Touchstones Essays on Literature, Art, and Politics
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2011 Mario Vargas Llosa
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780374278373
TOUCHSTONES (Chapter One)Seed of Dreams
The house in Ladislao Cabrera Street in Cochabamba, where I spent my earliest years, had three patios. It was single-storey and very big, at least in my recollection of that period, which my memory preserves as an innocent and happy time. What for many people is a stereotype – the paradise of childhood – was for me a reality, although doubtless since that time this reality has been embellished by distance and nostalgia.
In this Eden, the main focus is the house with the solid front door that opened onto a hallway with a concave roof which sent back an echo of people’s voices. This led to the first, square patio, with its tall trees that were good for rerunning Tarzan movies, around which the bedrooms were laid out. The last year that we lived there, one of those rooms housed the Peruvian Consulate, which, for economic reasons, my grandfather moved from a building close to the Plaza de Armas to the family home. At the end of that patio there was a pillared terrace, protected from the sun by an awning, where my grandfather would nod off in a rocking chair. To hear him snoring, his mouth an open invitation to flies, made my cousins and me fall about laughing. From there, one entered the dining room that was always busy and noisy on a Sunday when the vast family tribe all appeared to savour the spicy dishes and that dessert prepared by grandmother Carmen and Mamaé that was everyone’s favourite: pumpkin fritters.
Then there was a small corridor, with the bathroom on the right, that linked the first to the second patio, where the kitchen, a pantry and the servants’ rooms were located. At the far end were wooden railings with a squeaky little door through which one could glimpse the third patio, which must have once been a garden with vegetables and fruit. But then it was just open ground: it was used as a corral and sometimes as a zoo, because on one occasion it housed a goat and at another time a monkey, both species brought by my grandfather from the country estate in Saipina, around Santa Cruz, where he had been sent from Arequipa by the Saíd family to start up cotton cultivation. And there was also a talkative parrot which imitated me and screamed ‘granmaaaaaa’ all day long. The laundry room was there, and lines with sheets and tablecloths and clothes billowing in the breeze that the washerwoman came to wash and iron every week. The gardener, Saturnino, was a very old Indian who carried me on his shoulders; the day the Llosa family returned to Peru, he came to the train station to see us off. I remember him, holding on to my grandmother Carmen, sobbing.
There were many people living there: grandfather Pedro and grandmother Carmen, Mamaé, my mother and I, uncle Juan and aunt Laura and their two daughters, my cousins Nancy and Gladys, uncle Lucho and aunt Olga. Their first daughter, Wanda, was born in the house one memorable afternoon when, caught up in the general excitement, I climbed a tree in the first patio to spy on what was happening. I could not have understood much because it was only later, in Piura and in 1946, that I learned how babies came into the world and how their fathers made them. Uncle Jorge also lived there until he married aunt Gaby, as did uncle Pedro, who turned up in Cochabamba to spend the holidays, because he was studying medicine in Chile. There were at least three employees in the second patio, together with two intermediate figures of uncertain status: Joaquín, an orphan boy that grandpa had found in Saipina, and Orlando, a boy who had been abandoned by a cook in the house who had disappeared without trace. Grandma Carmen ended up grafting them onto the family.
My cousin Nancy was a year younger than me, and cousin Gladys was two years younger. They were magnificent playmates, involved in all the adventures that I invented, which were usually inspired by the films that we saw in the Roxy Cinema and the Acha Theatre on Saturday matinées or Sunday morning screenings. The serials were wonderful – three chapters per performance, with the serials lasting for several weeks – but the film that touched us, and made us cry, laugh and, above all, dream, and that we went back to see several times (it convinced me that I should become a bullfighter), was Blood and Sand with Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Rita Hayworth.
