Letter from Peru: Pathways of the New Peruvian Narrative

Context N°16

by Ricardo Sumalavia Chávez

The last decade of the twentieth century did not just bring new narrative aesthetics from younger Peruvian writers, but also from writers who had been silent in the previous decade; a decade characterized by violence and death in Peru. The nineties, despite social instability, were very good publishing years, in which writers had more opportunities to overcome barriers in both geography and language. One of the most significant reemergences was that led by the writers of the Narration Group (Grupo Narración), who were most active in the sixties and the seventies. I am referring to Oswaldo Reynoso (1931– ) and Miguel Gutiérrez (1940– ). When they first appeared on the literary scene at the beginning of the sixties they immersed themselves in a literature compromised by Marxist-Leninist thoughts. Their postulates were published in their Narración magazine, and they wanted the narrative to help raise social awareness. Such awareness obliged them to explore the recovery of the oral language of some of the country’s marginalized classes. The representative book from this awareness is Oswaldo Reynoso’s Los inocentes (The Innocents, 1961), a set of short stories containing five accounts from teenagers who live on the poorest streets in the downtown of Peru’s capital, and who find themselves in desolate circumstances within a system that controls their actions. This book caught people’s attention through its bold use of juvenile colloquial language. Reynoso’s following two novels, En octubre no hay milagros (In October There Are No Miracles, 1965) and El escarabajo y el hombre (The Scarab and the Man, 1970), employed an urban-marginal theme along with the sociopolitical tensions which were both significant elements of the plot. Oswaldo Reynoso then left Peru to go live in China before returning at the beginning of the nineties. Upon his return, he would publish En busca de Aladino (In Search of Aladdin, 1993), a text in which the main character is language itself. It’s a story full of lyricism and sensuality, in which a Peruvian, anguished by the passing of the years and his residence in China, decides to search for the fantasy character that is Aladdin. The search turns into a questioning of the purity and beauty recognized in bodies. Leaving behind political compromise, in this book Reynoso’s literature is no longer a means, but an end. Some years later he published Los eunucos inmortales (The Immortal Eunuchs, 1994), where the reader can find a narrative universe concerned with conveying a good story and depicting human nature, despite being set in China during the critical moments of the student riots in Tiananmen Square.

Miguel Gutiérrez is a similar case, despite having been much more radical in his left-wing beliefs, appropriate to the revolutionary spirit of the sixties. In those years, his only publication was the novel El viejo saurio se retira (The Old Saurian Retires, 1969), in which he presents a world of social marginalization dragging its characters to an alley without an exit. Gutiérrez, although not having left Peru, remained silent until the nineties when he published his second novel, La violencia del tiempo (The Violence of Time, 1991). According to many critics, this is considered the definitive Peruvian novel of the twentieth century, since it offers a social fresco of the various generations within the Villar family. After this book, Gutiérrez noticeably reduced his political compromise and published novels such as La destrucción del reino (The Destruction of the Kingdom, 1992), Babel, el paraíso (Babel, the Paradise, 1993), and El mundo sin Xóchitl (The World without Xóchitl, 2002), in which there is a search for absolute love.

According to a survey done by the literary magazine Hueso Húmero, the best novel published in the nineties was País de Jauja (The Promised Land, 1993), whose author, Edgardo Rivera Martínez (1933– ), published his first books in the previous decades: El unicornio (The Unicorn, 1963), Azurita (Azurite, 1978), Enunciación (Enunciation, 1979), and Ángel de Ocongate y otros cuentos (Ocongate Angel and Other Stories, 1986). In his first books, primarily short stories set in the Andes, he was searching for an Andean aesthetic in history. However, with the publication of País de Jauja, we find an author who has achieved a desired fusion between the western and the Andean world. It is basically a bildungsroman where a teenager is given the mission to compose a musical piece to be played at the church during the celebration of the village’s patron saint. In this search, his imagination is influenced not only by classical texts such as The Aeneid, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, etc., but also by his native universe, enriched by myths and legends transmitted orally from generation to generation, which explain and support his identity.

