Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, by Mario Vargas Llosa

>> Friday, August 06, 2010

TITLE: La Tia Julia y el Escribidor (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter)
AUTHOR: Mario Vargas Llosa

COPYRIGHT: 1977
PAGES: 489
PUBLISHER: Punto de Lectura

SETTING: 1950s Lima, Peru
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: No

REASON FOR READING: For my book club. This was actually my suggestion. I read it for the first time many years ago, in my early teens (we're talking over 15 years ago), and I remember loving it.

Mario Vargas Llosa's masterful, multilayered novel is set in the Lima, Peru, of the author's youth, where a young student named Marito is toiling away in the news department of a local radio station. His young life is disrupted by two arrivals.

The first is his aunt Julia, recently divorced and thirteen years older, with whom he begins a secret affair. The second is a manic radio scriptwriter named Pedro Camacho, whose racy, vituperative soap operas are holding the city's listeners in thrall. Pedro chooses young Marito to be his confidant as he slowly goes insane.

Interweaving the story of Marito's life with the ever-more-fevered tales of Pedro Camacho, Vargas Llosa's novel is hilarious, mischievous, and masterful, a classic named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review.
In 1950s Lima, the young Mario, a law student from an upper class family, divides his time between his studies and working in a small radio station. He doesn't spend much time doing either of those things. Rather, he is determined to become a writer, and spends whatever time he can steal from other activities trying to write short stories and get them published.

But then Aunt Julia arrives into his life. Julia is not really his aunt, but the sister of his uncle's wife (I feel like I'm writing a French exercise!). She's in her early thirties and recently arrived from Bolivia, having just got a divorce there. They don't initially get along too well, as Julia insists on treating "Marito" (diminutive of Mario in Spanish - kind of "little Mario"), as she calls him, like a child, much hurting the 18-year-old's pride and deflating his pretensions of wordliness and sophistication. But it doesn't take long before their relationship changes, and they begin a forbidden affair.

Meanwhile, Mario's radio station has hired a new scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho, for its soap operas. Nothing to do with Mario, technically, as he works in the news department, but the young man can't help but become fascinated by the strange little man, who comes up with a prodigious number of outrageous scripts, all of which prove to be incredibly successful.

But this I've just described is only half of the book, because the chapters narrating Mario's story are interspersed with chapters which, the reader soon realises, are the prose version of Pedro Camacho's soaps. And as much as we learn of Camacho through Mario's description of their interactions, we learn even more from the stories he comes up with.

This is a long book, but pages just flew by. I enjoyed myself, but unlike the first time I read it, I think this time I admired it more than I liked it.

I have to take my hat off to Vargas Llosa. His writing, as always, is brilliant, and nowhere is this more clear than in the chapters containing Pedro Camacho's radio soaps. Those were Wonderfully done, and I could have sworn they were not being written by the same person who was writing all the other chapters from Mario's point of view. Whatever the subject matter, they were all clearly written by the same person, and it was a person whose personality you came to know through them.

I actually found it quite fascinating how Vargas Llosa, a writer himself, obviously, told the story of Pedro Camacho, his foibles, his attitudes, his irrational hatreds (I had quite a lot of fun with his rabid anti-Argentinianism), all through what the man was writing. Which raises the very interesting issue of whether you can really come to any conclusions about the writer through his fiction? In Camacho's case, one very clearly can.

Excellently done as they were, I did, however, enjoy these soaps less and less as the story progressed. We start out with incest amongst the upper classes, and believe it or not, things get even seedier after that. That in itself wasn't a problem for me, although sleazy is not really to my taste. The main issue I had was the language, which I came to find incredibly uncomfortable.

