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Aunt Julia and a Visit
with a Bolivian Scriptwriter

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the June, 1994 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association in the Latin Destinations column.


Hola amigos! Sit right back and kick your feet up. This month, I've got a strange tale to weave for you, a tale of novels and soap operas, of famous writers and politicians, and of small Andean radio stations. And believe it or not, this story starts right here in these very pages, to be exact, the May, 1984 edition (reprint #L-2). That month the articles section featured a review of a new novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. If you keep up on Latin American news, you may recognize Vargas as the losing candidate in Peru's last presidential election. Not happy with his second place finish, Vargas has since taken up Spanish citizenship. In fact, changing one's citizenship seems to be a fad among Peruvian politicians. Peru's previous president, Alan Garcia, applied for Colombian citizenship not long ago, but was turned down. This was after Garcia fled Peru to avoid charges of embezzaling tens of millions of dollars from the national treasury. But, excuse me, I'm digressing from the story.

Aunt Julia is actually a slightly fictionalized account of Vargas' life in 1950's Lima as a university student and part-time news director for Radio Panamericana (on shortwave some years ago). The title of news director didn't mean much - he just cut articles out of the local newspapers and rewrote them for the hourly news bulletins, a common practice among smaller Latin American stations. Despite the unprofessional news service, Radio Panamericana was a very cosmopolitan station, playing a mix of jazz and pop, including the latest hits from North America and Europe. Clearly, this was a station of the upper classes. But, Radio Panamericana had a co-owned step-sister from the wrong side of the tracks - Radio Central, a station for uneducated masses. Radio Central played a mix of tropical music and Andean melodies, announcements and birthday greetings for listeners, brassy ads, and melodramatic radionovelas (soap operas). In fact, it was probably a lot like many of the rural commercial shortwave stations that we hear.

Vargas's life begins to turn upside down when the station owner steals a top-notch Bolivian radionovela scriptwriter named Pedro Camacho from La Paz's Radio Illimani. Camacho begins working fourteen or more hours a day, grinding out scripts for around a dozen novelas, each hot and steamy and soon the hit of Lima. But, Camacho's personal style is eccentric and dictatorial, which causes friction betwen him and the rest of the station. Somehow Vargas becomes the only person at the station who Camacho trusts and the link between Camacho and the rest of the world. One of Camacho's recurring eccentricities is placing strong insults about Argentina and Argentines in his scripts whenever possible, which all but causes a diplomatic incident.

Meanwhile, Vargas's 30ish sexy divorced aunt (by marriage) arrives in town for a lengthy visit. Someone is needed to show her around, and the family picks Vargas. After all, she's almost twice his age; what could be more innocent than escorting one's aunt? Vargas soon has other ideas, and slowly Aunt Julia begins to give way to his charm. But back at the station, Camacho's overworked eccentric mind is beginning to crack and he can no longer keep his different novelas straight. The various plots twist around one another as characters from one disappear to reappear in another, other characters have their names changed in mid-program, and the deceased suddenly come back as if they had never been gone. In the book, starting with the fourth chapter, the main storyline alternates chapter by chapter with the plots of Camacho's radionovelas, so the reader can follow along in their plunge to chaos as well.

From here, the novel builds up to an uproarious climax as Vargas, who has fallen head-over-heels for his aunt, persuades her to marry him and then rushes around the Peruvian hinterland trying to find a priest dumb enough to do the deed despite his being underage and without parental permission. Back at the station, Camacho is now a total wreck and is writing horrendous natural disasters into his scripts, killing dozens of characters off with each one.

The Real Pedro Camacho?

When I read the original NASWA review, I was in Honduras, soon to return to the United States and then on a lengthy trip through South America. Back in the states, one of the first things I did was buy the book and read it cover to cover in about two days. But what really intrigued me was a small comment in the NASWA review about a New York Times interview with Vargas in which he stated that Pedro Camacho was based on a real Bolivian scriptwriter he had worked with at that time named Raul Salmon. Raul Salmon was also the name of the owner and manager of one of La Paz, Bolivia's largest radio stations, Radio Nueva America (irregular on 4797 kHz). Could this be the same person? I had planned a visit to Radio Nuvea America and would find out.

When we arrived in La Paz a few months into our journey, I visited several of the other radio stations first. At each one, I asked if they knew or knew of Raul Salmon. Everyone did. He was not only a former mayor of La Paz, but one of Bolivia's most famous playwrites as well. The plot seemed to be thickening. One person had even heard of the supposed connection between Salmon and the Vargas book. I realized this station visit might be very interesting.

Radio Nueva America wasn't hard to find. It was just two blocks from the main plaza with huge R N A letters on the front. Inside was a huge lavender reception room. On the wall behind the ornate wooden receptionist's counter, large carved letters spelled out "Nuestro unico partido es Bolivia" (Our only party is Bolivia) below the RNA logo. Large plush orange and blue sofas and chairs filled the center of the room, while modern sculptures and paintings lined most of the walls, except for one which was decorated with several well-preserved 1930s vintage radios. Never had I been to a station so lavishly and professionally decorated.

