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A writer sets out to write a biography of a ...
A writer sets out to write a biography of a little known Trotskyist revolutionary as a way to illuminate the present problems in Peru.
"A glittering trompe l'oeil of a novel about the revolutionary temperament—and the nature of fiction." —The New York Times
"Mario Vargas Llosa [is] one of the master storytellers of our time." —Denis Lynn Heyck,Chicago Tribune Book World
"In a way, this novel about an obscure Peruvian revolutionary is a perfect introduction to Vargas Llosa." —Terrence Rafferty, The Nation
THE REAL LIFE OF ALEJANDRO MAYTA (Chapter One)
A morning jog along the Malecón de Barranco, when the dew still hangs heavy in the air and makes the sidewalks slippery and shiny, is just the way to start off the day. Even in summer, the sky is gray, because the sun never shines on this neighborhood before ten. The fog blurs the edges of things—the profiles of sea gulls, the pelican that flies over the broken line of cliffs that run along the sea. The water looks like lead, dark green, smoking, rough, with patches of foam. The waves form parallel rows as they roll in, and sometimes a fishing boat bounces over them. Sometimes a gust of wind parts the clouds, and out in the distance La Punta and the ocher islands of San Lorenzo and El Frontón materialize. It’s beautiful, as long as you concentrate on the landscape and the birds, because everything man-made there is ugly.
The houses are ugly, imitations of imitations. Fear, in the shape of gates, walls, sirens, and spotlights, suffocates them. Television antennas form a ghostly forest. Ugly, too, is the garbage that piles up on the outer edge of the Malecón and spills down its face. Why is it that this part of the city—which has the best view—is a garbage dump? Laziness. Why don’t the property owners tell their servants to stop dumping garbage right under their noses? Because they know that if theirs didn’t, the neighbors’ servants or the workers from the Parque de Barranco would. Even the regular garbagemen do: I see them while I’m running, throwing garbage down there they should be carrying to the dump. That’s why people have resigned themselves to the vultures, roaches, mice, and the stinking garbage dump whose birth and growth I’ve witnessed on my morning runs: a daily vision of stray dogs scratching in the dump under clouds of flies. Over the past few years, I’ve also gotten used to seeing stray kids, stray men, and stray women along with the stray dogs, all painstakingly digging through the trash looking for something to eat, something to sell, something to wear. The spectacle of misery was once limited exclusively to the slums, then it spread downtown, and now it is the common property of the whole city, even the exclusive residential neighborhoods—Miraflores, Barranco, San Isidro. If you live in Lima, you can get used to misery and grime, you can go crazy, or you can blow your brains out.
But I’m sure Mayta never got used to any of it. At the Salesian School, we’d be about to take the bus to Magdalena, where we both lived, when he’d suddenly run to give don Medaro, a ragged blind man with an out-of-tune violin who was always standing at the door of the María Auxiliadora Church, the bread-and-cheese snack the priests gave us at our last recess. And on Monday he would give don Medaro a real, which he must have saved from his own allowance. Once, during one of our Communion classes, he made Father Luis jump by asking him point-blank, “Why are there rich and poor people, Father? Aren’t we all God’s children?” He was always talking about the poor, the blind, the lame, the orphaned, the mad people wandering the streets. The last time I saw him, years after we had left the Salesian School, he brought up his old theme while we were having coffee in the Plaza San Martín: “Have you seen how many beggars there are in Lima? Thousands upon thousands.” Even before his famous hunger strike, lots of us in the class thought he would become a priest. In those days, to care about the poor was something we thought only a future priest would do, not something a revolutionary would do. Back then, we knew a lot about religion, very little about politics, and absolutely nothing about revolution. Mayta was a curly-haired, pudgy kid with flat feet and wide spaces between his teeth. He waddled: his feet looked like clock hands permanently set at ten minutes to two. He always wore short pants, a sweater with green stripes, and a scarf to keep warm. He would even keep that scarf on during class. We would tease him a lot for worrying about the poor, for serving at Mass, for praying and crossing himself so devoutly, for being so bad at soccer, and, most of all, for being named Mayta. All he’d say was, “Go pick your noses.”
Even though his family was of modest means, he wasn’t the poorest student in the school. The Salesian students could pass for public-school kids because our school wasn’t just for the lily-whites, as Santa María or La Inmaculada were, but for poorer kids from the lower middle class-the children of bureaucrats, petty officials, soldiers, unsuccessful professional men, artisans, and even the children of skilled laborers. Pure whites were a minority at our school: there were lots of mulattoes, black-and-Indian combinations, Chinese, Japs, “almost whites,” and tons of Indians. But even though many of us had copper-colored skin, high cheekbones, flat noses, and coarse hair, the only one I can remember with an Indian name was Mayta. Otherwise, he was no more Indian than the rest of us. His pale skin was greenish, his hair curly, and his features typically Peruvian—a mestizo.
