Honest labor

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Call me defensive, but I'm an honest woman, and I resent the fact that the two great artistic loves of my life are both associated with lying.  I used to be an actor, which many people think synonymous with lying for a living.  (Or, at least, lying on the casting couch; but resenting that the two great artistic loves of my life are both associated with whoring is another blog post.) 

"I'm a very good actor," is allegedly what Sir Jock Delves Broughton said to the prosecutor, after a jury acquitted Broughton of the murder of Joss Hay, Earl of Erroll - a murder that Broughton almost certainly committed.  When I read statements like that, I'm in anguish: why smear actors?  Acting is a noble profession, a rigorous craft, with an esteemed history (Shakespeare, Ellen Terry, Laurence Olivier).  We're not clowns, for Christ's sake.

Fiction is - obviously - also problemmatic.  Writing down stuff that you make up is - to some people's way of thinking - a lot like lying (or the practice of law; "liar, oh sorry lawyer" used to be the favorite joke of one of my brothers).  So imagine my despair to see Mario Vargas Llosa embracing - yes! embracing - the accusation of lying in his novel, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta.

An investigation into the life of an imaginary (but based on real-life) Communist revolutionary by an imaginary (but based on real-life) Peruvian novelist, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is salted with confrontations between the novelist and his skeptical audience.  "It won't be the real story, but, just as you say, a novel," the nameless novelist assures one interviewee, "A faint, remote, and, if you like, false version." (p. 66.)  "'Because I'm a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it,'" the novelist elaborates. (p. 67.) 

To another interviewee, he protests, "I only want to garner as much information, as many opinions about [Alejandro Mayta] as I can, so that later I can add a large dose of fancy to all that data, so I can create something that will be an unrecognizable version of what actually happened."  (p. 81.)

"[A]ll stories mix truth and lies," he concludes.  (p. 118.)

Nonsense!  The sloppiness - of thinking, or word usage - of confusing fiction writing with lying makes me bristle with indignation.  Detective work involves following a factual path to the truth; fiction writing - and acting, as well - entails discovery of an imaginary path to the truth.  Writing fiction is the creation of a description or account that makes the reader recognize: yes, this is just what life is like. 

Lying, by contrast, is not about truth, but deceit.  While fiction aims for the enlightenment that comes from being able to accept reality, lying achieves its purpose by tricking people into remaining ignorant.   

Of course, I'm so in love with Vargas Llosa's work, that I'll forgive him anything - even a difference of opinion.  His repeated insistence on his own lies in Alejandro Mayta is meant to illustrate a larger social phenomenon: "Since it is impossible to know what's really happening, we Peruvians lie, invent, dream, and take refuge in illusion.  Because of these strange circumstances, Peruvian life, a life in which so few actually do read, has become literary."  (p. 246.)

Nonetheless, I think Vargas Llosa is selling himself short; taking refuge from reality in an illusion is quite different than what Vargas Llosa is doing: confronting the reader with the desolation and despair that they might otherwise deny.  And I suspect that Vargas Llosa understands the difference.  As his novelist protagonist responds to one tough customer, who demands: "'Does it make any sense to be writing a novel with Peru in this condition and Peruvians all living on borrowed time?' Does it make any sense?  I tell him it certainly does, since I'm doing it."  (p. 140.)

Words to make an honest novelist proud.

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on July 31, 2009 9:21 AM.

It's only "the end of history" if you're not looking around was the previous entry in this blog.

Tortured conclusions is the next entry in this blog.

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