The Country of a Thousand Faces
The city where I was born, Arequipa, is located in an Andean valley in the south of Peru. It is well known for its clerical and rebellious spirit, its lawyers and volcanoes, its clear sky, the flavour of the prawns and its regionalism. Also for la nevada (the snowfall), a kind of fleeting neurosis that affects its inhabitants. One fine day, the mildest of Arequipans refuses to acknowledge a greeting, spends hours brooding, behaves in the most extravagant nonsensical way and tries to throttle his best friend over a simple disagreement. No one gets worried or annoyed because everyone knows that this man is suffering from ‘the snowfall’, and that tomorrow he will be back to his normal, gentle self. Although my family took me away from Arequipa when I was one and I have never lived there since, I feel very much an Arequipan, and I also think that the jokes that are made all over Peru at our expense – we are known as arrogant, unpleasant and even mad – are the result of jealousy. Don’t we speak the purest Spanish in the country? Don’t we have that architectural wonder, Santa Catalina, a cloistered convent where some five hundred women lived during the Colonial period? Haven’t we been the setting for the most grandiloquent earthquakes and the greatest number of revolutions in Peruvian history?
From ages one to ten, I lived in Cochabamba, Bolivia. With regard to that city where I was innocent and happy, I remember not so much the things that I did and the people that I knew, but rather the books that I read: Sandokan, Nostradamus, The Three Musketeers, Cagliostro, Tom Sawyer, Sinbad. Stories of pirates, explorers and bandits, romantic love and the poems that my mother hid in her bedside table (which I read without understanding anything, just for the pleasure of what was forbidden) occupied the best part of my time. And because it was intolerable that these magic books should come to an end, I sometimes invented new chapters for them, or else changed the ending. Those additions and corrections to other people’s stories were the first pieces that I wrote, the first signs of my vocation as a story-teller.
As always happens with expatriate families, the fact of living abroad accentuated our patriotism. Until I was ten, I was convinced that the greatest fortune that could befall one was to be a Peruvian. My idea of Peru at that time had more to do with the country of the Incas and the Conquistadors than with the real Peru, a country that I only came to know in 1946, when my family moved from Cochabamba to Piura, where my grandfather had been appointed as Prefect. We travelled overland, with a stop in Arequipa. I remember my emotion when I reached the city of my birth and also the fuss that my uncle Eduardo made of me. He was a bachelor, a judge, and a very pious man. He lived with his servant Inocencia in the style of a Spanish provincial nobleman, tidy, methodical, growing old in the midst of very old furniture, very old portraits and very old objects. I remember my excitement when I saw the sea for the first time, in Camaná. I screamed and made a nuisance of myself until my grandparents agreed to stop the car so that I could take a dip on that wild and rugged beach. My baptism in the sea was not very successful because I was bitten by a crab. But, even so, my love at first sight with the Peruvian coast has continued. There are those who have nothing good to say about the two thousand miles of desert, scarcely interrupted by small valleys which have formed along the banks of the rivers that flow down from the Andes, to meet the waters of the Pacific. The most extreme defenders of our Indian tradition, who revile everything Hispanic, accuse the coast of being ‘foreign loving’ and frivolous and insist that it was a great misfortune that the centre of Peruvian political and economic life should have shifted from the sierra to the coast, from Cuzco to Lima, because it began an asphyxiating centralism which has turned Peru into a sort of spider: a country with an enormous head – the capital – and withered limbs. One historian called Lima and the coast the ‘Anti-Peru’. As an Arequipan, a man from the sierra, I should side in this argument with the Andes against the maritime deserts. But if I were forced to choose between this landscape, or the Andes or the Amazonian jungle – the three regions that divide Peru longitudinally – I would probably opt for these sands and waves.
The coast was the periphery of the Inca Empire, a civilization that radiated out of Cuzco. It was not the only pre-Hispanic Peruvian culture, but it was certainly the most powerful. It extended throughout Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and part of Chile, Colombia and Argentina. In their short existence of little more than a century, the Incas conquered dozens of peoples, built roads, irrigation systems, fortresses and citadels and established an administrative system that allowed them to produce enough to feed all Peruvians, something that no other regime has managed since. Despite this, I have never much liked the Incas. Although I am dazzled by the monuments that they left, like Machu Picchu or Sacsahuamán, I have always felt that Peruvian sadness – a notable feature of our character – was perhaps born with the Inca state: a regimented and bureaucratic society of antmen, out of which an omnipotent steamroller squeezed all traces of individual personality.
