Why Men Lie is another novel, not this one. Linden MacIntyre wrote it, and if you’ve read it you’ll know whether it delivers the provocative goods the title promises.
In Praise of Lying is not this novel either, but is in this novel, which is one of those novels that’s a novel about a novel which (the latter novel) we have no hope of reading, ever, no matter how much we’d willingly do so, having been so thoroughly beguiled reading about it.
All Men Are Liars is this novel. As far as reading it, by all means, yes, do that. If I have any say in the matter then you’ll do it soon; if not, then later is fine, too.
Alberto Manguel. Do I need to introduce him at any great length? Buenos Aires-born, then lived in Toronto for a long time? The reading and writing and anthologizing and passionate bookish advocacy he used to do here he now carries on from the south of France. He writes a rich, roaming column for Geist magazine that I can also recommend to your reading list. If there’s a more erudite, or elegant literary counsel source, then who is it? All Men Are Liars is his fifth novel.
The exemplar of Manguel’s oeuvre would have to be A History of Reading (1996), which might be described as the clothbound equivalent of getting lost in a library and not really caring too much whether anyone comes to the rescue. All Men Are Liars is like that, too. Alejandro Bevilacqua is at its centre. In Praise of Lying is his masterpiece, a book to set the world on fire is what someone says, which it does, just before Bevilacqua turns up dead under a balcony in Madrid.
So what happened? A journalist, Terradillos, is on Bevilacqua’s trail, trying to piece his life together and thereby his death. The book is a gathering of evidence, a dossier of witness statements organized into five chapters for the five chronicles it comprises. Three of these answer directly to the journalist’s inquiries. Just how reliable these chronicles are is a whole other matter. The job of murdering the mystery is as much your job as the reader as it is Terradillos’.
But there’s more, too. There’s a pleasing literary puzzle: it’s a lover of Bevilacqua’s who sneaks his novel into publication without his knowledge. Cue the acclaim and admiration – which Bevilacqua promptly flees. Can’t handle it? Doesn’t want to? Or is there – spoiler alert – a deeper secret that needs unlocking?
Also, here: a couple of textured memoirs of growing up in Buenos Aires to start and (to follow) another of Madrid that help give the novel its organic, not-entirely-settled, non-fictional air. There’s a dark descent into the soul of an Argentinian police informant.
Then there’s all the book and writerly talk, the banter and gossip and argument that makes the novel as vibrant as any tertulia – a literary salon, often convened in a bar – on Madrid’s Paseo de Recoletos.
I guess he’s not to be trusted, Manguel. As a man, I mean, he’s obviously self-implicated as a liar, and then again as a novelist. Which is doubly rich because this is a book so pointedly interested in truth and history and storytelling, where they all intersect and part ways and get back together again in a big satisfying tangle.
He’s a witness here. Did I mention that? Or at least there’s a character by the name of Alberto Manguel, whose balcony it was by way of which Bevilacqua departs his life. His testimony opens the novel. Evocative stuff, elegantly told. Very convincing, indeed, I thought, right up until the next character to come along starts calling Manguel nasty names and questioning his motives.
Which is clever, right? Right. I guess I probably should say that I mean that sincerely, in the best sense of the word rather than the snide. It’s a clockwork cleverness, or maybe a Rubik’s Cube’s, that you twist as it twists you.
Why tell stories? That’s an engine of a question that drives all novels, more or less. In this case, it’s more, and Manguel is persuasive in the answers he offers. With stories we fight against the unreality of the world: that’s one. Without stories, there are no memories. And what about truth? “Silence Is Healthy” says a sign in one of the prisons depicted here, one more tool of torture. Stories (and the novels that contain them) insist that will never be so.