Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

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Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

by Mario Vargas Llosa


A novel set in Lima, Peru, in the mid 1950s with an epilogue set roughly ten years later; published in Spanish (as La tia Julia yel escribidor) in 1977, in English in 1982.


During his struggle to define himself as a. serious writer, Varguitas has two transformative experiences: his encounter with Pedro Camacho, an eccentric but successful writer of radio serials, and his own love affair with his Aunt Julia.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Mario Vargas Llosa was born into Peru’s small but privileged middle class in 1936. From his birthplace in Arequipa, he moved with his mother and her parents to Cochabamba, Ecuador, where Vargas Llosa’s grandfather would direct first a cotton farm and then the Peruvian consulate. The move offered respite from the shame of divorce: the future writer’s father, an operator with the Panagra radio chain, had abandoned the family even before Mario was born and did not reappear for a decade. When Vargas Llosa met his father for the first time, it was in the northern city of Piura, Peru, where the grandfather was serving as prefect. The unexpected discovery of his father, followed by his parents’ reunion and move to the capital Lima, marked the end of young Vargas Llosa’s idyllic, even coddled, childhood. His father was stern and disapproved of the budding literary vocation, sending Vargas Llosa to the Leoncio Prado Military Academy to instill in him more masculine qualities. The writer’s experiences as a student there include some of his first close-up encounters with Peru’s diverse and often conflictive society, and he weaves them into his earliest fiction (see The Time of the Hero [1963, also in Literature and Its Times]). Later experiences at Lima’s San Marcos University, a hotbed of political debate and activism, awakened his interest in the Peruvian politics that would form a backdrop for some of his subsequent novels (Conversation in the Cathedral [1969]). The mysteries of daily life in Peru form the backdrop for other novels (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service [1973]). Vargas Llosa sets a couple of his works outside Peru (The War of the End of the World [1981, Brazil]; The Feast of the Goat [2000, The Dominican Republic]). He also explores the nature and form of narrative in various novels (The Storyteller [1987] and The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto [1997]). In Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, his exploration exposes the power and perils of a preoccupation with radio melodramas in mid-twentieth-century Peru.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

1950s Peru—the political context

In the post-World War II years, economic and other needs drove many nations towards one or the other of the two global superpowers—the United States or the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, a communist regime, stood in stark contrast to the United States, a bastion of democratic capitalism, and the two engaged in a struggle for world leadership that forced other nations to choose sides. This so-called Cold War took on special importance in the Americas, where the United States had long taken an active role in the economies and politics of many countries.

In Peru two leaders were in power around the time Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter takes place. The first one, military dictator Manuel Arturo Odría (1948-56), maintained close ties with the United States. His was a bourgeois dictatorship based on an export-oriented plan for growth—foreign trade and investment were encouraged and actively pursued. In the midst of its campaign to combat the spread of international communism, the U.S. Government, particularly its military, became Peru’s active business partner. The Odría dictatorship adjusted itself slightly to accommodate the relationship, loosening its controls on business but maintaining a tight grip on the press, civil rights, and political activity.

Already supported by the business community and the military, Odria sought to expand his appeal by courting the coastal working class. This did not sit well with the nation’s elite who feared losing their solid financial, professional, and social position to the middle class. Less than ten percent of the population controlled the nation’s businesses at the time, while 75 percent lived in poverty or extreme poverty. Yet the elite chafed at what they perceived to be the government’s arbitrary policies, unequal distribution of benefits, and constant repression. They attempted in 1954 to unseat Odria in a coup that proved unsuccessful, but nevertheless paved the way for free elections in 1956, again around the time Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter takes place. The following government, under Manuel Prado (1956-62), eliminated some of the harsh excesses of the Odria regime, expanding civil rights, legalizing trade unions, and easing restrictions on the Communist Party (which Odria had outlawed in a nod to the United States and its Cold War interests). In other ways, Prado’s government maintained the same stance the earlier government had followed. Prado continued Odria’s export and foreign enterprise-friendly policies. Years of aggressive support of businesses began to reveal the hollowness of plans for agrarian reform and social development in the mountain regions, so his term was full of internal divisiveness. Despite impressive growth in exports, economic hardships (unemployment accompanied by inflation and labor unrest) fostered the rise of ever more extreme movements in the politics of the country.