He lived around the corner from La Magdalena Church, in a narrow house with its paint peeling off and no back yard. I got to know the place very well because over the course of a month I went there every afternoon. We read The Count of Monte Cristo aloud to each other. I got the book for my birthday, and we both loved it. Mayta’s mother worked as a nurse in the maternity ward and gave people shots at home. We would see her from the bus when she opened the door for Mayta. She was a robust woman with gray hair, and she would always give her son a quick kiss as if he were late. We never saw his father, and I was sure he didn’t exist. Mayta swore he was always on the road doing some job or other: he was an engineer (the most respected profession at the time).
I’ve finished running. Twenty minutes out and back between Parque Salazar and my house seems appropriate. Besides, as I ran I managed to forget I was running, and I dredged up memories of the classes at the Salesian School, Mayta’s superserious face, his waddle, and his high-pitched voice. There he is, I see him, I hear him, and I will go on seeing and hearing him as I catch my breath, leaf through the paper, eat breakfast, shower, and begin work.
His mother died when we were in our third year and Mayta went to live with an aunt who was also his godmother. He always spoke tenderly of her and told us how she gave him Christmas presents, birthday presents, and took him to the movies. She really must have been a good person, because Mayta kept up his relationship with doña Josefa after he was out on his own. Despite his irregular life, he went on visiting her over the years, and it was in her house that he had that encounter with Vallejos. I wonder how doña Josefa Arrisueño is doing now, twenty-five years after that party. I’ve been wondering ever since I called her, overcame her misgivings, and persuaded her to let me visit her. I’m still wondering as I get off the bus that leaves me on the corner of Paseo de la República and Avenida Angamos, where the Surquillo district begins. It’s a neighborhood I know well. When I was a kid, I’d come here with my friends on party nights to drink beer in El Triunfo, or I’d bring shoes to be fixed or clothes to be altered, or I’d come to see cowboy films in the neighborhood’s uncomfortable, smelly theaters—the Primavera, the Leoncio Prado, and the Maximil. It’s one of the few neighborhoods in Lima that has barely changed at all. It’s still full of shoemakers, tailors, alleys, printing shops with compositors setting type by hand, city garages, cavernous stores, cheap bars, storage depots, dumpy shops, gangs of punks on the corners, and kids playing soccer right in the street, with cars, trucks, and ice-cream carts going by. The crowds on the sidewalks, the badly painted one- or two-story houses, the oily puddles, the hungry dogs: they all seem the same as they did then.
But now these streets that once housed only thugs and prostitutes are also marijuana and cocaine centers. The drug traffic is worse here than in La Victoria, Rímac, Porvenir, or the slums. At night, these leprous corners, these sordid tenements, these pathetic saloons all turn into drug drops where marijuana and cocaine are bought and sold. Every day, they find another crude laboratory that processes cocaine. When the party that changed Mayta’s life took place, none of these things existed. There were few people in Lima who knew how to smoke marijuana, and cocaine was something for bohemian types and high-class nightclubs, something only a few night people would use to get rid of their hangovers so they could go on partying. Cocaine was far from being the most prosperous business in the country, and it wasn’t spreading all over the city. But none of this drug business is visible now as I walk along Jirón Dante toward the intersection with Jirón González Prada, just as Mayta must have walked that night to get to his aunt-godmother’s house—that is, if he came by bus or streetcar. In 1958, the streetcars still rattled along where cars from Zanjón now whiz by.
He was tired, foggy, with a slight buzzing in his head and a tremendous desire to soak his feet. There was no better remedy for physical or mental fatigue: that fresh, liquid sensation on his soles, arches, and toes relieved fatigue, dejection, and bad moods, and raised his morale. He had been walking since dawn, trying to sell Workers Voice in the Plaza Unión to the workers who were getting off the buses and streetcars and going into the factories on Avenida Argentina. Later, he had made two trips from the room on Jirón Zepita to Plaza Buenos Aires, in Cocharcas, first carrying some stencils and later an article by Daniel Guérin, translated from a French magazine, about colonialism in Indochina.
He had been on his feet for hours in the tiny print shop in Cocharcas, which, despite everything, still went on publishing the paper (with a bogus masthead, and payment in advance). He helped the compositor set the type and he corrected the proofs. Later, taking only one bus instead of the two that were really needed, he went to Rímac, where, every Wednesday in a tiny room on Avenida Francisco Pizarro, he would lead a study group of students from the University of San Marcos and the Engineering School. Afterward, without taking a break, with his stomach growling because all day he’d eaten only a dish of rice and greens in the university restaurant on Jirón Moquegua (he got in with an ID card from God knows when, which he updated from time to time), he attended the meeting of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party (Trotskyist), in the garage over on Jirón Zorritas, which lasted two long, smoky, polemical hours.
Who would have wanted to go to a party after a day like that? Plus, he always hated parties. His knees were shaking, and he felt as though he were walking on hot coals. But how could he not go? Except when he was away or in jail, he had never missed one of his aunt’s parties. And in the future, tired or not, with his feet a wreck or not, he would not miss one, even if it meant just dropping in for a minute, just long enough to tell his aunt he loved her. The house was filled with noise. The door opened straightaway: “Hello, godson.”
