A FISH IN THE WATER
The Man Who Was My Papa
My mama took me by the arm and led me out into the street by the service entrance of the prefecture. We walked along toward the Eguiguren embankment. It was the final days of 1946 or the first days of 1947, but exams at the Salesian school were already over, I had finished the fifth grade, and summer in Piura, with its white light and asphyxiating heat, had already come.
“You already know it, of course,” my mama said, without her voice trembling. “Isn’t that so?”
“That your papa isn’t dead. Isn’t that so?”
“Of course. Of course.”
But I didn’t know that, or even remotely suspect it, and it was as if the world had left me paralyzed with surprise. My papa, alive? And where had he been all the time I thought he was dead? It was a long story that up until that day—the most important day in my life till then and, perhaps, in my later life, too—had been carefully hidden from me by my mother, my grandfather and grandmother, my great-aunt Elvira—Mamaé—and my aunts and uncles, that vast family with which I spent my childhood, first in Cochabamba and then, once my grandfather Pedro was appointed mayor of this city, here in Piura. An episode in a cruel and vulgar serial, which—I gradually discovered this later, as I went about reconstructing it with facts from here and there and imaginary additions in places where it turned out to be impossible to fill in the blanks—had made my mother’s family (my only family, in fact) terribly ashamed and ruined my mother’s life when she was still little more than an adolescent.
A story that had begun thirteen years before, more than two thousand kilometers away from this Eguiguren embankment, the scene of the great revelation. My mother was nineteen years old. She had gone to Tacna with my granny Carmen—who came from Tacna—from Arequipa, where the family lived, to attend the wedding of a relative, on March 10, 1934, when, in what must have been a jerry-built, very recently constructed airport in that provincial city, someone introduced her to the man who operated the radio transmitter for Panagra, the company that would later become Pan American Airlines: his name was Ernesto J. Vargas. He was twenty-nine years old and very good-looking. My mother was very taken with him, from that moment on and for the rest of her life. And he must have fallen in love at first sight, too, because when, after a few weeks’ vacation in Tacna, she went back to Arequipa, he wrote her a number of letters and even made a trip there, to say goodbye to her when Panagra transferred him to Ecuador. On that very brief visit of his to Arequipa they became officially engaged. The engagement was carried on by letter; they didn’t see each other again until a year later, when my father—whom Panagra had just transferred once more, this time to Lima—appeared in Arequipa again for the wedding. They were married on June 4, 1935, in the house on the Bulevar Parra where my grandparents lived, beautifully decorated for the occasion. In the photograph that survived (they showed it to me many years later), Dorita can be seen posing in her white dress with a long train and a transparent veil, wearing an expression not at all radiant, but solemn, rather, and in her big dark eyes a somber shadow of curiosity as to what the future would bring her.
What it brought her was disaster. After the wedding, they immediately journeyed to Lima, where my father worked for Panagra. They lived in a little house on the Calle Alfonso Ugarte, in Miraflores. From the very first, he gave evidence of what the Llosa family was to call, euphemistically, Ernesto’s strange-mindedness. Dorita was subjected to a prison routine, forbidden to visit friends of hers, in particular her relatives, and forced to remain permanently at home. Her only outings were made in the company of my father and consisted of going to a movie theater or visiting his older brother, César, and his wife Orieli, who also lived in Miraflores. Jealous scenes followed one upon the other on the slightest pretext, and sometimes without any pretext at all, and they could lead to violence.
Many years later, when I already had gray hair and it was possible for me to talk with her about the five and a half months that her marriage lasted, my mother was still putting forward the family’s explanation for its failure: Ernesto’s bad disposition and his fiendish fits of jealousy. And casting part of the blame on herself, too, perhaps, since she had been such a pampered young girl, for whom life in Arequipa had been so easy, so comfortable, had not prepared her for that difficult test: having to leave overnight to go live in another city with such a dominating person, so different from all those around her.
But the real reason for the failure of their marriage was not my father’s jealousy or his bad disposition, but the national disease that gets called by other names, the one that infests every stratum and every family in the country and leaves them all with a bad aftertaste of hatred, poisoning the lives of Peruvians in the form of resentment and social complexes. Because Ernesto J. Vargas, despite his white skin, his light blue eyes and his handsome appearance, belonged—or always felt that he belonged, which amounts to the same thing—to a family socially inferior to his wife’s. The adventures, misadventures, and deviltry of my paternal grandfather, Marcelino, had gradually impoverished and brought the Vargas family down in the world till they reached that ambiguous margin where those who are middle-class begin to be taken for what those of a higher status call “the people,” and in a position where Peruvians who believe that they are blancos (whites) begin to feel that they are cholos, that is to say mestizos, half-breeds of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, that is to say poor and despised. In particolored Peruvian society, and perhaps in all societies which have many races and extreme inequalities, blanco andcholo are terms that refer to other things besides race or ethnic group: they situate a person socially and economically, and many times these factors are the ones that determine his or her classification. This latter is flexible and can change, depending on circumstances and the vicissitudes of individual destinies. One is always blanco or cholo in relation to someone else, because one is always better or worse situated than others, or one is more or less poor or important, or possessed of more or less Occidental or mestizo or Indian or African or Asiatic features than others, and all this crude nomenclature that decides a good part of any one person’s fate is maintained by virtue of an effervescent structure of prejudices and sentiments—disdain, scorn, envy, bitterness, admiration, emulation—which, many times, beneath ideologies, values, and contempt for values, is the deep-seated explanation for the conflicts and frustrations of Peruvian life. It is a grave error, when discussing racial and social prejudices in Peru, to believe that they act only from the top down; parallel to the contempt that the white shows toward the mestizo, the Indian, and the black, there exists the bitterness of the mestizo against the white and the Indian and the black, and of each one of these latter three against all the others, feelings—or perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of impulses or passions—that lie concealed behind political, professional, cultural, and personal rivalries, in accordance with a process which cannot even be called hypocritical, since it is rarely rational and seldom openly revealed. In the majority of cases it is unconscious, stemming from an ego that is hidden and blind to reason; it is taken in with one’s mother’s milk and begins to be shaped from the time of the Peruvian’s first birth-cry and babblings as a baby.
