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from the September 2015 issue

Geography of the Peruvian Imagination

Peru is one of the truly enchanting, enigmatic places on earth, and Lima—its gritty, vibrant capital of ten million—one of the hottest literary and gastronomical scenes in Latin America today. In 2006, Simon Romero wrote in the New York Times about two Peruvian writers who had recently won significant Spanish literary prizes, Santiago Roncagliolo and Alonso Cueto (who will have a piece in a future issue of WWB dedicated to gastronomy), and in a tone of cautious optimism pointed to the appearance of breakout indie imprints like Estruendo Mudo, or the venerable Peisa, dedicated to promoting the work of Peruvian writers. He also mentioned a new magazine, Etiqueta Negra—based on the model of successful Colombian and Mexican magazines Malpensante and Gatopardo and under the direction of Julio Villanueva Chang—that fostered narrative nonfiction in the New Yorker vein. Since then, new magazines like Buen Salvaje have appeared and expanded their presence with sister-magazines all around the Spanish-speaking world, and another attraction, the Lima Book Fair, as I had a chance to see for myself last year, now draws huge crowds of readers and writers from around the world. Clearly, the country is experiencing a literary renaissance, thanks to continued socio-economic and political stability, and undoubtedly the result of the 2010 Nobel for Mario Vargas Llosa, the last of the great Boom Generation writers who emerged in Latin America during the sixties and seventies (along with Gabriel García Márquez, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, etc).

In a conversation with Javier Cercas in June of this year, Vargas Llosa indicated that when he was growing up in the forties and fifties “nobody in Peru dreamed of becoming a novelist, it was simply inconceivable. People wrote, but it was a hobby, not a profession. Today that’s completely changed.” At that time, Paris was the mecca for Latin American writers; after the Second World War, during the fifties, sixties and seventies, as it was for Americans of the “Lost Generation” during the twenties and thirties. It’s where they went to meet, to read each other, or to seek refuge from the political turmoil in their own countries. Vargas Llosa had never read Borges before arriving in Paris, and other Peruvian writers like Julio Ramón Ribeyro and Alfredo Bryce Echenique lived there for many years. These were some of the most influential writers for the generation of Peruvians who were born in the 1960s, some of whom are included here, like Enrique Prochazka, Fernando Iwasaki, Patricia de Souza, and Ivan Thays.

 Peru possesses an exceptionally rich amalgam of voices, peoples and languages, a kaleidoscope of indigenous cultures, Spanish creoles and mestizos, and immigrant communities from Africa, China, and Japan. The Incan language, Quechua, is still the mother tongue for millions of Peruvians, and some sixty other native languages are still active, many with robust oral traditions. We’ve included an audio clip in this issue of a Tikuna cosmography, told in the language of the largest tribe in the Amazon. In fact, more than half of the country is covered in tropical rainforest, though only five percent of the population lives there. Lima’s urban landscape, its colonial center a UNESCO World Heritage Site, peeks out over the Pacific where the frigid Humboldt Current passes, one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world. The highest glacier in the Peruvian Andes stands at a stately 22,000 feet above sea level. It’s a country of extremes that reveal themselves in the literature.

Herman Melville was not immune to the literary charms of the melancholy, “tearless skies” of Lima when he visited one winter in 1844, just a little over twenty years after independence from Spanish colonial rule. He wrote a haunting description of the city in Moby Dick: “Nor is it, altogether, the remembrance of her cathedral-toppling earthquakes; nor the stampedoes of her frantic seas; nor the tearlessness of arid skies that never rain; nor the sight of her wide field of leaning spires, wrenched cope-stones, and crosses all adroop (like canted yards of anchored fleets); and her suburban avenues of house-walls lying over upon each other, as a tossed pack of cards;—it is not these things alone which make tearless Lima, the strangest, saddest city thou can'st see.” But it was more than a sad city during the dictatorships of the seventies and eighties and throughout the grim, violent years of the nineties, when the city fell prey to corruption and drug trafficking, and the Maoist guerrilla war led by Abimael Guzmán and The Shining Path moved from the rural areas to the heart of Lima, claiming nearly 70,000 lives. This issue is arranged as a mosaic of voices and forms—short fiction, poetry, and reportage—that builds a portrait of two generations that came of age during these bleak years, when Vargas Llosa, after losing his presidential bid to Alberto Fujimori in 1990, considered Perú “not one country, but several, living together in mutual mistrust and ignorance, in resentment and prejudice, and in a maelstrom of violence.” The fact that Peru finds itself in the throes of a cultural renaissance, aided by political and economic stability, shows that a recovery can flourish in the bleakest of landscapes.

Most of the writers in this issue were born in the sixties and seventies, excepting Carmen Ollé, who is from the generation of writers that emerged in the 1970s and an established, highly respected poet. The other writers all came of age during the political and social turmoil of the eighties and nineties, and many suffered displacement along with their families or found educational or economic opportunities in other parts of the world, forming a diaspora.