“Hello, godmother,” Mayta said. “Happy birthday.”
“Mrs. Josefa Arrisueño?”
“Yes. Come in, come in.”
She’s well preserved. She has to be over seventy, but she sure doesn’t show it: no wrinkles, and very little gray in her dark hair. She’s plump, but she has a nice figure. Wide hips. She’s wearing a lilac-colored dress with a red sash. The room is big, dark, with unmatched chairs, a big mirror, a sewing machine, a television set, a table, a Lord of Miracles, a San Martín de Porres, photos on the wall, and a vase filled with wax roses. Did the party where Mayta met Vallejos take place here?
“Right here.” Mrs. Arrisueño nods, looking around the room. She points to a rocker loaded with magazines. “I can just see them there, yakking away.”
There weren’t many people, but lots of smoke, the clinking of glasses, and the waltz “Idolo” at full blast. One couple was dancing and several were keeping time to the music, clapping hands or humming. Mayta, as always, felt out of place and sensed he might make a fool of himself at any moment. He would never be at ease in company. The table and chairs had been pushed into a corner so there would be space for dancing. Someone had a guitar under his arm. The people one might expect to see were there, and some others as well: her cousins, lovers, neighbors, relatives, and friends one would remember from other birthdays. But the skinny chatterbox—this was the first time he’d ever been seen there.
“He wasn’t a friend of the family’s,” says Mrs. Arrisueño, “but a lover or relative or something of a friend of Zoilita’s, my eldest daughter. She brought him, and no one knew anything about him.”
But they soon found out he was a nice guy, a good dancer, a good drinker, a smooth talker, and knew lots of jokes. Mayta said hello to his cousins, took a ham sandwich in one hand and a glass of beer in the other, and looked for a chair where he could collapse. The only free one was next to the skinny guy, who was standing there gesturing, holding forth to a chorus of three: the cousins Zoilita and Alicia and an old man in slippers. Trying to pass unnoticed, Mayta sat down next to them so he could let a respectable amount of time pass and then go home to sleep.
“He’d never stay long,” says Mrs. Arrisueño, rummaging through her pockets for a handkerchief. “He didn’t like parties. He wasn’t like other people. Never, not even when he was a kid. Always serious, always a little gentleman. His mother would say, ‘He was born old.’ She was my sister, see? Mayta’s birth was the tragedy of her life, because the moment she figured out she was pregnant, her boyfriend disappeared. Never saw him again. Do you think Mayta was that way because he had no father? He only came to my birthday parties to be polite. I brought him here when my sister died. He was the boy God never gave me. I only had girls. Zoilita and Alicia. They’re both in Venezuela, married, with children. Doing fine. I might have been able to remarry, but my daughters were so against it that I stayed a widow. A big mistake, let me tell you. Because now look at my life: I’m all alone, like a mushroom, a target for the thieves who’ll break in here any time now. My daughters send me a little something every month. If it weren’t for them, I’d be in a bad way, see?”
As she speaks, she looks me over, just barely dissimulating her curiosity. Her voice cracks once in a while, just like Mayta’s; her hands are big; and even though she smiles from time to time, her eyes are sad and watery. She complains about the rising cost of living, about the muggings—“There’s not a single woman in this neighborhood who hasn’t been attacked at least once”—about the robbery at the branch of the Banco de Crédito where so many poor people got shot, and about not being able to go to Venezuela too, where the streets are paved with gold.
“At the Salesian, we all thought Mayta would become a priest,” I say to her.
“That’s what my sister thought, too.” She nods, blowing her nose. “Me, too. He would make the sign of the cross whenever he passed a church; he went to Communion every Sunday. A little saint. Who’d ever have said it—I mean, that he would turn out to be a communist. In those days, it didn’t seem possible that a kid as religious as that would become a communist. But that’s all changed; now there are lots of communist priests, right? I can remember perfectly the day he walked through that door.”
He came up to her with his schoolbooks under his arm, and then, with his fist clenched as if he were going to punch himself, he recited in one breath what he had come to announce to her, the decision that had kept him awake all night: “Godmother, we eat a lot, we don’t think about the poor. Do you know what they eat? I’m telling you that, from now on, I’m only going to have some soup at lunch and some bread at night. Just like don Medaro, the blind man.”
“That little trick landed him in the hospital,” doña Josefa remembers.
The little trick went on for several months and he got thinner and thinner, without any of us in the class being able to figure out why, until Father Giovanni, full of admiration, told us when they took Mayta to Loayza Hospital. “All this time he’s been fasting so he could be one with the poor, out of human and Christian solidarity,” he said softly, shocked at what Mayta’s godmother had come to report to the school authorities. The news left us confused, so much so that we didn’t dare make fun of him when he came back, cured by injections and tonics. “This boy will cause a stir,” Father Giovanni would say. He sure did, but not in the way you thought, Father.
