I had an email a few weeks back asking if I’d like a copy of this to read to which my first thought were – No, not really, but Manguel’s name rang a bell (I have a copy of ‘The Library at Night’ somewhere) and then the write ups were so good that I thought I might as well. After all it can’t be a bad thing to try and broaden my horizons and post ‘The Hurricane Party’ I felt in right frame of mind to tackle another contemporary (and translated) work.
The first two things I really liked about ‘All Men are Liars’ was that the translator – Miranda France gets a prominent billing (albeit on the back) cover and then again on the title page, this seems only fair because it’s partly her book I’m reading (I’m now vaguely interested in the novel she’s just published herself) and the feel of the book. Whilst the debate of paper versus ebook rumbles on picking up something like this is thought provoking. The cover is made to look slightly distressed and is a mix of something very glossy and something that has a rubberised matt feel. I wanted to read the book as soon as I touched it (and keep stroking it now whilst it’s beside me) simply because it was such a pleasant tactile experience. (The title is attention grabbing too and definitely attracted me.)
‘All Men are Liars’ is apparently an attempt by a journalist (Terradillos) to reconstruct the life of a South American author by the name of Alejandro Bevilacqua who died in mysterious circumstances some 30 years ago in Madrid just after the publication of his book ‘In Praise of Lying’. He interviews an academic called Alberto Manguel, an old girlfriend of Bevilacqua’s, and a cell mate from his time as a political prisoner. There’s also an illuminating bit of storytelling for the reader alone which Terradillos can’t be privy to.
It was hard to know exactly what I was reading to the point that I spent an inordinate amount of time googling characters to make sure that this was indeed entirely fiction. It is, but then again it might easily not be. The central premise seems to be that every account of the same man is significantly different so where is the true Bevilacqua to be found. The blurb on the back describes this as a “fascinating homage Alberto Manguel pays to literature and its shape shifting creations...” The Literary review is quoted as saying that it’s a “meticulously constructed and brilliantly exected discourse on the nature of truth and writing...” I always assumed that it was a given that each and any narrator’s view point is both biased and personal. I know how unreliable my memory is (and naturally how unreliable the memories of others are, especially when their version of events doesn’t tally with mine) it’s something I learnt giving statements to the police and then actually seeing what happened again on cctv (a career in retail...)
I thought this book was more about perception and love than truth or lies – in the end the truth doesn’t much matter, Bevilacqua doesn’t matter either – his death is too long ago for any real meaning, there are fabricated facts, assumed truths, and hoped for truths (whilst never forgetting it’s all fiction anyway) from which each narrator emerges as a clear enough character but the dead man remains in the shadows.
The thing I like most about this book though was that I enjoyed reading it so much – far more than I anticipated (which isn’t very flattering but there is a very particular pleasure in finding a book that smashes through all your expectations). It may be that some of the subtler meditations on truth and writing passed over my head – or that because this isn’t one of my literary preoccupations I found other things to focus on. It’s definitely a book I imagine reading again (my first read was driven by plot, the second will more likely focus on philosophy, and who knows by then I may know a little bit more about South American literature). I hope too that ‘All Men are Liars’ does the round of blogs I’m likely to find because this is a book I want to discuss...