Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Mario Vargas Llosa, _Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter_

I HAD READ a pair of Vargas Llosa novels before this one--The War of the End of the World and The Feast of the Goat--so I don't know why it took me so long to get to this one, which I remember lots and lots of people reading in the 1980s. (In fact, my copy is a Quality Paperback Book Club edition--whatever happened to them?--which suggests how widely read this novel was.)

The story is set in Lima, Peru, in the 1950s. The narrator is an aspiring writer with the same name as the author; he is trying to finish a law degree while working on the staff of a radio station, but spends most of his time writing and rewriting short stories that he cannot get published. He becomes fascinated by Pedro Camacho, the author of a proliferating number of radio serials that have made their station Lima's most popular--this is the scriptwriter.The recently-divorced sister of the wife of one of Mario's uncles arrives in town, and Mario has the task of being her escort to the movies, a task he resents until he begins to be fascinated by her as well, even though she is twelve years older than he--this is Aunt Julia.

The title led me to expect that Pedro and Julia would meet, fall in love, etc. They do meet, but it is Mario who falls in love with Julia and persuades her to marry him, over the opposition of their whole family, especially his old-school cut-you-off-without-a-penny patriarch of a father. We find out in the final chapter they do not live happily ever after, exactly--the marriage lasts eight years-- but love does conquer convention and family opposition, which makes for a classic comedy ending, at least.

Apparently Vargas Llosa himself married an older female relative; according to Wikipedia, "he married Julia Urquidi, his maternal uncle's sister-in-law, in 1955 at the age of 19; she was 10 years older." The most interesting aspect of the novel, though, is not its possible autobiographical connections, but its attention to storytelling: the urge to tell them, the costs of telling them, our intense emotional engagement with them even though we know they are illusions.

We have not only the big-arc story of Mario's and Julia's relationship, but also numerous micro-examples such as the lies Mario tells to persuade various officials that he is of age to marry, and in between the chapters on Mario and Julia we have the stories told by Pedro Camacho's scripts, which start blending into a bizarre recursive mélange as he gradually forgets which character belongs to which story line. 

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter kept reminding me of Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller (which was published two years later) in being a love story interleaved with a compendium of many other stories of many different kinds.  Both novels let us revel in our fascination with stories, while also considering how our stories create us, sometimes betray us, are in any case an inextricable element of our being in the world.

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