Communism and capitalism in Latin America

Outside Peru, revolution was brewing in Cuba. Here, too, the era opened under a military dictator—Fulgencio Batista. In 1952 Batista seized control in a coup d’état that suspended the 1940 constitution. His military regime won U.S. recognition within weeks, and by the end of the decade was receiving significant U.S. military aid. American businesses owned massive shares of Cuba’s mining, utilities, railway, and sugar industries at the time. Foreign-owned companies, who were supported by the island’s elite and accounted for 80 percent of the island’s sugar production, paid little heed to the needs of the Cuban masses. With planting and harvesting tailored to maximize profits, people were left to go hungry while rich farmlands lay fallow or yielded products that were exported along with the profits. Discontent with this state of affairs—and the government that allowed it to persist—rippled through Cuba. A small but dedicated group of revolutionaries under Fidel Castro (1927- ), Raúl Castro (1932- ), Camilo Cienfuegos (1932-60), and Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928-67) took direct aim at Batista’s military dictatorship. On July 26, 1953, they staged a military assault on the Moncada barracks, seeking to reinstate the liberal constitution of 1940 and to restore popular rule. The attack on Moncada failed, but Castro’s subsequent trial and jail term allowed him to present his views to a wide audience. His defense, later published as History Will Absolve Me, yielded him a 15-year-sentence of which he served only two years, thanks to a nationwide amnesty campaign organized on behalf of the young rebels. Afterward the Movement of July 26, as the rebel group was called, continued to agitate for the cause, launching guerrilla attacks from high in the Sierra Maestra mountains from 1956-59. Popular support for the rebels swelled as Batista’s troops took increasingly severe measures to crush them, including torture and massacre. The rebels persisted. On the night of January 1, 1959, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos led them into Havana and Batista fled the island with his family and associates.

Was the Cuban revolution a mere alignment of the island nation with the Soviet Union? By this time the Soviets’ still recent experience of severe repression under the leadership of Joseph Stalin had cast a serious pall on communist idealism. Cuba seemed receptive to the Soviet Union, though it had to some degree been forced in this regard. The rebels took some bold measures early in their regime, nationalizing oil refineries and other business interests. In response, the United States cut off relations with Cuba, suspending its commitment to purchase Cuban sugar and severing diplomatic relations. Cuba necessarily turned to the Soviet Union to fill the gap. Some worried that Castro’s Cuba would adopt Stalin’s tactics; others felt certain that Cuba would not commit these errors. Cuba, promised Che Guevara, seeks “something new which will permit a perfect identification between the government and the community as a whole” with “the ultimate and most important revolutionary aspiration: to see man freed from alienation” (Guevara in Thomas, p. 1423). A nation reborn, it aimed culturally to achieve what many, including Vargas Llosa, saw as a “political ideal—a Communist revolution respectful of artistic freedom” (Kristal, p. 6). This was the revolution being waged when Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter takes place, and it greatly affected the region, inspiring intellectuals in the various closed societies of Latin America. In Peru too, artists like Vargas Llosa looked to Cuba as a new model of hope and tolerance.

1950s Peru—the social context

The communist factions in various countries shared a common ideal that a nation’s government should serve all of its people. In countries like Peru and Cuba, where most citizens were not of European descent, this implied the inclusion of those groups that made up the formerly excluded masses—native peoples, mestizos (part European, part native), Africans, mulattos (part European, part African), and sambos (part African, part native). The needs of these long-excluded groups ought to matter as much as those of the white European elite if one lived by this ideal. In Cuba, in keeping with the ideal, Castro’s supporters “gathered in their ranks men and women of all colors. When the Rebel Army entered Havana, it swept before it not only the government and army of the dictatorship, but the social conventions, hierarchical structures, and racial practices that had supported dictatorial rule” (Cannon, p. 113). Castro rejected discrimination from the very start, declaring soon after his victory, “We are a mixed race from Africa and Spain. No one should consider themselves a pure race, much less a superior race” (Castro in Cannon, p. 113).

Peru’s situation was somewhat different. Like many other Latin American countries, it included a full range of ethnicities—in 1955 its population was 60 percent native (mainly Quechua Indian), 30 percent mestizo, and only 10 percent white European and other ethnicities. But in addition to its ethnic diversity, Peru stretches across an area of enormous geographic diversity including dry colonial cities on the coast, remote Andean villages to the east, and tropical forests on the inland slope of the Andes. The radically different economies and lifestyles dictated by the different climates have divided Peru’s population into various social groups from the land’s earliest days. It is perhaps this factor that has made Peru one of Latin America’s most hierarchical countries, with a class structure as rigid as it is unbalanced. The wealthiest 15 percent of the population forms an elite of European, predominantly Spanish, extraction that controls the vast majority of Peru’s political and economic resources from the coastal cities and farms. Meanwhile, the indigenous peoples remain in poor, remote mountain and jungle villages or join other groups in the huge shantytowns around Lima. Combined with little-to-no social mobility, the physical barriers have resulted in only the most minimal and passing interaction between social classes. In the 1950s, as is largely the case now, there was little sense of unity. In the words of one historian, Peru was a nation of “10 million inhabitants but very few Peruvians” (Bethell, p. 457). Earlier in the century some thinkers had tried to address this “problem,” noting that Peru was not served by its disunity. They began a movement to incorporate the native or indigenous peoples into the life and progress of the nation. Arguing that “the revolution that would regenerate Peru must come from the sierra, from the Andean Indians, who would destroy the age-old systems of oppression and unify Peru again, restoring the grandeur that had been the Inca empire,” Manuel González Prada (1848-1918) inspired what came to be known as the indigenista movement (Keen, pp. 388-91). Later indigenista thinkers would take González Prada’s faith in the Andean spirit several steps further, holding up the communal farms and socialistic structure of the pre-conquest (and therefore more authentic) Peru as models for social revolution. The idea that Peru’s indigenous population deserved the


