Mario Vargas Llosa's brilliant, multilayered novel is set in the Lima, Peru, of the author's youth, where a young student named Marito is toiling away in the news department of a local radio station. His young life is disrupted by two arrivals.
The first is his aunt Julia, recently divorced and thirteen years older, with whom he begins a secret affair. The second is a manic radio scriptwriter named Pedro Camacho, whose racy, vituperative soap operas are holding the city's listeners in thrall. Pedro chooses young Marito to be his confidant as he slowly goes insane.
Interweaving the story of Marito's life with the ever-more-fevered tales of Pedro Camacho, Vargas Llosa's novel is hilarious, mischievous, and masterful, a classic named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review.
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Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
By Mario Vargas Llosa, Helen R. Lane
PicadorCopyright © 1977 Editorial Seix Barral, S.A., Spain
All rights reserved.
In those long-ago days, I was very young and lived with my grandparents in a villa with white walls in the Calle Ocharán, in Miraflores. I was studying at the University of San Marcos, law, as I remember, resigned to earning myself a living later on by practicing a liberal profession, although deep down what I really wanted was to become a writer someday. I had a job with a pompous-sounding title, a modest salary, duties as a plagiarist, and flexible working hours: News Director of Radio Panamericana. It consisted of cutting out interesting news items that appeared in the daily papers and rewriting them slightly so that they could be read on the air during the newscasts. My editorial staff was limited to Pascual, a youngster who slicked down his hair with quantities of brilliantine and loved catastrophes. There were one-minute news bulletins every hour on the hour, except for those at noon and at 9 p.m., which were fifteen minutes long, but we were able to prepare several of the one-minute hourly ones ahead of time, so that I was often out of the office for long stretches at a time, drinking coffee in one of the cafés on La Colmena, going to class now and again, or dropping in at the offices of Radio Central, always much livelier than the ones where I worked.
The two radio stations belonged to the same owner and were next door to each other on the Calle Belén, just a few steps away from the Plaza San Martín. The two of them bore no resemblance whatsoever to each other. Or rather, like those sisters in tragic drama, one of whom has been born with every possible grace and the other with every possible defect, what was most noticeable was the contrast between them. Radio Panamericana occupied the third floor and the rooftop terrace of a brand-new building, and its personnel, its ambitions, and its programs all had about them a certain snobbish, cosmopolitan air, pretensions of being modern, youthful, aristocratic. Although its disc jockeys and m.c.'s weren't Argentines (as Pedro Camacho would have put it), they might just as well have been. The station broadcast lots of music, hours and hours of jazz and rock plus a bit of classical stuff now and again, it was always the first to put the latest hits from New York and Europe on the air in Lima, yet at the same time it did not disdain Latin American music so long as it had a modicum of sophistication; as for Peruvian selections, they were cautiously screened and allowed on the air only if they were waltzes. There were also programs calculated to appeal to intellectuals among the listening audience, such as "Portraits from the Past" or "Reports from Abroad," and even in frivolous mass-entertainment programs, such as "The Quiz Show" or "The Trampoline to Fame," there was a noticeable attempt to avoid excessive stupidity or vulgarity. One of the proofs of its cultural preoccupations was its News Section, consisting of Pascual and me, working out of a wooden shack on the rooftop terrace, from which we could see garbage dumps and the last remaining colonial windows let into the roofs of Lima. The one access to our hideaway was by way of an elevator whose doors had the disquieting habit of opening before it stopped.
Radio Central, by contrast, occupied cramped quarters in an old house with all sorts of odd corners and courtyards, and one needed only to listen to the relaxed, easygoing, slang-ridden voices of its announcers and m.c.'s to recognize its popular, plebeian, frankly parochial appeal. It broadcast very few news reports, and on its frequency Peruvian music, including popular Andean tunes, held sway, and often Indian singers from the music halls about town participated in these broadcasts, open to the public, which drew vast crowds to the doors of the studio many hours before they went on the air. It also flooded the airwaves with tropical music from Mexico and Argentina, and its programs were simple, unimaginative, attracting a wide audience: "Telephoned Requests," "Birthday Serenades," "Gossip from the World of Entertainment," "Celluloid and Cinema." But its plat de résistance, served up repeatedly and in great abundance, and the feature that, according to all the surveys, attracted its vast listenership, was the serials it sent out over the airwaves.
They broadcast at least half a dozen a day, and I greatly enjoyed spying on the casts when they were in front of the microphone: hungry, shabbily dressed actors and actresses on the decline, whose tender, crystal-clear, young voices were terribly different from their old-looking faces, their bitter mouths, and their tired eyes. "The day television comes to Peru, the only way out for them will be suicide," Genaro Jr. predicted, pointing to them through the big glass panels of the studio, where, as though in an enormous aquarium, you could see them grouped around the microphone, scripts in hand, ready to begin Chapter 24 of "The Alvear Family." And what a disappointment it would have been for those housewives who grew misty-eyed on hearing the voice of Luciano Pando if they could have seen his hunchbacked body and his squinty eyes, and what a disappointment for those pensioners to whom the musical murmur of Josefina Sánchez brought back memories if they had known that she had a double chin, a mustache, ears that stuck way out, and varicose veins. But the arrival of television in Peru was still a long way off, and for the moment the modest survival of the fauna of the world of soap operas seemed assured.