Another contribution to the narrative of the nineties was the return of those writers who had published volumes of short stories in the previous decade. In the eighties, the youth, tired of the politically compromised narrative of the Narration Group, opted for a style of prose that was less colloquial and more concerned with the individual. These authors wrote many intimate short stories of superb quality. Among others, we can cite Guillermo Niño de Guzmán (1955– ), who dazzled everyone with his book of short stories, Caballos de medianoche (Midnight Horses, 1984), highly influenced by Ernest Hemingway; and Alonso Cueto (1954– ) and his book of short stories, La batalla del pasado (The Battle of the Past, 1983), clearly influenced by Henry James and the Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti. Less of a realist and more experimental is Carlos Calderón Fajardo (1946– ) and his book of short stories, El que pestañea muere (He Who Blinks, Dies, 1981), a book especially concerned with producing an oppressive atmosphere and whose reality gets blurred to the point of leaving us in darkness, reminding us of some of Donald Barthelme’s short stories. All of these stories are primarily urban, although there is no need to focus on the social context. Thus, these authors, as well as some others like Fernando Ampuero (1949– ), come back to the literary scene with short novels strongly biased towards the black comedy. Ampuero publishes a novel called Caramelo verde (Green Caramel, 1992), where thrill and suspense are the main ingredients of an attractive and fast novel full of action in a city where everybody prefers to break social norms. Alonso Cueto published two similar novels, Deseo de noche (Desire of Night, 1993) and Polvo de ceniza (Dust of Ashes, 1995). Recently, he published Grandes miradas (Great Looks, 2003), which is a suspense story based on real facts, presenting us characters connected with political power and corruption in the nineties. With similar dynamism, he gave us La conciencia del límite último (The Awareness of the Last Limit, 1990), the story of a bored journalist who writes for the crime section of a sensationalist newspaper and whose boss makes him invent a new police chronicle every day, each being more violent than the previous one, until the journalist finds himself trapped in his own fiction, like a post-modern Scheherazade. These dark novels, consequently, were a great contribution from the authors who were, in the nineties, between thirty-five and fifty years old.

The narrative of the newer writers, those who published their first books in the nineties, was questioned not just because of its quality, but because of their condition as literary texts. For example, the literary term “light” has come to gravitate over the books of many new Peruvian writers without a serious and reasonable justification. Light literature is definitely not a category established by any literary theory; nevertheless, its validity and pertinence are still discussed and employed whenever it is convenient.

If this term classifies the narrative well, it could easily be extended to other forms of expression (such as cinema) that satisfy the demands of an easily pleased, lazy (as Umberto Eco says) public who enjoy the stories offered to them, as long as serious reflection is not required. The appearance of these books went hand in hand with an overpowering publishing system that fed these texts to a consumer public avid to receive this “artistic lie.” The authors of these works clearly understand the methods they resort to in order to obtain the desired effects. We also know that if they fail to produce works, especially prolonged narrative sagas, they reach out to anonymous “ghost writers.” This system works because, in general, these books could be written by anyone.

Nevertheless, this light narrative has been fed, not only by the elements of mass culture, but also by literatures that refuse stereotypes, that constantly revise themselves, and that question their own creative methods and the story they propose. From this other literature, the light narrative takes structure, characters, and all elements that can be immediately processed, digested, and offered again and again, creating a formula that will be copied and utilized until it is worn out. This process has been the origin of confusion.

In the first half of the nineties, there were three narrative trajectories to which the novel and short stories could be applied. In the first trajectory, the confusion about what is “light” was more evident. The first novel that brought about such different opinions was No se lo digas a nadie (Don’t Tell Anyone, 1994) by Jaime Bayly (1965– ). This publication was preceded by an advertising campaign uncommon for a novel in Peru; however, this was due to Jaime Bayly’s public and polemical persona as a talk-show host. After the appearance of this novel and its immediate financial success, the term “light” was used for the first time. The book was accused of “not being very literary,” and its fictional character even became the subject of discussion on a variety of television programs. This book narrates the construction of a juvenile’s identity as affected by the character’s sexual preference in an adverse environment amidst a well-established and overly religious middle class. It was definitely a novel that intended to focus on the image of sexual ambiguity transmitted by its author on television, and the critics were divided about this author and his novels, though that cannot be a justification to label his work as “light.” The justification had more to do with the literary inexperience of the young writer, which was overcome by his following books, especially, in my opinion, in Los últimos días de La Prensa (The Last Days of the Press, 1996).

