Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1977 novel, begins with an epigraph–a quote from Salvador Elizondo’s The Graphographer–about the watery line between reality and its representation in language.
“I write,” it begins. “I write that I am writing. Mentally I see myself writing that I am writing and I can also see myself seeing that I am writing.” The receding literary spiral continues, the words unfolding from and into themselves like origami, until the distinction between reality and its representation in language has disappeared. The last line makes you dizzy: “I can also imagine myself writing that I had written that I was imagining myself writing that I see myself writing that I am writing.”
Truth and fiction collide again in the dedication: “To Julia Urquidi Illanes,” it says, “to whom this novel and I owe so much.” You wonder: Was there a real Aunt Julia?
There must have been. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a coming of age story, a love story, and a playful treatment on storytelling itself, all wrapped into a hilarious and beautifully written comic novel. But its greatest achievement is that, despite the farce and melodrama that enliven its comic plot, the love story at its heart feels so completely true. That story is so convincing, and so compelling, you will come to believe that, in one form or another, it had to have been real.
The novel is powered by three braided stories. In the first, Mario Varguitas, an 18 year-old law student, grinds out hourly news items for a Lima radio station as he dreams of one day becoming a novelist. “I had a job with a pompous-sounding title, a modest salary, duties as a plagiarist, and flexible working hours: News Director of Radio Panamericana,” Varguitas tells us on the novel’s first page.
Radio Panamericana is the Huffington Post of 1950’s Latin radio. Its prospects rise and fall on its advertising revenue, it copies news items from more reputable sources, and it even has the radio counterpart of slide shows of half-naked, intoxicated celebrities: daily radio soap operas. Its studios are the perfect comic setting for Varguitas’s early literary adventures.
The novel’s second story concerns the eccentric Bolivian scriptwriter hired by the station to replace the Cuban service from which it buys serial scripts. The scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho, is one part leprechaun, one part human story mill. He works 20-hour days churning out over-the-top dramas of young women marrying undeserving suitors to cover-up incestuous pregnancies, exterminators driven to insanity by their murderous obsessions, and priests who establish parishes that are really factories for the production of vice. Camacho lives in his own imagination, dresses as his characters, and has a striking narrative style. His outlandish radio scripts, which appear as every other chapter in the novel, are perfect satirical gems, so awful they are fantastic. Mario takes Camacho up as a role model, mainly, it seems, because Camacho is the only role model in sight, but the manic-obsessive writer is so lost in his neurotic imagination that he never remembers who Mario is, no matter how often they share a cup of tea or how often Mario rescues him from a jam.
The third story in the novel, and the most beautiful, is the love affair between the young Mario and his older aunt by her previous marriage, the Aunt Julia of the novel’s title. Here is how Vargas Llosa introduces her:
She… had arrived from Bolivia the night before. She had just been divorced, and had come to rest and recover from the break-up of her marriage… When I arrived that noon I found the whole family still in their pajamas, eating mussels in hot sauce and drinking ice-cold beer to get over a hangover. They’d stayed up till dawn gossiping with Aunt Julia, and finished off an entire bottle of whiskey between the three of them. They all had headaches, Uncle Lucho was complaining that they’d have turned his office upside down by now, my Aunt Olga was saying that it was shameful to stay up so late except on a Saturday night, and their recently arrived guest, in a bathrobe and barefoot with curlers in her hair, was unpacking a suitcase. It didn’t bother her at all to be seen in that getup in which nobody would mistake her for a beauty queen.
It’s a beautiful character sketch, a portrait rendered from essential information about Aunt Julia rather than from her physical description, and it tells us what matters most about her–that she’s a beauty queen in a fallen woman’s disguise. But the real beauty of Aunt Julia as a character is the way that she, like everything wonderful in this novel, inhabits the enchanting world between reality and make believe, the world that, in novels, so perfectly distills the truth of our own. Aunt Julia is alluring, worldly, mischievous, 32, divorced, and already related to Mario–all of which make her an improbable yet natural object for his desire. Their love seems as impossible as it is inevitable.
The novel’s three stories all work perfectly against each other. At first, the sensational radio serials are more captivating than the “real” story they interrupt. But as Mario’s romance with Aunt Julia blossoms, as he makes slow progress on the stories he writes in his spare time, and as the scriptwriter Pedro Camacho drifts into insanity, producing increasingly bizarre serial episodes that threaten to unravel his grand narrative enterprise, the “real” story becomes more powerful than the intercut melodramas. It all adds up to an entertaining romantic comedy that doubles as a sly treatment on the storyteller’s art.
“I write that I am writing.” This novel made me want to believe that it is autobiography disguised as fiction, a passionate remembrance of a former spouse, and a narrative discourse on writing, representation, and the truth. Its last chapter made me sigh; my eyes even went a little moist. Maybe fiction is, after all, the literary form best able to capture life’s ineffable magic. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a triumph.
Note: According to Wikipedia, the novel is based on the events of Vargas Llosa’s life, and his first marriage, to Julia Urquidi Illanes. The article doesn’t say whether she was his aunt.