both remain a little mysterious. In fact, the overall style is detached enough that I didn’t greatly care how things turned out, though I was entertained enough to keep reading,

There are a few other themes covered. Obviously, love, though it’s always love of an overblown teenage/soap opera kind. There is nothing moving or romantic about any of the love stories in this novel. Another is memory. Mario is telling his story from later in life, giving a lot of detail about some days that you could argue the average person just wouldn’t remember. And there’s a character who starts having memory problems, but they’re not dealt with particularly sensitively. Instead they’re the source of comedy, which I found uncomfortable.

That wasn’t the only uncomfortable subject for me. The book includes racism, sexism and religious bigotry and, while they’re not passed off as acceptable views, they are used for humorous value. When I went back and read the blurb on the back of my copy it calls this a “comic novel” and I would argue that it is neither, though it has elements of both.

I found this a very slow read but at no point was it a struggle, I always felt I was enjoying it, so I would probably read Llosa again. What potentially interests me more, though, is that Julia Urquida, the “Aunt Julia” of the title, wrote her own memoir of her relationship with Llosa called What Little Vargas Didn’t Say. It sounds brilliantly bitter from that title!

La tia Julia y el escribidor published 1977. English translation first published in the USA in 1982 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Source: Bought secondhand via Abe Books.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

See also: Mario Vargas Llosa discusses Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter on World Book Club.