In order to maintain power over the peoples that they conquered, the Incas behaved with refined cunning, appropriating, for example, their gods and incorporating the vassal leaders into their own aristocracy. Then there were the mitimaes, the transplantation of peoples, who were thrown out of their native lands and made to resettle a great distance away. The oldest Quechuan poems that have come down to us are elegies by bewildered men in foreign lands who sing of their lost fatherland. Five centuries before the Great Soviet Encyclopedia and George Orwell’s 1984, the Incas manipulated the past in accordance with the political needs of the present. Each Cuzco emperor ascended the throne with a retinue of amautas or wise men, whose task it was to alter history so that it could be seen to have reached its apogee with the ruling Inca, who would be accredited from that moment with all the conquests and great deeds of his predecessors. The result is that it is impossible to reconstruct this history, which has been distorted in such a Borgesian fashion. The Incas had the quipus, an elaborate mnemonic system for recording quantities, but they had no writing and I have always been convinced by the argument that they did not want to have writing, since it would be a danger to their type of society. The art of the Incas is austere and cold, without the fantasy and skill that one can observe in other pre-Inca cultures such as the Nazca and the Paracas, which produced incredibly delicate cloaks of feathers and cloth woven with enigmatic figures that have retained their colour and charm to this day.
After the Inca period, the Peruvians had to endure another steamroller: Spanish domination. The Conquistadors brought to Peru the language and the religion that the majority of Peruvians speak and profess. But any indiscriminate glorification of the Colony is as fallacious as the idealization of the Incas. For although the Colony made Peru the head of a Vice-royalty that also encompassed territories which are today different republics, and made Lima a capital with a magnificent court and an important academic and ceremonial life, it also brought with it religious obscurantism, the Inquisition, censorship that managed to ban a literary genre – the novel – and the persecution of the unbeliever and the heretic, which, in many cases, meant the persecution of those who dared to think. The Colony led to the exploitation of Indians and blacks and the establishment of economic castes which have survived to this day, thus making Peru a country of immense inequalities. Independence was a political phenomenon which barely changed a society divided into a minority, who enjoy the privileges of modern life, and the masses who live in ignorance and poverty. The pomp of the Incas, the colonial period and the republic has not made me forget that all the regimes under which we have lived have been unable to reduce to tolerable proportions the differences that separate Peruvians, and that this stigma cannot be compensated for with architectural monuments, warlike deeds or courtly brilliance.
None of this, of course, was in my head when I returned from Bolivia. My family had biblical customs. Everyone – uncles, aunts, cousins – moved in the wake of my grandparents, who were the centre of the family. That is how we arrived in Piura. This city, surrounded by sands, was my first experience of Peru. In the Salesian school, my classmates made fun of me because I spoke like a serrano, sounding my rs and ss, and because I believed that babies were brought by storks from Paris. They explained to me that things happened in a less airborne manner.
My memory is full of images of the two years that I spent there. Piurans are extrovert, superficial, full of jokes and warmth. In Piura at that time, there was good chicha (corn alcohol) to drink, the regional dance, the tondero, was danced with grace and the relationship between cholos (mixed race) and whites was less fraught than in other places; the informality and the boisterous nature of the Piurans closed the gap between classes. Lovers serenaded under girls’ balconies and suitors who met with parental opposition abducted their girlfriends: they would carry them off to a hacienda for a few days and would then – happy ending, reconciled families – celebrate the religious ceremony, with all splendour, in the cathedral. The abductions were announced and celebrated like the coming of the river which, for some months in the year, brought life to the cotton estates.
