I first became aware of Mario Vargas Llosa's book Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter when going through Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Later that year (2010), Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I bought some of his books. They remained unopened on one of our bookshelves until earlier this year, when a chance item on my news feed piqued my interest. Mr Llosa had apparently blasted the New York Times for publishing what he described as "slanderous and perfidious" gossip culled from The Daily Mail. A quick trawl through Wikipedia revealed that his book Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was based partially on actual events in his own life.
Out came the book, which proved to a wickedly funny account, rich with "effervescent rhetoric" (to quote one of Llosa's own phrases) - of events that transpired in the 1950s when a certain young Peruvian journalist (who was then only 18-years-old) fell head-over-heels in love with his aunt (by marriage), Julia. This was scandalous for the times as Julia was fourteen years his senior and a divorcee. The book traces the trajectory of their courtship and subsequent marriage and the outrage it provoked within their extended family in Lima. Llosa had dedicated the book to Julia Urquidi Illanes who had been his first wife, whom he married against a backdrop of facts which were remarkably similar to those played out in the book. Where did fact end and fiction begin?
Told with sly wit and a mega-dose of disarming honesty, the book sketches the personalities and reactions of each friend and family member who was impacted by the relationship. Though an irreverent, comic, rollicking read, its appeal begins to crumble when you realize that it is not merely a work of fiction, but in many ways an expose of the lives of real people and many of these stories were not handled sympathetically. That said, Llosa's honesty and courage as a writer allows an apparently untrammeled look into the mind, heart and libido of a very typical eighteen-year-old male who was totally oblivious to the reverberations his actions would have on his own life and those of the other main characters in this dramatic episode.
Clearly, even though the book was first published some decades after the actual events, in 1977, the real Julia, who died in 2010, was deeply hurt by its content and retorted with a book of her own What little Vargas forgot to write (also titled My Life with Mario Vargas Llosa), which gave her version of the story. Some reviewers have dismissed it as a diatribe against the Nobel Laureate.
Julia Urquidi's book identified the other main protagonist in the book - the scriptwriter. Running in parallel with the main narrative (the romance), is the story (and the 'scripts') of the Bolivian scriptwriter Pedro Comacho. According to Urquidi, the character was based on a real Bolivian writer - Raul Salmon. That was an inflammatory assertion, because though there was some overlap between the characters - Salmon had been a very successful radio serial writer around the same time that Llosa had been news editor of Radio Panamericana, his resemblance to Pedro Camacho ended there. Pedro was depicted as an eccentric, a person who, though he produced a prodigious quantity of work, never read. The only English language material available on Raul Salmon, written by Don Moore in The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association and claimed that Salmon, who died in 1990, had been the owner and manager of Radio Neuva America (one of Bolivia's largest radio stations), he was also the former mayor of La Paz, a one-time student of political science at George Washington University in the US and had worked briefly in London, for the BBC.
Salmon was reported to have taken umbrage at the suggestion that the character of Pedro Camacho was modeled on him. Understandably so. Camacho was portrayed as an eccentric maladaptive character whose radio serials won him a large loyal audience addicted to the florid, imaginative mish-mash of Peruvian life which he dished out virtually continuously. Camacho himself physically assumed the roles he wrote about, wearing false mustaches, rabbinic beards, surgeons caps, even women's clothing as he channeled his characters into typewritten scripts. His themes included incest, marital deceit, mental breakdowns, deficient offspring, unconsummated love, the brutalizing effect of poverty and were a pageant of the different social types and classes in mid-twentieth century Peru. Overwork, resulted in a mental meltdown and his characters, their attributes and the serials within which they were originally contained, began to bleed into one another until his faithful listeners deserted him in droves and he wound up in an asylum and later as a faded impoverished "caricature of the caricature he had been". Because Llosa had based the main narrator's character loosely on his own and the other main character on Julia Urquidi, some readers began to assume that Pedro Comacho was a somewhat faithful representation of Raul Salmon and this borders on libelous.
Some reviewers suggest that the book can be viewed as Llosa's "homage" to the two people who shaped his artistic and personal life. There are elements of sympathy and even empathy in his portrayal of Julia - sections of the book clearly show her generosity, clearheaded thinking and selflessness in small ways. The squalor and tragicomedy of Camacho's circumstances are handled with compassion devoid of sentimentality. Notably, Salmon, on whom the character of Camacho was based, certainly did not have a squalid life.
All this "forensic rhetoric" aside, what can one come away with after reading Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter? I for one turned to the movie version of the book. Made in 1990, Tune in Tomorrow, starring Keanu Reeves as Mario, Barbara Herschey as Aunt Julia and Peter Falk as Pedro (whom Hollywood in its infinite wisdom renamed 'Pedro Carmichael' instead of 'Pedro Camacho'!!!) Let it suffice to say that despite the questions and qualms it raised, I preferred the book. Candid and entertaining, it provided the lingering sense of having been invited into the hearth and heart of a living breathing Peruvian family, who allowed their magnificence and failings to be on view. For wit and courage alone, salute!