Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 12 September 2010

All Men Are Liars

All Men are Liars

I think that if I were to define myself, I would define myself as a reader. Writing came from reading. – Alberto Manguel



The truth is amorphous. Like a swarm of birds it changes shape constantly. Sometimes the swarm forms a shape that reminds us of something but it only looks like that for an instant. The truth is diffuse: it spreads out from its point of origin and quickly loses its form. Truth evaporates: you can refill the glass and it will look like the same glass but it never can be. The truth is recusant: it will not conform for you; it will not be what you want it to be. All men are liars because they have no control over the truth, not the whole truth anyway.

Before we go any further let’s take a short commercial break.

This ad explains how All Men are Liars is constructed. The truth is a matter of perspective. What Alberto Manguel does in his intriguing novel is provide us with a Venn diagram of a book. There are four sets of data followed by an overview. The point where all four circles intersect is the death of Alejandro Bevilacqua and his is the one set of data that is missing. The accounts are presented by four people:

  • Alberto Manguel (yes, that’s the same name as the author)
  • Andrea
  • Marcelino “El Chancho” – “The Pig” – Olivares
  • Tito Gorostiza

The first three are talking, or writing, to the journalist Jean-Luc Terradillos (a real person as far as I can tell) who provides a short overview at the end. He has decided to try and unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Bevilacqua, a minor literary figure known for only one work, In Praise of Lying, which was published shortly before his death; in fact the release party takes place a few hours before he is found having jumped, fallen accidentally or been pushed from the balcony of Alberto Manguel’s Madrid apartment.

Manguel, an Argentinean writer, is introduced to Bevilacqua in the offices of Quinta, the name the philanthropist (for want of a better word) Blanquita Grenfield is known by in February or March 1976. This is also where Andrea appears for the first time; she is Quinta's loyal assistant and becomes Bevilacqua’s lover, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

As though to justify my presence, Quinta explained that I was a writer and a fellow Argentinean. For the sake of saying something, I mumbled a question about what books he had published. For the first time, Bevilacqua smiled.

“No, brother,” he answered. “It’s not books I write. I used to make fotonovelas for a living.”

A photonovel is a type of comic book, adapting a film or television episode and using film stills instead of artwork along with the narrative text and word balloons containing dialogue. They peaked in popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

So Bevilacqua is not a real novelist, not yet, not that we know of, but we are still wandering around that first circle. All we know is what Manguel knows or thinks he knows but it is through him that we get to know the most about Bevilacqua; Andrea, as I’ve just indicated, only meets him in 1976 by which time he’s in his forties; Olivares shared an interrogation cell in Buenos Aires with him for a week and Gorostiza hardly knew him at all apart from a distance. All of them come in contact with him one final time, however, on the night of his death.

Alejandro Bevilacqua, we learn, was born in 1938 in Venado Tuerto, a city in the south-west of the province of Santa Fe, Argentina.

When Alejandro was a year old, his parents were killed in the rail disaster of 1939, and his paternal grandmother decided to take the boy to Buenos Aires, where she opened a delicatessen.

Manguel only knows as much as he does because, Manguel conjectures, Bevilacqua saw in him “his fellow countryman, a solicitude that wasn’t there” and so was willing to sit for hours and tell his story but never to outstay his welcome. Manguel is realistic though. He realises that he is only privy to certain aspects of the truth:

I am the one who will decide his fate, who will make sense of his journey. That is the survivor’s duty: to tell, to recreate, to invent – why not? – other people’s lives. 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 then in a slightly different way and – voilà! – the character changes, it’s a different person altogether, though equally real.

We learn what Manguel has been told by Bevilacqua, what he has seen with his own eyes and what he has been told. We discover, for example, how In Praise of Lying came to be published. Andrea had told Manguel that she found the handwritten manuscript amongst Bevilacqua’s belongings. She in her account confirms this although she tells the journalist to take whatever Manguel had told him with a pinch of salt:

Alberto Manguel is an asshole. Whatever he told you about Alejandro, I’ll bet my right arm it’s wrong, Terradillos. Manguel is one of those types who see an orange and then swear it’s an egg. … No, nothing is true for Manguel unless he’s read it in a book. As for everything else, he’ll concede only what he wants. The slightest insinuation, the smallest detail, sets him off on a wild-goose chase.