This great town, Piura, was full of incidents that fired the imagination. There was La Mangachería, an area made up of mud and reed huts, where the best chicha bars could be found, and La Gallinacera, located between the river and the abattoir. Both districts hated each other and there were sometimes pitched battles between mangaches and gallinazos. There was also the Green House, the town brothel, in the middle of the desert, which at night was full of lights, noises and unsettling silhouettes. This spot, that the Salesian Fathers thundered against, frightened and fascinated me and I spent hours talking about it, spying on it and fantasizing about what might be happening inside. This precarious wooden structure, where an orchestra from the Mangachería came to play and where men from Piura came to eat, listen to music and talk business as much as to make love – couples did that in the open air, under the stars, in the warm sand – is one of my most evocative childhood memories. From this memory The Green House was born, a novel that deals with the disturbances that the opening of a brothel causes in the life and imagination of Piurans, and also with the exploits of a group of adventurers in the Amazon. Here I tried to bring together two regions of Peru – the desert and the jungle – which were as distant as they were different from each other. Memories of Piura were also the inspiration for several stories in my first book, The Cubs. When this collection of stories came out, some critics saw it as an X-ray analysis of Latin American machismo. I do not know if that is true, but I do know that Peruvians of my age grew up in the midst of this tender violence – or violent tenderness – that I tried to recreate in my first stories.
I went to Lima when I was entering adolescence and it is a city that I hated from the first moment because I was quite unhappy there. My parents had separated but were reconciled after ten years. Living with my father meant leaving my grandparents and uncles and aunts and submitting to the discipline of a very severe man who was a stranger to me. My first memories of Lima are associated with this difficult experience. We lived in Magdalena, a typical middle class district. But when I got good marks at school I went to spend the weekends – this was my reward – with an uncle and aunt in Miraflores, a much more prosperous district by the sea. There I got to know a group of boys and girls of my own age, with whom I shared the rites of adolescence. This was what was called ‘having a neighbourhood’, a parallel family whose hearth was the street corner and with whom you played football, smoked surreptitiously, learned to dance mambo and courted the girls. Compared to later generations, we were archangels. Young people in Lima today make love at the same time as they receive First Holy Communion and smoke their first joint of marijuana when their voices are still breaking. Our wild adventures amounted to no more than slipping into forbidden films – the ones that Church censorship classified as ‘inappropriate for young ladies’ – or drinking a capitán, a poisonous mixture of vermouth and pisco, in the corner bar before going to the Saturday parties where alcoholic drinks were never served. I remember a very serious discussion that the ‘men’ of the neighbourhood – we must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time – had about the legitimate way to kiss your girlfriend. What Giacomo Casanova chauvinistically calls the ‘Italian style’, or the British call the ‘French kiss’, was unanimously rejected as a mortal sin.
Lima was then, in the late 1940s, still a small, safe, peaceful and deceitful city. We lived in watertight compartments: the rich and well-off in Orrantia and San Isidro; the wealthier middle classes in Miraflores and the poorer middle classes in Magdalena, San Miguel, Barranco; the poor in la Victoria, Lince, Bajo El Puente, El Porvenir. Middle class children almost never saw the poor: we did not even know that they existed. They were out there, in the neighbourhoods, dangerous and remote places where, so we were told, crimes were committed. If he never left Lima, a boy from my background could spend his life under the illusion that he lived in a Spanish-speaking country made up of whites and mestizos, in complete ignorance of the millions of Indians — a third of the population - who spoke Quechua and lived completely different lives.
I was fortunate enough to break through this barrier to some degree. Now it seems like luck. But then, in 1950, it was a real drama. My father, who had discovered that I wrote poems, feared for my future — a poet is condemned to die of hunger – and for my ‘manhood’ (the belief that poets are always homosexuals is still to an extent widespread among certain groups), and in order to protect me against these dangers, he thought that the ideal antidote was the Leoncio Prado Military School. I spent two years in that institution. Leoncio Prado was a microcosm of Peruvian society. There were boys from the upper classes, whose fathers sent them there as if it were a reform school, middle class boys who wanted to have a career in the military and also boys from the lower classes, because the school gave grants to children of the poorest families. It was one of the few institutions in Peru in which rich, poor and middle income groups, whites, cholos, Indians, blacks and Chinese, people from Lima and the provinces, all lived together. I found the imprisonment and the military discipline, as well as the brutal and bullying atmosphere, quite unbearable. But I think that in these two years I came to know real Peruvian society, those contrasts, tensions, prejudices, abuses and resentments that a boy from Miraflores could not even suspect existed. I am grateful to the Leoncio Prado for something else: it gave me the experiences that provided the raw materials for my first novel. Time of the Hero recreates, with many inventions, of course, the life of this Peruvian microcosm. The book had a striking reception: one thousand copies were ceremoniously burned in the school square and several generals attacked it severely. One of them said that the book had been written by a ‘degenerate mind’ and another, more imaginatively, said that it was a novel financed by Ecuador to undermine the Peruvian military. The book was successful, but I never quite knew if this was due to its own merits or to the scandal that it provoked.
