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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.

For the real mischief, try fiction

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As difficult as writing fiction is, I'm thankful that I'm not a non-fiction writer.  James Fox's White Mischief, which I recently finished, confirmed my sense that sustaining the reader's (or this reader's) interest over a the course of a long work of non-fiction is a task so thankless as to be not worth attempting.  A plea: writers of non-fiction, can't you wrap it up in 20,000 words?

White Mischief is a journalistic-historical account of the murder of Josslyn Hay (a/k/a Earl of Erroll), an event which effectively ended the Happy Valley era for Kenya's white colonialists.  The story ought to be interesting.  All the characters, even those tangentially involved, were glamorous, scandalous, drug-and-sex addled adventurers, many of them fabulously wealthy, who did things about which people like to gossip: attempted suicide, attempted murder, abandoned their children, kept wild animals as pets, mistreated their servants, slept around.

In James Fox's hands, however, the story becomes . . . long.  Because Fox devoted years to investigating the story, he wants to write about his investigation.  The resulting meta-narrative detour introduces the reader to the boring, authorially self-involved, and irrelevant aspects of Fox's tale.  Fox, unlike his Happy Valley subjects - sadly - seems not to have attempted suicide or murder, abondoned his child, kept a beast as a pet, mistreated his help staff, or indulged in promiscuous sex. 

Fox does, however, admire the deceased writer and gourmand Cyril Connolly, who spent the later years of his life obsessed with the Joss Hay murder.  While I can appreciate Fox's tribute to Connolly, his mentor and writing partner - and the source of Fox's own obsession with the case - only someone who knew Connolly personally could appreciate the lavish detail with which Fox recounts what Connolly ate and drank at their meetings.  I, on the other hand, don't care.

Purely out of luck, as I was wondering, "How could Fox have told this story without the boring bits?" I began reading Mario Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and I had my answer.  Vargas Llosa's book, like Fox's, is about unearthing the truth about a violent event that happened more than twenty years previously.  Moreover, Vargas Llosa's book, like Fox's, is as much about the investigation of the event as it is about the event itself.  Unlike Fox's book, however, Vargas Llosa's is fascinating.

Vargas Llosa uses a technique of seamlessly intersplicing his account of the investigation and the event itself.  In Alejandro Mayta, a nameless novelist in 1983 interviews people with relevant information about Mayta, a Communist revolutionary in 1958 Peru.  Vargas Llosa interweaves the testimony of each of these interviewees, along with a first person account of the interviews, with a third person narrative of the events that occurred 25 year previously.  The first person account of the interviews is supposed to be "real," while the third person narrative is supposed to be "fiction."  The technique works brilliantly, not merely to generate a page-turning story, but also to probe questions of consequence, like, "How can we ever know the truth about historic events?" and "Why is fiction sometimes a better vehicle for truth than non-fiction?"

To compare Vargas Llosa and Fox is unfair.  Vargas Llosa consistently and prolifically produces books of astonishing skill; Fox is a hack.  With Alejandro Mayta, Vargas Llosa wrote a po-mo novel; Fox's book is more of an extended feature article for a newspaper's Sunday magazine.

Still, however unfair, the comparison sharply reveals - to my mind - the superiority of fiction as a medium.  Freedom from the bondage of facts releases the author from the tiresome task of shaping a page-turner out of life's petty story lines; instead, the author's challenge is to imagine a story line that's also a page turner.  The former is a problem of organizing information; the latter is a problem of art.  For the both (this) author and (this) reader, the choice of which book is more worthwhile is clear.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta category.

The Portrait of a Lady is the previous category.

The Turn of the Screw is the next category.

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