Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian novelist, is a word painter, an artist of consummate skill, capable of simultaneous intimate ecstasy and detached observation that constantly surprises, titillates and intensifies.
Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter is a novel that details how an eighteen year old writer of hack news stories develops relationships with his aunt and, yes, a scriptwriter, both of whom happen to be Bolivian. Auth Julia is an aunt by definable and identifiable, but non-bloodline association. At least there is still some decency! She is a divorcee, not a Peruvian — what would you expect, then? — and attractive to boot. She is also conquerable. She is a passionate older woman — old enough to be his mother! — who succumbs to the young man’s ardent if naive charms a little too easily for her own good or, it must be said, for the keeping of face in an interested, gossiping community.
Pedro Camacho is a stunted, bald, pocket battleship of a radio scriptwriter. He is also Bolivian — an epidemic? — and specialises in sitcoms, melees of melange, several of which he can keep on the boil at the same time. He is employed by our young hero’s radio station to sex-up the regular offerings, to enliven their action with his peculiar brand of obsessive work ethic, an approach that is occasionally method-school in its execution. So when his character needs an operation, he will sit at his ancient typewriter dressed as a surgeon. He is a great success, even when his lateral thinking approach to plot is fully realised, a trait that develops into a need to introduce characters from one soap opera into another almost at random — certainly at random — in order to test the listeners´collaboration of listening habit and attentiveness at the same time. And thus Dirty Den arrives unnoticed in Coronation Street, armed with his original identity and a plot that no one registers.
Our hero inhabits a shack on the roof of Radio Panamericana, where he and an accomplice in an ill-equipped office change the occasional word in other people’s reports to create broadcastable news, pieces that often serve for days because the operatives cannot be bothered to write anything new. This spirit of professionalism is host to Pedro Camacho, who claims he invented such treatment of fact in order to create soap operas. Meanwhile, our hero seduces his aunt. He is eighteen. She is in her thirties.
And interspersed with romance and radio, sex and sitcom, we have stories from Peru, surreal snippets of lives that get unnaturally intertwined, where Camacho-like characters cross over from one story to another only because they interact (is there another way?). Reality is always present, but it can never be trusted to be real enough, for the real thing often approaches from behind and raps us on the head when we least expect it. And so for our hero and Aunt Julia. When confronted with a reality that stands between them and their desires, they relocate, invent a new reality that suits them, and thus live in it. For a while, at least, before someone else’s reality reinvents them again.
Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter is a highly complex, surreal pastiche, a masterpiece from a word painter whose virtuoso imagination sometimes generates just too much colour and surprise, thus amplifying the unreal into fantasy, thus shifting a moving reality into irreverent fairy tale. Overall, Mario Vargas Llosa stops just on the right side of this boundary, making Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter a true joy to read, a book whose process is always going to be more significant, more interesting than its product. It’s a book to enjoy impressionistically. Where it goes is where it takes you, and the reader hitches the ride. The journey is the end.