That was probably true of my father. More intimately and decisively than by his bad disposition or his jealousy, his life with my mother was ruined by the sensation, which never left him, that she came from a world of names that meant something—those Arequipa families that boasted of their Spanish forebears, of their good manners, of the purity of the Spanish they spoke—that is to say, families from a world superior to that of his own, impoverished and brought to ruin by politics.
My paternal grandfather, Marcelino Vargas, had been born in Chancay, a town not far from Lima, and learned the métier of radio operator, which he was to teach my father in the brief calm interludes of his frenzied existence. But the passion of his life was politics. He entered Lima through the Cocharcas gate with Pierola guerrilla fighters on March 17, 1895, when he was a young lad. And later on he was a faithful follower of the charismatic liberal leader Augusto Durán, at the latter’s side throughout all his political vicissitudes, living for that reason a life of continual ups and downs, the prefect of Huánuco one day and deported to Ecuador the next, and many a time a jailbird and an outlaw. This life on the run forced my grandmother Zenobia Maldonado—whose photographs show her with an implacable expression—to perform all sorts of miracles in order to feed her five children, whom she brought up and educated practically all by herself (she had eight children, but three of them died shortly after they were born). My father used to say, in a voice full of emotion, that she had no compunction about whipping him and his brothers till she drew blood when they misbehaved.
They must have lived in great poverty, for my father studied at a public secondary school—the Colegio Guadalupe—which he left at the age of thirteen so as to contribute to his family’s support. He worked as an apprentice in an Italian shoemaker’s shop, and then, thanks to the rudiments of radiotelegraphy that Don Marcelino taught him, in the post office as a radio operator. In 1925 my grandmother Zenobia died and that same year my father was in Pisco, working as a telegrapher. One day with a friend he bought a ticket in the Lima lottery that won first prize: a hundred thousand soles! With his share, fifty thousand, a fortune in those days, he went off to Buenos Aires (which, in the affluent Argentina of the 1920s, was to Latin America what Paris was to Europe), where he led a dissipated life that made his fortune dwindle very quickly. With what little he had left, he was prudent enough to complete his studies in radiotelephony, at Trans Radio, from which he received a professional diploma. A year later he won a competitive examination as a junior operator in the Argentine merchant marine, where he remained for five years, plying all the seas in the world. (There existed from this period a photograph of him, very handsome, in a navy-blue uniform, that stood on my night table during my entire childhood in Cochabamba, and apparently I kissed it when I went to bed, saying good night to “my beloved papa who’s in heaven.”)
He returned to Peru around 1932 or 1933, having been hired by Panagra as a flight operator. He spent more than a year in those little pioneer airplanes flying through the unexplored Peruvian skies until, in 1934, he was assigned to the Tacna airport, where that meeting of March 1934, thanks to which I came into the world, took place.
His transient and varied life did not free my father from the tortuous rancors and complexes that constitute the psychology of Peruvians. In some way or other and for some complicated reason, my mother’s family came to represent for him what he had never had, or what his family had lost—the stability of a middle-class home and fireside, the strong network of relations with other families like his own, the reference point of a tradition and a certain social distinction—and, as a consequence, he conceived an enmity toward that family that came to the surface to the slightest pretext and turned into insults against “the Llosas” in his fits of rage. In all truth, these feelings had almost no basis in fact in those years—the mid-1930s. The Llosa family, which for some generations after the arrival in Arequipa of the first of their lineage—the field marshal Don Juan de la Llosa y Llaguno—had been well-off and possessed of aristocratic airs, had gradually come down in the world until, in my grandfather’s generation, it was a middle-class Arequipa family of modest means. It was true, nonetheless, that the family had solid ties to the little world of “society” and was firmly established. This latter fact was, in all likelihood, what that rootless being without a family and without a past, my father, was never able to forgive my mother for. My grandfather Marcelino, after Doña Zenobia’s death, had put the finishing touch on his adventurous life by doing something that filled my progenitor with shame: going off to live with an Indian woman who braided her hair and wore wide skirts, in a little village in the central Andes, where he reached the end of his life, a nonagenarian with countless offspring, having worked as a stationmaster for the national railway system. Not even the Llosas gave rise to such invective as that inspired in my father by Don Marcelino, on the rare occasions when he mentioned him. His name was taboo in my father’s house, as was everything else related to him. (And, no doubt for that reason, I always harbored a secret liking for the grandfather I had never known.)
My mother became pregnant with me shortly after marrying. She spent the first months of her pregnancy by herself in Lima, with the occasional company of her sister-in-law Orieli. Domestic quarrels followed one upon the other and life was very hard for my mother, yet her passionate love for my father never flagged. One day, Granny Carmen sent word from Arequipa that she would come to Lima to be at my mother’s side during her lying-in. My father had been entrusted by Panagra with the job of going to La Paz to open the company office there. As though it were the most natural thing in the world he said to his wife: “Go have the baby in Arequipa instead.” And he arranged everything in such a way that my mother hadn’t the least suspicion of what he was plotting to do. On that morning in November 1935, he said goodbye like an affectionate husband to his wife, who was five months pregnant.
He never phoned her again or wrote to her or gave any signs of life till eleven years later, that is to say, till very shortly before that afternoon when, on the Eguiguren embankment of Piura, my mother revealed to me that the father whom up until that moment I had believed was in heaven was still on this earth, alive and wagging his tail.
