What the Swedes Read: Mario Vargas Llosa

What the Swedes Read: Mario Vargas Llosa

Daniel Handler
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  • LAUREATE: Mario Vargas Llosa (2010, Peru)
  • BOOK READ: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, translated by Helen R. Lane

In my willy-nilly research following my reading of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, the loopy novel by Peru’s esteemed Nobel winner Mario Vargas Llosa, I stumbled across the news that the book had been adapted for film. The title is changed to Tune in Tomorrow, and the locale is shifted from Lima to New Orleans, and the book’s narrator, a stand-in for Llosa himself, is played by Keanu Reeves. This is not something you see a lot of in the laureate landscape. I don’t think Joseph Brodsky’s To Urania or Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, to name the subjects of two future columns, has an adaptation starring the chiseled, unblinking, hunky star of Point Break, one of modern film’s most guilty pleasures.

The notion of a guilty pleasure kept coming up as I read Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and it’s a concept about which I go both ways. Labeling something a guilty pleasure is often a way to brush off work that is immediately engaging—a severely undervalued trait that’s far more difficult to achieve than it looks—in favor of something that’s been declared, often arbitrarily, “serious.” (Agatha Christie has written dozens of novels smarter and livelier than most of the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it’s Death on the Nile, not The Basil and Josephine Stories, that’s the guilty pleasure.) On the other hand, my enjoyment of Point Break, late at night and howling with laughter, is made of different stuff than the majestic awe my favorite works of serious art have produced in me. It’s not camp value—Point Break is very well made, for what it is—but it’s a certain sheepish tension that perhaps I ought to be asking more of what I’m enjoying, or that it ought to be asking more of me. Or should I? Keanu Reeves plays a buttoned-up FBI officer who ends up going undercover as a surfer in order to track down a lawless, uninhibited bank robber who represents everything our hero has denied himself. This is plenty for a work of art to offer, and I haven’t even mentioned the parachute scene. This is, really, a great plot. Also, it is ridiculous.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter also has a great plot. Our hero, Mario, is an eighteen-year-old writer with a dull day job in radio who stumbles at first out of boredom and then out of passion into a madcap affair with his aunt (by marriage), whose allure first resembles and then supersedes his own lofty literary ambitions. Their family has little patience for either literary ambition or a madcap affair, and an ever-widening scandal ensues as Mario seeks to legitimize himself, his writings, and his not-at-all-blushing bride. But intercut with this plot is another plot—well, actually quite a few other plots, cooked up by one Pedro Camacho, a manic and megalomaniacal comrade of Mario’s who spends his days typing up episodes for the melodramatic radio serials of the day. Mario’s own romantic entanglement becomes entangled with other romantic entanglements, along with crime stories, political scandals, and family schisms, all laid out in the hysteric rises and falls of a soap opera, as Pedro begins to lose himself in the breathless churnings of his own stylish inventions. “As the music little by little intoxicated him, a whirlwind of unanswered questions circled around and around in his mind, growing fainter and fainter, spaced farther and farther apart,” an episode closes. “Would Red Antúnez 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? Would there be a great public scandal, or would a chaste veil of dissimulation and pride trampled underfoot forever hide this tragedy of San Isidro?”

This is ridiculous. You can practically hear the dramatic stings of music, the mustache-twirling of the narrator and gears of the plot, ridiculous but compelling, that keep the novel moving. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter felt like eye candy, so colorfully and zippily did its prose move, until Pedro’s outsize world of the serials begins to intrude on Mario’s real-world dilemmas:

That night after tossing and turning in bed for a long time as I thought things over, I finally turned on the lamp on the nightstand, fished out the notebook in which I kept a list of subjects for stories, and wrote down, by order of preference, the options that lay before me. The first was to marry Aunt Julia and confront the family with a legal fait accompli that they would be obliged to accept, like it or not… The second was to flee abroad with Aunt Julia… The best country for us would be Chile. She could go off to La Paz, to fool the family, and I would light out for Tacna, in an intercity bus or a jitney. I’d manage in one way or another to cross the border illegally to Arica, and from there I’d proceed overland to Santiago, where Aunt Julia would come to join me or be waiting for me. The possibility of traveling and living without a passport… didn’t strike me as an insuperable obstacle, and in fact it rather pleased me: it sounded like something straight out of a romantic novel. If the family, as they were certain to do, tracked me down and forced the authorities to return me to Peru, I would run away again, as many times as necessary, and that was how I’d live my life till I reached that longed-for, liberating twenty-first birthday. The third option was to kill myself, leaving an eloquent, well-written suicide note, that would plunge my parents in remorse.

The far-flung logistics, the intense romanticization, the reckless gestures—​the two threads of the novel eventually become so similar as to be indistinguishable, as the two male romantics drown in the seethings of their own crazed impulses. The idea of a writer confusing fiction and reality is not a new one, and Llosa’s novel doesn’t really make it new. But it makes it exciting. I’d read Llosa before—novels such as Conversation in the Cathedral and The Feast of the Goat, which skewer political corruption and the social intrigue of various South American regimes, perhaps make a more persuasive case for Llosa as the major writer he is, a man who made a bona fide run for president of Peru and whom the Nobel committee singles out “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” But Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter makes a case for Llosa as a terrific and readable writer, a novelist with enough confidence to turn his skills to comic melodrama—just the sort of stuff we like to read, even if we might feel a little guilty for how much pleasure it brings us. It’s almost as if Llosa really liked to surf, on the waves of torrid plots and florid sentences, rather than in the buttoned-up world of serious novel-­writing. You know, like Keanu. 

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