Review: All Men Are Liars
Is what we call truth just another lie?
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Alberto Manguel (Trans Miranda France)
Alma Books, £12.99
It is a rare pleasure to come across a literary, self-reflective novel that consciously explores the treacherous nature of language and writing, while delivering the less intellectual but no less important pleasures that come from reading a thrilling detective story.
Alberto Manguel has long been fascinated by the pleasures of the text; not inappropriately for a man one of whose first jobs was reading aloud to Borges. His wonderful books include The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, a "Baedeker of the imagination" that takes readers on a grand tour of over a thousand imaginary lands in literature from Homer to Narnia and beyond. Reading is Manguel's passion and has been the subject of a dozen or so of his works.
All Men are Liars, elegantly translated by Miranda France, is on one level a beautifully wrought parable about the dangers of reading, writing and interpretation. And, as a thriller, it is immediate and involving, peopled with brilliantly vivid characters.
With quite astonishing economy, Manguel conjures up the strange, tense, almost uncanny atmosphere of post-Franco 1970s Madrid. In the long shadows cast by the recently dead dictator, the protagonists, a tightly knit circle of Argentinian political exiles, struggle to come to terms with the mysterious death of one of their friends, Alejandro Bevilacqua. With the introduction of the first of four narrative voices, Manguel signals the novel's distinguishing conceit - the narrator's name is Alberto Manguel and he is, according to the second narrator (a former girlfriend) "an asshole".
Terradillos is a journalist, living in rural France (as does the real Manguel) and trying to find out what really happened the night that Bevilacqua was found apparently having jumped from his apartment's balcony the night that his novel, In Praise of Lying, was published to enormous acclaim.
Rashomon-like, the consecutive narratives contradict each other as they reimagine the events that led up to Bevilacqua's death. As the contradictions pile up and the narrative unravels, we are offered a surprisingly complex description of the sad and enigmatic figure of Bevilacqua himself. But, as "Manguel's" ex-girlfriend says, "Whatever he told you about Alejandro Bevilacqua, I'll bet my right arm it's wrong." It is not until we get to the end of the novel that we realise that we are going to be denied the satisfaction of finding out "the truth".
All men are liars, according to the psalmist, and Manguel is not going to reassure us even about our own version of the truth in this looking-glass world. As Terradillos says, "how can one know, among all the various faces reflected back to us by mirrors, which one represents us most faithfully and which one deceives us?"
Natasha Lehrer is a writer living in France