A WEEK of Books About Writing and Publishing
Note: It just happens that three books landed on my reading pile that deal quite prominently with writing, reading, and publishing. So it seemed logical to group them together this week.
Destination: Spain and Argentina
Complex, intriguing, mysterious, intellectual, playful. In All Men Are Liars, the writer Alberto Manguel (usually identified as Argentian) elicits all these reactions. He has written both novels and non-fiction about literature and writers, influenced by his 4-year stint reading to the blind South American writer Jorge Luis Borges.
In this novel, Manguel continues his discussion of writers and writing and the publishing world. In a web of shifting truths and untruths, a novel called In Praise of Lying is at the core of the deceptions. Who wrote it? Why does Bevilaqua die? How did he die? All Men Are Liars is about lying and fiction (different? same?) but also about silence as it relates to the era of dictatorship in Argentina. As one character says:
It was another of those stories that belong to the ‘archive of silence’ as we refer to that infamous period in my country’s history.
We never meet the main character of All Men Are Liars–Alejandro Bevilaqua. Instead we hear him described by four people who were part of his life. Rashoman-like, their stories vary. Talk about unreliable narrator! The reader is free to choose among the “truths.”
The witnesses are talking to a reporter, who draws his own conclusions at the end. The first story teller, a fellow expat who had grown up in Buenos Aires and moved to Madrid, is the author (or at least shares his exact name)–Alberto Manguel. He says:
Take any number of events in the life of a man, distribute them as you see fit, and you will be left with a character who is unarguably real. Distribute them in a slightly different way and–voilá!–the character changes, it’s a different prism altogether, though equally real.
And author Manguel proceeds to demonstrate that theory with the second character, Andrea, a one-time girlfriend of Bevilaqua. When Bevilaqua left Andrea, he moved into Manguel’s house near the Prado Museum, and that is where he died. Andrea warns us not to believe anything that Manguel says, while getting in a dig at us, the readers.
I think Manguel’s inability to pay attention comes from too much reading. All that fantasy, all that invention….It has to end up softening a person’s brain.
Andrea also surfaces another theme–the dependability of memory.
The thing is, I don’t know if these stories he was telling were mine, or his, or someone else’s. You spend your life among words, listening and making sense out of what you say and out of what you imagine other people are saying to you, believing that something in particular happened like this or that, as a result of this or that, with these or those consequences. But it is never so simple is it?
Ordonez, a Cuban aspiring writer who once shared a jail cell with Bevilaqua gets his say next. As readers, we are wary of Ordonez because of what other characters have told us, but he also has some vitriol for segments of the publishing business. He has this to say about critics at a book launch:
There they were: The babblers, the stammerers, the official cockatoos. All that brood who had once scared me, pissing from a great height on my literary efforts…
Besides being part of the expat group in Madrid, these characters are drawn together around the bookstore of “Quita,” who has named her store Casa Martín Fierro. Like many of the literary references in All Men Are Liars, this one is real. The epic poem called Martín Fierro by Jose Hernández is an Argentine classic about a gaucho. (And no, I didn’t know that before I looked it up!)
Although we don’t hear from Quita (or for that matter from the publisher Urquieta), we are introduced to her lover, Gorostiza. Rather than the direct sketch of memories that we hear from the others, this chapter is distorted, abstract and difficult. Of all of the narratives, it is most focused on the military dictatorship in Argentina and the narrator seems insane or at least unbalanced in his stream of consciousness meanderings.
If you are thinking of visiting Madrid, Manguel portrays Madrid vividly in All Men Are Liars. Part of the book flashes back to Argentina, which is not portrayed so much as a place as a state of mind. Since Manguel lived in Israel as a young boy, and has Canadian citizenship, and presently lives mainly in France, he is truly an international writer. In fact, I’m not quite sure why he continues to be identified as an Argentinian writer. The discussions in this book of an oppressive police state seemed simply historic until some recent events.
I kept seeing echoes in the books discussion of secrets, government’s prisons and torture in Argentina to the Spain of Franco. (See Sadness of the Samurai). In fact, this book briefly mentions the fact that Spain is still recovering from their dictatorship at the time of the book–late 70s. Spain has been a democracy for 37 years, and the recent economic downturn, accompanied by demonstrations, has some people warning of a return to police brutality.
All Men is Liars is an intriguing book that reminded me of an author I like to read when I’m looking for a mental workout– Vladimir Nabokov. The Manguel novel certainly reminded me of travel to Madrid and made me want to read more of Manguel, particularly A Reader on Reading and The Library at Night. Have you read Manguel or other Argentine writers that you would like to recommend?
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