Reviewed in this essay: All Men Are Liars by Alberto Manguel. Translated by Miranda France. Penguin, 2012.
Continuing the perspectivist tradition of Wallace Stevens’s “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and William Faulkner’s four ways of looking at the Compsons, essayist and novelist Alberto Manguel gives readers five ways of looking at an enigmatic Argentine writer in his latest release, All Men All Liars.
Set against the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) of the 1970s and the consequent expatriate community in Spain, All Men Are Liars traces the supposed life of Alejandro Bevilacqua through five sequential narrations of those who knew him at various times, in various contexts, and to varying degrees. Addressing a biographer called Terradillos, each speaker presents their fragmented account of the man no one seems to have known completely. The tales are incongruous in their own ways, but the approximate life that emerges through the fog is that of a puppeteer’s apprentice turned political prisoner turned expatriate turned celebrated author.
The first and longest account is given by Manguel himself, who proffers an elliptical history of Bevilacqua’s upbringing in Buenos Aires, indirect political involvement, subsequent imprisonment, and eventual relocation to Spain, where he is initiated into the expatriate artist community of which Manguel is a member. Bevilacqua is soon discovered by his lover and roommate, Andrea, to have written a manuscript entitled “In Praise of Lying,” which, deemed brilliant by the literary elite, is hastily published. His mysterious past quickly catches up with him, eventuating his mysterious and fatal balcony fall on the evening of the book’s launch.
Manguel’s account, however, is not to be trusted—at least readers are led to believe as much by Andrea. Her version of Bevilacqua’s life begins bluntly: “Alberto Manguel is an asshole. Whatever he told you about Alejandro, I’ll bet my right arm it’s wrong, Terradillos. Manguel is one of those types that sees an orange and then swears it’s an egg.” This metafictional jab speaks to the heart of the novel’s exploration of both literature’s inability to capture absolute truth and its unique ability to express a different type of truth.
There is no doubt that Manguel is a readers’ writer; his countless literary allusions do add richness but at times border on excess. Readers will make what they will of the novel’s philosophic interests. Unreliable narrators, questions of textual authority, and the impossibility of truth are, of course, well-trodden territory in fiction, and the extent to which All Men Are Liars furthers that conversation is debatable. That notwithstanding, Manguel’s latest release is well crafted, quirky, provocative and, at times, even moving. A minor work to be sure, All Men Are Liars may not captivate to the extent that it could, but it does serve as an intriguing and pleasurable amuse-bouche with which to while away a summer afternoon.