“You’re not telling me a fib, Mama?”
“Do you think I’d lie to you about a thing like that?”
“Is he really and truly alive?”
“Am I going to see him? Am I going to meet him? Where is he, then?”
“Here in Piura. You’re going to meet him right now.”
When at last we were able to talk about it, many years after that afternoon and many years after my father had died, my mother’s voice still trembled and her eyes filled with tears, remembering how upset she was in those days, in Arequipa, when, in the face of the sudden total silence of her husband—no telephone calls, no letter, no message informing her of his whereabouts in Bolivia—she began to suspect that she had been abandoned and that, given his famous bad disposition, she would no doubt never see him again or have any news of him. “The worst of the whole thing,” she says, “was the gossip. What people made up: the rumors, the lies, the whispering campaigns. I was so ashamed! I didn’t dare set foot outside the house. When someone came to visit my parents, I shut myself up in my room and turned the key.” Luckily, Grandpa Pedro, Granny Carmen, Mamaé and all her brothers had behaved very well, cosseting her, protecting her, and making her feel that, even though she had been abandoned by her husband, she would always have a home and family.
I was born on the second floor of the house on the Bulevar Parra, where my grandparents lived, early on the morning of March 28, 1936, after a long and painful labor. My grandfather sent a telegram to my father, by way of Panagra, giving him the news of my arrival in the world. He did not answer, and he also failed to answer a letter that my mother wrote telling him that I had been baptized with the name of Mario. Since they didn’t know whether he hadn’t replied because he didn’t want to or because the messages hadn’t reached him, my grandparents asked a relative who lived in Lima, Dr. Manuel Bustamante de la Fuente, to look him up at Panagra. The doctor went to speak with him at the airport, to which my father had returned after several months’ stay in Bolivia. His reaction was to demand a divorce. My mother consented, and it was granted, on the grounds of mutual incompatibility, through the intermediary of lawyers, without the former spouses having to see each other face to face.
This first year of my life, the only one I spent in the city where I was born and about which I remember nothing, was a hellish year for my mother as well as for my grandparents and the rest of the family—a typical middle-class family of Arequipa, in all that expression implies as regards their conservatism, their traditionalism, and their narrow outlook on life—who shared the shame of their abandoned daughter, now the mother of a fatherless child. In Arequipa society, prejudiced and afraid of its own shadow, the mystery of what had happened to Dorita caused talk. My mother didn’t venture outside the house, except to go to church, and devoted herself to caring for the newborn baby, unfailingly aided by my grandmother and my Mamaé, who made this first-born baby of the new generation their pampered pet.
A year after I was born, my grandfather signed a ten-year contract with the Said family to go off to cultivate landed properties—the Saipina hacienda—that they had just acquired in Bolivia, near Santa Cruz, where the Saids wanted to introduce cotton growing, a crop that my grandfather had successfully cultivated in Camaná. Although I was never told as much, I could never rid myself of the idea that that unfortunate story of their elder daughter, and the enormous trouble caused them by my mother’s abandonment and divorce, had driven my grandfather to accept a job that got the family out of Arequipa, never to return. “It was a great relief to me to go to another country, to another city, where people would leave me in peace,” my mother says in reference to that move.
The Llosa family moved to Cochabamba, at that time a more livable city than the tiny, isolated little town of Santa Cruz, and settled in an enormous house on the Calle Ladislao Cabrera, in which my entire early childhood was spent. I remember it as a paradise. It had an entry hall with a tall curved roof that sent back the echo of people’s voices, and a patio with trees where, with my cousins Nancy and Gladys and my school chums from La Salle, we reenacted the Tarzan films and the serials we saw on Sundays, after the Mass held at school, and at the matinees at the Cine Rex. Around the front patio was a pillared terrace with sun awnings and rocking chairs where Grandpa Pedro, when he was not out at the hacienda, used to take his afternoon nap, swaying back and forth, with snores that used to make me and my two cousins almost die laughing. There were two other patios, one paved with tiles and the other with beaten earth, where the laundry and the servants’ quarters were located, along with pens in which there were always hens and, at one time, a baby goat brought from Saipina which my grandmother finally adopted. One of the first terrors of my childhood was that kid, which when it worked itself loose from its tether used to attack everything that got in its way, causing a great hubbub in the house. At another period I also had a chatterbox of a parrot that imitated the loud fits of stamping my feet that frequently came over me and screeched, in exactly the same way as I did: “Graaanny! Graaanny!”
The house was huge, but we all had our own places in it, with our own rooms: my grandma and grandpa, Mamaé, my mama and I, my Aunt Laura and my Uncle Juan and their daughters Nancy and Gladys, Uncle Lucho and Uncle George, and Uncle Pedro, who was studying medicine in Chile but who came to spend his vacations with us. Besides all of them, there were the cook and the servants, who never numbered less than three.
In that house I was pampered and spoiled to extremes that made a little monster out of me. The pampering was thanks to the fact that I was the grandparents’ first grandchild and the aunts’ and uncles’ first grandnephew, and also because I was the son of poor Dorita, a fatherless little boy. Not having a papa, or rather, having a papa who was in heaven, wasn’t anything that tormented me; on the contrary, it conferred on me a privileged status, and the lack of a real father had been compensated by any number of surrogates: my grandpa and my uncles Juan, Lucho, Jorge, and Pedro.
