Tuesday, November 4, 2014

All Men Are Liars by Alberto Manguel

All Men Are Liars
by Alberto Manguel
Riverhead Books, 2012 (originally published in Spanish in 2008)
224 pages

Well, it's been months since I finished this book. Luckily I took good notes.

Originally published in Spanish, this is a novel in five distinct parts. An investigative journalist, Teradillos, is trying to get to the bottom of the story of a famous literary figure by the name of Alejandro Bevilacqua, an ex-pat Argentine who died under mysterious circumstances in Madrid. The first person interviewed is Alberto Manguel himself (in case anyone is curious, Bevilacqua is indeed a fictional character). Manguel tries to distance himself from Bevilacqua, whose body was found under Manguel's balcony when Manguel was out of the country, but is not very successful at it. The second part is told from the perspective of Bevilacqua's lover, the third from a character Bevilacqua spent time in an Argentine prison with, the fourth from another person in Bevilacqua's past, and the fifth and shortest from Teradillos himself.

Hmm. My notes begin: "I am too stupid for this book" which is an interesting statement. Let's dissect it a bit.

This is indeed literary fiction, and I don't read a lot of that. What's more, it's interesting and ambitious literary fiction that winds, maze-like, around itself. It doesn't take itself too seriously but it is serious. I haven't read widely enough to be able to follow all the perambulations and permutations, and I'm only just familiar enough with Latin American history to understand a little of what is happening. This is a novel about Argentina under a dictator, a novel about disappearances and corruption, exiles and torturers - even at a remove, being set as it is in Spain and France thirty years on from the events so central to the tale. What's more, it's about the ordinary faces each of these things have, about the banal people behind the atrocities, about the banal people who get caught up in them. And how those ordinary, seemingly boring people, can be fascinating in and of themselves.

It's also about how we tell stories about ourselves and others, and sometimes we know that we're crafting fictions and sometimes we're blissfully unaware of it, but we are nothing but our stories either way. It helps our case if we are in control of our own stories - the author and wordsmith in the third section, the man who was a prisoner with Bevilacqua, presents the most coherent and convincing tale of all of them, and yet because of the structure of the novel we're aware that it is just a story, even as we fully believe it.

In short, I'm not sure I am in fact too stupid for this book. I think I did pretty well with it, for all my inferiority complex about reading literary fiction. And I enjoyed it, too. Something I did do, though, was spoiled it a bit for myself, which was objectively stupid - don't read ahead in this book if you can help it. And even if you can't. Part of the enjoyment of it is letting it unfold slowly, letting the mystery slowly solve itself. I learned a fact too early by seeing something quite a bit further along in the story than I was myself, and I think I would have enjoyed it much more if I'd let it unfurl in the way Manguel meant for it to unfurl.

My notes on the first two sections are incredibly detailed, and then I read the third and got totally swept up in it such that I didn't bother taking notes, but it's the section I remember most vividly. 'Apologia,' the first, is told from Manguel's own "perspective" and while we learn the basic details of Bevilacqua's life through him, we also gain an incredible amount of insight into the character Manguel has created of himself - that he is a little self-indulgent, a little delusional, not entirely in touch with his own feelings. He repeats multiple times that he was not fond of Bevilacqua, that Bevilacqua foisted himself on Manguel as an unwanted guest; but one suspects Manguel was more fond of Bevilacqua than lets on even to himself.

The second section, 'Much Ado About Nothing,' is an about face. Manguel is a liar and a sad sack, full of himself and totally useless, generally. Andrea, the narrator of this section, is at least as delusional as Manguel, and less self-aware; she's a narcissist. Everything that matters, matters on her terms. She was Bevilacqua's lover, but it's clear to the reader that she was in love with her own idea of the man, not the man himself. The Bevilacqua she discusses is a very different one from the man Manguel tells us about - the two are almost irreconcilable, but because of Andrea's inability to countenance that anything beyond her own version of events and people might have merit, we give more credence to Manguel's version despite the fact that Andrea was objectively closer to Bevilacqua.

There's more to say about Andrea, but I can't without major spoilers. Suffice to say that even though she's not a terribly subtle character, there are some subtle ways in which Manguel (the author) reveals her to us. This story, though technically about Bevilacqua, tells us more about the people around him than about he himself.

The third section, as I say, is the most self-aware and the best-written, and the quality of the writing leads us to believe it almost unconditionally even though we know these are personal accounts by people with vested interests. We remain objectively aware that we are reading a story, one person's version of events, but we cannot help but lend this particular person weight because of the way he tells his story. There's quite a lot to be said for this.

The fourth section was where things fell down for me a bit, told as it was from beyond the grave. It explained a lot of things that were left as mysteries in the first three sections, and while it was... fine? I would have been okay if those things were left unexplained, or ... explained in a more subtle way, like the rest of the story had been up to this point. This section felt kind of heavy-handed, unlike the earlier portions. It was well-done for what it was, but I wasn't sure it fit.

The fifth section, Teradillos' own, was a satisfying, solid ending, but there's not too much else to say about it beyond that.

Do I recommend this book? I certainly read it quickly and I enjoyed it. What's more, I think I have enjoyed thinking about it even more than reading it. I don't think it's absolutely brilliant but it was engaging and thought-provoking, and it's hard to ask too much more from a book. For fans of historical fiction, Latin American fiction, and literary fiction especially, but even if you're none of the above, this is an easy read to help you stretch out of your comfort zones.

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