If you've been looking for an uproarious entertainment, look no further. Peruvian author Vargas Llosa (''Conversation in the Cathedral,'' ''The Green House'') has so arranged this blend of youthful autobiographical elements and fictitious soap opera installments that even the most obtuse, tango-singing Argentinian (the author's exuberant slur, not mine) couldn't miss the parallels.
The story concerns the youthful Vargas Llosa, law student/part-time radio newsman/struggling author. At age 18 he lives with his grandparents in Lima (his parents are living abroad) in the midst of a virtual small town of an extended family. Into his life of university classes, radio news bulletins and dreams of writing the great Peruvian novel in a garret in Paris come two larger than life figures: his 32-year- old aunt-by-marriage, Julia, and the Balzac of modern radio serial drama (this is the '50s) Pedro Comacho. Fascinated by the mature charm of the one, by the fanatical devotion to art of the other, Mario is drawn into closer and closer company with each, until the inevitable happens.
After an initial antipathy, Mario and Aunt Julia launch into a chastely passionate, secret romance. Julia, besides being an older woman, is a divorcee and therefore, doubly inappropriate for Mario in the eyes of The Family. While Mario's story is unwinding, Pedro Comacho's serials are, too. We are treated to installments - not really installments; we get one chapter of each of the 10 he is simultaneously composing and broadcasting to the riveted ears of all Lima. These installments appear in counterpoint to Mario's ongoing saga. Because they are presented in a prose narrative, rather than in a radio script format, it is not immediately apparent that they are not a mere branching of the main story into some previously unexplored bough, twig, or nest of the author's complicated family tree. Life is a soap opera, Vargas Llosa seems to be saying. Art mirrors life, even the low art of radio serials, caricatures and scandal sheets.
Mario and Aunt Julia persevere and are aided in their Montesque-Capuletesque romance by a troop of as comically screwy a cast of best friends, radio workers, cousins, and bureaucrats as ever trod the boards of a farce. Meanwhile, the genius of Pedro Comacho is grinding away in concentrated white heat. Day after day he travels between his tiny apartment and tiny office, taking the occasional break for a cup of verbena-mint tea but mostly writing, directing, and acting in the serials that eventually derail his mind. Characters from one serial inexplicably begin turning up in others. They exchange names, professions, perversities. All Lima is in a furor. (Lima is the backdrop to all the wild goings-on, and not the least of the author's achievements is his transformation of what could have been a parochial setting into one as comfortable and familiar as Your Town, Anywhere.)
Will Mario and Aunt Julia cave in to family scruples and give up their romance? Will Pedro Comacho recover his sanity and restore order to the characters of his soaps? If there is a fault with this novel, it is that the answers to those questions aren't as interesting as the events leading up to them, or as the questions themselves. As with soap operas, the book is best when you're in the thick of things. Beneath the frenetic surface, there's no real exploration of three-dimensional questions. But for sheer entertainment, wit, imagination and high style, this soap opera of Love and Art can't be beat. Translator Lane deserves high praise, too.