She has a point. Manguel’s account does ramble a bit but he’s an old man at this stage. The events in question took place thirty years before and even then he only knew Bevilacqua in, to use his expression, “a distracted sort of way.” That said, where the events of his account and Andrea’s overlap I didn’t see any great inconsistencies. There’s really not much to get wrong. The one thing I couldn’t quite reconcile from the first two accounts was how many visitors Bevilacqua received the night of his death. I needed to hear what Olivares and Gorostiza had to say on the subject.

Unfortunately the last two accountants’ renditions come up short and we learn more about them than we do about our unfortunate author but there are a couple of key points: we find out that the book was written while he was in prison with Olivares and we learn that Gorostiza was responsible for his arrest in the first place.

Andrea explains how Bevilacqua is arrested:

They had picked him up in the way that had become standard in Buenos Aires: the Ford Falcon drawing up to the pavement, the two men in dark glasses grabbing him by the shoulders, the blindfold across his eyes, the order not to touch the door handles, which were electrified.

He is taken to a building he discovers later was known as The Cesspit. He is tortured but tells Andrea that “he did not know what they asked him, nor what he answered during the time he spent” there alone.

One day, without explanation, they moved him to a cell with only two camp beds. In one corner there was a lavatory with no seat and a washstand. To be accorded such luxuries astonished him.

He is not alone here though. This is where he meets “The Pig” whose true identity Andrea never learns but what Bevilacqua realises quickly enough is that this prison_cellenormous man “seemed to have some curious links with the authorities. He was a prisoner, certainly, with a prisoner with benefits, you might say,” which extended to conjugal visits from his wife known as La Pájara who was “as tall as he was short and as skinny as he was fat.”

After the week Olivares is taken away, Bevilacqua is blindfolded, driven to the airport and the next day he is in Madrid. Olivares, although he never hears from him for years, ends up in Stockholm of all places but, in time, finds his way also to Madrid where he learns that In Praise of Lying is being published and makes his way to the release party to catch up.

It’s also in Quinta’s office that Bevilacqua runs into Gorostiza again although he has no idea who he is. He doesn’t even think he might have seen him some time in the past. Gorostiza, on the other hand, his thoughts are clear: “How can I make him suffer?

Sounds personal, doesn’t it? Well, it is. You see, it was no coincidence that Bevilacqua was picked up and the reason he couldn’t tell Andrea what it was they wanted from him is that all they wanted to do was torture him. He knew nothing. There was nothing to know. He had nothing to confess. He had no idea that he and Gorostiza shared a “secret intimacy” and that they were “undisclosed rivals.” As an interrogator Gorostiza has his own take on truth:

Let’s get technical. The needle on a lie detector traces onto sheets of rolling paper a zig-zag line that seems never to commit itself either way: only in the moment of an absolute truth will the line become firmer, clearer. That unbroken, straight line is also the one made by an encephalogram when a patient dies. You have to keep an eye on both of them during an interrogation: they never both show the same state. To get to the truth without ending the life is our aim – that was my job. My first encounters with him were all about following the line of the lie detector needle; now I’m after the other kind, the straight line, the inevitable one.

[…]

I bided my time.

Waiting is an art. You can study it, practise it. I observed, I made notes, prepared reports and forecasts. I heard the Murcian say one day: Gorostiza has an African patience. I understood what he meant, Like the Sphinx, Like the pyramids. Made of sand.

So Gorostiza murders Bevilacqua because of some slight that the writer isn’t even aware of? Yes? No? Then how come Gorostiza kills himself that night too? He’s now wandering around his own personal circle of hell and we get to hear his side of the story through a dream, not his, someone else’s.

Finally the journalist, Terradillos, finds himself sitting sifting through all the differing accounts looking for the truth about Bevilacqua. His summation begins:

The story ends here. The true reader has no need to pursue this any further. This is it. All that matters has been said. To know who killed whom, how and why are questions that interest only bureaucrats or the police inspector, and they will not read these pages. The character I came to know through other voices is almost inexistent; he travels from hypothesis to hypothesis depending on the fir of his profile with certain data and preconceptions. His appearance changes like one of those garden statues which alter imperceptibly as the light changes during the day. But this, as a truth, is inadmissible. It isn’t even journalism.

[…]

Any good student … knows that the general theory of relativity explains all the major questions of the universe, out there where matter bends space and time. Quantum theory explains the small stuff, where matter and energy divide into infinitesimal particles. In their different areas, both theories are immensely useful. But if we attempt to use them together, they are shown to be absolutely incompatible. We lack one solid theory capable of explaining the world in its totality. So, how could I propose one that could completely account for that little piece of the world that was Alejandro Bevilacqua?

