Now, this is not literally about a rereading as far as I’m concerned- in fact it’s about a first read for me- but as this book was written in 1977 and much talked about and loved at that time by my contemporaries this is a kind of reappraisal of the novel some-¡ caramba !-38 years after first publication. It’s set in Lima, Peru, in the 1950s and is the story of Mario/ Don Mario/ Vargitas a bright and energetic would be writer running between his job at Radio Panamericana as a news editor, occasional appearances at the university where he is nominally enrolled as a law student, obligations to his numerous family members and attempts to write short stories at night in the bedroom he occupies at his grandparents’ house. Panamericana has a sister radio station, Radio Central, which specialises in short soap operas and their fortunes are dramatically improved when they hire a celebrated Bolivian scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho, to write their scripts. Mario is fascinated by the prodigious productivity of Camacho and their relationship, developed over cafetitos and herbal mint tea at the Bransa bar, is one of the main narrative threads of the novel.
A second strand is Mario’s love affair with Aunt Julia. She is a 32 year old divorcee from Bolivia, the sister of Mario’s aunt by marriage and therefore not a blood relative, who has come to Lima to find a husband. From some flirtatious fun on trips to the cinema, their feelings for one another deepen and they embark on a serious affair, all the more exciting because it has to remain hidden: Mario is only 18, a minor and an impecunious student and they are well aware of the horrified reaction of their family were they to find out.
A third theme in the novel is that of storytelling, the porous boundaries between fact and fiction and the sort of postmodernist idea of the interpenetration of apparently separate worlds. So while the main narrative is driven by events at Radio Panamerica and Mario’s affair with Aunt Julia, these are interspersed with the soap stories in ever cleverer and more convoluted shapes and forms, with characters eventually sliding from one to another leading to the crescendo of an almost too crazy final story. And these deal with subjects dear to the popular Peruvian hearts and imagination: transgressive family relationships, criminality, exoticism, Catholicism, football, violence, with a regular dose of anti Argentinian sentiment thrown in.
And the city of Lima itself is not only a backdrop to Mario’s story but provides the scenery for the radio telenovelas themselves, from the affluent suburbs and bars of Miraflores to the dark and dangerous docks: I am just itching to go on that Tia Julia tour of Lima which I’m sure some tour office or other is offering.
I loved this book and found it one of the most active reading experiences I’ve had for a while as I had to weave my way through different narratives, real and surreal. It is clever and entertaining and, though long, did just about maintain my interest to the end. Though the telenovela sections did become more crazy, they are balanced with the more realistic sections on Mario, our sympathetic young hero who provides the narrative focus and for whom we are rooting to the end. And the story is imbued with a feeling of Lima, Peru in an era now gone by. I was utterly charmed.