Like most American readers, I loved Gabriel García Márquez before I’d even heard of Mario Vargas Llosa. My preference for García Márquez continued even after I read my first Vargas Llosa novel, The Storyteller, which, while politically impactful, was clumsily written (or translated). It was a poor enough experience that I didn’t pick up another book by the Peruvian author until now, almost a decade later.
Aside from the title, which is a little too self-consciously ironic, Vargas Llosa’s The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta gives a would-be writer much food for thought. The novel contains three distinctively innovative elements: 1) it is meta-fiction, a novel about the act of creating fiction, about fiction’s place in history, about fiction’s meaning and truth in fiction; 2) Vargas Llosa creates a make-believe backdrop of a third world war, this time between the capitalists and the communists, with Peru as one of the battlefields; 3) in the latter half of the novel, the narrator closely interweaves the present (his contemporary world) with the past world of Mayta’s revolutionary activities; this happens in the same paragraph, sometimes the same sentence, with the narration even occasionally adopting the first person perspective for the typically third person Mayta. An example illustrates:
He throws his cigarette but away, and instantly a ragged, filthy figure jumps on it, picks it up, and anxiously takes a drag, to extract one final mouthful of smoke. Was he like that when he decided to visit Blacquer? Was I that anguished when I realized that zero hour was coming and there were only a handful of us to carry out an uprising, and we lacked even a minimal support organization in the city?
The first sentence takes place fully in the narrator’s present. The second (interrogative) sentence bridges into the past, the narrator wondering about Mayta. The third sentence is fully in the past, with Mayta co-oping the narrative.
What is the effect of these three innovations? What separates them from mere gimmicks? It must be their pertinence to the novel’s themes and explorations. It is not innovation for innovation’s sake. Rather, the innovations work in harmony with the work’s purpose, which is primarily to question art’s place in society. The unnamed narrator explains to his interviewees several times through the narrative that their stories will be changed in his novel, that they will not be named, that he is only looking for the “truth” in order to make his lies deliberate. So even as we are reading the interviews and the narrator’s imaginings of the event, he is sabotaging his authority by reminding us that everything we are reading is false, deliberately manipulated. Nowhere is this idea more prevalent and disturbing than in the last chapter, when we finally meet the “real” Alejandro Mayta, which of course is not the real Mayta at all since the narrator confesses again that he will be altering the facts to suit his fiction. Still, this Mayta seems fundamentally different from the Mayta described in the rest of the novel. But this flaw or irregularity is deliberate, not just by Vargas Llosa, the “real” author, but by the narrator, the author character.
Why go through all this confusion, convolution, subversion? What is Vargas Llosa’s sly message? Maybe it relates not only to fiction but to history itself, its slipperiness, its impenetrability. So then is history fiction, just as any act of storytelling is ultimately fiction? Do we always just tell the stories we want to tell? All the characters in the novel do this, including the narrator himself. What is history then? What can we trust? What is narrative truth? Is that false, too? Is the story’s falseness its only truth?
I am less clear about why the other two innovations are present in the novel, except that they are interesting and imaginative and somehow feel essential. It’s something to do with the urgency of the story, its post-apocalyptic tenor, but also the artificiality of that urgency. Or perhaps it’s a way for the narrator to immerse himself in the world of Mayta, just as he pretends to be a childhood friend of Mayta’s–as if he himself were once a wannabe revolutionary too and as if he himself is in danger now, instead of safely ensconced in the upper middle class intellectual life he has always enjoyed. Another way to undermine his own credibility. Or to play with us. Or both.