In the past twenty years, millions of emigrants from the sierra have come to live in Lima, in slums — euphemistically called ‘young communities’ — which surround the old neighbourhoods. Unlike us, middle class boys from Lima today discover the reality of the country just by opening the windows of their houses. Now, the poor are everywhere, as pedlars, tramps, beggars and muggers. With its 5.5 or 6 million inhabitants and its enormous problems — rubbish, inadequate transport, insufficient housing and crime — Lima has lost a great deal of its charm: its colonial districts and jalousied balconies, its tranquillity and its noisy, wet carnivals. But it is now truly the capital of Peru because all the peoples and all the problems of the country are represented there.
They say that hatred is mixed in with love and this must be true because I spend my life speaking badly about Lima and yet there are many things in the city that move me. For example, the mist — the gauze that covers her from March to November, which so impressed Melville when he came through here (he called Lima, in Moby Dick , ‘the strangest, saddest city thou canst see’ because it ‘has taken the white veil’ and ‘there is a higher horror in this whiteness of her woe’). I like the garúa, the invisible drizzle which feels like spiders’ feet on one’s skin and makes everything wet, turning the city dwellers somewhat batrachian in winter. I like the beaches with their cold water and big waves, ideal for surfing. And I like the old stadium where I go to football games to support Universitario de Deportes. But I realize that these are very personal weaknesses and that the most beautiful aspects of my country are not in the city but in the interior, in the deserts, the Andes or in the jungle.
A Peruvian surrealist, César Moro, aggressively entitled one of his poems ‘Lima the Horrible’ and years later another writer, Sebastián Salazar Bondy, took this expression as the title for an essay written to demolish the myth of Lima, the idealization of the city in stories and legends and in the words of criollo songs. He contrasts the supposedly Moorish and Andalucian city - its filigree lattice windows hiding mysterious and diabolical veiled ladies who tempted gentlemen with powdered wigs — with the real, difficult, dirty and festering Lima. All purveyors of Peruvian literature could be divided into two tendencies: those who sanctify Lima and those who criticize her. The real city is probably not as beautiful as some say or as dreadful as others proclaim.
Although, as a whole, it is a city without personality, it has beautiful spots: certain squares, convents and churches and a jewel of a bullring, the Acho. Lima has had a passion for bullfighting from colonial times and the Lima fan is as knowledgeable as any in Mexico or Madrid. I am one of the enthusiasts who try never to miss a bullfight during the October Fair. My uncle Juan, one of the infinite relatives on my mother’s side, instilled me with this passion. His father had been a friend of Juan Belmonte, a great bullfighter who had given him one of the matador suits that he wore to fight. The suit was kept in my uncle’s house like a relic and was shown to the children of the family on important occasions.
Military dictatorships are as common to Lima as the bullfights. Peruvians of my generation have lived under them for more years than under democracy. The first dictatorship that I experienced personally was that of General Manuel Odría, from 1948 to 1956, years in which my generation passed from childhood to adulthood. General Odría overthrew a lawyer from Arequipa, José Luis Bustamante, a cousin of my grandfather. I knew him because, when we lived in Cochabamba, he came to stay at my grandparents’ house and I remember how well-spoken he was – we listened to him open-mouthed – and the money that he slipped into my hand before leaving. Bustamante was the candidate of a Democratic Front in the elections of 1945, an alliance in which the APRA party, under Raúl Haya de la Torre, held a majority. The Apristas – a centre left party – had been severely repressed by dictatorships. Bustamante, an independent, was the APRA candidate because it could not put up a candidate of its own. No sooner was he elected, by a great majority, than APRA began to act as if Bustamante was its puppet. At the same time, the reactionary, troglodyte right unleashed a hostile campaign against the man that they considered to be an instrument of their bête noire, APRA. Bustamante kept his independence, resisted pressures from left and right and governed with respect for freedom of expression, unions and political parties. His government only lasted for three years, punctuated by street violence, political crimes and uprisings, until Odria’s coup. I still maintain the admiration that I felt as a child for that gentleman with the bow-tie, who walked like Chaplin, because he was a rarity among the rulers of my country: he left office poorer than he had entered, he was tolerant of opponents and severe with his supporters, so that no one could accuse him of taking sides, and he respected the law to such an extent that he committed political suicide.
