Sharp insights abound in this gathering of 11 closely related essays on fictional technique and the attitudes underlying it, by the eminent Peruvian-born author of such contemporary classics as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1982) and The Feast of the Goat (2001).
This is ostensibly a series of letters to a fledgling novelist (about whom we learn precisely nothing), who’s doubtless a fictional device himself. Vargas Llosa amiably pours forth, nevertheless, the wisdom accumulated during a lifetime of writing, reading, and thinking about the impulse toward literary creation (“. . . a deep dissatisfaction with real life . . .”), the roots of fiction in each writer’s own life and opinions, and specific problems of creating and balancing form and content, as solved by such masters as Flaubert, Melville, Faulkner, and fellow Latin Americans Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Alejo Carpentier. The finest chapters are those in which Vargas Llosa addresses specific technical issues by analyzing relevant classic texts: e.g., the differences between chronological and psychological time as expressed in Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Joyce’s Ulysses, and Mexican Augusto Monterroso’s hilarious single-sentence masterpiece, “The Dinosaur”; relationships between the real and the fantastic in James’s The Turn of the Screw and Woolf’s Orlando; and “Chinese box” construction” as perfected in The Thousand and One Nights and Don Quixote. If he actually exists, Vargas Llosa’s “young novelist” is fortunate indeed to profit from such lightly worn learning. If he doesn’t, the rest of us can be grateful for this relaxed tour through the provinces of the fiction-maker’s imagination. And the general reader will be happy to be pointed toward such comparatively little-known watershed works as João Guimarães Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, Juan Carlos Onetti’s A Brief Life, and the enchanting medieval epic Tirant lo Blanc.
A fine addition to an important body of work that looks more and more Nobel-worthy as the years pass.