My wild pranks made my mama enroll me at La Salle when I was five, a year before the one recommended by the order’s brothers. I learned to read shortly thereafter, in Brother Justiniano’s class, and this—the most important thing that happened to me before that afternoon on the Eguiguren embankment—calmed down my tempestuous behavior, for the reading of books for children—Billikens, Penecas—and all sorts of little stories and tales of adventure became an exhilarating pastime that kept me quiet for hours and hours. But reading did not keep me from playing games, and I was capable more than once of inviting my whole class to have tea at my house, excesses that Granny Carmen and Mamaé, whom I hope, if God and heaven exist, have been adequately rewarded, would tolerate without a word of protest, carefully preparing slices of buttered bread, cold drinks, and coffee with milk for this swarm of children.
The entire year was one big party. It included outings to Cala-Cala, going to the main square to eat Salta-style meat pies on the days when there were open-air military band concerts, going to the movies, and playing at friends’ houses—but there were two holidays that stood out, for the excitement and the happiness they brought me: Carnival and Christmas. For Carnival, we filled balloons with water beforehand—it was the custom—and when the day arrived, my cousins Nancy and Gladys and I bombarded the people passing by on the street and stole peeks, bedazzled, at our uncles and aunts as they dressed in fantastic costumes to go to masked balls. The preparations for Christmas were meticulous. Granny and Mama sowed wheat seeds in special containers for the Nativity scene, a laborious structure brought to life with little plaster figures of shepherds and animals that the family had brought from Arequipa (or that had perhaps been brought from Tacna by Granny). Decorating the tree was a fantastic ceremony. But nothing was as exciting as writing to the Baby Jesus—who had not yet been replaced by Santa Claus—little letters about the presents that I wanted him to bring on the twenty-fourth of December. And getting into bed that night, trembling with eagerness, with my eyes half-closed, wanting and at the same time not wanting to see the Baby Jesus steal into my room with the presents—books, many books—that he would leave at the foot of the bed and that I would discover the next day, my chest bursting with excitement.
While I was in Bolivia, up until the end of 1945, I believed that the Baby Jesus brought toys, and that storks brought babies from heaven, and not one of what my confessors called bad thoughts ever crossed my mind; they made their appearance later, when I was living in Lima. I was a mischievous child and a crybaby, but as innocent as a lily. And devoutly religious. I remember the occasion of my first communion as a great event: the preparatory classes given us every afternoon beforehand by Brother Agustín, the principal of La Salle, in the chapel of the school, and the moving ceremony—with me dressed in white for the occasion and the entire family present—in which I received the host from the hands of the bishop of Cochabamba, an imposing figure enveloped in royal purple vestments whose hand I hastened to kiss when I met him on the street or when he appeared at the house on Ladislao Cabrera (which was the Peruvian consulate as well, a post my grandfather had assumed ad honorem). And I remember as well the breakfast with hot chocolate and sweets made of almonds and candied fruit which they gave to those of us who had celebrated our first communion, and our families, in the patio of the school.
From Cochabamba I remember the Salta-style meat pies and the Sunday lunches, with the whole family present—Uncle Lucho was already married to Aunt Olga, no doubt, and Uncle Jorge to Aunt Gaby—and the enormous family dining table, where everyone always reminisced about Peru, or perhaps I should say about Arequipa, and where we all hoped that when it came time for dessert there would appear the sopaipillas, delicious fritters dipped in honey, and the guargüeros, pineapple and coconut sweets, desserts typical of Tacna and Moquegua, that Granny and Mamaé made with magic hands. I remember the Urioste and Beverley swimming pools to which Uncle Lucho took me, in which I learned to swim, the sport I liked best as a youngster and the only one in which I managed to acquire a certain skill. And I also remember, with the greatest affection, the little stories and the books that I read with mystical concentration and absorption, totally immersed in their world of illusion—the stories of Genevieve of Brabant and William Tell, of King Arthur and Cagliostro, of Robin Hood and the hunchback Lagardère, of Sandokán and Captain Nemo, and, above all, the series about Guillermo, a mischievous little boy my age, about whom each book in the series recounted an adventure which I tried to repeat afterward in the garden of the house. And I remember my first scribblings as a storyteller, which were usually in the form of little verses, or prolongations and amended versions of the stories I read, for which the family praised me. Grandfather was fond of poetry—my great-grandfather Belisario had been a poet and had had a novel published—and he taught me to memorize verses by Campoamor or Rubén Darío, and both he and my mother (who kept on her night table a copy of Pablo Neruda’s Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which she forbade me to read) congratulated me on those preliterate ventures as charming signs of my poetic gifts.
Despite her being so young, my mother did not have—nor did she want—suitors. Shortly after arriving in Cochabamba she began to work as an assistant accountant in the branch office of the Grace Line and her work and her son occupied her entire life. The explanation was that she couldn’t even think of marrying again since she was already married in God’s eyes, the only kind of marriage that counted, something she doubtless believed wholeheartedly, since she is the most Catholic of Catholics in that firmly Catholic family that the Llosas were—and still are, I believe. But, even more deep-seated than the religious reason for her remaining indifferent to those suitors who flocked about her after her divorce, was the fact that, despite what had happened, she was still in love with my father, with a total and unyielding passion, which she hid from all those around her, until, when the family went back to Peru, the Ernesto J. Vargas who had disappeared appeared again, to enter her life and mine once more, like a whirlwind.
“My papa is here in Piura?”
It was like one of those storybook fantasies, so captivating and exciting that they seemed true, but only as long as the time it took to read them. Was this one too going to vanish all of a sudden, like the ones in books the minute I closed them?
“Yes, in the Hotel de Turistas.”
“And when am I going to see him?”
“Right now. But don’t tell Grandpa and Grandma. They don’t know he’s here.”