This selection is but a fraction of what it could have been: many vibrant emerging voices are not included here, like Daniel Titinger, Karina Pacheco, Juan Manuel Robles, Jeremías Gamboa, and Gustavo Faverón.

We’ve selected three pieces of reportage that tip their hat at the narrative nonfiction form that Etiqueta Negra has fostered and promoted over the years and which has become a trademark of Peruvian reportage. Both Santiago Roncagliolo and Gabriela Wiener narrate adventures in the deep jungle. Santiago discovers how between poverty and dignity “the difference lies not in the budget, but in the creativity and organization of its use and disbursement. And, perhaps, a touch of magic.” Gabriela’s delirious journey is precisely to that magical side, where she finds the nirvana of ayahuasca. Sergio Vilela writes poignantly of the desperate times in Lima during the war and how a culinary star like Gastón Acurio began to change the idea  Peruvians had of their own country, turning it into a place “that was unthinkable in the war years in which I grew up.”

Julio Durán writes from Iquitos, Ivan Thays, Carmen Ollé, and Victoria Guerrero from Lima, Patricia De Souza from Paris, Gabriela Wiener from Madrid, Enrique Prochazka from Sweden, Fernando Iwasaki from Seville, Carlos Yushimito and Claudia Salazar Jiménez from the US, Sergio Vilela from Bogotá, and Santiago Roncagliolo from Barcelona. Most of them spend large amounts of time in Peru. Many from the diaspora have already returned to take part in this burgeoning new atmosphere, or are planning to do so. And interestingly, this dynamic cultural milieu is being vigorously cultivated by the public institutions, contrary to short-sighted trends in European countries that are gutting cultural budgets as the first to go during times of austerity. Tourists do not flock to see the beauty of a country’s banking system.

The stories here are indicative of the wide variety of styles in contemporary Peruvian literature, where individual approaches trump the need to fit into some imposed stylistic collective. Though they belong chronologically to specific generations, there is no manifesto. They aren’t following an established aesthetic, but have found the means to express their worlds in singular and original ways. Much of the writing is set in urban environments, though that doesn’t always mean Lima, given the locations of so many of the writers. This is evident in Patricia de Souza’s bitter story of being a poor philosophy student in a place like Paris, which like Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Bad Girl revisits and challenges the myth of Paris as the center of literary culture, as Bolaño did in The Savage Detectives, showing that the City of Lights is now rather past its prime. Enrique Prochazka’s story, which is part of a novel in progress, shows careful pacing and the spooky thrill of man versus man in the frigid Andes. The issue of tourism is inferred in the background.

The writers here demonstrate a clear desire to tell a story more than experiment with form for form’s sake. They tend to eschew the conceptual, being at once deft and in intimate control of narrative techniques to extract the best effect from the story itself: to move, to disturb, to titillate, to elicit strong emotions from the reader. This is done through plotting and technique more than in pyrotechnical feats of language—with the possible exception of Carlos Yushimito, who uses language to create a sort of derangement des senses, a constant displacement so that meaning is hinted at, never fully disclosed. His story is split into three installments; the two that will follow in future issues show this in passages of incantatory vision.

These are two generations made up of the sort of professional writers whom Mario Vargas Llosa identified as a burgeoning new literary flora and fauna. They aren’t self-indulgent writers, they don’t write with their backs to the readers. They’re cosmopolitan, even when in strict dialogue with Peruvian traditions because they’ve read widely, speak other languages, and are engaged with world literature. The thing about being in a country that’s on the periphery is that they have read across many other traditions—European and American, Joyce, Kafka, Dinesen, Faulkner, Woolf—but they’ve also read their own: Vargas Llosa, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Bryce Echenique, José María Arguedas, and the other Latin American and Spanish writers, from Borges to Bolaño to Javier Marías to Silvina Ocampo. As a result, they are largely more cultivated and more widely read than their American colleagues. Myriad experiences in the diaspora or as students abroad serve as source materials they bring in to the mix, but their activity on blogs and social networks means they are never too far from home and in touch with their natural Peruvian readership.

All this goes into building a geography of the contemporary Peruvian literary imagination whose points include the dark humor of Claudia Salazar Jiménez, the precious, evocative cruelty in the fictive worlds of Carlos Yushimito or Patricia de Souza, the eeriness of ritual and death in Fernando Iwasaki’s story, and the roiling tension and heartbreak that human violence inflicts in the stories of Julio Duran and Ivan Thays. They evoke the private landscapes of characters desperately struggling not to lose themselves in the maelstrom of being alive. And not always succeeding. Carmen Ollé is one of the cardinal points for younger poets like Victoria Guerrero, whose harrowing poem of a sister’s illness has the effect of lingering long after it’s read. And finally, the narrative testimonies of their time and their Peru, penned by Santiago Roncagliolo, Gabriela Wiener, and Sergio Vilela, dialogue with the backdrop of a creation myth of the Tikuna people, an example of what lies quietly at the bottom of it all, the ancient cultures that still exist, holding on to their own rites and rituals in this boundless, compelling land that is Peru. 

Read more from the September 2015 issue
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