Saturday, September 18, 2010

Alberto Manguel: All Men Are Liars

Steven Poole reviews Alberto Manguel's All Men Are Liars.
Alberto Manguel is a liar. Or so the reader of this book is invited to think, having enjoyed a peculiarly evasive and suspenseful story told by a rather neurotic and unreliable character named "Alberto Manguel", only to see the next narrator exclaim, at the start of her version of the same tale: "Alberto Manguel is an asshole [. . .] No, nothing is true for Manguel unless he's read it in a book."

If Paul Auster (another man, and also, in one of the senses of Manguel's title, another liar) wore a friendly beard and had more of a Latin temperament, he might produce something like this richly hued, melancholy and funny puzzle of a novel. It centres on a group of Argentinian literary expatriates in 1970s Madrid, one of whose number, Alejandro Bevilacqua, has recently died, apparently falling from his balcony on the eve of publication of a novelistic masterpiece. "Alberto Manguel" and three other characters who knew Bevilacqua address their memories of him to a fifth person, a journalist named Terradillos living in France who hopes to piece together the truth of the deceased writer's life.

The accounts are contradictory in crucial details, but the broad picture that emerges is one of a thin, gloomy man (somewhat Baudelairean in aspect) who grows up in Argentina (falling in love with a puppetmaster's daughter), begins to write (lurid scenarios for photo-romances), is imprisoned and tortured (he doesn't know why, but we eventually do), and then escapes to Spain (where he is irresistible to certain women). One of those women is the narrator who denounces "Alberto Manguel", Bevilacqua's lover Andrea, who finds the manuscript hidden among his belongings and secretly takes it to be published. The title is In Praise of Lying. Andrea comments: "Lying: that is the great theme of South American literature."
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