“It was bad luck that he got it in his head to come that night.” Mrs. Arrisueño sighs. “If he hadn’t come, he wouldn’t have met Vallejos and nothing of what happened would have happened. Because Vallejos was the instigator, everybody knows it. Mayta would come, give me a hug, and leave after a little while. But that night he was the very last to go, yakking away with Vallejos over in that corner. It must be twenty-five years ago and I remember as if it were yesterday. Revolution this, revolution that. The whole blessed night.”
Revolution? Mayta turned to look at him. Had the young fellow spoken, or was it the old man in slippers?
“Yessir, tomorrow,” repeated the skinny guy, raising the glass he held in his right hand. “The socialist revolution could begin tomorrow if we wanted. I’m telling you, mister.”
Mayta yawned again and then stretched, his body tickling all over. The skinny guy went on talking about the socialist revolution with the same sauciness with which he’d told traveling-salesman jokes a moment before, the same tone he’d used to describe the last bout of “our national honor, Frontado.” Despite his weariness, Mayta began to listen. What was going on in Cuba was nothing compared to what could happen in Peru if we wanted it to. The day the Andes start shaking, the whole country will tremble. Could he be a member of APRA? A party man? A real communist at Godmother’s get-together? Impossible. Mayta never remembered anyone talking politics in this house.
“And just what is going on in Cuba?” asked cousin Zoilita.
“Well, Fidel Castro swore he wouldn’t cut his beard off until he brought Batista down.” The skinny guy laughed. “Haven’t you seen what those guys from the 26 of July Movement are doing everywhere? They put a flag on the Statue of Liberty in New York. Batista’s sinking fast, he’s done for.”
“Who is Batista?” asked cousin Alicia.
“A despot,” Skinny adamantly explained. “The dictator of Cuba. What’s going on there is nothing compared to what can happen here. Thanks to our geography, I mean. A real gift from God to the revolution. When the Indians rise up, Peru will be a volcano.”
“Okay, but now go and dance,” said cousin Zoilita. “People came here to dance. I’m going to put something fast on.”
“Revolutions are serious business; I, for one, don’t support them,” Mayta heard the old man in slippers say in a gravelly voice. “When APRA rose up in Trujillo in 1930, there was a real bloodbath. The APRA people got into the barracks and liquidated I don’t know how many officers. Sánchez Cerro sent planes and tanks and crushed them, and they shot a thousand APRAs in the Chan Chan ruins.”
“Were you there?” asked Skinny excitedly. Mayta thought: Revolutions and soccer matches are all the same for this guy.
“I was in Huánuco, in my barbershop,” said the old man in slippers. “Rumors about the killing reached all the way there. The few APRAs in Huánuco were picked up and jailed. The prefect, a little army man with a bad temper who liked women a lot, did it. Colonel Badulaque.”
After a bit, cousin Alicia also went off to dance and Skinny seemed depressed that his whole audience was the old man. Then he saw Mayta and raised his glass to him: “Hello there, buddy.”
“How do you do,” said Mayta, raising his glass in turn.
“My name is Vallejos,” Skinny said, shaking hands.
“From talking so much, I lost my partner.” Vallejos laughed, pointing to a girl with bangs. She was dancing with Pepote (who was trying his best to get cheek-to-cheek while “Contigo a la distancia” was on)—a distant cousin of Alicia and Zoilita’s. “If he squeezes her any tighter, Alci’s gonna haul off and sock him.”
He looked eighteen or nineteen because of his elegant figure, his smooth face, and his practically crew-cut hair, but, thought Mayta, he can’t be so young. His gestures, his tone of voice, and his self-assurance would suggest someone who’s been around. He had big white teeth that made his dark face cheerful. He was one of the few who wore a jacket and tie, and also a handkerchief in his jacket pocket. He was always smiling, and there was something direct and effusive about him. He took out a pack of Incas and offered Mayta one. Then he lit it.
“If the APRA revolution of 1930 had been a success, things would sure be different,” he said vehemently, exhaling smoke from his nose and mouth. “There wouldn’t be so much injustice and inequality. The heads that have to roll would already be gone, and Peru would be a different place. Don’t think I’m in APRA, but let’s give Caesar his due. I’m a socialist, buddy, no matter what they say about soldiers and socialism not mixing.”
“A soldier?” Mayta winced.
“Second lieutenant.” Vallejos nodded. “I graduated last year in Chorrillos.”
Jesus. Now he understood Vallejos’s haircut and his impulsive manner. Was this what they called a natural leader? Incredible that an army man would talk like that.
“It was a historic party,” Mrs. Josefa affirms. “Because Mayta and Vallejos met, and so did my nephew Pepote and Alci. He fell in love with her and stopped being the lazy playboy he’d been. He got a job, married Alci, and they went to Venezuela, too—who wouldn’t? But it seems they’ve parted now. I hope it’s only gossip. Ah, you recognize him, right? Yes, it’s Mayta. Years and years ago.”