From a distance, even the bad memories of Cochabamba seem like good ones. There were two bad ones: my tonsillectomy and the Great Dane in the garage of a German, Señor Beckmann, located across the street from our house on Ladislao Cabrera. They tricked me into going to Dr. Sáenz Peña’s office, telling me that it was just another visit like the other ones I made for my frequent fevers and sore throats, and once we got there they sat me down in the lap of a male nurse who imprisoned me in his arms, as Dr. Sáenz Peña opened my mouth and sprayed a little ether in it, with a squirt gun that looked like the one that my uncles took with them to festivities in the streets at Carnival time. Afterward, as I was convalescing under the pampering care of Granny Carmen and Auntie Mamaé, I was allowed to eat lots of ice cream. (Apparently, during that operation under local anesthesia, I screamed and wriggled about, interfering with the removal of my tonsils by the surgeon, who botched the operation and failed to remove bits of them. They grew larger and larger and today they are again the same size as they were then.)
Señor Beckmann’s Great Dane fascinated and terrified me. He kept it tied up and its barking deafened me in my nightmares. At one time Jorge, the youngest of my uncles, kept his car in that garage and I would go there with him, secretly relishing the idea of what might happen if Señor Beckmann’s Great Dane got loose. One night it flung itself on us. We took off at a run. The animal chased us, caught up with us as we reached the street, and tore the seat of my trousers. The bite it gave me was superficial, but the excitement and the dramatic versions of it that I gave my schoolmates lasted for weeks.
And one day it happened that “Uncle José Luis,” the Peruvian ambassador to La Paz and a relative of my grandfather Pedro’s, was elected president of the Republic, in far-off Peru. The news electrified the whole family, in which Uncle José Luis was looked upon as a revered celebrity. He had come to Cochabamba and been at our house a number of times, and I shared the family’s admiration for this important relative who was so well-spoken, wore a bow tie, a hat with a ribbon-bound brim, and walked with his short legs spread wide apart, just like Charlie Chaplin—because on each of those visits to Cochabamba he had left a bit of spending money in my pocket when he said goodbye to me.
Once he had entered office, Uncle José Luis offered to appoint my grandfather to the post either of Peruvian consul in Arica or of prefect of Piura. My grandpa, whose ten-year contract with the Saids had just ended, chose Piura. He departed almost immediately, leaving the rest of the family with the task of clearing out our things from the house. We stayed there until almost the end of 1945, so that my cousins Nancy and Gladys and I could take our year-end exams. I have a vague idea of those last months in Bolivia, of the interminable succession of visitors who came to say goodbye to the Llosas, who in many ways were now a Cochabamba family: Uncle Lucho had married Aunt Olga, who, although Chilean by birth, was Bolivian by family background and heartfelt loyalties, and Uncle Jorge was married to Aunt Gaby, who was Bolivian on both sides of her family. Moreover, our family had grown in Cochabamba. Family legend has it that I tried to see the arrival in this world of the first daughter, Wanda, born to Uncle Lucho and Aunt Olga, by spying on her birth from one of the tall trees in the front patio, from which Uncle Lucho hauled me down by one of my ears. But that must not be true, since I don’t remember it, or if it’s true, I didn’t manage to find out very much, because, as I’ve already said, I left Bolivia convinced that children are ordered from heaven and brought into the world by storks. In any event, I was not able to spy on the appearance on this earth of the second daughter born to Uncle Lucho and Aunt Olga, my cousin Patricia, for she was born in the hospital—the family was resigning itself to modern ways—barely forty days before the return of the tribe to Peru.
I have a very vivid impression of the Cochabamba railway station, the morning we took the train. There were many people who had come to say goodbye to us and some of them were weeping. But I wasn’t, nor were my friends from La Salle who had come to give me one last farewell hug: Romero, Ballivián, Artero, Gumucio, and my closest friend of all, the son of the town photographer, Mario Zapata. We were grownups—nine or ten years old—and grownup men don’t cry. But Señora Carlota and other ladies, and the cook and the housemaids, were crying, and, holding fast to Granny Carmen, the gardener, Saturnino, an old Indian, wearing sandals and a cap with earflaps, was weeping too. I can still see him running alongside the train window and waving goodbye as the train pulled out of the station.
The whole family went back to Peru, but Uncle Jorge and Aunt Gaby, and Uncle Juan and Aunt Laura, went to live in Lima, which was a great disappointment to me, since it meant being separated from Nancy and Gladys, the cousins I had grown up with. They had been like two sisters to me and their absence was hard to bear during the first months in Piura.
The only ones who made that journey from Cochabamba to Piura—a long, unforgettable one in many stages, by train, boat, car, and plane—were my grandmother, Auntie Mamaé, myself, and two members added to the family through the kindness of Granny Carmen: Joaquín and Orlando. Joaquín was a youngster only a little older than I was, whom Grandfather Pedro had met on the Saipina hacienda, with no parents, relatives, or identity papers. Feeling sorry for him, he took him to Cochabamba, where he had shared the life of the house servants. He grew up with us, and my grandmother couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him behind, so he came to form part of the family entourage. Orlando, a boy a little younger, was the son of a cook from Santa Cruz named Clemencia, whom I remember as being tall and good-looking, and with hair she always wore loose. One day she got pregnant and the family was unable to find out who the father was. After giving birth, she disappeared, abandoning the newborn baby boy at our house. Attempts to discover her whereabouts came to nothing. Granny Carmen, who had grown fond of the child, brought him with her to Peru.
Throughout that entire journey, crossing the Altiplano by train, or Lake Titicaca on a little steamer that plied between Huaqui and Puno, my one thought was: “I’m going to see Peru, I’m going to get to know Peru.” In Arequipa—where I had been once before, with my mother and my grandmother, for the Eucharistic Congress of 1940—we again stayed at Uncle Eduardo’s, and his cook Inocencia again made me those reddish, very hot, highly spiced fresh shrimp stews that I dearly loved. But the highlight of the trip was the discovery of the sea, on reaching the top of “Skull Hill” and catching sight of the beaches of Camaná. I was so excited that the driver of the car that was taking us to Lima stopped so that I could dive into the Pacific. (The experience was a disaster because a crab pinched my foot.)
