faber and faber, 2000, 384 p. Translated from the Spanish La tia Julia y el escribidor by Helen R Lane
Eighteen year old Mario is studying law at San Marcos University but wants to be a writer. To hone his skills he has a job preparing news bulletins for Radio Panamericana in Lima. The events of the novel kick-off when his uncle’s wife’s recently divorced Bolivian sister, the Aunt Julia of the title, comes to Lima to seek a new husband. At the same time another Bolivian, Pedro Camacho (the scriptwriter,) is taken on by Panamericana’s sister radio station, Central, to write soap operas – which are soon highly successful.
Up till chapter 20 the novel consists of alternate chapters; odd numbered ones relating Mario’s dealings with both Aunt Julia and Camacho and even ones the contents of the soap operas. These latter tend to be told to us rather than shown, end with a succession of questions as to what may happen next (think Soap without the “Confused?” after the questions,) become increasingly bizarre and represent a neat way of smuggling a series of more or less unconnected (but see below) short stories into the overall compass of a novel. Chapter 20 is from a time many years later. The contents of the soap operas tend to poke fun at Argentine nationals and their customs. Mario is amazed by Camacho’s devotion to his craft leading him to wonder who is the more worthy of being called a writer, one who thinks deeply about it yet produces only a few works, or one who churns them out but whose whole life is dedicated to nothing else.
Since the family will disapprove, Mario’s relationship with the fourteen years older Julia has to be clandestine. As the complications increase so do those of the soap operas, where characters’ names alter and events from one leech into others. As the crux of Mario’s romance approaches this is mirrored in the even-numbered chapters, prefiguring the mental breakdown of Camacho, There are two ways of looking at this. Either Llosa has admirably illustrated mental breakdown in literary form or he has avoided the need for consistency in his own novel. The latter could be seen as cheating. On the other hand it could be genius at work.
Camacho gives a caution to the young Mario, “Women and art are mutually exclusive,” and in a later writerly interposition Mario realises that everyone, without exception, could be turned into a subject of a short story.
The novel seems to be closely based on Llosa’s own young life. He did marry Julia Urquidi, his maternal uncle’s sister-in-law. Personally I think writers ought to avoid any hint of biography in their fiction – unless it is so disguised as to be all but impenetrable – as it leads some to believe that no fiction is made up. How much of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is actual autobiography I have no idea. Not that it really matters I suppose. The novel can be enjoyed without any knowledge of the author’s life.
The literary canon is full of works which feature doomed, thwarted or inappropriate love affairs. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter aspires towards that condition. Chapter 20 may not be the best resolution though. Better maybe to have left the love story at the traditional ending point. I will read more Llosa, though.
The translation is of course into USian and so we have “jumped rope” for skipping, flutist (flautist is more common in the UK but apparently it derives from a derogatory term) and a series of awkward phrases to do with what the text calls soccer; players “butting” the ball with their heads instead of merely heading it, making goals (or points) rather than scoring them, goalkeepers blocking penalties in place of saving them, referees “call fouls or impose penalties” instead of giving fouls and handing out bookings (or sending players off.) Strangely there was also an instance of the Scottish formulation “a wee bit.” In dialogue Camacho implies a tortoise is a marine animal and in one of the serials that a dolphin is a fish but he is supposed not to be well educated. A phrase new to me but whose meaning was immediately obvious was “do things up brown.”
For Pedant’s Corner we had “the hoi polloi,” (hoi already means the,) dumfounded and motived. I was amused by a glossary of “unusual” words in the novel (linked to from its Wiki page.) Fair enough proparoxytones, mimeticosemantic, cyclothymia, oligophrenic, acromegalic, chrematistic, paropsis, apocopes and pignoration; but lugubrious, punctilious, phlegmatic, captious, greenhorn, forensic et al? And huachafo is explained in the text.