Already in the early 1940s, before Goar Mestre inaugurated his series of racy radio soaps in Cuba, the CMQ network produced fictional drama with a real-life edge to it. For 15 minutes a day, the network broadcast “The Poor People of Guantanamo,” a radionovela-type program that depended on stories from the daily news for its scripts. Writers would cull through the newspapers, swoop down on real-life articles about dramatic incidents, such as the murder of a woman in a lovers’ spat, then adapt the news bit into a proper program script.

same rights and privileges as other Peruvians coincided with migrations of native peasants from the mountain regions to Lima and the growth of an urban working class. From the shared concerns of these peasants and workers, José Carlos Mariátegui (1895-1930) drew inspiration for his Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928); a year later, these concerns moved him to found the Peruvian Communist party. Although the Communist party itself had been outlawed when Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter takes place, its social ideas could be seen in the powerful APRA (Popular Revolutionary Alliance of America) party and in the increasing visibility of Peru’s indigenous peoples on the streets of Lima and on the airwaves. Social classes could meet through radio stations like Lima’s Radio Central, which brought indigenous music to the upper classes, and people of all classes could follow the twists and turns of the radio soap operas.

Broadcasting in Peru

Mentioned in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is Cuba’s CMQ radio network. CMQ began broadcasting in Cuba in 1933. In the early 1940s three brothers—Goar, Abel, and Luis Augusto Mestre—became half owners of the network. Goar Mestre initiated a series of popular daytime radionovelas (soap operas) that touched on racy subjects. They include, noted Mestre, plenty of adultery. Mestre would become a powerful network presence. He is said to have encouraged Latin American broadcasters to take a united regionwide approach when dealing with dictators. Already by the early 1950s, they had the forum to do so—a broadcast media organization called the Inter-American Association of Broadcasters, which counted 3, 800 members and met annually. Within a short while, by the middle of this same decade, Goar Mestre had banded together with an elite group of major Latin American broadcasters, including Genaro Delgado Parker of Peru.

Dictators in the different areas introduced censorship, restricting especially what political commentators could say over the airwaves. Cuba’s radio commentators freely criticized Batista at first, until he put a stop to their public criticism. By the mid 1950s his censorship had grown so strict that Abel Mestre, then president of the Cuban Federation of Radio Broadcasters, protested in public, to little avail. The censorship did not ease. Rather, after the onset of the rebel’s 1956 guerilla attacks against him, it grew more severe. Batista cracked down on anyone in the media who criticized him; by 1957 the crackdown had grown so fierce “that the media could no longer even mention that their reports were censored” (Salwen, p. 103). Again political commentators bore the brunt of the repression. At least one radionovela escaped it, building on Cuba’s already long tradition of indirect political commentary by slyly sneaking such commentary into fictional works. Airing not over the CMQ radio network but over the CNC network beginning late in 1957, the program The Dictator of the Blue Valley starred a rebel leader (like Castro) who in each episode would wander through the valley with like-minded men, aiding people in their straggle against an evil dictator (like Batista).

Meanwhile, back in Peru, Genaro ran his radio enterprise. Like Goar Mestre, he “saw broadcasting as a regionwide venture that transcended national borders” (Salwen, p. 115). But Pera had its own set of particular national realities to contend with, many of them divisive. Despite divisions along geographical, racial, and class lines, one component of Peruvian life brought the divided society together: the radio. From its first days, radio here was mainly geared to the interests of the ruling elite, “economic growth and political stability, and a docile commercial broadcasting system satisfied both” (Fox, p. 29). Under Odria the government relaxed official restrictions on commercial broadcasters. But the dictator continued to maintain tight, unofficial control over broadcasts both directly (in the novel, the radio director becomes very agitated about possible repercussions when a visiting economist “violently attack[s] military dictatorships” in an interview) and indirectly (the news that the radio broadcasts is culled from newspapers receiving revenue and bribes “to attack certain individuals and defend others”) (Vargas Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, pp. 225, 366). Given these constraints, it is little wonder that the fictional radio melodramas gained favor among radio directors and audiences alike.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, radio serials from Cuba, Mexico, and Argentina dominated the Peruvian airwaves, often adapted for local audiences. The Cuban Revolution interfered with Peru’s access to plays coming regularly from Cuba, forcing Peru to depend on others or practice self-reliance. In Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, loss of this access prompts Peru’s Radio Central to seek out new scripts from a Bolivian writer, a logical recourse given the sharing of programs among countries. The writer, Pedro Camacho, is brought to work exclusively for Radio Central as an in-house writer, another logical move in view of the increasing unavailability of Cuban scripts due to the revolution. By the end of 1950s the switch to television had begun, and radio melodramas were fast becoming objects of nostalgia. Soon after inaugurating the first government-run television station in 1958, four private stations, including Panamericana Televisión, successor to Peru’s Radio Panamericana and a business partner with Cuba’s Goar Mestre, began operations (Fox, p. 81).

