Thursday, April 14, 2011

Books for Writers: The Typewriter is his ... Ahem

             Mario Vargas Llosa is a politician, novelist, essayist and the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. If the Nobel award didn't give it away, Llosa is a hell of a writer, using metaphor, humor and lush description to make loving observations about humanity's oddities and peccadilloes. He writes about mankind, and I stress the first syllable of that word, in a way that is simultaneously affirming, surreal, and honest.
Llosa is Peruvian and, perhaps, the most influential writer of the so-called Latin American Boom of the 1960s and '70s.  Llosa's culture, the Latin culture is, is at its heart, a masculine one. I am reminded of a trip I took to El Salvador in the late 1990s to write about a U.S. military mission there. Despite the heat, my guide advised me not to wear short pants, lest I come across as unmanly or, perish forbid, homosexual. In spite of the myth of the great Latin lover, little testosterone is actually directed at women; it's mostly used to show virility amongst other men. It's ironic that a culture that uses a woman (the Virgin Mary) as a direct pipeline to God, would have so little use for them otherwise.
Llosa appears to embody his culture in his 1977 semi-autobiographical opus (1982 translation) Aunt Julia and the ScriptwriterAunt Julia and the Scriptwriter: A NovelAunt Julia and the Scriptwriter: A Novel. In spite of its title, the book is not about Aunt Julia at all. Instead, our hero is an 18-year-old boy-man named Mario Vargas who is having trouble with his penis, both literally and metaphorically. On the one hand, he's 18, horny, and not quite a man in his own eyes nor those of his family. “My slight run-ins with the family in those days were all due to the fact that everybody insisted on treating me like a child rather than a full-grown man of 18.” (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, page 8)
On the other hand, he's a would-be storyteller who can't get his writer penis up. As the novel opens, Mario's writing life is mostly sloppy seconds, hours spent retooling news stories for radio broadcasts. Creatively, he's a chronic masturbator, throwing much of his original work in the trash like a used tissue. “When he left, I tore 'The Qualitative Leap' to bits, tossed it into the wastebasket, decided to forget all about 'pishtacos,' and went to have lunch at Uncle Lucho's.” (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, page 45)
Early in the book, Mario meets two people who change his life. The first is Pedro Camacho, a gifted radio-play hack who resembles a twisted gnome. Pedro claims Mario's typewriter, which is a physical representation of Mario's writer penis, for his own and proceeds to do what Mario can't: Get laid.
In Pedro's tiny hands, Mario's writer penis is much bigger and, worse yet, he can use it to pleasure an audience.  “The outsize dimensions of the desk and the Remington literally swallowed up the little runt. He had put a couple of cushions on the seat of his chair, but even so, his face came up no higher than the keyboard, so that he was typing away at eye level, thus causing him to appear to be boxing.” (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, page 41.)
Mario also meets his Aunt Julia, an attractive divorcee who comes to town looking for her next husband. Mario and Julia are not blood relations and, despite a 20-year age difference, begin an affair. The relationship, which eventually results in a semi-scandalous marriage, a relocation and divorce,  likely resulted in action for Mario's real penis but that's not really important. What Mario really wants is to get his writer mojo running, and Aunt Julia serves as both muse and distraction. Through her, he learns about love, even while keeping his physical member safely in his pants and his seed unspent.  Pedro would have approved: Even though he was inspired by life, he claimed taking part in it would have blunted his edge. “Women and art are mutually exclusive, my friend. In every vagina an artist is buried.” (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, page 159)
Aunt Julia is about a boy looking for a path to his dream. The epitome of one path is Aunt Julia: If Mario loves her with both his penises, he risks giving up his dream. The epitome of the other is Pedro: His writer penis is strong but he's slowly losing touch with reality. “How could he be, at one and the same time, a parody of the writer and the only person in Peru who, by virtue of the time devoted to his craft and the works he produced, was worthy of the name?” (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, page 195)
Mario goes away, learns, grows and builds his own writer penis. He divorces and then returns to find that his balancing act, walking the tightrope betwixt pure life and pure writing, was the correct path. Julia is in the past; Pedro is a madman whose devotion to the craft has left his fantasy life in control. Mario goes forward, writer penis in hand, and wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
Aunt Julia, like Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea,  is an extended metaphor for the writing life. Pen in hand, writers go forth looking to  consummate a relationship among writer and word and reader. Each successful writer's story is a love story; they're all looking for someone to love them as they are, weird habits, solitary ways and all.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is hugely entertaining as a work of fiction but will likely find a home on my “craft book” shelf. It made me think more about the writing journey I am on, than any how-to book I’ve read so far.

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