To my mind this whole book was worth reading simply to get to that paragraph although Gorostiza’s thoughts on truth were good too. All in all I thought this was an excellent book. I approached it with a high degree of reservation and I cannot pretend that it didn’t take me a while to get into it but if I had the time I would seriously go back and reread it. I’m sure the earlier sections will make far more sense now. Tito Gorostiza, for example, crops up in Manguel’s account but I had no reason to pay close attention to what his role was until I’d read his own story which filled in the last of the blanks.

Now don’t think from what you’ve just read this is a book that leaves you with no answers. There are answers. There are answers to questions I never even thought to ask which I’m not going to mention because that would spoil it for you. This is a mystery. Terradillos is our detective, following the breadcrumbs, re-evaluating the man as more is revealed. Unlike Miss Marple or Poirot he isn’t able to sit smugly at the end of the book and join all the dots. The best he’s been able to do is discover most of the dots and, stare at them all he might, he still can’t quite see the whole picture.

The other thing I have to commend Manguel for is his writing style. Every single character speaks to you and their personalities all shine through. I can’t pretend I didn’t struggle with the names – I insisted on reading BeLIVAcqua instead of Bevilacqua, for instance – but I really can’t criticise the author for that.

I have had a long-abiding fascination with lies. This is my kind of book. I’m not sure it will be everyone’s kind of book and I don’t mean that as a criticism, simply an observation. Manguel puts it very well:

The reader has a superstitious belief in the truth in fiction, as though writers are expressing their own voices through the text. What such an approach by the reader fails to take into account is the possibility that the author is only an instrument for creating the book; he knows no more, and perhaps less, than the reader about the subject. With no more props than ink and paper, the writer – and not a magician – conveys to the reader the magic of another world. What we look for in that world and the feelings we bring to it are not really the responsibility of the author. – Kate Gould, ‘Alberto Manguel will discuss All Men Are Liars’, The List, 6th August 2010

More books should be like this and not try to be neat. Life’s not neat. It doesn’t answer all our questions.

I’d like to say that I would definitely read this guy again but I’ve a feeling that’s more to do with the subject. That said, Stevenson under the Palm Trees which charts the final days of Robert Louis Stevenson dying of consumption on the island of Samat in only 104 pages looks interesting; I do love a novella. What I can confirm is that, after reading a number of interviews online, I can say that this man clearly understands the relationship between reader and writer and treats his readers with respect, not trying to do their job for them. Let me leave you with something he said in an interview on PBS:

I think the recognition that as a reader you have an immense power, that as a reader you are the one who decides what a book is, in fact whether a book would survive or not. A writer stops writing the moment he or she puts the last full stop to their text, and at that point the book is in limbo and doesn't come to life until the reader picks it up and the reader flips the pages. And that is an incredible power that we have as readers, and I think ideal reader is conscious of that power.

***

albertomanguel-LST076116 Alberto Manguel was born in Buenos Aires in 1948, was educated there, and was a friend of Jorge Luis Borges late in Borges’s life. He has an international reputation as a polyglot anthropologist, translator and editor of great gifts ('both enthusiastic and meticulous... with a brilliant strong natural taste', The Guardian). He is the author of numerous non-fiction books such as The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (co-written with Gianni Guadalupi in 1980) and A History of Reading (1996) The Library at Night (2007) and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey: A Biography (2008), and novels such as News From a Foreign Country Came (1991) for which he won the McKitterick Prize.

In 2000, Manguel purchased with his partner and renovated a medieval presbytery in the Poitou-Charentes region of France to house his 30,000 books, where he currently resides. He has received many prizes, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and an honorary doctorate from the University of Liège. He is an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France).

10 comments:

Rachel Fenton said...

From what I've read here and the little I had read of Manguel before I will definitely be reading this book. Thanks, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

I've read a long talk Manguel gave on language and writing and it is brilliant. I can't quite remember the title, not get off this couch to hop to my writing room to check, but like you I enjoy his take on the nature of truth and the role of readers in writing.

Thanks to for the advertisement early. It's a salutary reminder that we are all liars, depending on our context and perspective, not just men, but women too.

Thanks Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Rachel. I would definitely read him again too.

And, Lis, yes, I’m glad I found a copy of that ad. It’s stayed with me for years. So simple and yet so powerful. Truth for most of us is simply a matter of perspective. I doubt any of us have all the facts at our disposal for many things and so we assess the truthfulness of any situation based on what we know. Granted most of the time we know enough but I believe that none of us has 20/20 vision in that respect; we all have to squint a bit to see what’s what.

