By Shelly Lowenkopf, SBLJ Poetry editor
Aunt Julia and the Script Writer
Mario Vargas Llosa
This romp of a novel might have lost its place to one written nearly forty years earlier.
I was drawn earlier to Somerset Maugham’s acerbic venture into satire, Cakes and Ale, due to rumors that it presented a scandalous fictionalized version of actual events. The events involved the poet-novelist Thomas Hardy, inspirations provided by his widow, and a scathing portrayal of another novelist. The title and its thematic implications came from my favorite Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night.
In spite of Maugham’s protestations of innocence, the give-away came in the name of the narrator, a fellow named Ashenden. One need only look to the list of Maugham’s published works to learn how Ashenden was the narrator of another of his novels. This was the beginning of my awareness: to get facts, read history; to get the truth, read fiction.
I’d heard similar rumors, that Vargas Llosa had married his aunt. Then, I read the first page of Aunt Julia.
Cakes and Ale remains my favorite Maugham novel (it was also his most favored work); I learned how to temper narrative from it. Aunt Julia took me down another rabbit hole, a landscape with even more adventures. Each time I reread it, I’m reminded of the one device that made me realize more than any other how important every word is. Use every word with dramatic intent or lose the reader.
The narrative structure of Aunt Julia begins with the introduction of the principal character, Marito, his urgent desire to become a writer, his job at a radio station, and the beginnings of his romance with his newly divorced Aunt. This strand is artfully braided with the introduction of the daily soap operas presented by the station Marito works for, and Pedro Camacho, the remarkable man who writes them, thus, in one chapter, bringing on stage the story points of the title. Didn’t hurt that the character reminded me of one of the earliest writers whose work I envied while marveling at his diversity. Carlton E. Morse scripted two ongoing radio dramas I followed, the soap opera, One Man’s Family, and I Love a Mystery, each of which had an ensemble cast.
Chapter Two of Aunt Julia begins a thematic surprise that delighted me and sent me off into trance-like speculations about possibilities I might—and ultimately did—use in my own work. “On one of those sunny spring mornings in Lima,” it offers us, “when the geraniums are an even brighter red, the roses more fragrant, and the bougainvillea curlier as they awaken, a famous physician of the city, Dr. Alberto de Quinteros—broad forehead, aquiline nose, penetrating gaze, the very soul of rectitude and goodness—opened his eyes in his vast mansion in San Isidro and stretched his limbs.”
After a few moments of disorientation—who, for instance, is Dr. Quinteros, and what is he doing here?—I became suspicious, then began to flip through the pages for Chapters Three and Four, confirming my suspicion. The odd-numbered chapters are about Marito and his aunt, the even-numbered ones nothing less than the various soap operas written by Pedro Camacho. Indeed, Chapter Four introduces us to Sergeant Lituma, “whom the entire Civil Guard respected.” Chapter Three ends with Marito wondering how much older than he Aunt Julia was.
This narrative design leads to a significant dramatic event, which I will not spoil here, except to note its demonstration of how far and to what uproarious extremes point of view can be pushed. Alternating the soap opera romance in reality between Marito and Aunt Julia with the soap operas of Camacho proves to be more than a one-trick pony. There is a distinct method in Vargas Llosa’s fictional madness. Even at this remove, the results remind me how important it is to remember that structure can only take you so far. To reach a plausible, original outcome, there must be risk, which is to say the potential for failure, and the helping hand of surprise.
A distinguished writing teacher and author, as well as the journal's poetry editor, Shelly is presenting the novels that intrigued and mesmerized him into wishing to join the ranks of published writers.