Sunday, May 17, 2009


Mario. Vargas. Llosa. For some strange reason that name conjured a vision of an extremely serious writer typing somber, tedious sagas spanning generations, replete with tumultuous political events and heartbreaking drama. How wrong I was. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is anything but serious. I should have been more observant and let the whimsical cover clue me in. Nothing somber about it. It's flashy, color splashed, and it looks like the artist had much fun reading the novel and was inspired in designing the cover art.

It is a fun book. The back cover blurbs use adjectives like funny, extravagant, madcap, uproarious. All descriptions accurate.

The story revolves around Varguitas, a young law student and aspiring author who is paying his dues by writing slash plagiarizing news for radio. Set in the 50s, the story happens at a time when TV is not yet the ubiquitous medium it is now. Radio rules as the channel for entertaining and informing the masses.

Two Bolivians come to town.

One is Pedro Camacho, a talented but twisted writer who writes scripts and directs radio drama. His radio shows hook listeners and soon he becomes the buzz of Lima.

When Varguitas, peculiar in that society because he prefers books over the radio, asks his grandma why she likes radio serials so much, she says 'It's more lifelike, hearing the characters talk, it's more real. And what's more, when you're my age, your hearing is better than your eyesight." His other relatives explains their addiction by saying, "because they set a person to dreaming, to living things that are impossible in real life, because there are truths to be learned from them, or because every woman remains more or less or a romantic at heart." And that explains why Camacho's following grows. As his popularity rises to mythic proportions, his manic madness worsens, and soon he's out of control.

The stories that Camacho writes are central to the story. They are narrated in chapters alternating with the main plot chapters. So the reader actually reads many little stories within one book. Stories that entertain, shock, and end the chapters in cliffhangers and intriguing questions the way serials are wont to do. To me, this is interesting because the book uses similar devices to a book I read recently, Ricky Lee's Para Kay B. But Llosa's book ties the stories more cohesively to the main plot.

The other visitor from Bolivia is Aunt Julia, related to Varguitos only by law, recently divorced, and out to find a husband. She did not count on having a romance with a relative 14 years her junior. What ensues is mayhem as irate relatives, well-meaning friends, queer mayors, and a violent father get involved in this comedy that twists, convolutes, and climaxes (ooops, spoiler alert) in the most exciting and tiring wedding I've ever read about.

The story could and should have ended very soon after the climax. Instead it over-explains what happens after the meaty part of the story. A protracted epilogue. Only then do you realize that the book is actually a semi-autobiographical account. Wiki can shed more light about the autobiographical elements of this fiction.

This is my first Llosa, my first novel written by a Peruvian author. It overtook many books in my TBR short list because of a reading challenge I wanted to join. I didn't get to finish the book in time to make the challenge deadline, but I'm glad I read it just the same. It's the kind of book one calls delightful. Llosa is a witty writer who knows how to have fun and how to have his readers join in the fun.

The Latin American vibe is dominant and gives the novel its energy. The soap opera theme influences much the novel's cadence and reading experience. I like that the book is a good balance of realism, satire, fantasy, and slapstick. I enjoyed the detailed account of what happens in the making of radio serials. I like the clever way of using the first few lines of each chapter as titles. Llosa certainly writes to amuse.

I don't know if it's the translation, but the writing is on the side of verbose, with long complex sentences and hard words that trip me up like cyclothymic, oneiric, and deliquescence. As I type, all these words get those squiggly red lines, but they do exist; just look them up.

I recommend you look up some Llosas as well. Well worth reading.
This book is my response to the Global Voices Book Challenge.