Sunday, January 6, 2013

Alberto Manguel's Labyrinths

My Sunday Guardian column.

As a teenager in Buenos Aires, Alberto Manguel spent much time reading aloud to the by-then sightless Jorge Luis Borges, an experience he’s written about in the slim memoir, With Borges. Since then, Manguel has become arguably the planet’s most ardent bibliophile, recording his passion in volumes such as A History of Reading, A Reader on Reading and The Library at Night.

He’s made infrequent forays into fiction, too. His 2004 novel, Stevenson Under the Palm Trees, was a literary murder mystery set in Samoa and featuring Robert Louis Stevenson; his new novel, All Men Are Liars, translated from the Spanish by Miranda France, also has an author and a death at its heart. Given that this fictional character is an Argentine, one is tempted to think that he’s based on Borges himself. This proves to not be the case, although All Men Are Liars has more than a few Borgesian touches.

In a recent piece, Manguel wrote of his personal library of over 30,000 books that it was not “a single beast but a composite of many others”. All Men Are Liars is also a composite: not a unified entity but made up of the testimonies of various people from varying vantage points who speak about their memories of the fictional writer in question, one Alejandro Bevilacqua.

The first of the narrators, talking to a journalist hoping to piece together Bevilacqua’s life story, bears the name of Alberto Manguel. This version of Manguel dredges up his knowledge of the writer: childhood in Buenos Aires, later imprisonment by the junta, exile in Madrid, the circumstances leading up to the publication of his one celebrated novel, In Praise of Lies, and his tragic death shortly after, because of a fall from a balcony.

The next narrator starts bluntly: “Alberto Manguel is an asshole”. This is one of the women in Bevilacqua’s life, directly responsible for his novel’s publication. After more digs at Manguel’s reading habit (“All that fantasy, all that invention – it has to end up softening a person’s brain”) she presents a version of events at variance with what’s come before and raises further questions: how exactly did Bevilacqua die? How did he come to write his novel, if indeed it was his? Her account is followed by other narrators, including a Cuban émigré who shared the author’s cell in Argentina and finally, that of the journalist himself.

There is thus a teasing Rashomon-like interplay between the differing accounts. As one of Manguel’s characters 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 -- voilà! -- the character changes”. The boundary between truth and fiction is shown to be more porous than we think.

Along the way there are other puzzles to ponder -- “Bevilacqua made a distinction between true falsehood and false truth” --  and also riffs on the work of Enrique Vila-Matas as well as a fascinating little digression on the literature of his country, one that ends with: “Lying: that is the great theme of South American literature”.

The mystery of the writer’s death and the manuscript are effectively-handled plot devices that keep one reading, a wrapper for Manguel’s real intentions:  “From our tiny point in the world, how can we observe ourselves without false perceptions? How can we distinguish reality from desire?”  The journalist’s quest, then, to tell the one, coherent story of this multi-faceted character is doomed from the start. This is something that Manguel overstates, reminding us time and again of the protean nature of reality and its interpretation.  

Despite his attempts to make the novel both entertaining and haunting, it’s more of the former than the latter. Still, All Men Are Liars partakes of the spirit of the words of Borges himself: “We accept reality so readily - perhaps because we sense that nothing is real.” 

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