Thursday, 3 March 2011

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa.
I requested this from the library after reading a blog review somewhere and it was an excellent, if slightly confusing read. Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian writer now living mostly in Spain who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. I had noticed that the main character in the story shares his name but it did not occur to me to think, as the wikipedia page tells me, that the book is based on his own early life experiences and first marriage.

It is an initially very confusing read because the chapters lurch from story to story without any explanation of what the writer is doing. So half the chapters are actually story-lines from radio soap operas that are being written by the scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho, and the alternate chapters are the ongoing (real life) saga of Mario and his Aunt Julia. Mario is an 18 year old law student who lives with his grandparents and works at a local radio station preparing news bulletins, but who's dream is to be a writer. At lunch one day with one of his many and various aunts and uncles he meets the glamorous Aunt Julia, 32 and recently divorced, arrived from Bolivia to find herself a new husband. They venture to the cinema together after she uses him as an excuse to escape the unwanted attentions of another suitor, and their relationship, starting with amicable friendship, soon blossoms into romance.

In the other part of his life Mario is developing a friendship with Pedro Camacho, also arrived from Bolivia, to save the fortunes of the radio station. He is incredibly dedicated, working 18 hour days, writing, directing and performing in several serials every day, which quickly becomes the talk of the whole city. The plots are very involved and torturous: a wedding where the bride is in an incestuous relationship with her brother; a man obsessed with annihilating the city's rats after his own baby sister is eaten alive while under his care; an elderly couple appear to try and marry off their daughter to her supposed rapist, a man who offers to castrate himself to prove his own innocence.

Meanwhile in spite of their attempts to keep it secret the relationship between Mario and Aunt Julia (always referred to in this way, even after the marriage!) becomes more complicated in the face of family and societal disapproval, and they make very convoluted plans to marry, without his parents permission. The two halves of the plot kind of come together in a totally insane and hysterical climax. Pedro Camacho begins to go crazy from overwork, can no longer remember which character is in which soap and begins to get very confused, and so in a desperate attempt to save the situation creates a series of increasingly bizarre violent catastrophes in each story so that he can begin again from scratch. At the same time Mario and his friends pawn most of their possessions to raise money, and there ensues a farcical chase across the countryside trying to find a local mayor corrupt or negligent enough to marry them without the proper documents.

I am not sure how much I liked it, but I stuck it out to the end. It makes an interesting contrast to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the few other Latin American writers I have read. It is apparently supposed to be mocking the plots of radio soap operas, and since I am not familiar with what they are like the joke was lost on me. I think that maybe the humour is very culturally specific, having a dig at family relationships, social pressure and other aspect of modern Peruvian culture. I found it didn't flow as a novel because of the interruptions of the soap opera chapters, which initially I though were separate parts of the same story, and these chapters in themselves were just plain weird, little snippets of totally surreal characters and situations without any story resolution. I might well be tempted to try something else by the same writer, he was apparently very politically radical in his early career.

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