In the picture, faded and yellowed around the edges, he looks forty or over. It’s a snapshot taken by some public photographer in an unrecognizable plaza in bad light. He’s standing, with a shawl over his shoulders and an expression of discomfort, as if the glare of the sun made his eyes itch or as if posing in public in front of passersby embarrassed him. In his right hand he has a satchel or a package or a briefcase, and though the picture is blurred, you can see how badly dressed he is: baggy pants, a jacket that hangs, his shirt collar too wide, and a tie with a badly tied, ridiculous little knot. Revolutionaries wore ties in those days. He’s got messy long hair; his face is rather different from the way I remember it, fuller, frowning, a taut seriousness. That’s what you see in the photo: a tired man. Tired from not having slept enough, from having walked a lot, or, maybe, tired from something that’s much older, the fatigue of a life that has reached a boundary, not old age yet, but something that might well be old age if behind it there is, as in Mayta’s case, nothing but lost illusions, frustrations, mistakes, enemies, political deceptions, want, bad food, jail, police stations, an underground life, failures of all kinds and nothing even remotely resembling a victory. And nevertheless, in that exhausted and tense countenance, there glows as well, somehow, that secret, intact integrity in the face of setbacks which it always thrilled me to find in him over the years, that juvenile purity, capable of reacting with the same indignation to any injustice, in Peru or at the ends of the earth, and that honest belief that the most urgent task, the one that could not be shirked, was to change the world. An extraordinary snapshot, indeed, that caught Mayta full-length, the Mayta that Vallejos met that night.
“I asked him to have it taken,” says doña Josefa, putting it back on the mantel. “So I could have a remembrance of him. See these photos? They’re all relatives, some really distant ones. Most are dead now. Were you two very friendly?”
“We didn’t see each other for many years,” I tell her. “Later we ran into each other a few times, but only rarely.”
Doña Josefa Arrisueño looks at me, and I know what she’s thinking. I would like to ease her doubts, to calm her, but it’s impossible because at this point I know as little about my plans for Mayta as she herself does.
“What will you write about him?” she whispers, running her tongue over her thick lips. “His life?”
“No, not his life,” I answer, trying to say something that won’t confuse her even more. “Something inspired by his life. Not a biography, but a novel. A very free history of the period, Mayta’s world, the things that happened in those years.”
“Why him?” she asks, working herself up. “There are others who are more famous. The poet Javier Heraud, for example. Or the people in the Radical Left Movement, de la Puente, Lobatón, the ones people always talk about. Why Mayta? No one remembers him.”
She’s right. Why? Because his case was the first in a series that would typify the period? Because he was the most absurd? Because he was the most tragic? Because his person and his story hold something ineffably moving, something that, over and beyond its political and moral implications, is like an X-ray of Peruvian misfortune?
“In other words, you don’t believe in the revolution.” Vallejos pretended to be shocked. “In other words, you are one of those who believe that Peru will always be the same until the end of the world.”
Mayta smiled and shook his head. “Peru will change. The revolution will come,” he explained, with infinite patience. “But it will come in its own time. It’s not as easy as you say.”
“In fact, it is easy—I say so because I know so.” Vallejos’s face glistened with sweat, and his eyes were as fiery as his words. “It’s easy if you know the topography of the mountains, if you know how to fire a Mauser, and if the Indians rise up.”
“If the Indians rise up.” Mayta sighed. “As easy as winning the lottery.”
He’d never dreamed that his godmother’s birthday party could be such fun. He had thought at the outset: This guy’s a provocateur, an informer. He knows who I am and wants to loosen my tongue. But after talking with him awhile, he was sure he wasn’t any of those things; he was a stray angel with wings who had no idea where he’d landed. Yet he felt no desire to tease him. He liked to listen to him talk about the revolution as if it were a kind of game or a set in a match, something you could bring off with a little effort and ingenuity. There was so much confidence and innocence in the boy that it made him want to go on listening to his crazy ideas all night. He wasn’t tired anymore and he was on his third glass of beer. Pepote kept dancing with Alci—the chotis “Madrid,” by Agustín Lara, sung by all the guests—but the lieutenant didn’t seem to care a bit. He had dragged a chair next to Mayta’s, and straddling it, he explained that fifty determined, well-armed men using Cáceres’s hit-and-run tactics could light the fuse of the Andes powder keg. He’s so young he could be my son, Mayta thought. And so cute he must have all the girls he wants.
“And what do you do for a living?” Vallejos asked.
It was a question that always made him uncomfortable, although he was ready for it. His answer—half truth, half lie—sounded falser to him than it had at other times. “I’m a journalist,” he said, wondering how Vallejos would react if he heard him say, “I do what you talk about. Revolution. What do you think of that?”
“For which paper?”
“For France-Presse. I do translations.”
“So you speak frog.” Vallejos made a face. “Where’d you learn it?”
“By himself, with a dictionary, and a grammar someone won in a raffle,” doña Josefa tells me. “You may not believe me, but I saw him with my own eyes. He would lock himself up in his room and repeat words for hours and hours. The parish priest in Surquillo would lend him magazines. He would say to me, ‘I already understand a little, godmother. I’m picking it up.’ Finally, he did understand it, because he would spend days reading books in French, believe me.”