There were infinite sources of fun in Cochabamba. There were outings to Cala-Cala and to Tupuraya where aunt Gaby’s family had a country house, and open-air concerts in the Plaza on Sundays at midday, after eleven o’clock mass, and the reddish meat pasties served up in a restaurant in the arcades. There were circuses that came around the time of the independence anniversary celebrations, the tightrope walkers, trapeze artists and animal tamers who made our pulses race and the wonderful clowns who made us roar with laughter. (My first platonic love was a trapeze artist in a pink leotard.) There were the exciting and very wet Carnivals – my cousins and I threw balloons full of water from the rooftops at the passers-by below – in which during the day we saw our aunts and uncles and their friends involved in intense water fights with shells, balloons, big buckets and hosepipes, and, at night, we saw them set off for the celebrations in fancy dress and wearing masks. There was Holy Week, with its mysterious processions and the visit to different churches, to pray at the Stations of the Cross. And, above all, there was Christmas, the coming of Baby Jesus (Father Christmas did not yet exist), with the presents, on the night of 24 December. The preparations for the New Year’s Eve party were long and very detailed, and these rituals stirred our imagination. With us under their feet, grandma and Mamaé sowed wheat seeds in little containers that decorated the crib. The crib figures, the shepherds, wise men, Roman soldiers, apostles, sheep, donkeys, Virgin Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, were kept in a trunk inlaid with metal that was only opened once a year. The most important thing for me and for my cousins was to write the letter to the Son of God, asking him for the presents that he placed at the foot of our beds on Christmas Eve. Before we learned how to write, we dictated our letter to uncle Pedro and signed it with a cross. As the date approached, our nervousness, curiosity and anticipation reached indescribable extremes. On the night of 24 December, no one, not our grandparents or my mother, or uncles Juan and Lala had to encourage us to jump into bed straight after dinner. Would he come? Had he got our cards? Would he bring everything we had asked for?
I remember having asked for some pilot’s glasses, like the ones worn by Bill Barnes, some boots identical to those of the hero of a serial about explorers, skittles, Meccano pieces, but, as soon as I learned to read, I always asked for books, long lists of books that I would first select when I came out of school in a bookshop in General Acha Street, where every week we bought the magazines for the whole family: Para Tí and Leoplán for grandma, Mamaé, my mother and my aunts, and, for me and my cousins, El Peneca and Billiken (the first was Chilean and the second was Argentine).
I learned to read when I was five – in 1941 it would have been – in my first year at primary school in the Colegio de La Salle. My classmates were a year older than me, but my mother was anxious to get me into school since my pranks were driving her mad. Our teacher was Brother Justiniano, a slim, angelic little man, with white, closely cropped hair. He made us sing the letters, one after another, and then, holding hands in circles, we had to identify and spell out the syllables of each word, copy them and memorise them. From coloured spelling books with little animal illustrations, we moved to a little book of sacred history and finally onto cartoons, poems and stories. I am sure that on that Christmas in 1941, Baby Jesus placed on my bed a pile of adventure stories, from Pinocchio to Little Red Riding Hood, from the Wizard of Oz to Snow White, from Sleeping Beauty to Mandrake the Magician.
Although I cried in my first days at school – my mother had to take me to the door, holding my hand – I soon got used to La Salle and made many friends. Grandma and Mamaé so indulged me (I was a fatherless child and that made me the most spoiled grandchild and nephew in the family) that I once invited twenty classmates – Cuéllar, Tejada, Román, Orozco, Ballivián, Gumucio, Zapata – for tea at home so that we could act out some epic films in the three patios. And grandma and Mamaé prepared coffee with milk and toast and butter for everyone.
It was exactly ten blocks from the house in Ladislao Cabrera to La Salle, and I think that from my second year at primary school my mother let me go to school on my own, although I usually made the walk with a schoolmate from the neighbourhood. We went through the arcade in the Plaza, past the photographic studio of Mr Zapata, the father of my great friend Mario Zapata, whom I shared a desk with, a journalist who was murdered twenty or thirty years later in Cala-Cala. This ten-block trip, four times a day – schoolchildren had lunch at home in those days – was an expedition full of discoveries. It was, of course, obligatory to look at the bookshop windows and the posters outside the cinemas on the way. The most amazing thing that could happen to us was to come across the imposing figure of the Bishop in the middle of the street. He seemed an Olympian, semi-divine figure to us, wrapped in his purple habit, with his white beard and a big gleaming ring. With religious earnestness and a touch of fear, we would kneel to kiss his hand and to receive the few kind words that his strong Italian accent bestowed on us.
