“Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter”: A Book Review

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“Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,” written in 1977, is one of the most prominent works of Mario Vargas Llosa, a renowned novelist from Peru. Vargas Llosa once worked at a radio station and who married his aunt when he was a young adult.  This happens to be the exact plot of the book.  Mario “Marito” Varguitas is an 18-year-old Peruvian boy who works at a radio station and dates his aunt.  Meanwhile, he befriends Pedro Camacho, a scriptwriter from Bolivia who produces gripping radio serials.  Tensions rise as Mario’s affair with Aunt Julia deepens and as Pedro Camacho becomes gradually insane.   The story is exciting, and the writing itself is so impressive (even in the translation) that you can only imagine how rich it is in its native language.  However, one element that harmed the novel was the sexist undercurrent.  It is unclear whether this attitude is meant to reflect Vargas Llosa’s attitude toward women or the attitude of Peruvian society toward women in the 1950’s.  Because of this uncertainty, I could not place, as a reader, whether I loved or hated the story by the end.

But let’s start with the positives: many of the elements of this novel are incredibly attractive.  The highly-stylized writing and the long, beautiful descriptions are a pleasure to read.  The story is wonderfully  melodramatic, ridiculous, and comedic, especially when it comes to the radio serials written by Pedro Camacho.  The man is talented and unpretentious (unlike Marito).  The most complex character in this novel, he doesn’t think about money, attention, or fame- he just writes.  Obsessive and mentally off, he still remains likable and somehow personable.  He is absorbed in his work but not absorbed with himself or trivial matters, which puts him on a higher plane than other characters.  The characters in his serials get progressively crazier, and so does he, but his mental breakdown effects only his own life, not the lives of people around him.  There’s something admirable in that.

There is a blatant disrespect of women in Pedro Camacho’s serials, but that was actually very comedic.  It was too over-the-top to be taken seriously.  For example, a religious man with two teenage daughters worries about their futures.  “Don’t statistics prove that 95% of women have been, are, or will be whores?” he thinks.  What’s comedic about this line is, first of all, the insane sexism behind it; secondly, as a friend in grad school for stats pointed out, statistics can’t technically PROVE anything.  That’s not a logical thought to have!

More subtle but much worse was the narrater’s attitude- and this brings me to the misogyny aspect of the book, which really rubbed me the wrong way.  Marito claimed to love Aunt Julia.  He becomes crazy jealous when another man pays her attention; he showers her with attention and pays for every meal even though she has money and he doesn’t.  But throughout the novel, there is so little character development with Aunt Julia, it’s hard to tell if the “great” romance means anything at all.  Marito writes about Aunt Julia like she is a story, not a person.  Which makes the trajectory of events in the novel very unbelievable and frustrating.

Mario’s father, furious about the relationship, threatens to kill his son on the street in broad daylight.  Scary, right?  So, naturally, the couple goes through a countless hoops in an attempt to get married, and there’s not emotional or passionate basis for why they’d go through the trouble.  When the boy finally lies about his age on his documentation, the marriage can take place.  As a reader, even considering how difficult it is to sympathize with the couple, you’re relieved that the two lovers finally gt what they wanted.

If the novel had ended here, with the wedding and the marriage, I would have been pleased.  I would have seen Marito’s self-absorbed attitude toward love and women as tolerable- he was young at the time, I would have thought, at least he probably grew up to be less immature!  But, no, this was not the case.  In the completely dissatisfying chapter 20, Mario dismisses the entire marriage in one paragraph.  The marriage lasts longer than everyone expected- eight years, he says, and then they get divorced.   Mario marries his cousin- Aunt Julia’s sister’s daughter- and moves on with his life within a year.  There is no mention of Aunt Julia again. That woman- a character so underdeveloped yet with so much potential!- deserved a more thoughtful ending.

To summarize, the most unbearable character in “Aunt Julia” was the narrater himself.  He was unbearable solely because he was so clueless on how selfish, pretentious, and apathetic his thoughts and actions were.  What’s very interesting is that when Marito first meets Pedro Camacha, the younger man is shocked at how much time the scriptwriter puts in his writing.  Pedro Camacha LIVES to write.  All he does is work on his serials, which eventually drives him insane.  He tells Mario he must devote his life to writing if he wants to become a writer.  And, Mario does exactly that, observing the people around him and using their stories as writing material rather than emotionally connecting with them.  he doesn’t sit in a small room by himself and spend all day typing, but he might as well be doing just that. (He is, in my opinion, the Peruvian version of @GuyInYourMFA.  He thinks only of his “art”, and he doesn’t believe in complex female characters.)

After five paragraphs of that rant, I will stop and mention that the only two flaws of “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” were the narrater and the final paragraph.  The writing was rich and beautiful; the serial stories were inventive and admittedly disturbed; and the drama was realistic but compelling.  Definitely worth reading.

Any thoughts from the readers? Comment if you want to have an intelligent discussion about this book!

 

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