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A Novel

translated by Helen Lane & by Mario Vargas Llosa

Pub Date: July 1st, 1982
ISBN: 0312427247
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Of all the major South American novelists, Vargas Llosa may be the sunniest: he never tries too hard to hold back a sophisticated yet honest amusement at how oddly life usually moves around; his stories of 1950s Lima and Peru have a vernal lilt as well as an expected complexity. And this large new novel is both contrapuntal and positively jaunty. The (apparently autobiographical) narrator, Marie, is not yet 21, working as a newswriter for a mediocre Lima radio station—when his young, divorced aunt-by-marriage, Julia, arrives in town from Bolivia for a little amorous adventure on the rebound. . . only to find herself a wild oat sown by Marie, who puts a move on her right away. Julia, piqued by the novelty, goes along. And the flirtation turns into real romance, then into scandal, and—finally—into a brief but entertaining-for-as-long-as-it-lasts marriage. This bubbly romantic improbability is only one layer here, however—because interleaved with it are gothic yet hilarious radio soap-opera scripts written by yet another Bolivian export to Lima: Pedro Camacho, a humorless, 50-year-old, Argentine-hating troll who quickly becomes the hit of the town with his gory yet full-spirited tales of murder and obsession and ruin. (So intense and devoted is he that he even dresses up as his characters would while he writes, throwing himself utterly—and with priestly artistic purity—into his trashy but beautifully filled-out work.) Each serial, which Vargas Llosa presents as a throbbingly rococo story-summary, is more grotesque and ghastly than the next—until, at one point, Camacho, riding the crest, becomes so ornate and involved that he starts forgetting names and traits of his characters, confusing them; and eventually he has to resort to mass destruction (stadium riots, earthquakes in church) to kill everyone off and thus start clean. Two curves, then, meet in this book: the ascending, rather silly one of Marie and Julia's affair, and the grand-guignol descending one of Camacho's fall into incoherence and failure. And though the anything-but-heavyhanded Vargas Llosa doesn't stick a pin at the meeting point, you're aware of it nonetheless: storytelling is as subject to inexplicable natural laws—entropy, gravity, decomposition—as anything else. All done with the fondest savoring of the virtues of truly popular culture, innocence, imagination: a graceful, untaxing, sweetly subtle book.