The Real Life of Melodrama

Philip Horne

In his book on Flaubert and Madame Bovary, called The Perpetual Orgy (1975) – the title is a phrase of Flaubert’s for the life of writing – Mario Vargas Llosa says what he likes in novels: ‘the greatest satisfaction a novel can give me is by stimulating, as I read, my admiration for some act of rebellion; my anger at some stupidity or injustice; my fascination with those histrionically distorted situations of excessive emotionalism that ... have always been part of literature, because they have probably always been part of life; and my desire.’ This checklist of stipulated affects, to be brought on by ‘revolt, violence, melodrama and sex’, recalls, by its candid crudity, Sam Fuller’s striking definition of a film, early in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, as ‘Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word ... Emotion’. Vargas Llosa’s highly-coloured set of preferences is explicitly presented as a matter of temperament, something to be dealt with and built on, and he takes for an epigraph in The Perpetual Orgy the remark of Flaubert’s friend Louis Bouilhet that ‘our admiration is only complete for works that satisfy both the temperament and the mind.’ What happens in this recently translated novel (which came out in Spanish in 1977, two years after the Flaubert book) is that Vargas Llosa excitingly turns his mind to this temperamental predilection, both in himself and others, by a double plotting of the ‘pure’ melodrama of radio soap operas against the real texture of ordinary life – a process designed, as he has said, ‘to discover in that real life, in that version of ordinary life, the melodrama of a soap opera’.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is set with a profusion of circumstance in the Lima of the 1950s. The central character, who narrates of the book’s 20 chapters all the odd-numbered ones and the last, is called Mario Vargas (presumably Llosa) and narrates in the first person a sequence of events apparently taken from the author’s own life. He himself worked in his youth as a news editor for Radio Pana-mericana, studied law and wrote short stories – and seems also to have conducted a secret and much-obstructed affair, against the will of his family, with his aunt-by-marriage, the Julia to whom the book is dedicated. In his controversial first novel, The City and the Dogs (1963), translated as The Time of the Hero, Vargas Llosa told of a cheating scandal, a possible murder and an official cover-up, as well as bestiality, cruelty and extreme misery, at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Lima, which he had attended – and whose real name he used (he was living in Europe). A thousand copies of the book were publicly burned by those (understandably) offended: the use of many real names in this much mellower novel is unlikely to have provoked any such indignation. The narrator’s work at the radio station plagiarising newspaper reports for news bulletins, his seldom successful persistence at composing short stories, and his increasingly involved vis-à-vis with his Bolivian aunt and the rest of his enormously ramified family, are related in what Vargas Llosa has called a ‘factual’ manner – in an attractively calm tone as of scrupulously accurate reminiscence, and applying the generous measure of a quiet good humour. The other element in this narration is his friendship with the scriptwriter of the title, the tiny and self-important Pedro Camacho, an extraordinary prolific Bolivian import who writes and stars in several daily soap operas at once for the next-door Radio Central.

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