There’s the pretty-much-mandatory South American setting, the gloomy reflections on the nature of reality and unreality, along with a clutch of wildly unreliable narrators.
There’s the pretty-much-mandatory South American setting, the gloomy reflections on the nature of reality and unreality, along with a clutch of wildly unreliable narrators. It even has the added cachet of having been written in Spanish by a Canadian and then translated into English. If ever there was a book that demanded to be hurled across the room by anyone who’s not a regular user of the word ‘ludic’, this surely is it.
It therefore comes as a considerable surprise to report that All Men Are Liars is a remarkable novel — richly textured, ingeniously constructed and deeply unsettling. The book starts with an account, by Manguel, of his friendship with an Argentinian called Alejandro Bevilacqua, who has fallen to his death from the balcony of Manguel’s flat. Bevilacqua, we learn, was a sad, watery figure, obsessed by his past and by seeking to tell the truth. He was ‘a man who did not believe in invention’.
The first indication that this might not necessarily be the case comes with the news that Bevilacqua was the author of a novel called In Praise of Lying. In the next section, an ex-girlfriend of his rubbishes everything that has gone before, including Manguel himself — ‘Alberto Manguel is an asshole’. Far from being sad and watery, she insists, Bevilacqua was a brilliant conversationalist, a man possessed of dazzling charisma and an insatiable sexual appetite.
Throughout All Men Are Liars, Manguel dishes out information with one hand, then takes it away with the other, so that by the end he’s assembled a teetering pile of contradictory stories. The one common element to all of them is that Bevilacqua was tortured by the Argentinian secret police during the military junta. Pain, it seems, was his only reality.
On one level Manguel is toying with notions of truth, with the impossibility of ever representing anything accurately. But he’s also doing something much bolder, endeavouring to explore what can never be described, only experienced:
Beneath the surface of all that we are able to put into words, lies that profound and obscure mass of the unspeakable, an ocean without light, swimming with blind, unimaginable creatures.
Not surprisingly, All Men Are Liars has an incredibly strange, unearthly atmosphere to it. While the physical settings may be real enough — Buenos Aires and Madrid— Manguel has created a flimsy, impermanent world in which there are barely any fixed points for the reader to hang on to. As for the characters, they’re all spectral figures being blown through life leaving different impressions behind them. The result could so easily have been a maddening tangle of pretension. Instead, this is a book that lingers in the mind long after its cast has drifted off the stage.