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is in many ways two novels in one, with chapters alternating between the life of the young writer Mario Vargas and summaries of the radio serials of Pedro Camacho. When the novel opens, Mario Vargas, often identified by his nickname Marito or Varguitas, is in law school and working as news editor for Radio Panamericana. On one extraordinary day he learns that Pedro Camacho has been hired to write, direct, and perform in radio dramas, and he meets his recently divorced Aunt Julia. His initial impression of each is unfavorable, but he soon comes to be fascinated by both of them.

Camacho proves to be a veritable machine. He churns out first four, then ten soap episodes a day, increasing Radio Central’s listening share by 20 percent and becoming an object of devotion for hundreds of fans. His episodes, summarized in the novel’s even-numbered chapters, are classic melodramas full of hopeless loves, shocking violence, and incest. Invariably they end with breathy questions to set up the next episode. In one such episode, the honorable Sergeant Lituma, “a man in the prime of life, his fifties, whom the entire Civil Guard respected” encounters a scarred, naked, and starving African in the port city of Callao (Aunt Julia, p. 60). A painful dilemma arises when Lituma is ordered by his lieutenant to kill the unfortunate man. As the episode ends, the listener is left guessing about what the noble officer will do:

[T]wo, three, several seconds went by and he didn’t shoot. Would he do so? Would he obey? Would the shot ring out? Would the dead body of the mysterious immigrant roll over onto the heap of unidentifiable, rotting garbage? Or would his life be spared, would he flee, blindly, wildly, along the beaches beyond the city, as an irreproachable sergeant stood there, amid the putrid stench and the surge of the waves, confused and sad at heart at having failed to do his duty? How would this tragedy of El Callao end?

(Aunt Julia, p. 83)

Other cliffhanger endings leave listeners wondering how a newlywed will share with her husband the news that she is pregnant with her brother’s child, how an obsessed rodent exterminator and tyrannical father can survive the violent rebellion of his family, and whether a ghetto priest will save his community of prostitutes and thieves from censure within the Catholic Church and competition from Protestant orders through reform or extermination.

Camacho eventually finds it impossible to churn out stories at such a maddening pace. As the “machine” breaks down from overuse, he confesses that he is losing control of his characters:

I’m not the one who’s mixing them up; they’re getting mixed up all by themselves. And when I realize what’s going on, it’s too late. I have to perform a juggling act to get them back in their proper places, to invent all sorts of clever reasons to account for all the shifting ground. A compass that can’t tell the north from the south can lead to grave, grave consequences.

(Aunt Julia, p. 241)

Camacho attempts to retain a command over his stories by creating a series of disasters contrived to kill off the characters who have slipped from one melodrama and into another. But he fails, and must be sent to a mental hospital. In a panic at the loss of their star scriptwriter, the radio station’s owner scrambles to find a replacement, musing over how to remedy the problem:

CMQ, taking advantage of his situation, of the emergency, had quadrupled the price it was asking for its serials… . And to top everything off, it was going to be three weeks to a month before the new serials arrived, because Cuba was in a mess, what with the terrorism and the guerrillas, CMQ had been turned topsy-turvy, with people arrested and all kinds of troubles. But leaving Radio Central listeners without any serials at all for a month was unthinkable, the station would lose its audience, Radio la Crónica or Radio Colonial would lure them all away, they’d already begun to be tough competition because they were broadcasting cheap, vulgar Argentine soap operas.

(Aunt Julia, pp. 342-43)

Though listenership plummets with the change, the station is sufficiently desperate to have Var-guitas, their young news director, step in to patch together more episodes. In his own writing, the intellectual Varguitas has so far been incapable of winning an audience. Though he has one short story published in El Comercio, most of his efforts wind up in the trash. Only when he leaves Peru for graduate study and work in Europe will his writing shift from a stop-gap means of income to a serious career.

As Varguitas moves towards realizing his dream of being a writer, his life takes on the appearance of a novel. His relationship with Julia is, in her words, a “love affair of a baby and an old lady who’s also more or less your aunt… . A perfect subject for one of Pedro Camacho’s serials” (Aunt Julia, p. 90). Visiting Lima from her native Bolivia, Julia is surprised to find her ex-husband’s young nephew a grown man, and even more surprised when he kisses her:

“Listen, Marito,” I heard her murmur discon-certedly, but I interrupted her by whispering in her ear: “I forbid you to call me Marito ever again—I’m not a little kid any more.” She drew her face away to look at me and tried to force herself to smile, and at that point, almost automatically, I leaned over and kissed her on the mouth.

(Aunt Julia, p. 58)

The two develop an odd sort of romance, full of clandestine meetings, kisses, and talk of Pedro Camacho but without more intimate contact or a sense of future.

