For about twenty years, the dreadful announcement that “the novel is dead” has been made with monotonous regularity, yet the corpse seems to be in good health, at least in Latin American narrative. A number of Latin American novelists—Mario Vargas Llosa prominent among them—have employed the self-conscious devices of metafiction in such a vital way that what in other writers is merely clever contrivance becomes, in their hands, humane, sympathetic, even humorous, appealing to the senses, the emotions, and the intellect alike.
Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is unquestionably a metafiction—a fiction about fiction—and yet, like many contemporary Latin American novels, it escapes from the dead-end in which so many works in that genre are trapped. If literature has exhausted its possibilities so that it has to turn to itself to find a subject, Latin American writers still have the power to make of that very exhaustion a vehicle for an adventure of the human intellect, a means to tell a story. This has been the primary end of fiction from time immemorial, and now, even as the death of the novel is being proclaimed, Latin American writers show that they are still, above all, storytellers.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is divided into twenty chapters, of which the odd ones tell the autobiographical story of Marito while the even chapters narrate episodes of soap operas written, performed, and directed by Pedro Camacho, Marito’s fellow-employee at Radio Panamericana. These two narrative planes are merged subtly and skillfully, so that the “real” reality—the story of Marito, based on the experience of the youthful Vargas Llosa—is constantly pervaded by the fiction, while the fictive reality of the soap-opera writer is invaded by the reality of Vargas Llosa’s own life. This effective handling of the literary materials is part of the narrative, and the novel thus becomes an overt statement of the author’s “literary ideology”: the rigid organizational scheme on which the novel is based—that of a separation of life from fiction by devoting different chapters to each—is defeated by the novel’s “literary logic.” That is, literary language and techniques transform whatever they touch into a new dimension of reality, the fictive. Whether the subject matter of fiction is reality or dream, truth or lie makes no difference; once it falls within the limits of literary conventions, it is, inexorably, fiction.
Vargas Llosa’s literary output comprises several novels, some of which have been translated into English. They include La Ciudad y los perros (1963; The Time of the Hero, 1966), La Casa Verde (1966; The Green House, 1968), and Conversacion en la catedral (1969; Conversation in the Cathedral, 1975). Los Cachorros (1976) and Los Jefes (1959) have appeared in translation combined under the title The Cubs and Other Stories (1979). Vargas Llosa—one of the chief figures in what has been termed the “boom” of Latin American narrative—is not only a novelist but also an essayist, scriptwriter, journalist, and literary critic whose work reveals a permanent concern with the means by which fiction can reflect reality. He concludes that fiction cannot give an image of reality by “direct enunciation” but by “transposition.” This transposition or transference can be defined as the act by which fiction transforms, recreates, and manipulates reality in order for it to become proper literary subject matter—fictional reality. In most of Vargas Llosa’s novels, this transposition takes the form of various technical devices such as multiple narrative perspectives and interpolation of objective dialogue into interior monologues. These innovative techniques illustrate Vargas Llosa’s permanent, almost obsessive concern for objectivity in the best Flaubertian style.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter exhibits only some of these complexities, and the experienced Vargas Llosa reader may even be surprised at its simplicity. The linear narrative of the odd chapters recounts the romantic relationship that develops between Marito, a young aspiring writer, and Julia, a Bolivian divorcée, sister-in-law to one of Marito’s many uncles. Certain that the family will raise havoc if they learn of the affair, they keep their romance clandestine, thus adding flavor to it, but, finally, they elope and get married. This episode drawn from Vargas Llosa’s own life constitutes the main narrative line, and the other themes are woven around and into it—Marito’s wish to become a writer, his attempts at writing stories, the cultural atmosphere of Lima in the...
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