Home > 1970, 20th Century, Classics, Novel, Peruvian Literature > Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa – unusual coming-of-age novel

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa – unusual coming-of-age novel

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa (1977) French title: La tante Julia et le scribouillard. Translated by Albert Bensoussan.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa is based on the author’s youth. We’re in Lima in the 1950s. Mario is 18, he’s at university, studying law to pacify his parents. He wants to be a writer and he works at Radio Panamericana, writing news bulletins with his colleague Pascual. Meanwhile, he tries his hand at writing short stories and imagines moving to an attic in Paris to pursue his literary dreams.

Two newcomers disrupt his routine of studying, working, writing and hanging out with his friends. First, Radio Panamericana hires Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian scriptwriter and star of soap operas. Second, his aunt by marriage’s sister, Aunt Julia, moves to Lima after she divorced her Bolivian husband.

Pedro Camacho is a talented but manic scriptwriter and he soon befriends Mario, confiding in him and sharing his writing tips. Pedro quicky becomes the new star of Radio Panamericana, bringing in more and more listeners with his crazy plots. With the listeners comes the money from advertising and the radio has found their goose that lays the golden eggs.

Mario and Aunt Julia didn’t know each other before she arrived and soon begin a secret affair. She’s fourteen years older than him. Since they belong to a tight-knit extended family where gossip travels fast, their greatest fear is to get caught by a family member. Mario’s friends and cousin Nancy know about their relationship and cover for them. Mario and Julia have no place for real intimacy since they both live with their relatives. They spend time together at the cinema, at the radio or wandering in the streets.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a coming-of-age novel where we see Mario falling in love and taking charge of his future. Older Mario looks back on his younger self with humor and tenderness. The Lima of his youth comes to life with him, his friend Javier and his colleagues at Radio Panamericana. We also relive the golden age of radio, with its numerous soap operas that will move to TV when this new media is widespread.

The main difference with a “usual” coming-of-age novel is that chapters alternate between Mario’s life and Pedro’s soap operas. At the beginn

ing, I thought that the stories were Mario’s short stories but I realized it was Pedro’s. As months go by, Pedro is more and more absorbed by his stories and works longer and longer hours to keep all his balls in the air. He jungles between several soap operas and his workload is threatening his health. To be honest, I thought that the chapters with the soap opera stories were a bit too long and I struggled to keep reading and pay attention. I was more invested in Mario’s life.

Two side comments about Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

The first one is about the title. The original Spanish title is La tía Julia y el escribidor. In English, it the straightforward Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. In French, it is La tante Julia et le scribouillard. Two things caught my attention in the French title. First, why la tante Julia and not just Tante Julia? Tante Julia sounds better but by choosing this, you link aunt and Julia and it becomes a sort of new first name and thus her identity. You can’t detach the family title from the first name and I can’t help thinking it makes the relationship sound more incestuous than la tante Julia. Mario and Julia are not blood related at all and he didn’t know her growing up, so la tante Julia works better in this context. I don’t know how the aunt Julia sounds to native English speakers. Is it really weird?

Then there’s the word scribouillard, which doesn’t mean scriptwriter –that would be scénariste—and is slightly derogatory as are words with the ard suffix in French. (like chauffard). Scribouillard means penpusher. The scriptwriter can only be Pedro Camacho but the penpusher can be Mario, aspiring writer and Pedro, writer of cheap soap operas. It’s not the same.

So, which translation is the right one?

Time to go back to the original Spanish title. I don’t speak Spanish so I went to my usual online dictionary to see the actual translation of escribidor. No official translation, just references to La tante Julia et le scribouillard. I kid you not. Escribidor doesn’t exist in Spanish. It means that Llosa made this word up and I bet that, after spending years in Paris, it is his Spanish translation of scribouillard. What do you think?

My second side comment is about the various covers of this book.

The Dutch one is close to the French one I displayed at the beginning of my billet. The German one seems to come out of a French or Italian film of the 1960s and has nothing to do with the novel. The Polish one implies that Aunt Julia is a loose lady.

The English cover with the lady and the city makes me think of a WWII novel. The Swedish one goes with the Polish cover. Imagine the disappointment of German, Polish and Swedish readers who based their purchase on the cover, thinking they’d be reading a torrid love affair, and ending up with tame kisses on street corners and wild soap operas. The Penguin cover is good: we see Mario or Pedro, their typewriter and the radio. There’s no emphasis on the Julia/Mario relationship.

I think that the best cover is the Spanish one with the lady and her half-radio face. It’s a good summary of the book: it’s in the right decade, it’s not lewd, it shows Julia and the radio as they are both important in Mario’s formative years. Which one do you prefer?

PS: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is set in the Miraflores neighborhood in Lima. It is also the setting of A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique, published in 1972 and also set in the 1950s. It’s a book I highly recommend too.

  1. May 24, 2021 at 10:42 am

    I remember liking this book a lot when I went through my South American phase 20 years or so ago. I have yet another cover, will tweet you about it.

    Like

    • May 24, 2021 at 10:48 am

      Thanks for the tweet and the cover!