Another example is Al final de la calle (At the End of the Street, 1993), by Oscar Malca (1958– ), which, with an episodic structure, addresses and gives testimony, indirectly or directly, to the violence, desperation, and immobility that the harsh Peruvian reality of that time offered its youth. Under the influence of authors like Charles Bukowski, Bret Easton Ellis, or Douglas Coupland, and emulating Latin Americans, Peruvian narrators of the nineties, headed by Oscar Malca, assimilated a prosaic and irreverent discourse, as well as a thematic structure in which the marginalized characters, the youth without space for development, protest and change what will be their new moral. This type of narration rapidly generated followers like Sergio Garlarza (1976– ), among others. Likewise, they received the label realismo sucio peruano (dirty Peruvian realism), which made clear reference to their North American influences. They were even cataloged as neorealistas exacerbados (exacerbated neorealists)—a term employed by the critic Ricardo González Vigil—linking them with the Peruvian narrative published between the fifties and the sixties, and especially with the book of short stories Los inocentes by Oswaldo Reynoso. It is interesting to note that the followers of this line of narrative, in contrast to, for example, the North American Easton Ellis (who frequently ascribed to the popular norms of mass culture, especially in reference to the unrestraint of the young), the Peruvian authors opted to make reference to the so-called “subterranean” movements of the late eighties.

Thus, the practice of fictionalizing the marginalized youth also had its correlative authors in Spain, Chile, Argentina, and other Latin American countries, in which they achieved sales records unprecedented for young writers. However, save for Oscar Malca, in Peru the authors of this style, having sold no more than five thousand copies among five editions, were not widely read. What is certain is that careless reading pigeonholed all these books inside of what arbitrarily was to be called “light narrative” in Peru.

Let’s not forget that the majority of these young writers were born in the midsixties, and their childhood was influenced by twelve years of military dictatorship—then in its first phase (1968-1975) with the illusory Peruvian Revolution carried out by Juan Velasco Alvarado and dismantled in a second phase (1975-1980) by Francisco Morales Bermúdez. Later, in their adolescence, they saw the cruel years of terror with the emergence of Sendero Luminoso and the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement) in the midst of a democracy recovering with a weak hand throughout the entire decade of the eighties, during the governments of Fernando Belaunde and Alan García. The nineties, however, was a decade of pretense, of depoliticization, represented by expressions of disinterest and crises of ideologies, which impacted the young people who, in many ways, were dragged toward various levels of marginality.

Thus, the distinct types of marginalization derived from the social conflicts are often themes addressed by the above mentioned authors. However, in this vein we can establish two groups. The first treats these themes linearly, but with an episodic structure similar to that of the picaresque novel. Here, the language is agile, direct, and functional, as in the first books by Jaime Bayly, and following, in the second half of the nineties, the books of stories by Sergio Galarza. In this trajectory, we have Matacabros (Fag Killer, 1996), in which violence and irrationality achieve their maximum expression in the title story, where some middle-class youths from Lima carry out patrols to beat and kill transvestites working as prostitutes in the parks and streets of city zones that are not necessarily marginal. Nevertheless, in his second book, El infierno es un buen lugar (Hell Is a Good Place, 1997), and in his latest, Todas las mujeres son galgos (All Women are Dogs, 1999), the urban violence of the capital and the harshness of the language give way to a much calmer tone behind the precise image that reflects its abandonment.

The second group corresponds with novels such as Al final de la calle (At the End of the Street, 1993) by Oscar Malca or Nocturno de ron y gatos (Night of Rum and Cats, 1994) by Javier Arévalo (1965– ), whose textual structure is more complex, with temporal and spatial ruptures, narrator changes, insertion of other texts, etc. We find a particularly interesting example of this group in the short stories of Rocío Silva Santisteban (1963– ), Me perturbas (You Bother Me, 1994). In these stories, the language is not only shaped by what is narrated, but we can also find a much purer narrative discourse. The terrible stories that are referred to here maintain an aura of solitude and lyricism that spring from putrefaction, as we see in her story “Rara Avis” (Rare Avis).

To this first trajectory, we can add two important points. In the first half of the nineties, this trajectory was set and practiced in the capital. For novels like Noche de cuervos (Night of Crows, 1998) and Inka trail (1998) by Oswaldo Chanove (1953– ), or the stories in Cazador de gringas y otros cuentos (Gringa Hunter and Other Stories, 1995) by Mario Guervara Paredes (1956– ), set in the city of Cusco, among teenagers, discos, drugs, and the mystique of the city, and some stories of Galarza set in the United States reveal narrative space that is broader, although still marked by violence. For example, in Noche de cuervos, a group of teenagers from the capital city make a trip to Cusco to celebrate their graduation. This trip symbolizes a recognition of the world, of the fragile limits that exist in a society in turmoil. All these teenagers know beforehand what it is that they have to lose. Everything is affected by frustration. The second point of importance is that the late nineties and the first two years of the new century allowed young writers to house, inside their narratives, the social and political tensions experienced since the eighties. Here, we have: La furia de Aquiles (The Fury of Achilles, 2000) by Gustavo Rodríguez Saavedra (1968– ), Un beso de invierno (A Winter Kiss, 2001) by José de Piérola (1961– ), and Nuestros años salvajes (Our Wild Years, 2000) by Carlos Torres Rotondo (1973– ). This last one in particular provides us with a panoramic view of the precariousness of the youth in the capital city, of how society has closed all doors on them, and that one of the few alternatives they have is to rupture along with the system—a rupture through social participation, not by means of autodestruction.

