Lies that tell the truth
Although generally one might say that The Young Lady from Tacna explores such themes as old age, pride, and individual destiny, there is one underlying and pervasive idea encompassing all the others, which has turned out to be, I believe, the backbone of this play: it is the question of how and why stories come into being. I don’t mean how and why they are written, for although Belisario is a writer, literature is only one area of the vast field of story-telling, present in every culture, including those that have no written language.
It is as fundamental an activity for the individual as it is for societies as a whole – it is in fact an essential part of human existence, a means of enduring the burden of life. But why does man need to tell stories? Why does he need to be told them? Perhaps because, through helping him contend with death and failure, as it did Mamaé, it gives him an illusory sense of permanence and relief. It is a means of retrieving, through a system controlled by the memory with the help of the imagination, a past that, when it was actually being lived, had all the appearance of chaos. Story-telling, fiction, thrives on what real life – in all its bewildering complexity and unpredictability – inevitably lacks: a sense of order, of coherence, of perspective, a period of time in isolation in which a hierarchy of facts and events can be determined, the relative importance of the characters, causes and effects, and the links between the actions. In order to understand what we are, as individuals and as nations, our only recourse is to come out of ourselves, and, with the help of memory and imagination, throw ourselves into the world of fiction in which we are portrayed paradoxically as something similar to, yet different from, what we really are. Fiction is the ‘complete’ man, a perfect blend of truth and falsehood.
Stories are seldom faithful to what they appear to be relating, at least in any quantitive sense: the word, whether spoken or written, is an entity in itself and distorts what it is supposedly trying to communicate. Memory is deceptive, selective and partial. The gaps it leaves, which are generally not accidental, are filled by the imagination: every story therefore has some elements added to it. These are never arbitrary or fortuitous, because they are governed by that strange force which is not the logic of reason but that of dark unreason. Creativity is often little more than a form of retaliation against a life we find hard to live: we perfect it, or debase it in accordance with our own cravings and feelings of bitterness; we rework the original experience, modify what actually happened in order to satisfy the demands of our frustrated desires, our broken dreams, our feelings of joy or anger. In this way, the art of telling lies, which is the art of story-telling, is also, surprisingly, the art of communicating a deep-seated hidden truth about humanity. An imperceptible mixture of authentic and concocted events, of real and imaginary experiences, story-telling is one of the few forms – perhaps the only one – capable of depicting man in his entirety, both in his everyday life and in his fantasies, as he is and as he would like to be.
‘The criterion of truth is to have invented it oneself,’ wrote Giambattista Vico, who maintained, in an age when scientific cant was rife, that man was only really capable of understanding what he himself created: that is to say, the history of humanity rather than the physical world of nature and the universe. I don’t know if that is true or not, but his principle is a marvellous vindication of the truth in story-telling, the truth in literature. This truth doesn’t lie in any similarity or slavish adherence of the spoken or written word (what is created) to a higher ‘objective’ reality, but in itself, as something created from the raw material of truth and falsehood which make up the ambiguous totality of human experience.
I’ve always been fascinated by that strange process: the birth of a work of fiction. I’ve been writing now for quite a number of years, and it has never ceased to intrigue and surprise me, that slippery and unpredictable path, along which the mind travels, as it probes memories, calling up the most secret desires, impulses, whims, in order to ‘invent’ a story. While I was writing this play, I was sure I was going to re-create (taking quite a few liberties on the way) the story of a familiar character, who was connected with my childhood, but I never suspected that under this pretext I was in fact attempting to tell the story of that elusive, transitory, changeable yet eternal process through which stories themselves come into being.
Mario Vargas Llosa
Copyright © 1981, 1983, 1986, 1990 by Mario Vargas Llosa Translation copyright © 1990 by David Graham-Young All rights reserved