Radio Panamericana in Lima, Peru, is the Huffington Post of 1950’s Latin radio. Its prospects rise and fall on its advertising revenue, it copies news items from more reputable sources, and it even has the radio counterpart of slide shows of half-naked, intoxicated celebrities: daily radio soap operas. The news side of the operation may be more reputable, but the daily melodramas drive listeners to the station.
The protagonist in Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1977 novel is Marito Varguitas, an 18 year-old law student who grinds out hourly news items for the station as he dreams of becoming a novelist.
“I had a job,” he tells us, “with a pompous-sounding title, a modest salary, duties as a plagiarist, and flexible working hours: News Director of Radio Panamericana.”
Two characters arrive to change Marito’s world. The first is Pedro Camacho, an eccentric Bolivian scriptwriter hired by the station to replace the Cuban service from which it purchases the scripts for its daily melodramas.
Camacho is a pure artist, a man who lives entirely in his imagination and has almost no contact with the real world. He’s also insane. He works 20-hour days churning out over-the-top dramas of young women marrying undeserving suitors to cover-up incestuous pregnancies, exterminators driven to insanity by their murderous obsessions, and priests who establish parishes that are really factories for the production of vice. His outlandish radio scripts, which appear as every other chapter in the novel, are satiric gems, so awful they are fantastic.
Marito tries to take Camacho up as a role model, mainly, it seems, because the obsessive writer is the only role model in sight. But Camacho is so lost in his neurotic imagination he never remembers Marito, no matter how often they share a cup of tea or how often Marito rescues Camacho from a jam. Naturally, he’s never in a position to offer Marito advice. And Marito is no fool. He realizes soon enough that ending up like Camacho would be a tragedy.
The character who will transform Marito is not his chosen literary hero, but Julia, his aunt by marriage, who arrives one day at Maritos’ parents’ house, in flight from her crumbling marriage.
Here is how Vargas Llosa introduces her:
She … had arrived from Bolivia the night before. She had just been divorced, and had come to rest and recover from the break-up of her marriage … . 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 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.
It’s a beautiful character sketch, a portrait rendered from essential information about Aunt Julia rather than from her physical description, and it tells us what matters most about her — that she’s a beauty queen disguised as a fallen woman.
Like everything in this wonderful novel, Aunt Julia inhabits the enchanting world between reality and make believe. She is alluring, worldly, mischievous, 32, divorced, and already related to Marito. She is, in other words, both a natural and unnatural object for his desire, a seemingly fated but also impossible love.
The novel braids the story of Marito’s love affair with Aunt Julia together with the story of Camacho’s personal and artistic descent. The first story we get through a realistic narrative, the second story, in every other chapter, in the form of Camacho’s radio scripts. The first story charts Marito’s coming of age, the second Camacho’s unraveling.
The stories balance each other perfectly. The sensational radio serials are, at first, more captivating than the “real” story they interrupt. But as Marito’s romance with Aunt Julia blossoms, and as Camacho drifts away from reality like an untethered balloon, producing increasingly bizarre and nonsensical scripts, it’s the real story, the love story, that we want to read.
It all comes together in a final chapter that perfectly expresses what the narrative has been saying all along — that the true artist has to live in both words equally, the real world and the world of the imagination. Live only in the real world and you can never become an artist. But live only in your imagination, as Camacho does, and you will be driven mad.
Fittingly, that balance seems perfectly represented in the novel itself, which is based on Vargos Llosa’s youth in Lima and his first marriage. The radio dramas, of course, are not works of art. They are an entertainment, absurd and increasingly preposterous tales. The love story, however, has a power that could only have come from something real. To read it is to have a rare experience in literature — of reading a story that is so compelling, and so beautiful, that it had to have been true.