That was my first contact with the landscape of the Peruvian coast, with its endless empty expanses, tinged gray, blue, or red depending on the position of the sun, and its solitary beaches, with the ocher and gray spurs of the cordillera appearing and disappearing amid the sand dunes. A landscape that would always remain with me as my most persistent image of Peru when I went abroad.
We stayed a week or two in Lima, where Uncle Alejandro and Aunt Jesús put us up, and the only thing I remember about that stay is the little tree-lined streets of Miraflores, where they lived, and the roaring ocean waves at La Herradura, where Uncle Pepe and Uncle Hernán took me.
We went by plane north to Talara, for it was summer and my grandfather, thanks to his post as prefect of the departamento, had a little house there, made available to him during the vacation season by the International Petroleum Company. Grandfather met us at the airport of Talara and handed me a postcard showing the façade of the Salesian elementary school in Piura, where they had already registered me for the fifth grade. Of those vacations in Talara I remember friendly Juan Taboada, the chief steward of the club owned by International Petroleum, a head of a labor union and a leader of the APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana: American Popular Revolutionary Alliance) party. He also worked in the vacation house and took a liking to me; he took me to see soccer matches and, when they showed films for underaged children, to performances at an open-air movie theater whose screen was the white wall of the parish church. I spent the entire summer immersed in the International Petroleum swimming pool, reading little stories, climbing the cliffs close by and spying in fascination on the mysterious goings and comings of the crabs on the beach. But, to tell the truth, feeling lonely and sad, far from my cousins Nancy and Gladys and my Cochabamba friends, whom I began to miss a great deal. In Talara, on March 28, 1946, I turned ten.
My first encounter with the Salesian school and my new classmates was not at all pleasant. All of them were a year or two older than I was, but they seemed even bigger because they used dirty words and spoke of nasty things that those of us at La Salle, in Cochabamba, didn’t even know existed. I came back home every afternoon to the big house that was a perquisite of the post of prefect, to complain to Uncle Lucho, scandalized by the obscene words I had heard and furious because my schoolmates made fun of my highland accent and my rabbit’s teeth. But little by little I began making friends—Manolo and Ricardo Artadi, Borrao Garcés, plump little Javier Silva, Chapirito Seminario—thanks to whom I gradually adapted myself to the customs and the people of that city which was to leave such a profound mark on my life.
Shortly after entering the school, the brothers Artadi and Jorge Salmón, one afternoon when we were taking a dip in the already ebbing waters of the Piura—at the time a river in flood—revealed to me the real origin of babies and the meaning of that unutterable dirty word: fuck. It was a traumatic revelation, although I am certain that this time I silently mulled the subject over in my mind and did not go to tell Uncle Lucho about the repugnance I felt on imagining men who turned into animals, with stiff penises, mounted on top of the poor women who had to tolerate being gored. That my mother had been able to endure such an attack so that I could come into the world filled me with disgust, and made me feel that, by finding out about it, I had sullied myself and sullied my relationship with my mother and somehow sullied life itself. To me, the world had suddenly become dirty. The explanations of the priest who was my confessor, the one person whom I dared consult about this deeply distressing subject, must not have brought me any peace of mind, since the matter tormented me day and night and a long time went by before I resigned myself to accepting that that was what life was like, that men and women did together the filthy things summed up in the verb fuck and that there was no other way for the human species to continue to exist and for me to have been born.
The job as prefect of Piura was the last steady one my grandfather Pedro ever had. I believe that during the years that the family lived there, until Odría’s military coup in 1948, which brought down José Luis Bustamante y Rivero, it was quite happy. Grandpa’s salary must have been very modest, but Uncle Lucho, who was working at the Romero Company, and my mother, who had found a job in the Piura branch of the Grace Line, contributed to meeting the household expenses. The prefecture had two patios and several mucky garrets where bats nested. My friends and I explored the garrets on our hands and knees, in hopes of catching one of those winged rats and making it smoke, since we held firmly to the belief that a bat in whose mouth anyone managed to place a cigarette could be killed off with a few puffs, since it was an avid smoker.
The Piura of those days was a very small and happy place, with prosperous and good-humored hacienda owners—the Seminarios, the Checas, the Hilbcks, the Romeros, the Artázars, the Garcías—with whom my grandparents and my aunts and uncles established ties of friendship that were to last throughout their lives. We went on outings to the pretty little beach at Yacila, or to Paita, where bathing in the ocean always involved the risk of being attacked by stingrays (I remember one lunch, at the Artadi house, when my grandfather and Uncle Lucho, who had gone swimming at low tide, got stung by a ray and how a fat black woman cured them, right there on the beach, by heating their feet with her brazier and squeezing lemon juice on their wounds), or to Colán, at that time just a handful of little wooden houses built on pylons amid the vastness of that gorgeous sandy beach full of sparrow hawks and seagulls.
At the Yapatera hacienda, belonging to the Checas, I rode horseback for the first time and heard England spoken of in a rather mythical way, since my friend James MacDonald’s father was British, and both he and his wife—Pepita Checa—revered that country, which they had more or less reproduced in those arid reaches of the highlands of Piura (at their house at the hacienda five o’clock tea was served and the conversation was in English).