A confusion of that which is “light” is also applied to other narratives, in what we will call the second trajectory, which was born in the nineties, with innovative proposals, different in form and content. In 1992, the books Efecto invernadero (Greenhouse Effect) and Las fotografías de Frances Farmer (The Photographs of Frances Farmer) by Mario Bellatin (1960– ) and Iván Thays (1968– ), respectively, were published. The former, along with Bellatin’s later books, evoked surprise and distrust among the critics, for in both its argument and narrative structure, this novel displayed a different vein than that followed by traditional Peruvian literature. Here we find a purified, fine prose, full of charged images and adjectives, put to the service of a space where the narrative reality enters into crisis, without referents, in which developed worlds are marked by perversity and fascination. The short stories of Iván Thays, on the other hand, made an impact because of the strong lyricism of the language and the evocative atmosphere that ended up diluting the conflict of the story. In these texts, as in Bellatin’s novels, the Peruvian reality is no longer the main character, giving preference to the liberty of the imagination and relying on the literature itself as the axis and periphery of its fictional worlds. However, these narrative forms, in their time, were neither established nor studied as unique movements.

Although we cannot make distinguish these books thematically, but we can point out a group that notable for their wide exploration of all of fiction’s mechanisms. Thus, we will have the evocative novels of Patricia de Souza (1964– ), Cuando llegue la noche (When Night Falls, 1994) and La mentira de un fauno (The Lie of a Faun, 1998), or the well-structured novels Orquídeas del paraíso (Orchids of Paradise, 1999) and Alrededor de Alicia (All Around Alicia, 2000) by Enrique Planas (1970– ) and Blanco y negro (Black and White, 1995) by Carlos Herrara (1961– ). Or the peculiar novel that fits in the fantasy genre La fabulosa máquina del sueño (The Fabulous Dream Machine, 1999) by José Donayre (1966– ). In the short story genre, the books that stand out are Un único desierto (A Unique Desert, 1997) by Enrique Prochazka (1960– ), Parejas en el parque y otros cuentos (Couples in the Park and Other Stories, 1998) by Selenco Vega (1971– ), A Troya, Elena (To Helen of Troy, 1991) by Fernando Iwasaki (1961– ), La soledad de los magos (The Solitude of Magicians, 1994) by Jorge Valenzuela (1962– ), and Muñequita linda (Pretty Dolly, 2000) by Jorge Ninapayata (1957– ). These are extraordinary narratives of a subtle and polished prose.

A third trajectory is represented by those writers who assumed the challenge of addressing the subversive and institutionalized violence that the country experienced during the eighties and nineties. In terms of narrative, its discourse does not differ from the proposals of the preceding decades, but thematically, it is a notable and necessary contribution to the Peruvian narrative body. Two of the most important authors are Luis Nieto Degregori (1955– ) with his books Con los ojos siempre abiertos (With Eyes Always Open, 1990)—a compilation of short stories published in the previous decade—and Señores destos reynos (Men of these Kingdoms, 1994). The first book is set in the Andean zones, where the violence of terrorism and military actions devastate the villages. The characters try to understand the reasons for the fighting—fights in which they have no side to take, despite being destined to suffer from the death of their loved ones, living like ghosts among ghosts. In the second book, Peruvian history is utilized to establish links between the peasant riots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the critical situation of the country in the eighties and nineties. Another prominent writer is Dante Castro (1959– ) with Parte de combate (Part of Combat, 1991), Tierra de pishtacos (Land of Pishtacos, 1992), and Cuando hablan los muertos (When the Dead Speak, 1997). Castro, although he was born in the capital, perfectly depicts the suffering of those from the Andean zones, from the woods, and from the coast, in order to create a display of the Peruvian human being.

Of course, all forms of classification end up simplifying and invariably pigeonholing some of their elements. This is a debatable proposal in a country where debate is necessary.

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Translated from the Spanish by Celia Bortolin and Scott Miller.

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