Telling Tales: Alberto Manguel

Where can you find truth in a life ruled by lies? From the paradoxes of ‘false truth and true falsehood’ to the unreliability of writing and the distortions of memory, Alberto Manguel is not afraid to explore the more disquieting aspects of ‘truth’, as his latest novel, All Men Are Liars, acutely but beautifully illustrates. As one of the book’s narrators suggests: ‘Beneath the surface of all that we are able to put into words, lies that profound and obscure mass of the unspeakable, an ocean without light, swimming with blind, unimaginable creatures.’ This English PEN event welcomed Alberto and British novelist and short story writer Tibor Fischer to discuss the contradictory and the unreliable in life and literature.

At turns complex, insightful and humane, there are moments when Alberto Manguel almost becomes an embodiment of his novels. Not only has his peripatetic life put question marks over his sense of national identity, but his varied career, from essayist and novelist to translator and editor, also ensures he evades definition. Indeed, while clearly a prolific author, such is his devotion to reading that he thinks of himself more often as a reader. ‘Reading defines who I am, it gives meaning to my experience of the world,’ he said. ‘It extends our interpretation of the world. Words offer comfort… I often wonder how people survive not reading.’ He lamented that the values of the modern world have made reading ‘in the deeper sense’ more difficult. ‘We value what is easy, with quick answers. Reading requires time. It’s slow, it’s difficult, that’s the pleasure; it doesn’t provide answers it just gives better questions.’

Moreover, his so-called ‘role’ as a reader offered him a unique freedom that he was loath to relinquish in favour of writing. But in time he persuaded himself that writing was simply an ‘extension’ of reading and he began to translate –  which he deems the ‘deepest form of reading’ – as well as write anthologies, reading lists (including the wonderful A History of Reading) and a reader’s diary ‘to show how reading rubs our noses in the reality of the world.’

But then in the early 1980s something happened that ‘more or less forced’ him to write his first piece of fiction…

Born in Argentina, the son of a diplomat, much of Alberto‘s childhood was spent travelling. The family returned in 1955, but Alberto left again in 1969 during the ‘first inklings of military dictatorship’ spurred not by political reasons but a desire to travel. He later discovered that friends who stayed in Argentina were exiled, tortured or killed. Over a decade later, he discovered that a previous and much revered teacher had been instrumental in the torture of students. This was a turning point for Alberto: he was forced to comprehend how someone who had loved literature was also the collaborator of torturers. ‘At that point my reading almost failed me,’ he conceded. ‘Up till then I could find words to express my feelings. I needed to put the question into words, to name what was troubling me.’ It was this pivotal moment that inspired Alberto’s first novel. ‘It gave me a taste for fiction – that you could play with inventing a story to try and understand something in the world.’

There was another episode which was to form the inspiration for All Men Are Liars. Two writers had been detained in one of Castro’s prisons. One of them got out and published a book in Miami (supported by PEN) which was very successful. When the writer who remained in prison died, his widow published his letters which made clear that he had written the book. ‘The question for me was not so much why would someone plagiarise but how does one live a usurped identity with the guilt and responsibility of that imagination?’ Alberto asked. That was the beginning of All Men Are Liars.

Set in the 1970s, the book centres on a group of Argentinians who have escaped to Spain during the last years of Franco’s regime. One of the characters, Alejandro Bevilacqua, meets a young woman who discovers his manuscript entitled In Praise of Lying and takes it secretly to a publisher. It is soon recognised as a masterpiece. But on the eve of the novel’s publication, Bevilacqua dies… Is it an accident? Suicide? Murder? A French journalist investigates and struggles with the varied versions of the late writer that are presenting to him by a range of equally unreliable characters. He questions a particularly undependable character called ‘Alberto Manguel’ – ‘a lugubrious, grey man who talks a lot about himself without quite understanding who Bevilacqua was…I hope this Alberto is more pompous than I am!’, Alberto interjected. The terrain is forever shifting, the image of Bevilacqua constantly moving in and out of the shadows. For all the disquiet it provokes, there is an overriding sense of beauty and acceptance of these mysteries, as ‘Alberto Manguel’ states: ‘I realise how impossible it is to have a full coherent vision of anything or anyone and the very fact that our experience of the world cannot be limited makes it richer.’

Tibor was particularly curious about the fact Alberto’s characters move from one dictatorship to another. Alberto explained: ‘Franco died and Spain continued under his clout. It was a convenient place for Latin Americans and less dangerous than the US, for example. There is also the phenomenon that during time in prison many of these people were the most courageous, enduring people who’d fight in chains – but once they felt in a safe place something breaks. Political activity no longer has the fire it had before. How can you blame them?’

Alberto wrote the novel in Spanish and then had it translated into English, even though English is his first language. ‘Why?’ Tibor asked. ‘Is it easier to lie in Spanish?’ Alberto explained that he started the first 100 pages of the book in English but it wasn’t working: ‘When you’re writing in English and you have a Dutch or Japanese character it’s very hard to get the neutral tone that nevertheless captures the character; how do you put the voice of 60s Spanish in English?’

But perhaps more importantly, he believed that translation can take a novel that step further. ‘A translation must go deeply into the text, take it apart, read it in a way that the essence is still there but better than the text.’ However, there is one question that he has not yet resolved: ‘If a literary work consists of the choice of certain words in a certain order, obeying certain syntax and you take the words, syntax and replace them with another do you still have Crime and Punishment, do you still have The Odyssey? The only way we have great works is through translation.’

So, we have a novel written in Spanish, translated into English by a man born in Argentina who grew up in Tel-Aviv, travelled across Europe and lived in Canada. Unsurprisingly, Tibor was intrigued by Alberto’s sense of national identity. Less surprising still, Alberto was reluctant to declare any allegiance. ‘In adolescence I did not like to be labelled as Argentine – perhaps that was the anarchic strain in me. I don’t believe you must be attached to a country and shed blood for it.’

He finds returning to Buenos Ares difficult. ‘Cities change. There were new buildings and streets. It became the city of ghosts. I go back and try and get over that feeling but it’s very hard. [He has written a novel about this experience, A Return, to be published in English soon]. One thing that frightens me most about the times we live in is we have forgotten certain basic beliefs in what are human rights. We started mocking these beliefs, calling them PC, but they are correct! In Canada those beliefs are taught true. Canada gives a semblance of democracy. That’s why I call myself Canadian.’

Report by Alexandra Masters

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