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.

The even-numbered chapters from two to 18 are ‘syntheses or paraphrases’ of nine of Camacho’s hugely popular serials, compressed accounts of the melodramatic action as Camacho imagines it. Camacho is based on a real figure, like the other characters – but his name has been changed (from Raul Salmon). None of the nine more and more bizarre serials is actually concluded – each ends in a set of lurid questions (‘What fate lay in store for this panic-stricken family from Ayacucho?’) – and as they go on, it seems concurrently, we are to follow in them the mental collapse of Camacho under the strain of over-production. Even before their breakdown they deal parodically with strange permutations of revolt, violence, melodrama and sex – incest between brother and sister, police extermination of a mysterious naked savage, child-rape and self-castration, infantile trauma and obsessive rat-killing, infanticide and psychotherapy, psychopathic knife-attacks, a hyperbolically tough slum priest, an ex-millionaire soccer referee, a crippled musical prodigy. Camacho invents these stories with ironic gusto, the pleasurable scorn of tyrannical mastery; in each story the hero is a surrogate of the author (always, formulaically, ‘in the prime of life, his fifties’). At a certain point he starts to lose his grip on the ‘fictive realities’, in Vargas Llosa’s phrase, that he has created, his memory slips, and names, professions, functions, situations begin to go uncontrollably awry (pressure of work prevents his going back to check). In the hope of simplifying he kills characters off, sometimes en masse – only to have them inexplicably revive. The collapse of his imaginative world is ingeniously rendered, with oppressive fullness. Eventually he is taken to an asylum – a melodramatic fate, though apparently Raul Salmon’s real one, for an author of melodramas.

One is prompted by this alternation of modes to try and work out what Vargas Llosa thinks he is doing. He has described the composition of his second novel The Green House (1965) – whose five narrative strands span forty years and two areas of Peru – explaining how he was labouring in alternate stints on a novel about the northern town of Piura and another about the Amazon basin.

In point of fact I did not succeed ... Every day I had to confront a horrendous confusion. Absurdly enough, my greatest efforts were directed at keeping every character in its right place ... It became increasingly hard to hold all of them in their respective worlds ... In the end the whole thing was foundering in a sea of chaos ... I decided then ... to merge both worlds and write one single novel that would absorb all that mass of memories.

The analogy between Vargas Llosa’s experience here and Pedro Camacho’s in the novel is striking – as is the difference, that of the former’s comparative success in bringing the difficult mass creatively under control. The accommodation of multitudinousness is Vargas Llosa’s peculiar concern. Since his first novel he has been repeatedly drawn to the device of the double or multiple plot for the metaphorical power it can exercise in its apparently casual juxtapositions and fateful convergences. William Empson has noted how ‘much can be put into it; to those who miss the connections the thing still seems sensible, and queer connections can be insinuated powerfully and unobtrusively.’ In the novel before Aunt Julia, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973), extremely ‘queer connections’ are powerfully and puzzlingly insinuated by rapid montage between an undercover Army prostitution service organised for troops in the Peruvian jungle and a crackpot religious brotherhood which gets out of hand and starts crucifying toads, lizards, babies and eventually adults. Without wishing to deny the disturbing suggestiveness of the earlier story, we can also be alerted by its tendentious combination of subjects to a peril of the double plot – the temptation to an evasive overloading with oblique significances. This possibility requires us to distinguish between a compelling synthesis and an irresponsible innuendo, things which may not look very different – especially since the strength and value of the device will lie in its tactful equivocation between enforced analogy and accidental discovery. In the case of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter our criterion is generally satisfied: the stimulating coincidence in historic fact of the Raul Salmon story with Vargas Llosa’s momentous marriage and decision to become a writer, their intimate connection in his experience, makes the kind of exploratory reflection afforded each other by twinned plots peculiarly appropriate, an empirically testing process to absorb a mass of memories.

In the Flaubert book Vargas Llosa worries at the real experiences which he suggests lie beneath any considerable novelist’s choice of subject: some subjects fascinate the writer ‘because they give a form, an envelope of anecdote, a symbolic shape, to experiences which constitute the very origin of his vocation: deep disappointments in life which have given rise to his need to re-create life; experiences which, giving him a grievance against reality, have awoken in him the desire to create imaginary realities’. Camacho’s serials, full of vivid traumas and wish-fulfilments, offer one version of this need to master and transform, with the emphasis on creating imaginary realities; for Vargas Llosa himself Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is, certainly, the creation of an imaginary reality, but is at the same time an attempt to re-create life – a scrupulous attempt to count the cost of making things up into stories. There is an early scene in which the narrator reads Aunt Julia a comic story he has loosely based on an anecdote she told him.

As I read on, Aunt Julia kept interrupting me. ‘But it wasn’t like that at all, you’ve turned the whole thing topsy-turvy, that wasn’t what I told you, that’s not what happened at all ...’ she kept saying, surprised and even angry.

