A beguiling exercise in metafiction, one that tells an engrossing story from various perspectives while undermining the possibility of truth in storytelling.
Toward the beginning of this literary subversion, the bare bones of the plot would seem beyond dispute. A journalist attempts to write a coherent profile of Alejandro Bevilacqua, an Argentinian living in Madrid, who suffered a fatal fall from a balcony upon the celebration of the publication of his esteemed, controversial novel, In Praise of Lying. By the novel’s end, everything is up for grabs, from the quality and authorship of the novel to the cause of death. (Accident? Suicide? Murder?) The Argentine-born Manguel (A Dictionary of Imaginary Places, 1980, etc.) not only shares some biographical background with the fictional novelist, but a character with his name offers the first and longest testimony. And perhaps the least interesting, though he establishes the thematic foundation: “When Bevilacqua claimed not to be a writer, there was some truth in that. He lacked the inventive spark necessary for fiction, that disregard for what is and that excitement about what could be.” As for his relationship with the deceased, the fictional Manguel equivocates, “I hardly knew him, or if I did, then it was only very vaguely. To be honest, I didn’t want to know him any better. Or rather: I did know him well—I admit that now—but only in a distracted sort of way—reluctantly, as it were.” Subsequent testimony—from Bevilacqua’s lover (and literary champion), a fellow prisoner, a romantic rival—challenge Manguel’s account, though how they see things says as much about each of them as it does about the deceased. It’s up to the journalist, and the reader, to see how the pieces fit. Admits the struggling scribe, “An honest journalist (if there is such a thing) knows that he cannot tell the whole truth: the most he can aspire to is a semblance of truth, told in such a way as to seem real.”
This novel succeeds both as a story and an illumination of storytelling.