The thing about the book is that only the writer ever manages to assemble enough of the pieces. All the other players only know events as they involved them. It’s a very effective – and simple – way of getting a point over. They have the benefit of first-hand-but-incomplete knowledge; the writer has the benefit of second-hand-but-complete knowledge. There are pluses and minuses.

Art Durkee said...

The comparison to Borges' metafictions is obvious and relevant. The invention of what might be true and what might not be. I see the influence there.

But there's also an element of "Rashomon" present: which unreliable, untrustworthy narrator do you choose to believe? Did the crimes really happen, or happen in the way described? Truth as relative viewpoint. "Rashomon" was a very post-Einsteinian novel, a fictional account of the relativity of viewpoint.

But this novel feels contrived and deliberate in way that Borges' labyrinths do not. Borges seems to unfold naturally, even when they're constructed. My "willing suspension of disbelief" is skeptical at the moment. I'm not going to run out to read it.

I wonder if it's another example of a book that, as much as the author talks about the reader, is going to appeal far more to writers than to the general reader. But then, noting the insularity of writing the postmodern fiction is nothing new.

Jim Murdoch said...

The thing is, Art, I know how everything works out and there’s stuff I’ve not told you. Do I feel knowing everything that the book was contrived? Well, yes, all books are contrivances. Is what happens here believable? Up to a point and I think that point is stretched as little but I can imagine what happens here happens all the time, biographers interviewing people and getting their personal take on certain events. Are they all liars? Unlikely, but they have failing memories to cope with or might not be inclined to reveal too much either to save themselves – or the subject of the biography – unnecessary embarrassment or they may choose to be selective with the truth to suit their own agenda. In many respects what this book is really about is how being in the wrong place at the wrong time can change the course of your entire life, a simple coincidence. I don’t think this book will appeal only to writers but I think it will appeal especially to them.

Dave King said...

I've always thought there are levels of truth - related to age and maturity, for example -, but the news I've been reading that they are beginning to decode words from a person's thoughts with the aid of brain scans, might render the traditional lie detectors redundant, change a lot of present thinking, and create some legal and moral headaches. Truth and lies may not for long be what they always heave been.

Sangu said...

This book sounds fantastic, so thanks for pointing me this way, Jim!

Art Durkee said...

It's interesting too that truth and lie are assumed, without thinking about it much, to be universal functions, when in fact the whole sphere of discussion here is only the verbal, only the written and spoken, only the word.

When people "lie" with their body language, we call it acting, or mime.

When people "lie" in music, we call it pastiche, or parody, or quotation. But can you lie in music? Certainly, but only in certain ways. For example, if you use martial music to stir up jingoistic nationalistic feelings, you're creating a national fiction, which is often used during patriotic celebrations and displays. On the other hand, it's hard to pull that off too often without it becoming a self-parody and ironic, because music tends to go right to the emotions, and people don't tolerate their emotions being manipulated once they catch on to the fact that they ARE being manipulated.

"True expression" is something you hear about in music, and in dance. But at the same time, it's not usually labeled a "lie" when in those realms it's untrue.

Jim Murdoch said...

Interesting, Dave. Most of my objections to the concept of truth are based on the fact that we only ever get a perception of truth: either we perceive with our (limited) senses or we interpret the words people use to express their truths which are, in effect, a (poor) translation of what is going on in that person’s head. The question is: are our thoughts held in words? My feelings for my wife are too complex to get bottled up in words. For convenience I say that I love her and, because you have a wife that you love, you think you understand what I mean but what you and I feel is a kind of loving and we kind of understand that that’s how other people must feel, those who find themselves in similar situations.

Sangu, you’re very welcome. I get sent a lot of stuff that not really my cup of tea which is good because it has broadened my appreciation but it’s nice every now and then to get a book that I feel a bit jealous about. I wish I had written it.

And, Art, so much music draws its inspiration from what has gone before it, from the folk melodies used by the likes of Bartók to concertos based on the songs of Lennon and McCartney. Is that lying or by recontextualising the music are we enabled to see into it a little deeper? It’s like taking an item, sticking it a frame and saying, “Now, it is art.” Shostakovich, of course, lied in his music by encoding messages into it, by giving the government what they demanded but by also having his say in the subtext – or would that be subtune? (See Symbolism in Shostakovich’s Music.)

Deborah said...

I read this book during the travel in Argentina I did last month.... I liked it

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