With General Odría, barbarism returned to Peru. Although Odría killed, imprisoned and deported a great many Peruvians, his eight-year rule was less bloody than other South American dictatorships of the period. But, as compensation, it was more corrupt, not only because public officials lined their own pockets but, more seriously, because lies, perks, blackmail, denunciations and abuses took on the form of public institutions and contaminated the whole life of the country.
During this period, in 1953, I enrolled in the University of San Marcos to study law and humanities. My family hoped that I would go to the Catholic University where the children of what were then known as ‘decent families’ went to study. But I had lost my faith between fourteen and fifteen and did not want to be a ‘privileged boy’. I had discovered social problems in my last year at school, in the romantic way that a child discovers prejudice and social inequalities and I wanted to identify with the poor and be involved in a revolution that would bring justice to Peru. San Marcos, a secular, national university, had a tradition of nonconformity which attracted me as much as its academic opportunities.
The dictatorship had dismantled the university. There were lecturers in exile and, in the previous year, 1952, a big round-up had sent dozens of students to jail or into exile. An atmosphere of suspicion pervaded the lecture rooms, where the dictatorship had enrolled many policemen as students. Political parties were outlawed and the Apristas and the Communists, who were great rivals at the time, worked underground.
Soon after entering San Marcos, I became an activist in Cahuide, the name behind which the Communist party, which had been badly damaged by the dictatorship, was attempting to revive its fortunes. Our activism was quite inoffensive. We met in secret, in small cells, to study Marxism; we printed leaflets against the government; we fought with the Apristas; we conspired to make the university support working class struggles – our greatest achievement was to call a strike in San Marcos in solidarity with the tram workers – and we attempted to place our people in university bodies. It was the time of the absolute rule of Stalinism and, in the literary field, the official party aesthetic was socialist realism. It was this, I think, that first made me disillusioned with Cahuide. Albeit with some reservations, since I was also influenced by Sartre, whom I greatly admired, I became resigned to dialectical materialism and historical materialism. But I could never accept the aberrant dictates of socialist realism which ruled out all mystery and turned literary activity into a propaganda exercise. Our discussions were interminable, and in one of our debates in which I argued that This is How Steel was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky was an anaesthetic novel and I defended Fruits of the Earth by the decadent André Gide, one of my comrades shouted at me: ‘You are subhuman.’
And in a way I was, because I was reading voraciously, and with growing admiration, a number of writers considered by Marxists at the time to be ‘gravediggers of Western culture’: Henry Miller, Joyce, Hemingway, Proust, Malraux, Céline, Borges. But, above all, Faulkner. Perhaps the most enduring part of my university years was not what I learned in lecture halls, but what I discovered in the novels and stories that recounted the saga of Yoknapatawpha County. I remember how dazzling it was to read — pencil and paper in hand — Light in August, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and the like, and to discover in those pages the infinite complexity of shade and allusion and the textual and conceptual richness that a novel could provide. Also to learn that to tell a story well required a conjuror’s technique. The literary models of my youth have palled, like Sartre, whom I can no longer read. But Faulkner is still a major writer for me and every time that I read him, I am convinced that his work is a novelistic summa, comparable to the great classics. In the 1950s in Latin America, we read mainly European and North American writers and hardly looked at our own writers. This has now changed: readers in Latin America discovered their novelists at the same time as the rest of the world did so.
