K's Reviews > Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
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Mar 03, 09

bookshelves: bookclub, latinamerica, historicalfiction, humorous-or-trying-to-be, should-ve-been-shorter
Recommended for: Latin American lit fans

Although I eventually got impatient with the pace, there were many things I liked about this book. Our hero, Mario, a lustful 18-year-old, is smitten with Julia, his uncle’s divorced 32-year-old sister-in-law (consistently referred to as “Aunt Julia,” reminding us of their age difference and relationship and cleverly highlighting the absurdity of the situation). The two of them embark on an impossible romance. Meanwhile, Mario is also developing an intellectual fascination with Pedro Camacho, the new scriptwriter at his radio station, an eccentric and manic writer taking Lima by storm with his captivating radio serials and slowly descending into madness in the process.

Camacho’s various cliffhanger serials are described in chapters which alternate with the chapters of Mario’s unfolding story. The romance with Julia and waning sanity of the scriptwriter grabbed me the way I imagined these increasingly bizarre serials grabbing the Lima radio audience. Would Mario and Julia’s infatuation last? Will the family find out? Will they get married? Will they break up? Will Camacho’s insanity finally destroy his stories and his career? The constant interruptions of Mario and Julia’s story effectively contributed to the escalating tension, making you feel as if you, too, were following a dramatic radio serial. I found this device very clever.

The tongue-in-cheek humor also got me immediately. Quotes like, “I had a job with a pompous-sounding title, a modest salary, duties as a plagiarist, and flexible working hours: News Director of Radio Panamerica” kept me chuckling inwardly as I read. This type of dry wit characterized a lot of the writing. I also got a kick out of Camacho’s quirks as reflected in his serials – his aquiline-nosed heroes, consistently described as “in his fifties, the prime of his life” (as Mario observes, Camacho is a bit defensive about his own quintogenarian age), and his constant gratuitous amusing slams at Argentinians (“…[the police report:] thus inadvertently attributed to the Huanca Salaverrias the habit, so common among inhabitants of Buenos Aires, of attending to their calls of nature in a bucket located in the same room in which they eat and sleep”), evoking blissfully ignored admonitions from Camacho’s superiors to make his heroes younger and to cut the Argentinian-bashing.

Other quotes touched me in other ways. At one point, Mario asks himself: “Were all those politicians, attorneys, professors who went by the name of poets, novelists, dramatists really writers, simply because, during brief parentheses in lives in which four fifths of their time was spent at activities having nothing to do with literature, they had produced one slim volume of verses or one niggardly collection of stories? Why should those persons who have used literature as an ornament or a pretext have any more right to be considered real writers than Pedro Camacho, who lived only to write? Because they had read (or at least knew that they should have read) Proust, Faulkner, Joyce, while Pedro Camacho was nearly illiterate?”

I actually ask myself this type of question a lot. When is writing an art, and when is it a craft? Does being a truly gifted writer (or any kind of creative artist) mean you are completely consumed and engulfed by the desire to write? Does it have to mean that? Can you write well if you are uneducated? Can writing effectively for the masses, as opposed to the elite, be a worthy art as well?

We also see Mario continually failing as he tries to compose his short stories, while Camacho’s serials enthrall the citizens of Lima. Why? What’s the difference? Why do Camacho’s succeed, and Mario’s fail? Is it talent? Marketability? Passion for, even obsession with, writing as opposed to dabbling? Admittedly, exploring the art of writing wasn’t an obvious focus of the novel; yet these questions stimulated me as I read.

As you can see, I enjoyed the book a lot. Initially, I alternated between feeling captivated by Mario and Julia’s romance and being equally drawn into the accounts of the tawdry, tabloid-esque radio serials despite myself. Every time I started a new chapter with its new focus, I actually wished the old one weren’t ending. This is a pretty impressive feat.

Despite this, I think the book should have been significantly shorter. Eventually, I started to get tired of being pulled into yet another serial and wished the story of Mario and Julia would just come to a head already. At that point, I still had 100-odd pages left ‘till the end. Interestingly enough, I felt this way (although proportionately more so) when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, another South American novel. I found One Hundred Years of Solitude funny and engaging at first, and then at about the halfway point it suddenly got old. Aunt Julia, at least, kept me going about 2/3 of the way before I started skimming just to see what would happen, which I guess is an improvement. But 5 stars is not an option for a book that I found myself tiring of 2/3 of the way through.

As I wrote the above, about 50 pages from the end, I wavered between 3 and 4 stars and decided it would depend on the ending. Hence the 3 stars -- I found the ending rushed after a slow unfolding and extremely anticlimactic. I wish I could give it 3.5, though, because this book had some great moments and would have deserved at least 4 stars had Vargas-Llosa simply known when to stop.

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Reading Progress

02/16/2009 page 7
1.82%
02/16/2009 page 45
11.72% "So far, I am loving the tongue-in-cheek humor."
02/19/2009 page 104
27.08% "My book club members are expressing mixed feelings, but I think this is really funny and clever."
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