Thursday, May 24, 2012

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Llosa Vargas (Translated by Helen Lane from the Spanish original “La tia Julia y el escribidor”)

 A mad romp of a novel that explores Peruvian middle class dynamics, the spirit of youth, and forbidden love. A book that contains a series of supposed soap opera plots, one more outrageous than the other, giving us thereby a preposterous but entertaining introduction to many Latin American stereotypes. Es estupendo!

Years ago, I was left untouched when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Call it youthful absorption in my own love life or lack of it, but the promise of love requited at seventy did not offer comfort. Also, the names in the book had the slant, throwing quality of the foreign arrayed in the familiar, not unlike… Malay food to an Indian palate? Having grown up in newly decolonized India I got Anglo-Saxon names, and the influx of Russian translations during the cold war era made Vanya and Nikolai, Masha and Aksinya, familiar. But I found it difficult to engage when a Maria befriended a Pilar, or when a can-get-my-head-around-it Florentino cavorted with a hitherto unknown Fermina.

In fact I do not remember a word of the book, except that I was very impressed by how it ended. Marquez was one of the first Nobel laureates I read leaving aside Tagore, so maybe I willed myself to simply ‘finish’ the book – that was my mantra those days. You could put down my lack of response to my youth and lack of literary inclination (my staples were Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie). But then I picked up ‘Memory of my melancholy whores,’ last week, and found myself reacting against the graphic depiction of older men having sex with emotionally untouched, subordinate women. These things do not stop me from going on with a book, but I do not necessarily have to endorse them. Give me Nabokov’s extravagant lyricism or Coetzee’s economy and precision, if we need to deal with the politics of sex from a certain angle, but please do not subject me to explicit illustrations of unsavoury sex in fantastical settings. I do not like it. (Case in point: the Pedro Aldomovar film I watched recently, with an execrable, horrible premise. The only reason I watched it to the end was to see the demented wicked die. ‘In Your skin’ or something. Do not watch it.)

But reading Marquez boosted my sense of well-being. I was whale-shit at the bottom of the ocean that was the trading room, but the other fish were single young men, many of them groovy and gagging for it. Also, if 2008 marked the end of big bonuses, 1994 definitely marked their beginning in India, and reading authors from South Africa and Colombia was my way of adding the suhaaga to the sona. (Old Punjabi saying – sone pe suhaagaa – probably means ‘the clinching good thing on top of a good thing’. Kapish? Never mind.) Overall, I was happier swinging from Bombay locals to work than I could have reasonably been expected to be, and I owe some of it to my reading Marquez when I got a seat. Except the day I rushed into the Malad 8:08, unobservant of reeling women rushing out. I called out to my friend- what incredible luck, I had two window seats facing each other- we could now converse as I dipped into the book a la Jolie-Depp in The Tourist, except that instead of the gorgeous European countryside rushing by, we would catch lines of men squatting down to do their business by the tracks (maybe the women took the first shift, but eight in the morning?), except we did not know Angelina Jolie those days but where was I? I am brought down to earth by the soft squish of the very large pile of yellow shit I had stepped onto. It was spongy and yielded at once; the smell stayed with me for days. I had to be miles away in time and space and read Katherine Boo’s ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’ before I could see that it need not have been a malevolent prank. One could tire of jostling to crap.

Oh yes, so I have always felt guilty about not really reading Marquez, who was selected in the first place on account of his renown and his coming from somewhere far off. When Leena suggested tia Julia by Mario Llosa Vargas, the other Nobel laureate from Sudamerica, I jumped at the chance to read it for our day group. I am glad I did.

I am addicted to Roman a clefs. For those who do not wish to Wikipedia that, a roman a clef literally means (in French at least) a novel with a key. It refers to real events/characters, settings etc. presented as fiction. The relationship between the real and the fictionalized elements is the key of the novel. All autobiographical novels would be roman a clefs – Naipaul’s ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’, R.K. Narayan’s trilogy, Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’ are all roman a clefs as they have strong autobiographical elements. But there are other variations too, like “The Green Carnation” which was loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a Roman a clef, as it follows the life of Mario Vargas himself. It tells the story of young Marito or Varguitas, a law student who works part time at a radio station and dreams of becoming a writer. The ups and downs of his love affair with an older woman are one part of the book. The other part details happenings in the radio station, focusing in particular on a manic Bolivian scriptwriter- Pedro Camacho- who churns out soap operas non-stop. Interspersed are plots for the serials attributed to Camacho, as also Marito’s own more sober productions – fiction within fiction, all of it interesting and amusing. Vargas approaches his protagonist-alter ego’s budding creative life with a light and sympathetic touch, brimming with humour. He is less restrained when describing his family or for that matter his ladylove. But it is his treatment of Camacho that tends to take a turn for the surreal, funny and tragic and extreme, and I cannot wonder if Vargas has not moved from realism to caricature here. But I do not know the life of artists; maybe this is the gritty realism that I wish to ignore.

