Sunday, March 23, 2014

Book Review: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

The latest selection our book club is Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (La tia Julia y el escribidor) by Mario Vargas Llosa. There's been a desire to read (English-translated) Latin American authors and this is one of the more popular ones. It reminded me of my days in high school where I had to read all manner of books for my Spanish class including works by Enrique Laguerre, Gabriel Garcia Marques, and many others. I know read mainly for entertainment and choose to do so in the genre of speculative fiction. I will endeavor to provide more fine science fiction and fantasy selections for our book club!

Read on for my full review.

Overall Impression
The book was fairly interesting to read, though there were some boring parts at the very start. Once the story picks up it's quite cool and Pedro Camacho's serials get more intriguing and off-kilter. Character- and setting-wise it's average and some of the attitudes seem very dated. The plot follows the life of 18 year-old Mario Vargas Llosa (ie, the author) as he falls in love with his divorced 32 year-old aunt and develops a friendship with the eccentric scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho. It's meant to be comical, and while it is at times, I can't recall any of the funny moments right now...

There are numerous typesetting errors in the book, but none are major enough to detract from the story. These are errors like L's being put as 1's or missing spaces and such. It reads as though it was improperly scanned from print rather than properly typeset.

Every even chapter is a story from Pedro Camacho's serials. Some are good, others are excruciatingly generic. All feature a character in 'the prime of his life, his fifties' that is well-respected in the community, though the nature of that respect can vary. His background and profession are always different, but the similarities are comical. Interspaced in the story are racist jabs at Argentinians in general, a characteristic of his stories that Camacho says inspires him. Some of the stories are very misogynistic (implied or outright stated that all women have been/are/will be prostitutes), some are crudely shocking, and nearly all of them end with a cliffhanger that is never resolved. As the book progresses, the stories get more and more tangled together and bizarre. Characters from other stories may pop in with different details, characters may change names mid-story, or the same name may reappear 3-4 times within the same story for entirely different characters. I highly recommend reading each chapter in a single sitting (~15 mins or so) and not breaking it over several days. This allows you to savor the madness of these stories as they are meant to be read.

The odd chapters are the more straightforward events in Mario's life and his romantic relationship with his aunt. They do get a little tense near the end and parallels the breakdown of Camacho's serials. Chapter 20 acts like an epilogue, which feels out of place after all that happens in Chapter 19. I think it was unnecessary and ruined the ending. I would recommend ending the book at Chapter 19.

Character-wise, we focus mainly on Mario, Julia, and Pedro Camacho. Some secondary characters that work at the radio station or family members are also prominent. However, Julia herself sometimes doesn't feel as well characterized as Camacho's made-up characters. Julia is the aunt from the title. She's 32, a divorcee from Bolivia, in Lima searching for a husband, likes to go to movies... and that pretty much describes her.
Camacho's stories introduce many characters as well. Camacho's characters, however, generally appear only briefly and so while interesting, we have to dismiss them, particularly since their names and professions change so much towards the end.

Setting / World Building
Setting-wise, there's nothing extraordinary about it. It's set in Lima, Peru somewhere in the 1950s. It's a big city, yet we frequently follow just Mario as he goes to work, visits his aunts and uncles, and goes on dates with Julia or coffee with Camacho. There were occasional local phrases or foods that try to cement the setting, but I felt this could have been placed anywhere as long as similar cultural trends hold. In fact, I hear the book was adapted into a movie, but set in New Orleans rather than Lima.

Final Thoughts
Some books you absolute love and rave about, others you detest very strongly. This book is neither. It was good but not great and not bad enough to dismiss. It had it's moments of comedy and tension and there was an interesting dynamic between the real life and Camacho's radio serials. However, in the end I would say it's mediocre. A fun book to pass the time if you have nothing better to read.

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