Aunt Julia & The Scriptwriter

Llosa has written on a variety of themes. In the books of his that I have read, he has created history in War of the end of the World, attempted a commentary on mindless violence of Latin America in Death in the Andes, sympathized with cultures vanishing into civilization in The Story-teller. And now, I read one in which he has presented comically a rebellious phase of his life.
Aunt Julia and the scriptwriter is as autobiographical as it gets. Llosa has not even made an attempt to camouflage the characters under a different name. The narrator appears as Varguitas, and Julia is Julia, the aunt Llosa married in his early life. He has of course played with the ages a little bit, making himself younger and her older in the caricature. (In reality, he was 19, and she was 29 when they married). Keeping company with Julia is an eccentric, Bolivian script-writer, who writes scripts for radio plays. Though a remarkable contrast is shown between the scriptwriter (at age 50, a dedicated writer who could fill pages worth a whole afternoon of radio in half sittings) and young Varguitas (who, at 18, struggles with numerous iterations of a short story), it seems that the script-writer could be yet another depiction of Llosa, who was also writing scripts at the time he met Julia.
Chapters in the book alternate between real-life and the scriptwriter’s plays. Undoubtedly, the plays are much more interesting than the real life – where a dry romance is blossoming (for no compelling reason apparently), between Varguitas and his aunt. The plays themselves, are sleazy, and often comical in an ironical fashion. These are stories where the protagonist is usually a 50 year old male, is detached from the world around him, and great at his work. (In other words, a man crafted after Pedro Camacho – the scriptwriter). These stories are written for effect, no doubt, and highlight many sensational sins of modern lives – incest, parricide, lunacy, self-castration, various forms of cold and hot murders, etc. Despite their sleaziness, (or perhaps because of it) there is something engaging about these stories. They always end in a ‘What will happen next…’, and though they don’t generate the kind of curiosity where you sit for pages wondering what happened to the last story, you are a bit unhappy when the story ends.
Towards the end, getting exhausted of his game, the scriptwriter begins to muddle up stories and characters, interchanging them, and in a bid to set things straight, blowing up the threads completely.
After all the fantastic build up of experimental narration and sinister stories, the end is surprisingly dull – there is no particular fun to the mangled stories of the senile script-writer, and the romance never takes off, ending in an equally dull and un-comical wedding. Perhaps Llosa, like many a writers got bored after400 pages. Or perhaps, like most writers, he could not find the perfect ending for such a build-up.
Since I will continue to believe that young Llosa and the old script-writer are one person, the author has brought out the dichotomy of popular writing and stylistic writing very well in this book. While young Llosa struggles to write a few pages of stylistic verse, the scriptwriter churns out popular text endlessly, giving Llosa a complex. Perhaps at one stage Llosa struggled with the choice between popular writing and painfully formed ‘literature’. In the end it seems he leans towards the stylistic, thoughtful literature,hinted by the status he accords each character.

Nobel Man

The theme of this year’s Nobels seems to be awarding men who long ago made their claims to the prize, were ignored, and then suddenly have been picked out of the old pile.
But it is nevertheless a delight to see Mr. Mario Vargas Llosa claim the prize. I have admittedly read very few Nobel-prize winning writers before they won the Nobel (I was in the middle of ‘Snow when Pamuk was announced as the winner), but Llosa is a writer whom I have admired for sometime. Especially in his less celebrated work The Storyteller.
I think its time to pick out Aunt Julia…a book which lies on my LatAm shelf, ignored after I had enough of the Latinos in Hopscotch! (Not to mention the equally thick Bolanos)

Death in the Andes

Recently I have felt inclined towards reading more Latin American literature – perhaps it is the after effect of reading a book as mesmerizing as Pedro Paramo, but I think I still have to find the right sequel. The Death in the Andes is definitely not one, and after putting it down, I can only feel slightly disappointed and confused more than anything else.

It begins as a mystery – a civil guard trying to find three men who have gone missing in a mining village of Peru. But even from the beginning, the mystery only seems to be in the background, somewhere hovering only in the mind of this guard and ignored by everyone else. Even the guard seems only to be flirting with this mystery, and is more distracted with hearing the love story of his adjutant and commenting on the social fabric of the village. Llosa spends a long time painfully detailing the romantic escapade of the young adjutant, on the other hand he fleetingly flips through many sublets that he opens and closes in the story. There are several characters in the book who hold centerstage for a while, as Llosa explores their thoughts, ideas, stories – but quickly brings them to a violent death at the hands of Sendaristas (the Shining Path Rebels), to return to the love story.