We had a very interesting discussion. Everybody enjoyed the book. Aparna found the soap opera plots confusing; she says she turned with relief to the love story, the ‘real’ story that she enjoyed very much. She could identify in many ways with the whole notion of the extended family that Mario is part of, the comings and goings between the houses, the easy conviviality. It resonated with her own experience in Benares, where she studied for a year. She was in the lap of the extended family, while her parents like Marito’s were in the United States. Verena sensed a slight obsession with Europe, which made her wonder about cultural hegemony. Shivalik was reading it for the second time and commented that ‘Aunt Julia…’ was a departure from Vargas’s previous books, which were darker, and it was possible that he went overboard. Leena was disappointed in how little one got to know of the food of the place, in a sense she felt the book possessed very little of the immediate physical flavour. She however, agreed that the book gave us a very good sense of how life could be in Lima.

I felt bad for Camacho, but then it was pointed out (Verena? Leena?), that maybe Pedro Camacho the scriptwriter and Mario the protagonist represent between them the arc of a writer’s career. One is at the acme of his profession, poised to fail while the other is starting out. One is a sociopath, egotistical and passionate to the point of madness, a prolific ascetic whose neuroses bring about his downfall. The other is young and vulnerable and full of the joy of life – ambitious, afraid and in love. The one who appears to have tasted the bitter dregs of life sells fantasy, while the sheltered and sensitive young man would plumb for realism. And just as these are both different avatars of the creative persona, so the trajectories of their lives diverge.

The serials by Camacho in the book feature a fifty-year old man, distinguished with silvering temples, a broad forehead and an aquiline nose, a handsome and upright man, in the prime of his life, as the main lead. Maria Vargas Llosa was forty-two when the book came out. Vargas in his later years bears an uncanny resemblance to Camacho’s hero. I am sure this is not co-incidental - just read that description and look at this picture - 

Vargas: Camacho's hero?
I cannot help puzzling over its significance. Is this implied narcissism, or is Vargas laughing at himself? And how about the depiction of Camacho? Vargas has mentioned a Raul Salmon as the inspiration for Camacho. But Raul Salmon appears to have done much better in life - he owns a radio station in Bolivia and is apparently more personable than Camacho. He claims never to have met Vargas (it is entirely plausible that a struggling young boy reporter went unnoticed by the star writer of the station). Refer In his outrage at being linked to an outsize caricature, Salmon accuses Vargas of a deep-rooted anti Bolivian bias, much like Camacho’s seemingly inexplicable (at first,) prejudice against Argentineans, a theme in the book. Is Salmon taking an angry pot-shot or is this Vargas laughing at himself again?

But I keep coming back to a certain gleeful viciousness in Vargas’s treatment of Camacho- is this a catharsis for the writer, does he needs to witness the devastation of his forerunner, an artist he reverences in order to step out of his shadow? And is it again a co-incidence that the book came out a year after Vargas famously punched his fellow writer and friend, the first giant of South American literature - Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Did Camacho start out as Salmon and become a stand in for Marquez? We can only guess and wait for the memoirs.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez with black eye after being punched by Mario Vargas Llosa
Both Vargas and Marquez have been tight-lipped about their altercation though speculation abounds that the incident involved Vargas’s second wife, Patty. Vargas had at some point become enamoured of a Swedish airhostess and moved out of his house. A distraught Patty went to Marquez, Vargas’s great friend at that time. Marquez apparently counselled her to leave Vargas and ‘consoled’ her. In any case, Vargas came back to his wife, she filled him in on Marquez’s reactions and actions and the next thing we know is that Marquez has gone up to Vargas at a film event, arms outstretched crying ‘Marito’, and gotten a beautiful black eye in return. Marquez took care to memorialize the resplendent eye the next morning through some photographs, but there has been nothing more from either writer.

In one case however, we have got something to review the book by. Vargas’s former wife, the eponymous Julia to whom the book is dedicated, did write her own version of events in ‘Lo que Varguitas no dijo’ or ‘What little Vargas did not say.’ Vargas made her seven years younger in the book, but she objects to his portrayal of her as a designing woman with zero literary pretensions, and the implicit denial of any contribution she may have made to his literary career.
Julia Urquidi

Vargas describes a seriousness of purpose in ‘Marito’ after he commits himself to his love- a growing up that he chooses to show rather than explain, and could loosely be ascribed to  ‘coming of age’. I feel it should be attributed to an inspiration that allows you to throw off the weight of convention and expectation, and spurs you to follow your dreams.  To Aunt Julia then!

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