Inevitably, others discover the relationship, first Varguitas’s best friend Javier, then his cousin Nancy, then, alarmingly, his aunts and uncles, and more alarming still, his parents in the United States. With the relationship’s stakes suddenly raised, Varguitas decides to propose to Julia. He sets off to find a “kindhearted idiot of a mayor” who will marry them despite his young age—at 18 he still needs his parents’ approval—and despite Julia’s older age (she is 32), divorced status, and Bolivian citizenship (Aunt Julia, p. 278). When the family is informed of the wedding, Varguitas’s next task is to calm them down, especially his father, and prove that he is old enough to be married. At this point, the story takes a leap, recounting in one short paragraph the transformation of Varguitas into a serious writer during his eight-year marriage to Julia.

The novel ends some years after the marriage does, when Varguitas—remarried now to a blood relative, “a cousin of mine this time (the daughter of Aunt Olga and Uncle Lucho, by some odd coincidence)”—returns to Lima and encounters his old radio station colleagues (Aunt Julia, p. 358). Though most have prospered, Pedro Camacho has by this time been reduced to a pathetic shell of a man. The one-time radio star collects crime reports from Lima’s police precincts for a scandal sheet and lives with his wife, “[a]n Argentine years past middle age, fat as a sow” who “sings tangos half-naked… at the Mezzanine, that nightclub for penniless wretches on the skids” (Aunt Julia, p. 371).

A closed circle

As nearly all of Lima tunes in to follow Pedro Camacho’s radio serials, they elicit a type of unity that crosses cultural and class lines. It is an illusory unity, though. The divisions resurface in the dramas themselves, as we see in the powerless and anonymous African awaiting his fate at the hands of Sergeant Lituma. Camacho creates his characters with broad strokes and a heavy reliance on stereotypes. One of his first tasks upon arrival in Lima is to map out the neighborhoods where his dramas will be set. The divisions are clear: “Ancient Ancestry, Affluent Aristocracy” for one neighborhood, “Bums Fairies Hoodlums Hetaerae” for another, and “Sailors Fishermen Sambos” for another still (Aunt Julia, pp. 48-49). He holds a special antipathy for Argentina, made public through an endless flow of verbal slurs. The Argentine ambassador calls them “’slanderous, perverse, and psychotic’ references” to what Camacho sees as the homosexual tendencies and utter cultural and moral poverty of the Argentines (Aunt Julia, p. 127). Though his hatred of Argentina may be ascribed to his promiscuous and estranged Argentine wife, his generalized use of broad racial and socioeconomic strokes has everything to do with his vision of the writer’s craft:

I’m a man who can’t abide halftones, murky waters, weak coffee. I like a straightforward yes or no, masculine men and feminine women, night or day. In my works there are always blue bloods or the hoi polloi, prostitutes or madonnas. The bourgeoisie doesn’t inspire me or interest me—or my public, either.

(Aunt Julia, pp. 49-50)

The world of Lima’s bourgeoisie, Varguitas’s world, is also tightly defined. He snickers at the uneducated. The unusual image of a woman with a llama on her head, a symbol of the motherland, is held up as proof of Peruvian ignorance:

The foundry workers had not understood the sculptor’s instructions to crown her with a votive flame—a llama votiva —and instead had topped the statue off with the animal of the same name.

(Aunt Julia, p. 193)

On another occasion Varguitas gleefully takes to task a young man for not knowing that the French novelist Honoré de Balzac had been dead for more than a century. The minimal direct contact Varguitas has with Peru’s masses is marked by passing and often mocking references to both the class and race of those he encounters. For example, the general assistant at the radio station, Big Pablito, is described as a clumsy and illiterate mestizo whose utter lack of class is reflected in the epilogue by dyed hair slathered with huge quantities of brilliantine “like an Argentine of the 1940’s,” flashy clothes, and “a gold ring with an Inca design” that advertises his newfound wealth (Aunt Julia, p. 362). When Varguitas’s friend Javier marvels at “[t]he intelligence of the proletariat” on hearing the mayor of Grocio Prado’s suggestion that Varguitas’s birth certificate be altered to make him appear to be of age to marry, Varguitas admits that “[i]t never crossed our minds that that was the solution, and this—man of the people, with his brilliant common sense, saw it in a flash” (Aunt Julia, p. 314). Nonetheless, he can’t resist noting how slowly and painstakingly the mestizo mayor enters the marriage into the log: “I calculated that… it had no doubt taken him more than an hour to make the entry” (Aunt Julia, p. 315).

When Marito leaves to pursue his dream of being a writer in Europe, the Peru he knows has already begun to change. The hints of diversity found on the radio have become inescapable on the streets of Lima by the time he returns a decade later. Varguitas explores his now unfamiliar city as a spectator would, “going to little popular clubs and to theaters to see indigenous folk dances, wandering about the tenements of slum districts, strolling through sections of town that I was not very familiar with or didn’t know at all” (Aunt Julia, p. 360).