I had always been curious to know who the writers were who churned out these serials that kept my grandmother entertained in the afternoon, these stories that assailed my eardrums at my Aunt Laura's, my Aunt Olga's, my Aunt Gaby's, or at my countless girl cousins' when I went to visit them (our family was a Biblical one, from the Miraflores district, and we were all very close). I suspected that the serials were imported, but it surprised me to learn that the Genaros did not buy them in Mexico or in Argentina but in Cuba. They were produced by CMQ, a sort of radio-television empire ruled over by Goar Mestre, a gentleman with silvery hair whom I had occasionally seen, on one of his visits to Lima, walking down the corridors of Radio Panamericana, solicitously escorted by the owners and the object of the reverent gaze of the entire staff. I had heard so much about the Cuban CMQ from announcers, m.c.'s, and technicians at Radio Panamericana — for whom it represented something mythical, what Hollywood represented in those days for filmmakers — that as Javier and I drank coffee in the Bransa we had often spent considerable time fantasizing about that army of polygraphic scriptwriters who, there in the distant Havana of palm trees, paradisiac beaches, gangsters, and tourists, in the air-conditioned offices of Goar Mestre's citadel, were doubtless spending eight hours a day at noiseless typewriters turning out that torrent of adulteries, suicides, passionate love affairs, unexpected encounters, inheritances, devotions, coincidences, and crimes which, from that Caribbean island, were spreading throughout Latin America, crystallized in the voices of the continent's Luciano Pandos and Josefina Sánchezes to fill with dreams the afternoons of the grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and pensioners of each country.
Genaro Jr. bought (or, rather, CMQ sold) the serials by weight and by telegram. It was he himself who had told me so one afternoon, when to his great stupefaction I had asked him if he, his brothers, or his father went over the scripts before putting them on the air. "Would you be capable of reading seventy kilos of paper?" he replied, looking at me with that benign condescension due the intellectual he considered me to be after he'd seen a short story of mine in the Sunday edition of El Comercio. "Just stop and think how much time it would take. A month, two months? Who can spend a couple of months reading the script of a radio serial? We just leave it to chance, and thus far, happily, the Lord of Miracles has protected us." In the best of cases, Genaro Jr. was able to find out beforehand, through ad agencies or colleagues and friends, how many countries had bought the soap operas CMQ was offering him and how many listeners had tuned in according to the surveys; in the worst of cases, he made up his mind by taking a look at the titles or simply by tossing a coin. The serials were sold by weight because that was a less tricky formula than going by the number of pages or words, since that was the only thing one could verify precisely. "Obviously, if there's not enough time to read them, there's even less time to count all those words," Javier said. He was intrigued by the idea of a novel weighing seventy-eight kilos thirty grams, the price of which, like that of beef cattle, butter, and eggs, would be determined by a scale.
But this system created problems for the Genaros. The texts arrived full of Cuban expressions, which, a few short minutes before each broadcast, Luciano and Josefina and their colleagues translated into Peruvian themselves, as best they could (that is to say, very badly). Moreover, on the trip from Havana to Lima, in the holds of boats or the cargo bays of planes, or at customs, the typed reams of paper were sometimes damaged, entire chapters got lost, dampness made them illegible, the pages got all mixed up, or rats in the storeroom of Radio Central devoured them. Inasmuch as such disasters were noticed only at the very last moment, as Genaro Sr. was handing around the scripts, crises frequently arose. They were resolved by skipping over the lost chapter without the slightest scruple, or, in really serious cases, by having the character played by Luciano Pando or Josefina Sánchez get sick for a day, so that in the following twenty-four hours the grams or kilos that were missing could be patched together, rescued, or eliminated without excessive trauma. And since, finally, the prices that CMQ charged were high, Genaro Jr. was naturally overjoyed when he learned of the existence and prodigious gifts of Pedro Camacho.
I remember very well the day he spoke to me of this genius of the airwaves, because that very day, at lunchtime, I saw Aunt Julia for the first time. She was my Uncle Lucho's sister-in-law and had arrived from Bolivia the night before. She had just been divorced, and had come to rest and recover from the breakup of her marriage. "She's really come to look for another husband," Aunt Hortensia, the biggest backbiter of all my relatives, had said straight out at a family gathering. I ate lunch every Thursday with my Uncle Lucho and Aunt Olga, and when I arrived that noon I found the whole family still in their pajamas, eating mussels in hot sauce and drinking ice-cold beer to get over a hangover. They'd stayed up till dawn gossiping with Aunt Julia, and finished off an entire bottle of whiskey between the three of them. They all had headaches, Uncle Lucho was complaining that they'd have turned his office upside down by now, my Aunt Olga was saying that it was shameful to stay up so late except on a Saturday night, and their recently arrived guest, in a bathrobe and barefoot and with curlers in her hair, was unpacking a suitcase. It didn't bother her at all to be seen in that getup in which nobody would mistake her for a beauty queen.