I don't know how well language would come through in the translation, but it made my skin crawl. It's not just that it's coarse or turgid (though it is, strangely enough, both at the same time). It's... ugly. That's the best way I can describe it. It comes to the worst, most degrading conclusions about everyone. It sticks labels on people, reduces them to only one element (Camacho keeps using the construction "the (adjective) one" instead of characters' names). The use of technical, police report-style language in some cases (using the relatively undramatic "estupro" instead of "violacion" to describe the rape of a young girl), makes light of very traumatic events. I have no doubt that this was done completely on purpose, and it's very successful in telling us about Camacho, but it's the main reason why I say I admired the book but didn't really like many parts of it.

The chapters on Marito's life were more enjoyable, even if, compared to Camacho's soaps, they weren't as insanely exciting (and that's saying quite a lot, considering they were about a scandalous, forbidden affair!). I especially liked visiting upper middle-class Lima in the 1950s, which felt very familiar (probably because it sounds very much like the environment my parents grew up in back in Uruguay), but also quite alien. Things have certainly changed in term of young people's independence, but in Latin America, it's clear many things haven't changed at all!

In terms of what's changed, I found it sweet that even though Julia is a scandalous divorcee, much more experienced than Mario, they have this old-fashioned courtship where they basically hold hands and make out for months, and don't sleep together while they're not married. Still this is not one to read for the romance, I thought. Theirs is not a forever kind of love, and they know it, Julia even makes Mario promise to stay with her for 5 years, knowing (rightly, it turns out), that their relationship won't last much more than that. Realistic, probably, but not very romantic.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about the fact that that part of the story was semi-autobiographical (or is it fictionalised-autobiographical?). Vargas Llosa did, indeed, have an affair with his Tia Julia (in fact, some years after this book was published she wrote her own version of the story in "Lo Que Varguitas No Dijo" - "What Varguitas Didn't Say". It seems to have been published by a small Bolivian press, so I can't really find a link other than this one). I guess I'm not much of a voyeur, because I was vaguely uncomfortable about it, and I actively tried to read it as fiction and forget it was based on real events.

The one element I haven't mentioned yet is actually one that I really liked, and that is that throughout the whole novel the author explores the idea of what good literature is, whether it can be good in isolation or whether the effect it has on readers should be considered as well. This is done through the contrast between Mario's efforts and Camacho's output. Both are dreadful, but for very different reasons. While Camacho's stories are pulpy and turgid, his stories at least capture his listeners' imagination. Mario's seem much too concerned with being literary and although we never actually get to read any of them, you just know what they would be like: all overwritten and derivative, and probably unreadable.

MY GRADE: A B+ just because what I grade is my enjoyment of books. On technical terms, this is an A.

3 comments:

Susan/DC,  10 August 2010 19:07  

When I read "Aunt Julia & the Scriptwriter" I kept expecting it to be about the interactions of Aunt Julia and the scriptwriter meet. Since I'm fairly slow, it took about half the book for me to realize that it was about the two characters but that they never meet. Their stories take place at the same time but are parallel and intersect only as they both relate to Mario.

A very good book, as you note, but with some very disturbing parts. It's interesting that you note the age difference, because so many romances have a similar gap but with the man older.

rosario001,  11 August 2010 08:21  

From Susan/DC (I don't know why Susan, but while I get notifications for your comments, they don't show up in the actual blog!): When I read "Aunt Julia & the Scriptwriter" I kept expecting it to be about the interactions of Aunt Julia and the scriptwriter meet. Since I'm fairly slow, it took about half the book for me to realize that it was about the two characters but that they never meet. Their stories take place at the same time but are parallel and intersect only as they both relate to Mario. 

A very good book, as you note, but with some very disturbing parts. It's interesting that you note the age difference, because so many romances have a similar gap but with the man older.

rosario001,  11 August 2010 08:26  

Susan: I think they actually meet a few times, but you're right, the story is most definitely not about that. Julia finds Pedro Camacho funny, but nowhere near as fascinating as Mario does, while he, completely absorbed in his world, as always, barely registers her. 

Very true about the age difference in romance, but fortunately, I haven't see the fully grown man / innocent, childlike teenage heroine pairing for ages. 

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