I recently finished Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which turned out to be a fun read — it’s a light, comic novel, but it also plays around with ideas about writing and the writer and stories, which gives the book some depth. Apparently, the book is somewhat autobiographical, based on the relationship leading up to Vargas Llosa’s first marriage, and the real-life Julia wrote her own side of the story in a book called What Little Vargas Didn’t Say. I don’t know anything about Julia’s book, but judging by the title, Vargas probably didn’t like it.
The novel tells the story of Mario, an 18-year-old university student in Lima who works at a local radio station preparing news bulletins. Part of the story is about how he falls in love with “Aunt” Julia — she’s related to Mario only by marriage — but their relationship is still scandalous because she’s 32 and divorced. The other part is about Pedro Camacho, a scriptwriter recently come to write serials for the radio station. He soon becomes hugely popular as radio listeners find themselves enthralled by his stories, but then the stories start to take some very odd turns and nobody knows what to do with Camacho anymore. Camacho is a very odd character, with strange ticks and mannerisms, a unusual physical appearance (he’s almost short enough to be considered a dwarf), a self-centered and imperious manner, and some disturbing prejudices against Argentinians and against women generally.
These two plot lines unfold slowly over the novel’s course; every other chapter, however, gives the story of one of the serials Camacho is writing, appearing in the novel as regular prose, not in script form. These stories are soap operas, dramatic, shocking, and fun. But as Camacho’s serials start to turn strange, so too do these interpolated chapters. Characters get interchanged with one another, plot lines get mixed up, characters from one story begin to appear in another, and eventually the authorial voice has lost control of the stories entirely. By the end of the book we don’t have straightforward stories anymore, but attempts at plot filled with questions about the plot direction and the characters’ fates.
Camacho has become overwhelmed by his own productivity; he had been producing scripts at such a wild rate, that he begins to forget his plot lines and characters, collapsing under the strain of his long hours. It has turned into a battle between the author, trying to give form and shape to life, and chaos, undermining the very possibility of coherence and order.
Meanwhile, Mario himself dreams of becoming a writer. He watches Camacho with interest, trying to figure out the secret of Camacho’s amazing productivity:
Riding back to Miraflores in a jitney, I thought about Pedro Camacho’s life. What social milieu, what concatenation of circumstances, persons, relations, problems, events, happenstances had produced this literary vocation (literary? if not that what should it be called then?) that had somehow come to fruition, found expression in an oeuvre and secured an audience? How could he be, at one and the same time, a parody of the writer and the only person in Peru who, by virtue of the time devoted to his craft and the works he produced, was worthy of that name?
Mario thinks about what it means to be a writer, and whether he’s capable of becoming one himself. Camacho is very nearly the perfect definition of a hack writer, churning out the melodramatic stories day after day, but, at this point in the story at least, Mario can’t help but admire his energy and his ease with words and stories:
It was becoming clearer and clearer to me each day that the only thing I wanted to be in life was a writer, and I was also becoming more and more convinced each day that the only way to be one was to devote oneself heart and soul to literature. I didn’t want in the least to be a hack writer or a part-time one, but a real one like — who? The only person I met who came closest to being this full-time writer, obsessed and impassioned by his vocation, was the Bolivian author of radio serials: that was why he fascinated me so.
So this is a love story, but also a story about stories and about writing as a vocation. It’s a novel of the writer-in-training, about a character who lives through the excitement of teenage love and rebellion but who also gets a chance to watch a writer at work and to think about what kind of writer he wants to be.