Naturally, in the life of a great writer no significant love remains untold. In 1977, during a period when his work took a turn toward comedy, Vargas Llosa wrote Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, about a young man named Mario and his bride.It’s almost a Latin American equivalent of Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” mixed with a sprinkling of Mordechai Richler and Woody Allen. Just like how children’s books work on the formula of giving children special powers, the best teenager’s fiction gives their hero or heroine, independence.
“Mario Vargas Llosa, the 74-year-old virtuoso of Spanish prose who was awarded the Nobel Prize on Oct. 7, began his adult life with an act of sweet absurdity. As a 19-year-old university student in Lima, Peru, he fell in love with Julia Urquidi. A great beauty, she was far from an appropriate choice for a young innocent from a respectable family. She was a dozen years older and happened also to be his divorced aunt-by-marriage. She at first treated him as a callow youth, unworthy of a woman’s interest, but soon she returned his love. They married in 1955, to the disapproval of their family. They stayed together for several years and divorced in 1964, having had no children.”
Vargas Llosa splits the story between the narrator’s nascent relationship with his Aunt, his friendship with the obsessed, genius serial-author Pedro Camacho, and Camacho’s massively popular radio soaps. There are so many balls flying up in the air at any one time that it is quite astounding of Vargas Llosa that he manages to keep it all together.
The narrator has one goal, which is to become a man of letters. He writes and writes, but the work he produces seems to satisfy only himself. His friends are sympathetic to his desire but less than enthused about his ability to tell a good story. It is believed, as the whispers go, that he does not yet have enough life experienced to write an important story. Along comes Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian radio author who writes and produces scripts for sixteen, seventeen, eighteen hours a day, every day, with everything he writes being of a very high quality. Mario is impressed with Pedro Camacho’s talent, and together they forge an unlikely friendship. While this is happening, Mario meets, and takes an instant dislike to the woman who has recently divorced his uncle, Julia. But, hormones and farce collide and they are brought together, at first merely to kiss, but then love stirs.
These serials are initially tightly plotted, focused with a razor sharp eye, and very clever. They all end with a hook, usually in the form of a series of questions to the reader, pondering what a character will do or how a scene will play out. ‘Would Red Antunez desert his reckless, foolhardy spouse that very night? Might he have done so already? Or would he say nothing, and giving proof of what might be either exceptional nobility or exceptional stupidity, stay with that deceitful girl whom he had so persistently pursued?’ We are firmly within soap opera territory here, with melodrama, familial tension and punch action. What happens, though, is that as the novel progresses and Pedro Camacho’s grip on reality loosens, the stories begin to melt, to mesh and merge with one another. Characters from previous stories appear as though they had always existed within the confines of the current chapter. People die, then are alive as though nothing has happened – only to be killed again, in a series of unfeeling cataclysms. Pedro Camacho, talking to Mario, explains that he tries to end everything in death, now, because he cannot remember his characters well enough to trust himself to continue their stories beyond a half hour serial. As Pedro Camacho’s stories implode, the parallel and main plot advances at a quickening pace as Julia and Mario plan for their wedding. While Camacho’s stories lose focus Mario’s own story gains it, hurtling forward to where it was always meant to go, while Camacho’s end up in a tangled mess.
The writing is unlike Vargas Llosa’s recent work in that it is densely layered and intricately woven together, with little extensions and turrets of meaning sprouting from sentences as clauses are added and added. To describe Pedro Camacho’s directing methods: ‘It was not instructions he was giving them, at least not in the prosaic sense of concrete indications as to how they were to speak their lines – in measured tones or exaggeratedly, slowly or rapidly – but rather, as was his habit, noble, olympian, pontifical pronouncements having to do with profound aesthetic and philosophical truths. What a mouthful! And then, And naturally it was the words “art” and “artistic” that were repeated most frequently in this feverish discourse, like some sort of magic formula that revealed and explained everything.’This is heavy writing, tight and compact in its theme part far reaching in the elaborate nature of its composition. Happily, the writing never becomes so weighty as to tip over the text, instead it remains consistent in its approach to explore and understand the difficulty of art and, later, love. Vargas Llosa was to go and relax this heavy method of writing for the freer, more freely flowing stylings of The Feast of the Goat and The Way to Paradise, but Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter remains interesting and compelling along with its desire to exhaustively examine and minutely describe.
The love story of Aunt Julia and Mario is perhaps the weakest link of the novel. We understand that he loves her, but we do not understand why he loves her. Why her? Why his Aunt, which would, and does provide conflict with the rest of his large family? The novel should put forth an explanation, either by Mario’s internal musings, or through the exotic or expressive or enchanting presence of Julia, but none of these things occur. She is a nice, pleasant character, but it is difficult to understand the sudden and deep love the narrator feels. It is almost as though he wants to love this woman because he knows that such a romance would provide a great deal of fodder for his artistic expression.
But no matter. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter works on so many levels that the few missteps can be forgiven. Vargas Llosa’s work is dense, intelligent, and deeply concerned with the artist’s place in the world. The odd chapters concerned with Mario’s love for Aunt Julia, and his quest to become a writer are interesting and thoughtful, while Pedro Camacho’s even chapters are by turns dramatic, vengeful, nasty, curious, deceitful, pretty.
Fulford: Since American prejudice against Argentina didn’t seem credible, Boyd had to devise a substitute scapegoat. “I tried to pick some people who would not land me in trouble,” Boyd explained when I asked him about this project several years ago. Albanians were his choice. He was writing in 1989, when Albanians were still locked in a silent Stalinist dictatorship. Little had been heard of them. Their newsworthy tragedies were in the future.
So in the film anti-Albanian comments dominate Pedro’s scripts. New Orleans radio listeners love his stories but the Albanian Liberation Organization remains unamused. They burn down one radio station that carries his dramas.
As racism it’s sometimes uncomfortable and Roger Ebert, in his review, said Boyd should have chosen to malign Canadians. But the joke is mainly on Pedro, a blindly obsessive bigot and a self-important artist who believes his plays light up the “miserable, impoverished, dull, and worthless lives” of the listeners. While claiming to have nothing against Albanians, he argues that the wretched masses need to hate somebody.