Monday, November 6, 2023

Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa: Direct From the Horse's Mouth

Decades ago, while on a phase of hunting down Marquez novels from the public library in Dharwad and reading them, I read about another great novelist from Latin America named Mario Vargas Llosa in a magazine article. To my astonishment, I wasn't able to find a single novel of his in the expansive library. Years later, I found one of his books in another small private library in Bangalore, and that book, The Feast of the Goat, turned out to be the kind that altered you profoundly. I read a few more of his classics later, but nothing could beat the first one, in scope or scale, in style or substance, or in impact, though each of them was awesome in its own manner.

In his book Letters to a Young Novelist, Llosa delves deep into the art of writing novels and imparts the trade secrets of his craft in the form of letters written to an aspirant. The book evolves in a mentoring, conversational tone but never strays off the path. In twelve chapters, the book dissects the art form of fiction writing and, with the help of numerous examples from several known and not-so-known novels, details several aspects of structuring a novel.

If you're looking for a collection of literary essays that delves into creativity or tips and tricks of writing, it is better to stay away. Letters to a Young Novelist works more as a text book, though written in a fascinating style, which can be useful if you intend to create stories or are interested in understanding a novel better while reading one. In his opening chapter, Llosa describes the intention of writers as this:

The literary vocation is not a hobby, a sport, a pleasant leisure-time activity. It is an all-encompassing, all-excluding occupation, an urgent priority, a freely chosen servitude that turns its victims (its lucky victims) into slaves.

He equates being a writer with possessing a tapeworm inside you. Your entire life, with its myriad experiences, acquaintances, joy, sorrow, anger, revolt, and surrender,  becomes food for the worm, i.e., what you intend to write. In his second chapter, he compares the process of writing a novel to striptease in reverse.
In constructing the novel, he goes through the motions of getting dressed, hiding the nudity in which he began under heavy, multicolored articles of clothing conjured up out of his imagination.

In the subsequent chapters, Llosa forgoes his abstract style to hold your hand and show the technical aspects of the form and structure of stories. He demonstrates how a novel should have the power to persuade the reader if it has to be good, like when you read The Metamorphosis, Kafka successfully persuades you to wholeheartedly accept the premise of a man turning into an insect. This persuasion happens not just due to its content but also the form in which the writer chose to write it. It happens when the style and the order—the way it is written and the way it is organised—work in tandem to create an alternate reality inside you that is independent of your own perceived reality.

The discussion then goes on about the space and time inside a novel and how you can use spatial and temporal shifts to create maximum impact on the story. You could choose a level of reality that is different from the ones that we perceive, or you could even alternate between different realities to enhance your story. A few more techniques to improve the novel are also shared, like the use of Chinese boxes, where a story is placed inside another story (Mahabharatam has such a structure), excluding facts and events from the narrative for you to form conclusions of your own, or the usage of communicating vessels, where different episodes happening in different spaces, at different times, or in different realities may be linked to result in a whole that is far above the sum of its parts.

Letters of a Young Novelist is a work by the ace novelist Mario Vargas Llosa that describes the techniques of narrating a persuading story. But what I loved the most was the audacity of the genius to make you read a book of around 150 pages on writing a novel and then to end it with this:

My dear friend: what I am trying to say is that you should forget everything you’ve read in my letters about the structure of the novel, and just sit down and write.




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