“Of course I believe you,” I tell her. “I’m not surprised he learned by himself. When he got some idea in his head, he saw it through. I’ve known few people as tenacious as Mayta.”
“He could have been a lawyer, a professional man,” laments doña Josefa. “Did you know he got into San Marcos on the first try? And high up on the list. He was still a boy, sixteen or seventeen at the most. He could have had a degree when he was twenty-four or twenty-five. What a waste, my God! And for what? For politics, that’s what. Pure waste!”
“He didn’t stay at the university long, isn’t that right?”
“Within a few months, or a year at the most, he was thrown in jail,” doña Josefa says. “That’s when the calamities began. He didn’t come back here, he lived by himself. From then on, it went from bad to worse. Where’s your godson? Hiding out. Where’s Mayta these days? In jail. Have they let him out? Yes, but they’re looking for him again. If I were to tell you the number of times the police came here to turn the place upside down, to treat me disrespectfully, to scare me out of my wits, you’d think I was exaggerating. If I tell you fifty times, I’m shortening the list. Instead of winning cases with the mind God gave him. Is that any kind of life?”
“Yes, it is,” I gently contradict her. “A hard life, if you like, but also intense and coherent. Preferable to many others, ma’am. I can’t imagine Mayta growing old in some office, doing the same thing day after day.”
“Well, you may be right,” doña Josefa agrees—more from good manners than out of conviction. “From the time he was a child, you could see he wouldn’t have a life like everyone else’s. Has anyone ever seen a snotnose kid stop eating one day because there are people in the world going hungry? I didn’t believe it, right? He had his soup and left the rest. And at night he had his bread. Zoilita, Alicia, and I would tease him: ‘You gorge yourself when no one can see you, you trickster.’ But it turned out that wasn’t so. That’s all he ate. And if he was like that as a kid, why wouldn’t he be the way he was when he grew up?”
“Did you see And God Created Woman, with Brigitte Bardot?” asked Vallejos, changing the subject. “I saw it yesterday. Long legs, so long they come right out of the screen. I’d like to go to Paris someday and see Brigitte Bardot in the flesh.”
“Shut up and dance.” Alci had just gotten loose from Pepote and was tugging Vallejos out of his chair. “I’m not going to spend the whole night dancing with this lug. It’s like dancing with a leech. Come on, a mambo.”
“A mambo!” the lieutenant intoned. “Terrific! A mambo!”
A minute later, he was spinning like a top. He was a good dancer: he moved his hands, he knew trick steps, he sang. He inspired the others, who began to form wheels, conga lines, change partners. Soon the room was a whirl that left you dizzy. Mayta got up and pushed his chair against the wall to give the dancers more space. Would he ever dance like Vallejos? Never. Compared with Mayta, even Pepote was an ace. Smiling, Mayta remembered how he always felt like a Neanderthal whenever he had to dance with Adelaida, even the easiest dances. It wasn’t his body that was awkward; it was that timidity, modesty, visceral inhibition that came from being so close to a woman that turned him into a bear. That’s why he had decided not to dance unless forced into it, as when cousin Alicia or cousin Zoila made him, which could happen any moment. Did Leon Davidovitch know how to dance? Sure he did. Didn’t Natalia Sedova say that, revolution aside, he was the most normal of men? An affectionate father, a loving husband, a good gardener; he loved to feed rabbits. The most normal thing in normal men is that they like to dance. To them, dancing did not seem, as it did to him, something ridiculous, a frivolity, a waste of time, a forgetting of important things. You are not a normal man, remember that, he thought. When the mambo was over, there was applause. They had opened the windows facing the street to let fresh air into the room, and Mayta could see the couples with their faces pressed against the window frames, the lieutenant with his masculine eyes bulging, gazing hungrily at the women. His godmother made an announcement: there was chicken soup, and she needed help to serve it. Alci ran to the kitchen. Vallejos came and sat down next to Mayta again, sweating. He offered him a cigarette.
“In reality, I am here and not here.” He winked jokingly. “Because I should be in Jauja. I live there. I’m in charge of the jail. I shouldn’t leave, but I get out whenever I can. Ever been to Jauja?”
“I’ve been to other places in the mountains,” said Mayta, “but never to Jauja.”
“The first capital of Peru!” Vallejos played the fool. “Jauja! Jauja! What a shame you’ve never been there. All Peruvians should visit Jauja!”