That year in Piura that was to end on the Eguiguren embankment with the revelation concerning my father lingers in my memory like a jigsaw puzzle: vivid, isolated, exciting images. The young Civil Guard who kept watch over the back door of the prefecture and made Domitila, one of the housemaids, fall in love with him by serenading her with the song Muñequita linda, in a voice filled with exaggeratedly heartfelt feeling, and the excursions with a bunch of my schoolmates along the dry riverbed and the sand pits of Castilla and Catacaos to watch the prehistoric iguanas or see the donkeys fornicating, hidden among the carob trees. The dips in the swimming pool of the Club Grau, our efforts to sneak into the films for grownups at the Variedades movie theater and the Municipal, and the expeditions, which filled us with excitement and guilt-ridden consciences, to spy from the shadows on that green house, the Casa Verde, built in the open countryside separating Castilla from Catacaos, concerning which myths redolent of sin circulated. The word puta, whore, filled me at one and the same time with horror and fascination. Going to post myself in the vicinity of that building, so as to see the wicked women who lived there and their night visitors, was an irresistible temptation, though I knew full well that I was committing a mortal sin and I would be obliged to go to confession afterward to reveal it.
And the stamps that I began to collect, spurred on by the collection that my Grandpa Pedro had—a collection of rare postage stamps, triangular, multicolored, from exotic countries and in exotic languages, that my great-grandfather Belisario had collected and the two volumes of which were one of the treasures that the Llosa family had lugged all over the world—which he allowed me to look through if I’d been a good boy. The parish priest of the Plaza Merino, Father García, an aged, grouchy man from Spain, was also a stamp collector and I used to come to exchange duplicate stamps with him, in bargaining sessions that sometimes ended with one of those fits of rage of his that my friends and I took great delight in arousing. The other family keepsake was the Opera Book that Granny Carmen had inherited from her parents, a lovely old illustrated volume with red and gold backings, which contained the plots of all the great Italian operas and some of their main arias, and which I spent hours reading and rereading.
The gusty winds of local politics in Piura—where the political forces were more in equilibrium than they were in the rest of the country—touched me only in a confused way. The bad guys were the members of the APRA party, who had betrayed “Uncle José Luis” and were making life impossible for him there in Lima; the leader of APRA, Víctor Raúl de la Torre, had attacked my grandfather in a speech, there in Piura in the Plaza de Armas, the main square, accusing him of being a “prefect who was against the APRA.” (I went in secret to have a look at that APRA demonstration, despite my family’s having forbidden me to do so, and I discovered my schoolmate Javier Silva Ruete, whose father was a dyed-in-the-wool Aprista, waving a placard bigger than he was that read: “Maestro, young people acclaim you.”) But despite all the evils that the APRA embodied, there were, in Piura, a few decent Apristas, friends of my grandparents and my aunts and uncles, men like Jaime’s father, Dr. Máximo Silva, Dr. Guillermo Gulman, and Dr. Iparraguirre, our family dentist, with whose son we organized evening theatrical performances in the entry hall of his house.
The mortal enemies of the Apristas were the Urristas of the Unión Revolucionaria (the Revolutionary Union), headed by the Piuran Luis A. Florez, whose bastion was the district of La Mangachería, celebrated for its chicherías, which sold the cheap fermented chicha that is the drink of the poor, along with its picanterías, where highly spiced dishes were served, and its music. Legend had it that General Sánchez Cerro—the dictator who was the founder of the UR, the Unión Revolucionaria, and who was murdered by an Aprista on April 30, 1933—had been born in La Mangachería and because of that all the people of the district were Urristas, and all the huts made of adobe and wild cane in this district of dirt streets and churres and piajenos (the words for children and donkeys in Piuran slang) displayed on their walls a faded image of Sánchez Cerro. Besides the urristas, there were the Socialists, whose leader, Luciano Castillo, was also a Piuran. The street fights between Apristas, Urristas, and Socialists were frequent, and I was aware of it because in those days—when a street demonstration often turned into fisticuffs—I wasn’t allowed to go out of the house and more police came to guard the prefecture, which at times did not prevent the Aprista hoodlums, once their demonstration was over, to creep as close as they could to throw stones at our windows.
I felt very proud to be the grandson of somebody so important: the prefect. I went with Grandpa to certain public functions—inaugurations, the parade on national holidays, ceremonies at the Grau barracks—and was puffed up with pride when I saw him presiding over the meetings, receiving the salutes of the military, or delivering speeches. With all the lunches and public ceremonies he had to attend, Grandfather Pedro had found an excuse for the avocation he had always had and which he encouraged in his oldest grandson: composing poems. He did so with the greatest of ease, on the slightest pretext, and when it came his turn to speak, at banquets and official functions, he often read verses written for the occasion.
Only thirty or forty years later did I learn about the two things that were to decide my future life and that occurred in that year of 1946. The first of them was a letter that my mother received one day from Orieli, my father’s sister-in-law. She had read in the newspapers that my grandfather was prefect of Piura and presumed that Dorita was with him. What had her life been like? Had she remarried? And how was Ernesto’s young son? She had written the letter following instructions from my father, who, driving in his car to his office, had heard on the radio news of the appointment of Don Pedro J. Llosa Bustamante as prefect of Piura.
The second was a trip of a few weeks that my mama had made to Lima, in August, for a minor operation. She telephoned Orieli, who invited her to come have tea with her. On entering the little house in Magdalena del Mar where Orieli and Uncle César lived, she spied my father, in the living room. She fell into a faint. They had to pick her up off the floor, stretch her out in an armchair, bring her to with smelling salts. Seeing him for a moment was enough for those five and a half hellish months of her marriage and her abandonment and the eleven years of silence on the part of Ernesto J. Vargas to be erased from her memory.
No one in the family learned about that meeting or about the secret reconciliation or the epistolary conspiracy that went on for several months, setting up the ambush that had already begun to take place that afternoon, on the Eguiguren embankment, beneath the bright sun of early summer. Why didn’t my mother tell her parents and her brothers that she had seen my father? Why didn’t she tell them what she was going to do? Was it because she knew that they would have tried to dissuade her and would have predicted what awaited her?