Jampacked now and possessed of a distinct Andean flavor, a street on which it was not rare to hear Quechua spoken amid the strong odor of fried food and pungent seasonings, it in no way resembled the broad, austere avenue frequented by white-collar workers . …. ten years before… . There in those blocks one could see, and touch, in a nutshell, the problem of the migration from the countryside to the capital, which in that decade had doubled the population of Lima and caused to spring up like mushrooms, on the hillsides, the dunes, the garbage dumps, that ring of slums where thousands and thousands of people ended up, rural folk who had left the provinces because of the drought, the back-breaking working conditions, the lack of prospects for a better future, hunger.

(Aunt Julia, p. 361)

This late show of interest in the plight of Peru’s masses notwithstanding, Varguitas and his circle of friends and relatives are most at ease operating among their own. The intimacy shared within this circle, where individuals are identified by nicknames (Marito, Varguitas) or family connections (Aunt Julia, Uncle Lucho) but never by race, stands in contrast to the formal use of titles (Don Mario) and consistent ethnic labeling of those outside the family circle. Varguitas’s life revolves around his family, with daily meals and conversations with some 18 aunts, uncles, and cousins along with other more distant relatives. Perhaps it is only natural, then, that he fall in love with Julia; who is, albeit by marriage, his aunt. The marriage points to Varguitas’s discomfort with the variety of classes and races of his world. The concept of a closed set of relationships reappears in its most radical form—incest—in one of Camacho’s radio dramas. Outside the world of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, it will reappear later in Vargas Llosa’s 1988 foray into the erotic novel, In Praise of the Stepmother, and in its 1997 continuation, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. That the relationship between Vargui-tas and his aunt Julia borders on the incestuous appears to be of little concern to the family—they are more concerned about the couple’s ages and Julia’s marital status, and arrange a hasty dispensation to allow Marito’s later marriage to his cousin. Beyond the family, the reaction is not so blasé: on hearing that Varguitas and Julia want him, a “mestizo farmer” to perform their marriage, one mayor reacts with indignation, shouting “No, not a chance, there’s something fishy going on if a white couple come to get married in this godforsaken village” (Aunt Julia, p. 311).

Sources and literary context

In an interview done as he was putting the finishing touches on Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Vargas Llosa observed that “it took shape, like almost everything I’ve written, from my old memories” (Vargas Llosa in Oviedo, p. 155). Culled from his experiences while writing for Radio Panamericana en Lima, the author based his character Pedro Camacho on his recollection of a “literary caricature, the writer of the Bolivian soap operas, Raúl Salmón” (Oviedo, p. 155). Other facts are likewise drawn from actual experience: Cuba’s Radio CMQ was indeed run by Goar Mestre and it did in fact sell radio serials to Radio Panamericana, which was ran by the Genaro family. From these details to the twists and turns of his own romance with Julia Urquidi, many nuances are transcribed directly from real life. At the outset Vargas Llosa intended “to alternate a chapter totally, or almost totally imagined, with a chapter of personal history, authentic, documented”; however, he found that despite this intention, “memory is tricky and gets contaminated with fantasy, and… imagination seeps in, takes hold and inevitably becomes part of what one is writing” (Vargas Llosa in Oviedo, p. 159). Among the fictional elements that creep into this novel is a flexible use of time, with the years of his actual courtship with Julia (1953-54) moved forward to blend more closely with the years of the Cuban revolution (1958-59) (Kristal, p. 92).

Vargas Llosa’s real-life models have pointed out other discrepancies. Raúl Salmón, the inspiration for Pedro Camacho, expressed irritation at his presence in the novel. Evidently unimpressed by Vargas Llosa’s assertion that he included faithful representations of autobiographical details, Salmón noted that if he ever knew the young Vargas Llosa it was only in passing (Moore). He began his career as a playwright and founder of Bolivia’s social theater movement, worked briefly as a radio scriptwriter, then returned to Bolivia to continue writing for the theater and to get elected as mayor of La Paz, a fate far less melodramatic than that of the novel’s Camacho. Julia Urquidi Illanes, the inspiration for Aunt Julia, likewise takes issue with the novel’s “autobiographical” parts. Although the two parted amicably after their eight-year marriage, the bad feelings and public gossip that arose from the novel changed this. Her bitter 1983 memoir Loque Varguitas no dijo (My Life with Vargas Llosa [1988]) was written as a response.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The communist star dims

In Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, there is excitement followed by disappointment in both branches of the novel. Pedro Camacho creates radio serial worlds with massive appeal but eventually they disintegrate, and Varguitas passionately courts Julia but their marriage ultimately fails. Both story lines can be read as a metaphor for the illusions raised and then dashed by the Cuban revolution (Kristal, p. 98). Although the Cuban revolution was widely supported by intellectuals and sympathizers around the world, several events helped dim its glow. As noted, when Castro nationalized several key industries in 1960, the already suspicious United States pulled back from relations with Cuba, breaking off diplomatic ties in 1961. Castro found himself depending more on the Soviet Union for trade and military support and imposed increased Soviet-style restrictions on Cuban society.

