All Men Are Liars, by Alberto Manguel (translated by Miranda France). Riverhead Books, 2012. $16, 224 pages.
Argentinean writer Alberto Manguel’s novel All Men Are Liars contains a series of intertwining interviews about the infamous Alejandro Bevilacqua. The novel is comprised of three first-person narrators that describe what they knew—or imagined they knew—about their friend, lover, and enemy, Bevilacqua. The novel captivates its readers with its witty dialogue and intriguing story line, but what really hooks readers is the conflicting statements of the narrators. Each narrator has his or her own ideas of who Bevilacqua is, what he did with his life, and of the incident that ended his life. It is up to each reader to determine who is lying and who the true Alejandro Bevilacqua is.
The novel opens with the first narrator, who is also the author of the novel, Alberto Manguel. He is dictating the story of his friendship with the late Alejandro Bevilacqua to journalist Jean-Luc Terradillos, who is working on a biography of the legendary Bevilacqua. However, each new piece of information that Manguel presents to Terradillos is immediately retracted and corrected for fear of giving a wrong impression. Manguel says, for example, “It’s not that the man lacked imagination, but rather that he had no talent for fantasy,” but then he goes on to explain how Bevilacqua believed in ghosts and had a wild mind. Often after insulting or belittling Bevilacqua, Manguel tells Terradillos (the novel’s readers), “Now don’t go imagining that I did not think highly of him.” And at one point, Manguel claims that he’s unsure whether his memories are his own, or whether because of Bevilacqua’s detailed storytelling, they are others’ remembrances entwined together. Manguel refers to his recollections as “an agglomeration of brief, confused memories that seem contaminated by literature,” which gives readers reason to question Manguel’s accounts of Bevilacqua’s life as well as his own. Although Manguel claims that Bevilacqua has little to no original thoughts, Manguel appears to be both unreliable, in the traditional unreliable narrator sense, and simply confused.
Bevilacqua’s girlfriend, Andrea, narrates the second section of the novel. She begins by stating, “Alberto Manguel is an asshole. Whatever he told you about Alejandro, I’ll bet my right arm it’s wrong.” She tells Terradillos that Manguel is surely not in his right mind, comparing him to a “stupid dachshund,” and explains that he even believed she was infatuated with him for a time. If we couldn’t tell before, it is now quite apparent that Manguel is not all there, and like he and Andrea have said, he is untrustworthy when it comes to telling the story of Bevilacqua. Andrea also says that she thinks Manguel’s inability to pay attention is because of his constant reading. If it isn’t in a book, it isn’t so, according to Manguel. Andrea is clearly biased against Manguel, and says that she doesn’t understand why Bevilacqua liked to talk with him so much. Perhaps, however, it is Andrea who is in the dark about her Bevilacqua: she certainly wouldn’t be the first girlfriend who has been lied to.
The third and final narrator of the novel is a man who had once been imprisoned with Bevilacqua in Argentina. He writes, “Bevilacqua was what we once called—in those days before we lost our innocence—an ‘honest man’.” This section really throws Terradillos and readers for a loop because it claims “only one chronicler gets to give his version of the story,” and we are still so far from knowing the truth. So who does know the true story of Bevilacqua? Is Alberto Manguel the liar? Is Andrea? And because the title is “All Men are Liars,” does that mean the women of the novel, Andrea in particular, are the only honest characters? Or perhaps Bevilacqua is the real liar, administering various lies to different people so that no one may rightly know him—a true man of mystery. The effect is that the novel is highly entertaining. The mystery of deciding whom to trust, what to believe, and questioning if, in fact, all men are liars keeps us hooked.