"So you're Dorita's son," she said to me, planting a kiss on my cheek. "You've just gotten out of high school, haven't you?"
I hated her instantly. My slight run-ins with the family in those days were all due to the fact that everybody insisted on treating me as though I were still a child rather than a full-grown man of eighteen. Nothing irritated me as much as being called "Marito". I had the impression that this diminutive automatically put me back in short pants.
"He's already in his first year as a law student at the university and is working as a journalist," my Uncle Lucho explained to her, handing me a glass of beer.
"Well, well. To tell you the truth, you look like a babe in arms, Marito," Aunt Julia said, giving me the coup de grâce.
During lunch, with that air of affectionate condescension that adults assume when addressing idiots and children, she asked me if I had a sweetheart, if I went to parties, what sport I went in for, and then, with a spitefulness that might have been either intentional or unintentional but in any case cut me to the quick, advised me to let my mustache grow as soon as I had one. They went well with dark hair and would help me make out with girls.
"He's not thinking about skirts or about sprees," my Uncle Lucho explained to her. "He's an intellectual. He's had a short story published in the Sunday edition of El Comercio."
"We'll have to watch out that Dorita's boy doesn't turn out to be a queer, in that case." Aunt Julia laughed, and I suddenly felt a wave of fellow feeling for her ex-husband. But I smiled and let her have her fun. During the rest of the lunch, she kept telling one dreadful Bolivian joke after the other and teasing me. As I was leaving, it seemed as though she wanted to make it up to me for all her nasty little digs, because she told me in a friendly tone of voice that we ought to go to the movies together some night, that she adored films.
I got back to Radio Panamericana just in time to keep Pascual from devoting the entire three o'clock bulletin to the news of a pitched battle between gravediggers and lepers in the exotic streets of Rawalpindi, a filler that had appeared in Ultima Hora. After I'd edited the four and five o'clock bulletins as well, I went out to have a coffee. At the door of Radio Central I ran into Genaro Jr, who was all excited. He dragged me by the arm to the Bransa. "I've got something fantastic to tell you." He'd been in La Paz for several days on business, and while there he'd seen in action that man of many parts: Pedro Camacho.
"He's not a man — he's an industry!" he corrected himself in a voice filled with amazement. "He writes all the stage plays put on in Bolivia and acts in all of them. And he also writes all the radio serials, directs them, and plays the male lead in every one of them."
But even more than his tremendous output and his versatility, it had been his popularity that had impressed Genaro Jr. In order to see him in one of his plays at the Teatro Saavedra in La Paz, Genaro had had to buy scalpers' tickets at double their original price.
"Like at bullfights, can you imagine?" he marveled. "Who is there who's ever filled an entire theater in Lima?"
He told me he'd seen, two days in a row, a huge crowd of young girls, grown women, and old ladies milling about outside the doors of Radio Illimani, waiting for their idol to come out so they could get his autograph. Moreover, the McCann Erickson office in La Paz had assured him that Pedro Camacho's radio serials attracted more listeners than any other programs broadcast over the Bolivian airwaves. Genaro Jr. was what in those days people were beginning to call a "dynamic" impresario: more interested in making profits than in honors, he was neither a member of the Club Nacional nor eager to be one, made friends with anyone and everyone, and had so much drive and energy that it was exhausting just to be around him. A man capable of lightning-quick decisions, once he'd visited Radio Illimani he immediately persuaded Pedro Camacho to come to Peru and work exclusively for Radio Central.
"It wasn't hard — he was earning starvation wages there," he explained to me. "He'll be in charge of all the serials and I'll be able to tell all those sharks from CMQ to go to hell."
I did my best to shatter his illusions. I told him that it was quite obvious that Peruvians had an antipathy toward Bolivians and that Pedro Camacho would get along very badly with all the people at Radio Central. His Bolivian accent would grate on the ears of listeners, and since he didn't know the first thing about Peru he'd make one dreadful mistake after another. But Genaro Jr. merely smiled and turned a deaf ear to all my pessimistic prophecies. Even though he'd never set foot in the country, Pedro Camacho had spoken to him of the heart and soul of the people of Lima with as much feeling and understanding as though he'd been born in Bajo el Puente, and his accent was impeccable, without a single jarring s or r; in a word, as soft and smooth as velvet.
Excerpted from Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa, Helen R. Lane. Copyright © 1977 Editorial Seix Barral, S.A., Spain. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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