In allowing his novel to hear this rebuke Vargas Llosa takes seriously the darker implications of his otherwise only glamorous dictum that ‘every novelist re-creates the world in his own image and likeness, corrects reality as his demons dictate.’ Camacho is unhinged by taking this solipsistic line too far: he claims that ‘I write about life, and the impact of reality is crucial to my work,’ but really, as the narrator notices, ‘no one outside himself existed for Pedro Camacho’; he is ‘indifferent to everything around him’. Vargas Llosa’s attitude to Camacho is, however, more compassionate than censorious, and the book makes him its exemplary representative of a general condition rather than a freak: the melodramatic imagination is presented as a consolatory response, made in the details of thought and speech by people in everyday life, to the large and small miseries of living. Before his understanding with Aunt Julia gets properly established, the narrator unburdens himself to the scriptwriter.

‘I’ve got love troubles, my friend Camacho,’ I said to him straight out, surprised at hearing myself use a soap opera cliché’; but it seemed to me that by speaking in this way I distanced myself from my own story and at the same time managed to vent my feelings. ‘The woman I love is cheating on me with another man.’

Throughout the ‘real life’ chapters this precise, amused scrutiny of tone and attitude discovers in ordinary events the melodrama of a soap opera, catches in the act what the Flaubert book calls ‘a certain distortion or exacerbation of feeling’. The narrator tells his cousin Nancy of the unexpected proposal he has made to Aunt Julia:

Her reaction was spectacular and caricatural, like a double-take in a film. She choked on her Coca-Cola, was overcome by a frankly overdone coughing fit, and her eyes filled with tears.

‘Stop clowning, you idiot,’ I said angrily. ‘I need your help.’

‘It wasn’t your news that made me do that – I just swallowed the wrong way,’ my cousin stammered, drying her eyes and trying to clear her throat.

‘Frankly overdone’ judges the coughs as acting where they may be straight physiology: but the comedy here delicately absorbs the play of possibilities by intimating an element of self-parody, something which incorporates and covers for, defends and defends against, a genuine emotion. Nancy’s tears and the narrator’s soap opera cliché work on us to produce an ambivalence which feels true; Vargas Llosa’s handling of the double plot particularly pays off in the range of angles it opens to him on such extraordinary moments of ordinary life. He has praised Madame Bovary as meeting his preference for fictional ‘combinations which offer – thanks to a bold construction that is at once arbitrary and convincing – the illusion of synthesising the real, of giving an account of life’. The best parts of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter live up to the same strong praise – they even give an account of what giving an account of life involves – and we may admire Vargas Llosa’s boldness in so vividly working together, communicating between, the heightened realm of melodrama and the flatness of the really ordinary. As William Empson puts it, ‘after you have made an imaginative response of one kind to a situation you satisfy more of what is included in your own nature, you are more completely interested ... if the chief other response possible is called out too.’

Vargas Llosa’s powerful first novel, The Time of the Hero, drew on memories of the Leoncio Prado Military Academy to enforce his grim conviction of the 1960s, expressed to Luis Harss: ‘I think in a country like mine violence is at the root of all human relations.’ This led him to state, rather chillingly: ‘I’ve always been completely immune to humour in literature.’ That novel’s achievement is both narrowed and intensified by its dourness; after living through the book’s terrible events the main character, Alberto, finds months later that ‘the thought of the Academy still awoke that inevitable feeling of revulsion and gloom which made his heart contract like the mimosa.’ From one point of view, this (botanically accurate) image is right, moving and hard-earned: from another, more interesting, it is also a little comic. In Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter Mario Vargas Llosa is still alive to the strong appeals of revolt, violence, melodrama and sex, but satisfies also other complementary impulses: those which make us feel that life need not always be taken so hard; and those which make us feel that ‘taking life hard’ may in itself offer a compensation, though not always an adequate one, for the hardness of life. The novel’s serious sense of humour – its relaxation before irresistible forces – is a mark of its wisdom, not least about the limitations of literature. At the start of one chapter the young narrator gets blithely spectatorial about the relation of writing to life: ‘I learned that everyone, without exception, could be turned into a subject of a short story.’ Soon after this he is shocked to learn that word of his secret affair with Aunt Julia has reached his terrifying authoritarian father. ‘Aunt Julia grabbed my hand under the table. “You’ve turned deathly pale, Varguitas. This time you’ve got a really good subject for a short story.” ’ The joke is the better for being demonstrably true (we get it in the narrator’s story), and for being not sarcastic but tender. We do blanch when we get bad news; phrases like ‘deathly pale’, the stuff of melodrama, help us in their way to bear the fact. At such moments, though, a writer may properly wonder what solace he can draw from the prospect of turning his pain into a story. Some consolation.