An important event for me in those years was my meeting with the chief of security of the dictatorship, the most hated man after Odría himself. I was then a delegate of the University Federation of San Marcos. There were many students in jail and we knew that they were sleeping on prison floors, with no mattresses or blankets. We organized a collection and bought blankets. But when we wanted to take them to the Penitentiary — the prison that was on the site now occupied by the Sheraton Hotel where, so the story goes, the souls of the victims tortured in the old dungeons still wander ‘in torment’ - we were told that only the Minister of the Interior, Don Alejandro Esparza Zañartu, could authorize the delivery. The Federation agreed that five delegates should ask for a meeting. I was one of the five.
I still remember very vividly the impression it made on me when I saw the feared character close up, in his office in the Interior Ministry. He was a small man of about fifty, wrinkled and bored, who seemed to be looking at us through water and did not listen to a word we said. He let us speak - we were trembling - and when we finished, he kept looking at us without saying anything, as if he was laughing at our confusion. Then he opened a drawer in his desk and took out some copies of Cahuide, a mimeographed little journal which we published clandestinely and in which, of course, we attacked him. ‘I know which of you has written each of these articles,’ he told us, ‘where you meet to print it, and what you plot in your cell meetings.’ And, indeed, he did seem omniscient, but, at the same time, deplorable, a pitiful mediocrity. He spoke in an ungrammatical way and his intellectual poverty was quite apparent. Seeing him in this interview, I had an idea for a novel that I would write fifteen years later: Conversation in the Cathedral. In it, I tried to describe the effects that a dictatorship like the eight-year period of Odría had on people’s daily lives – their studies, work, loves, dreams and ambitions. It took me time to find a connecting thread for the mass of characters and episodes: a casual meeting between a former bodyguard and henchman of the dictator and a journalist, the son of a businessman who prospered under the regime, and their conversation, which runs through the entire novel. When the book came out, the ex-Interior Minister, who had now retired and was devoting himself to good works, observed: ‘If Vargas Llosa had come to see me, I could have told him more interesting things.’
Just as the Leoncio Prado Military School helped me to get to know my country, journalism also opened many doors for me and thanks to it, I explored all kinds of environments, social classes, places and activities. I began working as a journalist on the newspaper La Crónica when I was fifteen, in the fourth year school holidays, covering local affairs and, later, crime stories. It was fascinating to go to the police station at night to check what crimes, robberies, assaults and accidents had occurred and to investigate spectacular cases like the ‘Nocturnal Butterfly’, a prostitute who was stabbed to death in El Porvenir. This took me on a tour of the prostitution areas in Lima, the dives and the bars full of pimps and homosexuals. At that time, journalism and the underworld — or at least the shadier aspects of bohemian life — overlapped to some extent. When work was over, it was an obligatory ritual to go to some gloomy bar, usually with Chinese waiters, where the floor was full of sawdust to cover over the drunks’ vomit. And then on to the brothels, where the crime reporters got preferential treatment, because of the trouble they could cause.
During my final years at university, I worked in the Panamericana radio station, preparing news bulletins. I had the opportunity to see close up, from the inside, the world of soap operas, that fascinating universe of sensibilities and truculence, wonderful coincidences and infinite affectation, that seemed a modern version of the nineteenth-century newspaper serials. They had such a following that it was said that a man in the street could listen to the episodes of El derecho de nacer [The Right to be Born] by Félix B. Caignet in any area in Lima since every household was listening to it. This effervescent and picturesque world gave me the theme for another of my novels, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. On the surface, it is a novel about soap operas and melodrama; at a deeper level, it deals with something that has always fascinated me, something to which I have dedicated most of my life and which I have never managed to understand: why do I write, what is writing all about? Since childhood, I have always been beset by the temptation to turn into fiction everything that happens to me, to such a degree that, at times, I feel that everything I do and that is done to me — all of my life — is nothing more than a pretext for inventing stories. What lies behind this incessant transmutation of reality into fiction? Is it an attempt to save certain treasured experiences from the ravages of time? Or a desire to exorcise certain painful or terrible events by transfiguring them? Or is it simply a game, a drunken bout of words and fantasy? The more I write, the more difficult it is to find an answer.