      Like

  2. May 24, 2021 at 12:19 pm

    Such a variety of covers! I read this many years ago and I don’t remember what the cover was like, but I remember expecting it to be a dense read because he is a Noble Prize laureate, so I was delighted that it was such an accessible read.

    I agree with you about the title, the Spanish one to me is intriguing and inviting, the radio over the script also looks like a door a portal, a kind of invitation to enter, both the script and the mind, as it lies where the mind of the woman should be. It’s not resorting to cliché or an easy interpretation, it says, open up and read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 24, 2021 at 9:07 pm

      The covers are very different from one publisher to the other and I find this fascinating. It’s not an easy book to put on a cover, with the equal but very different threads, the love affair between Mario and Julia and what happens at the radio.

      You’re right, it’s easy to read even if he’s a Nobel Prize Winner. He has a mischievous style that embarks the reader in Lima with Mario.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. May 24, 2021 at 12:47 pm

    It sounds like a fun book, though maybe distracting if the radio serials don’t relate to the main plot. I don’t think one can say Aunt here (in any language) without hinting at incest even if it’s not legally incest. I have aunts by marriage my age, not that they ever offered to kiss me, but I think it would have caused an uproar if they did. Except all my country aunts go for a hug and kiss (on the cheek!) every meeting. My father hated it, his straightlaced parents barely shook hands.

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    • May 24, 2021 at 9:11 pm

      I wonder how it sounds in audio book. The radio serials don’t relate to the main plot but they must be fun to listen to.

      The affair between Mario and Julia did cause an uproar. (She became Llosa’s first wife). It’s more because of the age difference than anything else.
      But I wanted to say there’s nothing unhealthy in what happened. Julia is the sister of Mario’s uncle’s wife. By blood, he’s related to the uncle and as I said, he’d never met her before. Julia isn’t really his aunt.

      Like

  4. May 24, 2021 at 5:10 pm

    Fascinating! I’ve heard of it but never read it, and interestingly from the English title I would have thought the two were blood relatives – which is maybe what all the dodgy covers etc are trying to suggest. “The Aunt” would at least make you question it, but the incest is always being suggested I think. I’ll look out for this, though!

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    • May 24, 2021 at 9:14 pm

      A great pick for Spanish lit month. 🙂

      The original title includes the word “aunt” too. But don’t children call “auntie” or “uncle” people who are not related but are close to their parents?

      Like

  5. May 24, 2021 at 6:39 pm

    That’s fascinating about escribidor–I have no idea how a translator could have reproduced that in an English title.

    I read this years ago & remember quite liking it.

    Like

    • May 24, 2021 at 9:16 pm

      I don’t know how to translate escribidor in English either but if my theory is correct, then it means scribouillard, which means penpusher. So…

      I really recommend A World for Julius too.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. May 26, 2021 at 1:28 am

    This isn’t one I’ve read but think it would be a really difficult title to translate into English. I’m not wildly enamored with any of the cover designs though.

    Like

    • May 26, 2021 at 9:24 pm

      It’s not easy to design a book cover that will cover all the aspects of the book. That’s why they are so different, I think. What I don’t like is when covers don’t relate to the book.

      Like

  7. buriedinprint
    May 27, 2021 at 10:46 pm

    The cover I know for this one is different yet again (I’ll have to see if the one MarinaSofia tweeted is the one I know in Canada). I saw the film for this in the theatre (it was the first time I’d ever won something–a pair of tickets to see it on opening night, in a small city where that kind of distinction didn’t matter one bit LOL) and I thought it was raucous and hilarious and completely unlike anything I’d seen before. The radio drama scenes were particularly fun. When I looked at the book in the local bookshop the next day, it didn’t look anything like I’d imagined, and I’ve still not read it, but you make me want to now. The discussion of the title distinctions and how Llosa may have invented a word is fascinating. No matter how I put the emphasis, the “The” feels completely strange!

    Like

    • May 30, 2021 at 9:32 pm

      There are often a lot more covers than the ones I pick, so I’m not surprised.
      The film must be excellent, there’s room for a lot of fun and comedy with the radio drama since the scriptwriter’s imagination is wild.

      Thanks for letting me know about the “the aunt Julia” vs “Aunt Julia”. That’s the kind of nuance I don’t pick. Aunt Julia sounds better to me but I can’t assess how weird “the aunt Julia” sounds.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. May 29, 2021 at 10:40 am

    A really fascinating review as always Emma! I read Llosa as a teenager and I couldn’t get on with his style at all, but I think I was probably too young to appreciate him. This sounds a good way to try him again.

    I can’t think of a circumstance where English speakers would say ‘the Aunt…’ maybe if we were talking about a role in a play? But even then it would need to be a nameless Aunt. ‘She played the Aunt’ but we’d be more likely to say ‘she played Aunt Julia…’ if that makes sense? To my English ears it sounds a really strange objectification.

    Like

    • May 30, 2021 at 9:33 pm

      I haven’t read anything by him except this one. I imagine it’s difficult to see how original he is when you’re a young reader.

      Thanks for the comment about “the Aunt Julia” vs “Aunt Julia”, it’s very helpful.

      Liked by 1 person

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