Over the course of the 1960s, as Castro’s government settled in, some of the original enthusiasm for absolute artistic liberty began to wane. The formation of a Writers’ Union in 1961 signaled an early step towards restricting intellectual and artistic freedom. Arts organizations such as the Casa de las Américas were subject to increasing regulation, often self-imposed by directors wanting to support the revolution however they could. Though Cuba never embraced socialist realism, in which real-life stories demonstrate the need for socialism, the argument that “no artist could remain non-political since that in itself implied a political stand” was made on repeated occasions (Thomas, p. 1, 466).

The 1971 caso Padilla caused many, including Vargas Llosa, to openly break with the Castro regime. The incident began when Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, jailed for his critical stance against Castro’s regime, was released and publicly renounced his counter-revolutionary ideas. This gesture was widely seen as one that the regime had forced Padilla to make. Vargas Llosa himself drafted a letter to Castro “affirming the unequivocal allegiance to Cuban socialism by the signatories but also communicating their anger regarding Padilla’s confession as an unnecessary and deplorable Stalinist practice on the part of the Cuban government” (Kristal, p. 72). Many leading intellectuals signed the letter, but Vargas Llosa was the first one to be singled out for vilification in the international press, then shunned by editors and colleagues.

Afterward Vargas Llosa grew disenchanted with socialism and gravitated toward capitalism. The successive governments of Fernando Be-laúnde (1963-68) and General Juan Velasco (1968-75) had shown that Peru’s old economic order was no longer viable. Belaúnde devised but never implemented policies of land reform, placating the coastal landowners but arousing the anger of Andean peasants. Velasco’s military government broke with the existing order. He nationalized the oil and other industries, proposed a massive restructuring of the economy, and decreed massive land reforms, but ultimately they were abandoned. Neither Belaúnde nor Velasco was able to stem the growing anxieties of both the upper and the lower classes. As civil crisis loomed, Vargas Llosa became increasingly convinced that communism, with its emphasis on government-led reforms and control of business, was not the solution for Peru. He would eventually propose what he saw as a better solution—free enterprise and international trade—to resolve the nation’s social and economic disarray. But this proposal would not be made until years after the release of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. This novel instead emerges out of Vargas Llosa’s growing disenchantment with leftist ideology, a nostalgic look at reality, and the very real need for fantasy.

The shift to telenovela

By the end of the 1950s, radio serials were giving way to television. When Cuba’s serial writers fled the island for other parts of Latin America after the 1959 revolution, they completed the switch to television scriptwriting. Goar Mestre, the former head of Cuba’s Radio CMQ, settled in Argentina, where he founded and successfully ran channel 13 until the government nationalized the media in 1974. Despite the emergence of a more political cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, television soap operas have captured the minds and imagination of the continent. Beyond their broad cultural reach, the telenovelas, or television soap operas, represent a major source of income for the top-producing nations of Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. From these countries, the tapes are sold throughout the world for dubbing or adaptation.


As Aunt Julia reminds Varguitas, he “was the hope of the tribe” and his dalliance with writing and his aunt represented a threat to the family’s future. After all, as Varguitas admits, “that cancerous family of mine had every expectation that I’d be a millionaire someday, or at the very least President of the Republic” (Aunt Julia, p. 169). In the novel these goals are abandoned to the pursuit of literature, but a curious real-life parallel would appear a decade after the book’s publication that developed differently. The 51-year old Vargas Llosa would indeed run for president of Peru. During the summer of 1987, Vargas Llosa felt moved to respond to a speech given by the populist president Alan García with an article opposing García’s proposed nationalizations of banks and other companies (Vargas Llosa, “A Fish,” p. 23). To his surprise, Peru rejected the official plan and embraced Vargas Llosa’s resistance, pulling him towards what would become the creation of the conservative Movimiento Libertad (Freedom Movement) and his bid for the 1990 presidential elections. Though widely favored to win, the author lost to another political newcomer, Alberto Fujimori. Frustrated by popular acceptance or what he perceived to be a lack of substance in Fujimori’s campaign, Vargas Llosa left Peru and returned to his adoptive home of Europe. In rejecting Fujimori’s victory as the mere product of “impressionistic images and metaphors, ham acting, fancy turns of phrase and defiant remarks,” the writer echoes the frustration Varguitas feels in the novel, at both the enormous success of Pedro Camacho’s dramas and the failure of his own early short stories (Vargas Llosa, “A Fish,” pp. 70-71).

