All Men Are Liars by Alberto Manguel / Review by Steven Poole


All Men Are Liars by Alberto Manguel

Steven Poole admires Alberto Manguel's funny, melancholy puzzle of a novel. Or does he?
Steven Poole
Saturday 18 September 2010


lberto Manguel is a liar. Or so the reader of this book is invited to think, having enjoyed a peculiarly evasive and suspenseful story told by a rather neurotic and unreliable character named "Alberto Manguel", only to see the next narrator exclaim, at the start of her version of the same tale: "Alberto Manguel is an asshole [. . .] No, nothing is true for Manguel unless he's read it in a book."

If Paul Auster (another man, and also, in one of the senses of Manguel's title, another liar) wore a friendly beard and had more of a Latin temperament, he might produce something like this richly hued, melancholy and funny puzzle of a novel. It centres on a group of Argentinian literary expatriates in 1970s Madrid, one of whose number, Alejandro Bevilacqua, has recently died, apparently falling from his balcony on the eve of publication of a novelistic masterpiece. "Alberto Manguel" and three other characters who knew Bevilacqua address their memories of him to a fifth person, a journalist named Terradillos living in France who hopes to piece together the truth of the deceased writer's life.

The accounts are contradictory in crucial details, but the broad picture that emerges is one of a thin, gloomy man (somewhat Baudelairean in aspect) who grows up in Argentina (falling in love with a puppetmaster's daughter), begins to write (lurid scenarios for photo-romances), is imprisoned and tortured (he doesn't know why, but we eventually do), and then escapes to Spain (where he is irresistible to certain women). One of those women is the narrator who denounces "Alberto Manguel", Bevilacqua's lover Andrea, who finds the manuscript hidden among his belongings and secretly takes it to be published. The title is In Praise of Lying. Andrea comments: "Lying: that is the great theme of South American literature."

Perhaps all men are liars, but she is not, and her account is the only one to be trusted; certainly the ontological status of at least one of the other narratives is very doubtful (it is certainly nightmarish), while the account whose provenance is most certain begins with a comical disclaimer on that very topic: "I mistrust letters as a literary genre."

Writing the letter that mistrusts letters is El Chancho ("the Pig"), a fat and ugly but superbly eloquent bagman for corrupt officials, who was imprisoned alongside Bevilacqua and who turns out to be something of a Cyrano (or an Othello without the green-eyed monster: "I seduced my Desdemona with my voice," he remembers proudly), if not the novel's actual hero. El Chancho's story also implicitly satirises the others. At one point he observes: "Here I could give you one of those suspenseful pauses so beloved of spy films, but it would be intentionally bad literature." Such pauses, followed by abrupt changes of subject, are just the kind of thing with which "Alberto Manguel" has cheesily (yet most successfully) seduced the reader's interest at the novel's opening.

Running through these refractory remembrances is one constant, a rapt evocation of past visions: of narrow, deserted streets, panes of coloured glass in doors, changing light on garden statues, men frozen in certain postures in cafes. Such was Bevilacqua's power as a raconteur, remembers "Alberto Manguel", that the latter no longer knows whether his memories are his own or the other man's.

Alberto Manguel, the author of the wondrous A History of Reading, has written a novel that is itself, in part, about reading and about how memories of events in literature can be as vivid as those of real life; as well as about writing, and one act of writing in particular, of which we learn near the mystery's end, that is a horrifying betrayal. We may suspect that the author agrees with what "Alberto Manguel" says Bevilacqua insisted upon, the "distinction between true falsehood and false truth". Well, All Men Are Liars is a true novel, all 30 million words of it.