ACRESCENDO EPIGRAPH from Salvador Elizondo's The Graphographer guards this novel with a booby- trap: "I write. I write that I am writing. Mentally I see myself writing that I am writing and I can also see myself seeing that I am writing. I remember writing and also seeing myself writing. And I see myself remembering that I see myself writing and I remember seeing myself remembering that I was writing and. . . ." On it dizzily goes, as if to warn us against, prime us for, a tome of voyeuristic narcissism, diminuendo in infinite regress, until we swoon.

In fact Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is deceptively straightforward, cast as an adroit exercise in good old- fashioned storytelling, with beginning, middle, and end in that order, reminding us that the novel at its best is, among other things, one of the noblest forms of gossip, gabble, and guesswork. The characters never shut up and rarely stand still. Rather than think about talking, or talk about talking (infected by that epigraph), they just talk some more, pounding one another into submission. The whole book has this jubilant, racy feel of an oral pageant going slightly wrong, akin to the bizarre soccer game in chapter 16 between Peru and Bolivia, refereed by a Peruvian.

If you have read any of Mario Vargas Llosa's other novels, say The Green House or Conversation in the Cathedral (the first title evokes a brothel, the other a bar), you know that he is one of the least self-conscious novelists around: a Peruvian Balzac. Yet Vargas Llosa, a highly educated cosmopolitan who did his doctoral dissertation on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is no stranger to the ploys of post-modern fiction, from Raymond Queneau to Juan Goytisolo, and he uses them, but in a way so discreet as to seem invisible. Ellipses, time shifts, mingling and merging points of view, breaches of convention, sly erosions of what the reader thinks is firm and final--all these, and post-Proustian divagations into magical anthropology, recur in his mature work. The result is a solid swift mirage that reads like Balzac, maybe, but lingers on like an hallucination, with the reader belatedly watching the novel melt and vanish, call itself into question and mutate into something rich and strange which you think you have also read. He makes you wonder about the artificiality of fiction only after the fiction is over, and you feed richly on the illusion while the illusion lasts.

Most of this fits Aunt Julia, which alternates chapters told by Varguitas, who falls in love with his 32-year-old divorced aunt and marries her, and chapters impersonally narrated about the melodramas to be found in everyday life in Lima. The twist, or rather the generative structural device that turns the book into an implicit romp through the theory of knowledge, is the fact that 18-year-old Varguitas writes news bulletins for Radio Panamericana, where he gets to know scriptwriter Pedro Camacho, to whose soap operas the whole of Lima listens daily. While Varguitas tells his own story in first-person chapters, he paraphrases the soaps in the other, third-person, chapters without saying who he is. So he is both overt and subdued, both on and off stage. Not only that: with one hand he turns Camacho's soap into narrative prose far better than Camacho's dialogue, and with the other writes short stories of his own, rapidly emerging as both a prodigal apprenticed to a hack and a literary time bomb indistinguishable, much of the time, from the young Vargas Llosa himself. Perhaps the most poignant parallel, though, in these alternations is the way Varguitas, having nothing to learn from the senior scriptwriter, learns about love from his aunt, only in the end to leave them behind, both the worse for wear.

The full cumulative effect of this wholesomely, profound comic novel evokes plate tectonics: massive chunks of narrative float and slide about, collide and overlap, bewitching the truth-seeker into accepting almost anything because it is so vividly, so abundantly, expressed, and you no longer care about appearance versus reality so long as you keep on getting more of Vargas Llosa's pungent, steady prose. Asked about experimentalism, the composer VarMese said he experimented before composing, and the same is true of Vargas Llosa. Aunt Julia works on you through hundreds of delicate repercussions built into a symphony of dualism, beyond which there is only the silence of what can never be said but can be inferred from Varguitas, who has almost more to say than he can manage, repeatedly cramming afterthoughts into parentheses like a chipmunk with nut-stuffed cheeks.

Whereas Aunt Julia takes time to grow on Varguitas, and the reader, like an outline filling in, Pedro Camacho is a garish, extraordinary presence from the outset: a long-haired runt in bow tie and black suit, perched on cushions behind his Remington and typing with his hands at eye-level, "thus causing him to appear to be boxing," and, in his downfall, with shaven-looking head, clad in stevedore's overalls and tennis shoes tied with string. A tropical fakir, he lives on after the book ends: one through whom lightning has passed, a lapsed idol, Varguitas' catalytic hero, who subordinated everything to what he called Art. His diction, as Varguitas notes, is exquisite: "in that voice not only each letter marched past in perfect order, without a single one of them being mutilated, but also the particles and atoms of each one, the very sounds of sound." That compliment matches the writing in this novel, as well as Helen Lane's dynamic, fastidious translation.

Like all books that gratefully celebrate life, and the way it obliges us to invent fictions to live it through, Aunt Julia is about death and deterioration, in register both mild and minor (steady homage to age 50; the yellow Volkswagen "overgrow with ivy and covered with spiderwebs"), but also in bold, overt comprehensive images that threaten to consume everything else. A master of disguises who can actually become the characters in his soaps, Pedro Camacho, "like a little electric robot," turns himself into a cardinal, a bigot, a beggar, an old lady, a judge, a sailor, a doctor, in a visual obbligato requiring only a few props--false mustaches, a white smock, false ears and noses, cotton beards, a biretta, a meerschaum, a crutch. While Aunt Julia and Varguitas watch him, "in openmouthed amazement," he fervently asks "What is realism . . .? What better way is there of creating realistic art than by materially identifying oneself with reality?"

Travesty of a hand-me-down god, he personifies the genius of impersonation until, in a final act, he commits genocide upon the characters who have suffered through the catastrophes of his soaps, killing them off wholesale through fire, earthquake, car wreck, shipwreck, and wreck of train. At least a Samson, at most something out of Goya's notion of Saturn, by his very presence he transforms the novel into a pageant of the genuine heart among a festival of lies, of candor in the bowels of myth. And, whoever "Don Marito Varguitas" is, he must take some of the credit for the book's steady, tropical intensity, even before, towards the end, he gets everyone to drop the diminutive ito, marries his cousin Patricia, and comes into his own, a full-blown sorcerer living again in Peru after long years in Europe: a Peruvian novelist, Mario the magician.