I have enjoyed Alberto Manguel’s book about reading for many years now (A History of Reading, A Reader on Reading, The Library at Night and others). It was with some trepidation that I came to my first work of fiction by Manguel - would he be able to create fiction as well as he critiques it? I am pleased to say that All Men are Liars did not disappoint.
It has long been understood that eye-witnesses to an event can record very different accounts of what happened. In a complex event like an apparent suicide, people will come up with a variety of descriptions of the event, even going to the extent of asking “was he pushed?” when it is clear that the subject jumped voluntarily. But not only do witnesses observe things differently, when you add in the desire to cover-up, for reasons of self-interest, getting to the bottom of what really happened can be an almost impossible task.
In All Men Are Liars, a journalist, Terradillos, is investigating the life of the Argentinian writer, Alejandro Bevilacqua who seems to have jumped off the balcony of his apartment in Madrid. Terradillos interviews four people, their accounts of the events leading up to Bevilacqua’s death being compiled into this book with its bluntly stated premise in the title – all men are liars. But are they? Is one account true, or more true than the others? Or are they all incorrect, but in different ways? It is up to the reader to find out, for even Terradillos, who has his say in the last chapter may or may not be able to finally solve this conundrum.
The four accounts build up to make a fascinating picture in themselves. The author himself is the first interviewee – I quite enjoy the concept of authors appearing in their own books! After all, Manguel is a noted Argintinian writer so he would have known Bevilacqua well. Manguel speaks of Bevilacqua’s sincerity – “if he gave you his word, you felt obliged to take it, and it would never occur to you that this might be an empty gesture”. Manguel explains that after Bevilacqua’s death he could no longer live in Madrid and moved to Poitiers to get away from the ghost of Alejandro Bevilacqua.
Manguel tells the life story of Bevilacqua in some detail. We read of life in Argentina at the time when the background to living a literary life was the torture chamber. But after a time of interrogation Bevilacqua relocated to Madrid where he hitched up with his girlfriend Andrea. While going through one of Bevilacqua’s bags looking for dirty washing, Andrea stumbles upon a manuscript, In Praise of Lying. Assuming it to be an original work by her lover, she decides to get it secretly published, this decision sparking off a chain of circumstances which forms the core of the book.
It all sounds so plausible. Manguel’s account has a ring of truth, and the reader easily falls into believing it to be accurate. But the second interviewee casts a heavy weight of doubt on Manguel’s story – “Whatever he told you about Alejandro Bevilacqua, I’ll bet my right arm it’s wrong”. At this stage I began writing down page references which contradicted Manguel’s story. This book is a puzzle and you need to keep cross checking to find the flaws in the four accounts of Bevilacqua’s life and death. By the end we get a marvellous picture of the literary circle in Madrid of which Bevilacqua was a part, but not one of its members is wholly reliable and perhaps they all have reasons for wanting to twist things their way in their interviews with Terradillos – even to the extent of casting doubt on whether he actually wrote the manuscript which Andrea found in his bag.
Manguel’s love of words is revealed throughout the book and I found myself stumbling on passages that need unpacking at a slower speed than others:
Anyone who has set words down on a page never loses the habit of writing, even when not writing. The calligraphy persists, like an army of ants that can’t be stopped. Behind closed eyelids, the words gather, call one another, pair off. An anthill of letters bursts forth and pursues me, black and red battalions which attack one another, get mixed up in the sand . . a dictionary has launched itself into the inconceivable space in which I am walking.
By the end of the book I think I had drawn my own conclusions about how and why Bevilacqua met his death. But certainty is a difficult thing in a case like this – what would a jury member decide – perhaps we are confronted with the age-old question, “What is Truth?”. Terradillos, the journalist draws an interesting thought from his investigation – even self-perception may be an impossible task for, “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? From our tiny point in the world, how can we observe even ourselves without false perceptions?
I enjoyed this book greatly and wish that many other people would read it and publish their thoughts on it. I think I read it carefully, watching out for inconsistencies and downright lies. But did I miss something? I think I’ll just go over that second interview again and check those references to what Bevilacqua did when he first came to Madrid.
A word about the translation – Miranda France has done a fine job in translating this book from Spanish to English. I don’t know enough Spanish to be able to comment on the accuracy of the translation, but the voice is totally convincing, using the sort of elegant prose which you would expect a lover of words like Manguel to write.
As always with Alma Books, the production values are high, from cover design to type-face and paper-quality. All Men are Liars feels like the substantial read that it turned out to be.
Title: All Men are Liars
Author: Alberto Manguel
Publication: Alma Books (September 2010), Paperback, 288 pages