Mayta then heard him launch, with no preamble, into a discourse about Indian life. The real Peru was in the mountains and not along the coast, among the Indians and condors and the peaks of the Andes, not here in Lima, a foreign, lazy, anti-Peruvian city, because from the time the Spaniards had founded it, it had looked toward Europe and the United States and turned its back on Peru. These were things Mayta had heard and read often, but they sounded different coming from the lieutenant’s mouth. The novelty was in the clean and smiling way he said them, blowing out gray smoke rings at the same time. There was something spontaneous and lively in his manner of speaking that made whatever he was saying sound even better. Why did this boy arouse in him that nostalgia, that sensation of something altogether extinct. Because he’s sound, thought Mayta. He’s not perverted. Politics hasn’t killed his joy in living. He’s probably never taken part in politics of any kind. That’s why he’s irresponsible, that’s why he says whatever comes into his head. There seemed to be no guile, no hidden intentions, no prefabricated rhetoric in the lieutenant. He was still in that adolescence in which politics consists exclusively of feelings, moral indignation, rebellion, idealism, dreams, generosity, disinterestedness, mysticism. Yes, those things do still exist, Mayta. There they were, incarnate—who the fuck would have thought it—in a little army officer. Listen to what he says. The injustice of it all was monstrous, any millionaire had more money than a million poor people, the dogs of the rich ate better than the Indians in the mountains, that iniquity had to be stopped, the people had to be mobilized, the haciendas had to be taken over, the barracks seized, the troops, who came from the people, made to revolt, unleash strikes, remake society from top to bottom, do justice. What envy. There he was, young, slim, handsome, smiling, talkative, with his invisible wings, believing that the revolution was a question of honesty, bravery, disinterestedness, daring. He didn’t suspect and would perhaps never know that the revolution was a long act of patience, an infinite routine, a terribly sordid thing, a thousand and one wants, a thousand and one vile deeds, a thousand and one … But here comes the chicken soup, and Mayta’s mouth watered when he smelled the aroma of the steaming bowl Alci put into his hands.
“How much work, and also what an expense every birthday,” doña Josefa remembers. “I was in debt for a long time after. People broke glasses, vases. The house the next morning looked like a battleground or as if there had been an earthquake. But I took the trouble every year because it was a tradition in the neighborhood. Many relatives and friends saw each other only that one day a year: I did it for them as well, so as not to deprive them. Here, in Surquillo, my birthday parties were like national holidays or Christmas. Everything’s changed, now there’s no room in life for parties. The last time was the year that Alicita and her husband went to Venezuela. Now on my birthday I watch TV and then go to bed.”
She looks sadly around the room devoid of people, as if putting back into those chairs, corners, and windows all the relatives and friends who would come to sing “Happy Birthday” to her, to applaud her good cooking, and she sighs. Now she looks seventy years old. Did she know if any relative had Mayta’s notebooks and his articles? Her distrust rekindles.
“What relatives?” she murmurs, making a face. “The only relative Mayta ever had was me, and he never even brought a box of matches here, because whenever the police were looking for him this was the first place they came to. Besides, I never knew he was a writer or anything like that.”
Yes, he wrote, and once in a while I read the articles that would come out in those little newspapers—handbills, really—in which he collaborated, and which he printed himself, and which are not to be found anywhere, not even in the National Library, or in any private library. But it’s natural that doña Josefa never knew about Workers Voice, or any of the other little papers. Neither did the vast majority of the people in this country, especially those for whom they were written and printed. By the same token, doña Josefa was right: he wasn’t a writer, or anything like that. Even though it would have pained him, he was a real intellectual. I still remember the hard tone in which he referred to intellectuals, in that last conversation we had in Plaza San Martín. They weren’t good for much, according to him.
“At least the ones from this country.” He was specific. “They get too sensualized too soon, they have no solid convictions. Their morality is worth approximately the price of a plane ticket to a youth congress, a peace congress, etc. That’s why the ones who don’t sell themselves for a Yankee scholarship, or to the Congress for the Freedom of Culture, let themselves be bribed by Stalinism and become party members.”
He pointed out that Vallejos, surprised at what he had said and at the tone in which he had said it, looked him up and down, with his spoon suspended midway between his mouth and the bowl. He had upset him and, in a way, put him on his guard. A bad job, Mayta, a very bad job. Why did he let his temper and impatience get the better of him when the subject was intellectuals? What was Leon Davidovich, after all? He was an intellectual, and a genial one, and Vladimir Ilyich as well. But both of them had been, above and beyond everything else, revolutionaries. Didn’t you blow off steam against the intellectuals out of spite, because in Peru they were all reactionaries or Stalinists, and not a single one a Trotskyist?
“All I mean is, you can’t count much on intellectuals for the revolution.” Mayta tried to smooth things over, raising his voice so he could be heard over the huaracha “La Negra Tomasa.” “Not at first, in any case. First come the workers, then the peasants. The intellectuals bring up the rear.”
“What about Fidel Castro and the 26 of July people in the mountains of Cuba, aren’t they intellectuals?” countered Vallejos.
“Maybe they are,” admitted Mayta. “But that revolution is still green. And it isn’t a socialist revolution but a petit-bourgeois revolution. Two very different things.”
The lieutenant stared at him, intrigued. “At least you think about those things,” he said, recovering his aplomb and his smile between spoonfuls of soup. “At least you don’t get bored talking about the revolution.”
“No, it doesn’t bore me.” Mayta smiled at him. “On the contrary.”