Gamboling about with happiness, believing and not believing what I had just heard, I hardly listened to my mother as we headed for the Hotel de Turistas, while she repeated to me that if we ran into my grandparents, or Auntie Mamaé or Uncle Lucho or Aunt Olga, I was not to say a word about what she had just revealed to me. In my excitement, it never entered my mind to ask her the reason for all the mystery, why it had to be kept a secret that my papa was alive and had come to Piura and that within a few minutes I was going to meet him. What would he be like? What would he be like?
We went inside the Hotel de Turistas and, the moment we crossed the threshold of a little reception room that was on the left, a man dressed in a beige suit and wearing a green tie with little white raised dots got up out of his chair and came toward us. “Is this my son?” I heard him say. He leaned down, put his arms around me, and kissed me. I was disconcerted and didn’t know what to do. My face was frozen in a false smile. My consternation was due to the difference between this flesh-and-blood papa, gray at the temples and with such sparse hair, and the handsome young man in a merchant marine uniform whose photo was standing on my night table. I had something of the feeling that it was a con game: this papa didn’t look like the one I had thought was dead.
But I didn’t have time to think about that, for the man was saying that we should come have a ride around Piura in his car. He spoke to my mama with a familiarity that I didn’t much care for and that made me just a little jealous. We went out onto the main square, full of scorching sunlight and people as it was on Sundays, when there were open-air band concerts, and climbed into a blue Ford, with him and my mother in the front seat and me in the back. As we were leaving, a classmate of mine, Espinoza, slender and swarthy-skinned, came by on the sidewalk and was sauntering over to the car in his easygoing way when the car took off and all the two of us could do was wave goodbye to each other.
We drove around the downtown area for a while and all of a sudden the man who was my papa said that we should go see the countryside, the outskirts of town. Why didn’t we go out to Kilometer 50, where there was that little place where we could have a cold drink? I knew that highway marker very well. It was a long-standing custom for us to escort travelers headed for Lima that far, as we had done during the national holidays, when Uncle Jorge, Aunt Gaby, Aunt Laura, and my cousins Nancy and Gladys (and their newborn baby sister, Lucy) had come and spent a few days’ vacation. (Getting together with my cousins once again had been great fun and we had once more played together a lot, although aware, this time, that I was a little boy and they were little girls, and that it was unthinkable, for example, to do things that we had done together back in Bolivia, like sleeping and taking baths together.) The dunes that surround Piura, with their stretches of quicksand, their clumps of carob trees, and their herds of goats, and the mirages of ponds and springs that can be glimpsed there in the afternoons when the red ball of the sun on the horizon tinges the white and gold sands with a light the color of blood, make up a landscape that always impressed me, and that I have never tired of looking at. When I contemplated it, my imagination would run away with me. It was the ideal setting for epic deeds, by cavalrymen and adventurers, by princes who rescued damsels held prisoner or by brave men who fought like lions and routed evildoers. Every time we went along this highway on an outing or to bid someone goodbye, I allowed my imagination to take wing as that burning-hot, deserted landscape went past through the window alongside me. But I am certain that this time I didn’t see anything of what was going on outside the car, on tenterhooks as I was, with all my senses on the alert for what that man and my mama were saying, sotto voce at times, exchanging glances that infuriated me. What were they hinting at to each other underneath what I could hear? They were talking something over and pretending not to be. But I was well aware of that, because I was far from being a dummy. What was it that I was aware of? What were they hiding from me?
And on arriving at Kilometer 50, after having cold drinks, the man who was my papa said that, now that we had gone that far, why not go on to Chiclayo? Was I acquainted with Chiclayo? No, I wasn’t. Well then, let’s go to Chiclayo, so that Marito can get to know the city of rice with duck.
I grew more and more ill at ease and spent the four or five hours’ journey along that unpaved stretch of road, full of ruts and potholes and long lines of trucks on the steep grade up to Olmos, with my mind filled with suspicions, convinced that the whole scheme had been worked out long before, behind my back, with my mama’s complicity. They were trying to trick me as though I were a little kid, when I realized very clearly that I was being deceived. When it got dark, I stretched out on the back seat, pretending to be asleep. But I was wide awake, my head and my soul focused on what they were whispering.
At one moment during the night, I protested: “Grandma and Grandpa are going to be scared when they see that we haven’t come back, Mama.”
“We’ll call them from Chiclayo,” the man who was my papa volunteered.
We arrived at Chiclayo just at first light and there was nothing to eat at the hotel, but I didn’t care, because I wasn’t hungry. They were, though, and bought crackers, which I didn’t touch. They left me in a room by myself and locked themselves in the one next door. I spent what was left of that night with my eyes open and my heart pounding with fear, trying to hear a voice, a sound from the adjoining room, dying with jealousy, feeling that I was the victim of a monstrous act of betrayal. At times I found myself retching in disgust, overcome by an infinite loathing, imagining that my mama might be in there doing those filthy things with that stranger that men and women did together to have children.
In the morning after breakfast, as soon as we got into the blue Ford, he said what I knew very well he was going to say:
“We’re going to Lima, Mario.”
“And what are my grandparents going to say?” I stammered. “Mamaé, Uncle Lucho.”
“What are they going to say?” he answered. “Shouldn’t a son be with his father? Shouldn’t he live with his father? What do you think? How does that strike you?”
He said this in a quiet voice that I heard him use for the first time, with a cutting tone, emphasizing every syllable, which was soon to instill more fear in me than the sermons on hell given us by Brother Agustín when he was preparing us for first communion, there in Cochabamba.
A FISH IN THE WATER Copyright © 1993 by Mario Vargas Llosa