Sunday, February 19, 2017

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter [1977]

Mario Vargas Llosa’s semi-autobiographical book Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter magnificently straddled the space between fact and fiction, and in doing so the Peruvian Nobel Laureate created a work brimming with joie de vivre and mad creativity in its effortless interplay between mock-gravitas and deadpan humour. The mad romp of a novel portrayed a ‘coming-of-age’ episode from the author’s own life along the lines of a Felliniesque memoir, and mashed them with an ingenious structure, delicious meta-fictional elements and an infectious, multi-layered panorama of life in 1950s Lima. As an 18-year old guy unwillingly studying law, earning a few bucks in Radio Panamericana, composing short stories, and dreaming to shift to a garret in Paris and become a writer one day, Mario’s life experiences a remarkable transition upon the arrival on the scene of Aunt Julia and the titular scriptwriter Pedro Camacho. The young Mario becomes infatuated with and eventually falls head over heels for the striking 32-year old lady who, apart from being a good 14 years older to him, is also a divorcee and his aunt by relation – thus making their torrid and scandalous affair seem straight out of a saucy expose. Meanwhile he also makes the acquaintance of the Bolivian pocket-dynamite Camacho who’s joined the low-brow next-door neighbour Radio Central, and with indefatigable energy and fecundity, starts churning out a slew of radio serials. Interestingly, the afore-mentioned made for one half of the book – the odd-numbered chapters; the even-numbered ones, made in the form of standalone stories, were essentially Camacho’s tales – pulpy, lurid, outrageous and brilliantly rendered soap operas bursting with crime, violence, sex and melodrama. And, when the prolific scriptwriter’s crazy work-schedule starts taking a toll on his mind, they start converging into a delirious potpourri of characters from disparate stories and oftentimes with altered backstories. Julia Urquidi, the author’s 1st wife to whom he dedicated this book even though their marriage didn’t last very long, later wrote a memoir on her version of their story, What Little Vargas Didn’t Say.

Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Memoir/Comedy/Coming-of-Age/Social Satire/Romance/Semi-Autobiographical Novel
Language: Spanish
Country: Peru

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting [1979]

“Laughter” (particularly of the satirical and subversive kind) are weapons which are oft-employed against the ones in power, while “Forgetting” (Politics of Memory) is a powerful tool in the hands of the ones in power. Milan Kundera, who traversed the entire arc from being a party loyalist to a pariah in Czechoslovakia, touched upon both these facets in his marvelous debut novel The Joke, and made references to them explicit in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which formed a crucial touchstone in his life. This was the first work that he published after his expatriation to France, and he ended up losing his citizenship to his homeland upon its publication. Divided into narratively disjointed but thematically interlinked chapters, each of which could have been converted into standalone novellas, this is a deliciously elliptical novel where fiction is interspersed with metafictional quips, sharp political commentary and tragicomic autobiographical elements, and chronicled with a mix of nonsense humour, brittle irony, shades of surrealism and fantasy, irreverence, allegory, absurdism, poignant human drama, and melancholic undercurrents that have emanated from Kundera’s personal tryst with the totalitarian Soviet regime. Even if it wasn’t bereft of certain amounts of unevenness, given its fragmented structuring, it is, nevertheless, filled with moments and episodes of dizzying ingenuity and brilliance – the fervent attempts of a man to shake off the officials trailing him and his increasing awareness that he’s become a persona non grata for the state; the futile attempts of a lonely lady, who’d defected from Prague from her now-deceased husband, to retrieve certain documents from her past; Kundera’s reminiscences of the last days of his father; the hilarious gathering of famous Czech poets, referred using the names of past masters (Voltaire, Goethe, Boccaccio, Petrarch et al), debating literature and gossiping on personal foibles over alcohol; an island filled with kids where the arrival of a lady leads to sexual curiosity and chaos; the somber occasion of a man’s funeral turning into a lowbrow farce.

Author: Milan Kundera
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/Absurdist Fiction/Magic Realism
Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic (erstwhile Czechoslovakia)