I finished university in 1957. The following year, I submitted my thesis and received a scholarship for a doctorate in Madrid. To go to Europe - to get to Paris somehow - was a dream that I had cherished since first reading Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne and Victor Hugo. I was happily packing my suitcase when, by chance, I was given the opportunity of a trip to the Amazon. A Mexican anthropologist, Juan Comas, was going to travel along the Upper Marañón River, where the Aguaruna and the Huambisa tribes lived, and there was one place left on the expedition, which I was given thanks to a friend of mine from San Marcos.
Those weeks spent in the Upper Marañón, visiting tribes, dwellings and villages, was an unforgettable experience and showed me another dimension of my country (Peru, quite clearly, is the country of a thousand faces). To go from Lima to Chicais or Urakusa was to leap from the twentieth century to the stone age, to come into contact with compatriots who lived half naked in conditions of extreme primitivism and who, furthermore, were exploited in a merciless way. Their exploiters, in turn, were poor merchants, barefoot and semi-literate, who traded in rubber and skins that they bought from the tribes at ridiculous prices. They savagely punished any attempt by the Indians to escape from their control. When we reached the settlement of Urakusa, the chieftain, an Aguaruna called Jum, came out to meet us and it was terrible to see him and hear his story because here was a man who had been recently tortured for having attempted to create a cooperative. In the lost villages of the Upper Marañón, I saw and touched the violence that the struggle for existence in my country could cause.
But the Amazon was not just suffering, abuse and the harsh coexistence of Peruvians of different mentalities and historical periods. It was also a world of prodigious exuberance and force, where someone from the city could discover untamed and untouched nature, the proud spectacle of the great swirling rivers and virgin forests, animals that seemed out of legends, and men and women living dangerous and completely free lives, like the protagonists of the adventure stories that were the delight of my childhood. I think that I have never made a more fertile trip than that one in 1958. Many of the things that I did, saw and heard later turned into stories.
‘On that journey I had my first intuition of what Isaiah Berlin calls contradictory truths’. It was in Santa Maria de Nieva, a small village where a mission had been set up in the 1940s. The nuns opened a school for girls of the tribes. But because they would not attend voluntarily, they were brought in with the help of the Civil Guard. After a spell in the mission, some of the girls lost all contact with their family world and could not go back to the life that they had been taken from. What happened to them, therefore? They were entrusted to the representatives of ‘civilization’ who came through Santa Maria de Nieva — engineers, soldiers, traders — who took them as servants. What was really extraordinary was that the missionary nuns did not realize the consequences of the whole operation, and that, furthermore, they demonstrated true heroism in order to carry it out. The conditions in which they lived were very difficult and they were almost totally isolated in the months when the river rose. That with the best intentions in the world, and at a cost of limitless sacrifice, they could cause so much damage is a lesson that I have never forgotten. It has taught me how vague the line is that separates good from evil and how prudent one must be in judging human actions and deciding the answers to social problems if one is to avoid the cure being worse than the illness.
I left for Europe and did not go back to live in my country for any length of time until 1974. I was twenty-two when I left and thirty-eight when I returned. Many things happened in that time and in many ways I was a completely different person when I got back. But as far as the relationship with my country goes, I think that it has not changed since adolescence. A relationship that can be defined through metaphors rather than concepts. For me, Peru is a kind of incurable illness and my relationship to it is intense, harsh and full of the violence of passion. The novelist Juan Carlos Onetti once said that the difference between him and me as writers was that I had a matrimonial relationship with literature whereas he had an adulterous relationship with it. I feel that my relationship with Peru is more adulterous than conjugal: it is full of suspicion, passion and rages. I consciously fight against all forms of ‘nationalism’, which I consider to be one of the greatest of human defects and has been an excuse for the worst forms of deceit. But it is a fact that events in my country exasperate or engage me more than events in other places and what happens or does not happen there concerns me in an intimate and inevitable way. It is possible that if I were to weigh everything up, then at the time of writing this article, the defects of Peru are uppermost in my mind. I have also been a severe critic (severe to the point of injustice) of everything that afflicts her. But I believe that beneath these criticisms, there is a profound solidarity between us. Although I have sometimes hated Peru, this hatred, in the words of the poet César Vallejo, has always been steeped in tenderness.
Lima, August 1983