Radio serials have continued to broadcast melodramas through the writing of Llosa’s novel to the present day. Cuba’s Radio Agramonte still offers several radio serials for $70 per 20-minute episode. But today’s airwaves are dominated by televised soap operas. Panamericana Televisión of Peru presents nationally and internationally produced series based on historical, contemporary, and even youth-oriented themes. Simplemente María [Simply Maria], a drama originally produced for radio, went on to become the most popular telenovela ever. A “simple human tale of a woman who, like so many others, leaves her home and family to move to the city in search of new horizons,” Simplemente Maria includes many of the elements seen in Pedro Camacho’s dramas (Campo, p. 23; trans. E. Sutherland). The characters are stock. María is poor but hard-working and brave, and she believes in love. Alberto is wealthy but frivolous, selfish, and concerned about social class. From the middle class, Esteban is an idealistic but timid man, who expresses his love for Maria through his unwavering support. Maria falls for Alberto’s charm and good looks, but when she tells him she’s pregnant and suggests they marry, his reply is immediate: “You’re crazy! Don’t you understand that until I finish school I’ll never make enough money to support a family?” (Campo, p. 25; trans. E. Sutherland). Although she will wait for Alberto, Maria is on her own:” alone will fight for my son.’ Later, cradling her son, Maria promises that the child will never experience the misery, hunger, and poverty that she has had to bear” (Campo, p. 25; trans. E. Sutherland). When Alberto finishes school, it becomes clear that class, not money, is what keeps him from marrying Maria:

”Your world isn’t mine and it never will be!
You’re just a maid!”
”I’m the mother of your son, Alberto, the
mother of your son!”

(Campo, p. 31; trans. E Sutherland)

Heartbroken, Maria buries herself in work, learning first to read, then becoming a seamstress, and eventually opening a series of successful boutiques.

Audiences were mesmerized by Maria’s plight, following the story through its radio, television, film, and even magazine versions. Though an early television version aired in Argentina in 1967, it was the second, Peruvian version that would spawn worldwide imitations. Against this real-life backdrop, the novel’s seemingly insatiable audience in Lima for the radio serials of Pedro Camacho is entirely believable. In fact, Peru stands out as Latin America’s major consumer of soap operas, with 30 soaps being shown daily on Lima’s five television stations.


Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was generally recognized as a novel of transition, marking a shift from Vargas Llosa’s earlier, more socialist period into later more conservative ideas. Reactions to the novel vary widely: some critics evaluated the work on its literary merit. Others considered it in terms of the writer’s politics, and many acknowledged both facets of the work. In her review, Kathleen Leverich praised the “entertainment, wit, imagination, and high style of the novel,” while adding that “[a]s with soap operas, the book is best when you’re in the thick of things. Beneath the frenetic surface, there’s no real exploration of three-dimensional questions” (Leverich in Mooney, p.1, 382). In a review for The New York Times, William Kennedy deemed the novel “a satire of myriad social types and classes, and . …. a work that celebrates story: story that gives pleasure to a large number of people, story also as a pleasure principle for the writer” (Kennedy in Mooney, p. 1, 383). More strident critics condemn Aunt Julia for its lack of a clear social message, questioning Vargas Llosa’s position “that political advocacy be divorced from the stuff of literature” (Alonso, p. 57). Acknowledging that it is “at first glance, an apolitical novel,” Efrain Kristal concludes with an illuminating second glance:

In fact, the novel makes a subtle political point akin to Vargas Llosa’s disenchantment with the Cuban Revolution… . With Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter the fifties is no longer, as in Vargas Llosa’s previous narrative, a period of hopeless corruption. The fifties in Peru becomes a period that evokes nostalgia because its problems seem innocent and unimportant in comparison to those that the Cuban Revolution would bring. (Kristal, pp. 97, 98)

—Erika M. Sutherland

For More Information

Alonso, Carlos J. “La tia Julia y el escribidor: The Writing Subject’s Fantasy of Empowerment.” PMLA 106 (1991): 46-59.

Bethell, Leslie, ed. The Cambridge History of Latin America: Latin America since 1930, Spanish South America. Vol. 8. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Campo, Manuel J. Simplemente Maria y su repercusión entre las clases trabajadoras. Barcelona: Avance, 1975.

Cannon, Terrence. Revolutionary Cuba. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1981.

Fox, Elizabeth. Latin American Broadcasting: From Tango to Telenovela. Luton: University of Luton Press, 1997.

Keen, Benjamin. A History of Latin America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Kristal, Efraén. Temptation of the Word. The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998.

Mooney, Martha T., ed. Book Review Digest. Vol. 78. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1982.

Moore, Don. “Aunt Julia and a Visit with a Bolivian Scriptwriter.” 1994. http://www.swl.met/patepluma/south/bolivia/tiajulia.html (19 July 2002).

Oviedo, José Miguel. “A Conversation with Mario Vargas Llosa about La tía Julia y el escribidor.” Trans. Marcela Loiseau de Rossman. Mario Vargas Llosa. A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Charles Rossman and Allan Warren Friedman. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978.

Salwen, Michael B. Radio and Television in Cuba: The PreCastro Era. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1994.

Thomas, Hugh. Cuba or The Pursuit of Freedom. New york: Da Capo press, 1998.

Verqas Llosa, Mario. “A Fish out of Water.” Trans. Helen Lane. Granta 36 (1991): 17-75.

_____. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Trans. Helen Lane. New York: Penguin, 1995.