Theresa and I asked the receptionist if we could see the manager and were told to take a seat. It was a busy place. Suited businessmen were coming and going while others paced, waiting for appointments. After about a half-hour, Jose Luis Cruz of the Publicity Department came and showed us to Raul Salmon's office. At first the four of us talked about the station. "This is a journalistic station," said Salmon, pointing out that most of the 18 hours of daily programming is given over to news and information, including some newscasts in the Aymara Indian language. Otherwise the station broadcasts seven hours daily of music programs and a few radionovelas. Thirty people were employed here, making it one of the biggest stations in Bolivia. He said they received about ten or twelve DX reports a month, mostly from Europe (where the station is more easily heard), and tried to answer those as best as he could. The window of his office, which looked out into a corridor, was covered with stickers from radio stations and tourist spots around the world, all sent by DXers.

Gradually, the topic of conversation switched to Salmon himself. A well-traveled and well-educated man, he studied Political Science at George Washington University in the U.S. He still remembers how he and several other Latin American students worked hard to convince the professors that there were real distinctions between the various Latin American countries, and that they were not just some monocultural glob. He was never sure if they had suceeded. Later he lived in London and worked for the BBC.

Given the cordiality of our visit, it was difficult to bring up Vargas' book and the Pedro Camacho/Raul Salmon story, but finally I did. Raul Salmon's face flushed and his smiling face turned cold. Politely, but firmly, he said that the book had nothing to do with him and that he had never met Vargas, although he he had indeed worked as a scriptwriter at Lima's Radio Central at the same time as Vargas was at Radio Panamericana. He had heard this story before, and was very disturbed by the speculation and rumors going around La Paz. Salmon went on to say that Vargas has always hated Bolivia and that this was just another attack on Bolivia. Although Vargas had been born in Peru, most of his childhood was spent in a small town near Cochabamba, Bolivia. As a child he was nicknamed Mari, short for Mario, and the local children used to tease him with "mari-mari-maricon" (maricon is a derogatory slang for homosexual). Later he married and then divorced a Bolivian woman (his aunt). Both of these events prejudiced Vargas against Bolivia, so Bolivia often bears the brunt of Vargas' fantasies when he writes. In essence, Salmon accused Vargas of behaving towards Bolivia as Pedro Camacho does towards Argentina in the book.

Looking back on this, I think we were lucky that Salmon didn't have us kicked out of the station when I popped the question. Instead, he quickly ended the discussion and gave us an autographed book of his plays, pointing out that one of them (Three Generals) had been translated and performed in New York City. He then asked Jose Luis Cruz to be sure to give us a good tour of the facilities, and ushered us out of his office.

Where's the Truth?

So, just where is the truth in all of this? Is the book almost all fact with little more than the names changed, as Vargas claims, or largely fantasy, as Salmon would have it? First, there's the question of whether or not they knew each other. Vargas claims to have known Raul Salmon well, while Salmon doesn't remember meeting Vargas. But at the time, Vargas was an underpaid college student aspiring to be a writer, while Salmon was an already well-known scriptwriter. While meeting and working alongside Salmon would have been a memorable experience for Vargas, for Salmon, Vargas might have just been another forgettable admirer.

As Vargas would have it, Camacho's (or Salmon's) novelas and their twisted demise were the biggest thing in Lima at the time. If that were so, one would think people in Lima would remember them, but, I haven't read anything about Limenos remembering this. I asked several people while in Lima, and although they certainly knew about Vargas and the Aunt Julia book, none had heard of anything that would indicate any truth to the soap opera story. Perhaps delving into the archives of some Peruvian newspapers of the day would solve the dispute, but meanwhile I'm betting on Salmon's side of the scriptwriter tale. As to Aunt Julia, the family scandal caused by the affair and eight year marriage has been documented elsewhere.

But, true or not, Aunt Julia is one of the funniest and most entertaining books I've ever read - and likewise for the several friends I've lent it to. If you're looking for some good summer reading, get this book. One hint in finding it, however. Books by Mario Vargas Llosa should be listed under V for Vargas, in accordance with Spanish naming, and I'm pleased that most bookstores and libraries that I've checked actually have him under V. However, I have been to some places that list him under L, and a few that have some of his books located under each letter as if there were two different authors. So, look under both names.

Vargas is one of Latin America's best known authors, and many of his other works have also been translated into English. His other novels are all about more serious themes than Aunt Julia. The only other one that I've read is his thick but fascinating The War of the End of the World. This is a novelized account of an 1890s peasant revolt in northeastern Brazil centering around a charismatic religious movement that claimed the Second Coming was near and would happen in the small dusty town of Canudos. So strong was the faith of these people, that it took four Brazilian military expeditions to put down the revolt. It's a heavy story, but would be another good summer read for some insights into Latin American culture.

Getting back to Aunt Julia, an English language movie called Tune in Tonight was made of the book several years ago. However, the movies's gringo makers didn't think a US audience could relate to the Latin American references, so the story takes place in New Orleans, Pedro Camacho is renamed Peter Carmichael, and the object of his hate is Albanians, not Argentines. But, the movie otherwise follows Vargas' story line very closely and is very well done.

Well amigos, we've reached the end of the line once again. Hasta luego!

1996 Addendum I can't recall the source, but about a year ago I heard that Raul Salmon had passed away.


This article is copyright 1994 by Don Moore. It may not be printed in any publication without written permission. Permission is granted for all interested readers to share and pass on the ASCII text file of this article or to print it out for personal use. In such case, your comments on the article would be appreciated.

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