My fellow student Mayta—he never became “sensualized.” Of all the impressions I have of him from those fleeting encounters we had over the course of the years, the strongest is of the frugality that emanated from his person, from his appearance, from his gestures. Even in his way of sitting in a café, of looking over the menu, of telling the waiter his choice, even in his way of accepting a cigarette, there was something ascetic. That was what gave authority, a respectable aura, to his political theories, no matter how wild they may have seemed to me, no matter how lacking in disciples he was. The last time I saw him, weeks before the party where he met Vallejos, he was over forty and had spent at least twenty years in the struggle. No matter how much anyone might dig into his life, not even his worst enemies could accuse him of profiting, even once, from politics. On the contrary, the most consistent aspect of his career was always to have taken, with a kind of infallible intuition, all the necessary steps so that things would turn out for the worst, so that he would be entangled in problems and complications. “What he is is an amateur suicide,” a friend we had in common once said to me. “An amateur, not a real suicide,” he repeated. “Someone who likes to kill himself bit by bit.” The idea set off sparks in my head, because it was so unexpected, so picturesque, like that phrase I’m sure I heard him use that time, in his diatribe against intellectuals.
“What are you laughing at?”
“At the phrase ‘to get sensualized.’ Where did you get it?”
“I’ve probably just invented it.” Mayta smiled. “Okay. There are probably better ones. To go soft, to slip. But you understand what I mean. Small concessions that mine your morals. A little trip, a scholarship, anything that panders to your vanity. Imperialism is adept at those traps. And Stalinism, too. Workers or peasants fall easily. Intellectuals grab on to the bottle as soon as they have it in front of their mouths. Later they invent theories to justify their betrayal.”
I told him he was more or less quoting Arthur Koestler, who had said those “skillful imbeciles” were capable of preaching neutrality in the face of bubonic plague because they had acquired the diabolical art of being able to prove everything they believed and of believing everything they could prove. I was sure he would reply that quoting a known agent of the CIA like Koestler was the absolute limit, but, to my surprise, I heard him say: “Koestler? Oh, right. No one has described the psychological terrorism of Stalinism better.”
“Watch it, now. That’s the road that leads to Washington and free enterprise,” I said, to provoke him.
“You’re wrong,” he said. “That’s the road to permanent revolution and Leon Davidovich. Trotsky, to his friends.”
“And who is Trotsky?” said Vallejos.
“A revolutionary,” Mayta clarified. “He’s dead. A great thinker.”
“From Peru?” insinuated the lieutenant timidly.
“Russian,” said Mayta. “He died in Mexico.”
“Enough politics, or I’ll throw you both out,” Zoilita insisted. “Come on, cousin, you haven’t danced even once. Come on, let’s dance this waltz.”
“Dance, dance,” Alci begged for help, from Pepote’s arms.
“With whom?” said Vallejos. “I’ve lost my partner.”
“With me,” said Alicia, dragging him to the floor.
Mayta found himself in the middle of the floor, trying to follow the beat of “Lucy Smith,” the lyrics of which Zoilita hummed in a cute way. He tried to sing too, to smile, while he felt his cramped muscles and an enormous shame at having the lieutenant see how poorly he danced. The room can’t have changed much since then; except for wear and tear, this must be the same furniture as that night. It isn’t difficult to imagine the room overflowing with people, smoke, the smell of beer, the sweat on people’s faces, the music blaring, and, even, to discover them, in that corner next to the vase with wax roses, sitting one out, immersed in chatter about the only subject that mattered to Mayta—the revolution—a chat that lasted until dawn. The external scene—faces, gestures, clothing, objects—is there, quite visible. But not what happened within Mayta and the young lieutenant over the course of those hours. Did a current of sympathy flow from the first moment between the two, an affinity, the reciprocal intuition of a common denominator? There are friendships at first sight, more often perhaps than loves. Or was the relation between them from the outset exclusively political, an alliance of two men pledged to a common cause? In any case, they met here, and here began for both of them—although in the disorder of the party neither could suspect it—the most important event of their lives.
“If you do write something, don’t mention me at all,” doña Josefa Arrisueño begs me. “Or at least change my name and, above all, the address of the house. Many years have gone by, but in this country you never know. See you soon.”
“I hope we do see each other soon,” said Vallejos. “Let’s continue our talk another time. I have to thank you because, you know, I’ve learned a great deal.”
“See you, ma’am.” We shake hands, and I thank her for her patience.
I go back to Barranco on foot. As I cross Miraflores, the party fades little by little and I find myself evoking an image of that hunger strike that Mayta went on when he was fourteen or fifteen years old, so he could be on a par with the poor. Out of all that talk with his aunt-godmother, the image that remains clearest in my mind is that midday bowl of soup and that slice of bread at night: all he ate for three months.
“See you soon.” Mayta nodded. “Yes, of course, we’ll go on talking.”
THE REAL LIFE OF ALEJANDRO MAYTA Copyright © 1984 by Mario Vargas Llosa
Posted June 2, 2013
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