where the writers are
writing on writing: four by Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa, this year's Nobel laureate in literature, is not only a hell of a good storyteller, but he's also one of the most reflexive writers I've read.  Several of his works deal with the process of creating fiction and the role that these fictions play in individual lives and in society as a whole.

Published in 1991, A Writer's Reality was adapted from a series of lectures that Vargas Llosa delivered -- in English -- while a visiting professor at Syracuse University in 1988.  Each lecture deals with a specific influence or aspect of his work, delving deeply into the personal and literary origins and structures of several of his novels.  The reader is taken on a step by step journey through Vargas Llosa's creative process, exploring the decisions made during the writing and the motivations for each solution.  In A Writer's Reality, Vargas Llosa demonstrates an amazing ability to lucidly analyze his own work.  I learned more from reading this short volume that in a half dozen full length writing classes.  A Writer's Reality is currently out of print: I hope that the Nobel award will result in a rediscovery of this wonderful book.

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (Historia de Mayta) is Vargas Llosa's fictional exploration of the transformation of reality to fiction.  In this novel, three stories are interlaced: first, the "real" history of an indigenous rebellion in the Andes led by a man named Alejandro Mayta; second, the account of a classmate of Mayta's -- now a novelist -- who traces the events of this failed uprising and his friend's role in them; and third, the fiction that the novelist constructs from the first two stories.  The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is basically a novel about writing a novel, but the focus is entirely on the author's creative process: Vargas Llosa knows enough not to force the connection between these three stories.  In fact, it's only in the last chapter than the confluence of the stories becomes directly apparent.

The Storyteller (El hablador) examines the role of stories -- and of storytelling -- in society.  Again utilizing the conceit of investigating the fate of a former classmate, Vargas Llosa introduces the reader to a dispersed, oral, indigenous society that is loosely held together by an itinerant storyteller, who in this case is not native but the author's former classmate.  The reader hears the stories that this storyteller brings to each family -- a mixture of news, gossip, religion, and fantasy -- and sees how the storyteller, even as an outsider, becomes so incorporated into the lives of these people that his presence is as important to the people as the stories he conveys.

Other novels by Vargas Llosa, including Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (La tia Julia y el escribador) focus on the role of fiction in the lives of people.  Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is notable also in that it's extremely funny -- something most readers don't expect to encounter in "serious" literature.

If you haven't read Mario Vargas Llosa yet, do yourself a favor and pick up one of his novels -- or A Writer's Reality -- in November.  You won't be disappointed.