Immersive, surreal, charming: Mario Vargas Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

Structurally, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is very similar to The Black Book, by that other recent Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk: alternate chapters are literary products of the fictional world described in the novel. In Aunt Julia’s case, every other chapter is an episode in a soap opera radio series written by one of the main characters, a Bolivian scriptwriter called Pedro Camacho, whereas in The Black Book alternate chapters are newspaper columns written by a close friend of the main character.

The similarity ends there: Pamuk’s novel is dark, complex and unsettling, with the fictional and meta-fictional ‘worlds’ blurring into one; Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, on the other hand, is tremendous fun, with the principal (and linear) narrative focus quickly established in the other chapters: the semi-autobiographical story of the young Mario and his affair with a glamorous divorced aunt, fourteen years his senior. It’s the kind of rollercoaster ride that makes most rom-coms seem pedestrian.

Mario works on the news desk at the radio station in Lima which employs Camacho to write the soap opera. An aspiring writer, Mario comes to idolise the idiosyncratic Camacho, who eschews all material trappings in order to take his low-brow art with the utmost seriousness.

These soap opera episodes are surreal, extreme and often darkly hilarious: a man is on the verge of insanity after killing a young girl in a car accident, until he is ‘cured’ by a psychiatrist who induces him to hate all children; another is moved to wage a life-long war on rodents after rats devour his infant sister; a middle-aged doctor discovers at a wedding that the bride – his niece – is pregnant with the best man’s baby.

Camacho is undoubtedly a talented writer, with an eye for the absurdities and flaws of human life, but after churning out script after script after script for the soap operas, barely pausing for breath and working long, long days, his capacity is depleted, his mind ravaged, and the later episodes we read are increasingly bizarre and incomprehensible, with characters switching names and identities. It’s plausible to assume that here Mario Vargas Llosa is speaking to the writer’s deeply-held awareness of the fragility of his or her gift.

There’s a link to a BBC World Book Club interview with the author available for listening here in which he emphasises that the story of Pedro Camacho – as told through the soap opera episodes, is the main intended focus of the novel (even if the Mario/Julia tryst drives the plot along). In the interview Vargas Llosa says ‘most novels are autobiographical … all of the novels I’ve written use raw materials from my life … [including in this case] memories of Lima in the 1950s … but what is invented in the book is much more important that what are memories’.

So, the story of Camacho was where Mario Vargas Llosa began, but became worried about it turning into a ‘purely imaginary exercise’, so the tale of Mario and Julia was included initially as a contrast. However as the narrative moves on, Mario and Aunt Julia’s attempts to secure a life together become ever more extravagant, leading the author to comment that novels are ‘not an appropriate vehicle to tell truths, a novel should tell lies as if they were truths’.

There are many interesting themes explored in Aunt Julia, which underpin the froth and give the novel weight. In particular the ideas of degradation of talent over time, with linked issues of control – of one’s characters and, in Camacho’s case, of one’s mind. The magic of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, for me, was that despite the plot being so extravagant and unbelievable, it is told with such flair that I felt a sense of deflation when, in the last chapter, the ‘real’ real world rudely intervenes.

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