Mario Vargas Llosa's 1977 novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is based loosely on his own life as a young man. The novel's protagonist and narrator, Mario - although he is generally referred to by one or another pet names, such as Marito or Varguitas - meets, falls in love with, and marries his Aunt Julie, just as Llosa himself did. They both want to be writers. They both worked as journalists. But it is here where the novel diverges from the life, and the true meat of the story comes into play. Llosa splits the story between the narrator's nascent relationship with his aunt (by marriage), his friendship with the obsessed, genius serial-author Pedro Camacho, and Camacho's massively popular radio soaps. There are so many balls flying up in the air at any one time that it is quite astounding that Llosa manages to keep it all together.
The narrator has one goal, which is to become a man of letters. He writes and writes, but the work he produces seems to satisfy only himself. His friends are sympathetic to his desire but less than enthused about his ability to tell a good story. It is believed, as the whispers go, that he does not yet have enough life experienced to write an important story. Along comes Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian radio author who writes and produces scripts for sixteen, seventeen, eighteen hours a day, every day, with everything he writes being of a very high quality. Mario is impressed with Pedro Camacho's talent, and together they forge an unlikely friendship. While this is happening, Mario meets and takes an instant dislike to the woman who has recently divorced his uncle, Julia. But hormones and farce collide and they are brought together, at first merely to kiss, but then love stirs.
The plot, stated above, is fairly ordinary and straightforward. There is a clear line of progression - Mario and Julia's love - which is followed with unwavering intent. This simplicity of plot allows Llosa to explore a variety of interesting avenues directly relating to the creation, and appreciation, of art - specifically of writing. Pedro Camacho is Writing, he is a Writer, and that is all - we learn he enjoys (or eats, at least) eggs and links mint-and-verbena tea, but that is virtually all. It is not important who Pedro Camacho is so much as how a Writer entering the life of a hopeful young artist can help to sway them into the concreteness of their chosen path. Mario is so impressed with Pedro Camacho that the very text devotes half of its chapters to Camacho's radio serials.
These serials are initially tightly plotted, focused with a razor-sharp eye and very clever. They all end with a hook, usually in the form of a series of questions to the reader pondering what a character will do or how a scene will play out: 'Would Red Antunez desert his reckless, foolhardy spouse that very night? Might he have done so already? Or would he say nothing, and giving proof of what might be either exceptional nobility or exceptional stupidity, stay with that deceitful girl whom he had so persistently pursued?' We are firmly within soap opera territory here, with melodrama, familial tension and punch action. What happens, though, is that as the novel progresses and Pedro Camacho's grip on reality loosens, the stories begin to melt, to mesh and merge with one another. Characters from previous stories appear as though they had always existed within the confines of the current chapter. People die, then are alive as though nothing has happened - only to be killed again, in a series of unfeeling cataclysms. Pedro Camacho, talking to Mario, explains that he tries to end everything in death now, because he cannot remember his characters well enough to trust himself to continue their stories beyond a half-hour serial. As Pedro Camacho's stories implode, the parallel and main plot advances at a quickening pace as Julia and Mario plan for their wedding. While Camacho's stories lose focus, Mario's own story gains it, hurtling forward to where it was always meant to go, while Camacho's end up in a tangled mess.
The writing is unlike Llosa's recent work in that it is densely layered and intricately woven together, with little extensions and turrets of meaning sprouting from sentences as clauses are added and added. To describe Pedro Camacho's directing methods:
'It was not instructions he was giving them, at least not in the prosaic sense of concrete indications as to how they were to speak their lines - in measured tones or exaggeratedly, slowly or rapidly - but rather, as was his habit, noble, olympian, pontifical pronouncements having to do with profound aesthetic and philosophical truths.' What a mouthful! And then,
'And naturally it was the words "art" and "artistic" that were repeated most frequently in this feverish discourse, like some sort of magic formula that revealed and explained everything.' This is heavy writing, tight and compact in its theme, far-reaching in the elaborate nature of its composition. Happily, the writing never becomes so weighty as to tip over the text; instead, it remains consistent in its approach to explore and understand the difficulty of art and, later, love. Llosa was to go and relax this heavy method of writing for the freer, more freely flowing stylings of The Feast of the Goat and The Way to Paradise, but Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter remains interesting and compelling along with its desire to exhaustively examine and minutely describe.
The love story of Aunt Julia and Mario is perhaps the weakest link of the novel. We understand that he loves her, but we do not understand why he loves her. Why her? Why his aunt, which would (and does) provide conflict with the rest of his large family? The novel should put forth an explanation, either by Mario's internal musings or through the exotic or expressive or enchanting presence of Julia, but none of these things occur. She is a nice, pleasant character, but it is difficult to understand the sudden and deep love the narrator feels. It is almost as though he wants to love this woman because he knows that such a romance would provide a great deal of fodder for his artistic expression.
But no matter. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter works on so many levels that the few missteps can be forgiven. Llosa's work is dense, intelligent, and deeply concerned with the artist's place in the world. The odd chapters concerned with Mario's love for Aunt Julia and his quest to become a writer are interesting and thoughtful, while Pedro Camacho's even chapters are by turns dramatic, vengeful, nasty, curious, deceitful, pretty. There is a lot here, and most all of it works. A highly recommended work by one of South America's greatest living authors.