I don’t know whether it is a positive of Llosa’s work that the political motivation has been completely ignored in the book. The Sendaristas have been glossed over. They appear only to kill or punish or plunder, and remain as unexplained and mysterious as the pishtacos, the mythical vampires. It is almost as if they had no motives or reasons for the violence, and are only fulfilling the purpose of keeping death alive in Andes. Perhaps Llosa is being unjust to the rebels in doing so, or perhaps it is his polite way of rejecting their ideals completely. Once the villainy of the Sendaristas is completely established, they are suddenly dropped, and the ancient Peruvian love for death and sacrifice turns into focus. I suppose Llosa himself continuously experimented with the possibilities and followed them to a certain length till they appealed to him, and then abandoned them once they became stale. In a way, it does lead to some charm to the story, but to me the confusion created is slightly more compelling than this faint charm.

What is good in the book to me is the presence of many characters. It presents a collage of several stories, all leading to wasted lives, and you feel a certain gloom in every page. (Except the love story, which even though the main plot, appeared to me an anomaly in this tale of despair) For that matter, even the love story is sort of doomed, but the adjutant is so juvenile that it is impossible to feel depressed with his love.

I also loved the interplay between past narration and current dialogue. Especially, the civil guard’s comments interspersed in the adjutant’s story make it very interesting – it is like watching a trash movie with friends – you keep interjecting with comments, and later you can never separate the movie from those evil comments J
For all its failures, the book does succeed in inspiring fear. You see a land seeped in violence, and you can feel that the perpetrator of this violence or the cause is immaterial. From the ancient times, it is a land that has lived and breathed violence and worships spirits that demand death. Perhaps it is too imaginative a notion, but perhaps it is true that you cannot escape your history and continue to pay homage to it.

I did not think that this book was anywhere close to the Llosa that I have read earlier (The Storyteller). That was a very sincerely written tale, one which made you appreciate culture, history, even myths. This one is simply dark narration.

The storyteller (Mario Vargas Llosa)

I picked up this book because of the mystery and enigma indicated on the back-cover. As I sat down to read it, I realized that the book was quite different from the expectations I had in my mind. There was a mystery, not the kind you will find in a thriller, but a more deep-seated mystery of identities and cultures.

I am not particularly fond of conservation or preservation. In general I don’t believe that there could be a virtue in preserving alternative tribal cultures which have missed the train of civilization. Even though I wouldn’t give up my life to bring education and civilization to the doorstep of these shelved worlds, neither do I condemn the task carried out by numerous missionaries, priests, NGOs et al, who, in the search of a calling, make it their life’s mission to ‘establish these people in the mainstream’. After all, why should people go around half naked, walking miles to get food – when they can wear a shirt and trousers and order a pizza online?

It is only when one reads books like Things fall apart or The storyteller, that one sees a perspective that is different from this lop-sided view. The convenience of this online order comes at a cost of losing one’s identity, one’s believes, one’s culture and everything that they have believed in collectively for ages. For the one who brings to them education, teaches them what he himself believes in. He negates everything that this tribe has known for years. He tells them that the sun does not stay in the sky because you are walking like a nomad – but because of scientific principles.

The storyteller presents to us these conflicts. Just sensitizing the harbingers of culture the damage that their culture could inflict on some. It does not give a sob story – neither does it make an effort to generate sympathy. In stead, through a Machiguenga (the tribe around which the book is centered) storyteller it tells us some fantastic stories of magic and tribal belief.As we read these stories, we feel a little sad for their disappearance. For it is much more interesting to assume that the moon is the disgraced father of an angry sun than to think that it is a mere celestial body revolving around the earth. It is perhaps far more awe-inspiring to believe that the marks on the moon are the remains of his dead wife, than know that these are craters which are not illumniated by sun’s light because of their depth!

Aside from this tale of a culture’s evanescence, the book is also a book on the art of story-telling. Alternating between the actual writer of the novel and the story teller of the Machiguenga tribe, the author endeavors to entertain his reader – to once again command that position of awe enjoyed by the troubadours.