That bishop gave me and a number of my classmates our first communion when we were in the third or fourth year of primary school. It was a memorable day, preceded by many weeks of preparation that we received every afternoon in the school chapel, extra classes on religion given by the headmaster, the bald, square-jawed Brother Agustín. They were splendid classes, with stories taken from the Gospels and from the lives of the saints, miraculous, heroic, exotic and surprising stories, in which purity and faith always overcame the most terrible odds, with happy endings, when the heavens opened to receive with a choir of angels the martyred Christians who had been ripped apart in pagan coliseums by wild beasts, or who had been executed for refusing to betray the Lord, or the repentant sinners, so desperate to atone for their infamous deeds that, like the Duke of Normandy, also called Robert the Devil, they would live on all fours, like dogs, to seek the Virgin’s forgiveness. Brother Agustín told them with eloquence and passion, accompanied by large gestures, like a consummate narrator, and they stayed in our memory, sparking like fireworks. As the day approached, there were various rituals to perform: go and try on the suit, buy the white shoes, have a photograph taken in Mr Zapata’s studios, under arc lights. We took communion in a chapel adorned with fresh flowers, overflowing with the families of the communicants, and then there was a breakfast of hot chocolate and cakes served to the throng in the school patio. And then another party, this time a family one, in Ladislao Cabrera, with lots of presents for the hero of the day.
The great adventure of that period was the trip I made with my mother, my grandma and Mamaé in 1940 to attend the Eucharistic Congress in Arequipa, the homeland that remained alive in the innumerable stories and nostalgic memories of the family. We stayed at the house of uncle Eduardo, a kindly bachelor, who was a judge. His cook Inocencia prepared red-hot soups brimming with monstrous crustaceans, whose red shells and moving claws fascinated me. I remember that journey as a great expedition: the train from Cochabamba to La Paz, the steep streets of the Bolivian capital, the small boat that crossed Lake Titicaca in the night, arriving in Puno at dawn. And then on the train again until we reached the White City. There were so many things that I knew about, but only by hearsay: the square-hewn stone houses; the Misti and the volcanoes; the house where I was born, that was pointed out to me, on the Boulevard Parra; the frozen cheese and the pastries from the Ibérica. The prayers and chants of the crowds at the Eucharistic Congress frightened me, but what terrified me most was the voice of the orator, a very important man with a bow-tie who stabbed the air with his finger: Víctor Andrés Belaunde. By the time we returned to Cochabamba, I already felt grown-up.
These first ten years of my life were intense, full of many exciting events, very dear friends and kindly adults who were easy to win over through jokes and sweet-talking. My greatest desire was, of course, that my oldest and favourite uncle – uncle Lucho, who looked like a film actor and who had all the women swooning over him – would take me to one of the two swimming pools in Cochabamba – the Beverley and the Urioste – where I learned to swim (almost at the same time as learning to read). It was the sport that I enjoyed most as a child, and the one I was least bad at. To be as good a swimmer as Tarzan sometimes competed with my desire to be a bullfighter (although, after some Bill Barnes adventures, I shifted allegiance and wanted to become a pilot). The first bullfight I saw in my life was around that time, when I went with my uncle one Sunday afternoon to the small bullring in the upper part of the city. I also went to my first play in Cochabamba: not a school production, but a drama with grown-up people that my grandparents and my mother took me to see one evening, from a box in the Acha Theatre. My only memory of the work is that, at a certain moment, to everyone’s consternation, a man gave a woman a loud slap.
However, even though I had a good time in the real world during those years in Bolivia, I had an even better time in the other, the invented world, the one I read about in the stories in El Peneca and Billiken and in the adventure stories that I devoured with gluttony. At that time, we children read fictions rather than seeing them: the drawings in the comics had not yet taken over from the written stories. Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse and their friends were not as popular as they would later become, or, at least, they were not for me or, I think, for my friends in Cochabamba. El Peneca and Billiken had stories that we had to co-invent, using our imagination to the limit, from the information given in the words. These stories and mini-novels were turning us into readers, while the cartoons, with their few words suspended in white clouds above the heads of the characters like skinny Olive and muscle-bound Popeye, or Puss in Boots, where the cartoonist had already visualised the fiction for us, exonerated us of a great deal of mental effort, and, instead of readers, they were forming spectators, more passive consumers of the imaginary world. Mine was probably the last generation of child readers for whom the need for a fictive life would be assuaged primarily through reading; those that came later would satisfy this thirst not so much with words as with images, firstly the images of cartoons, then the images of cinema and lastly the images of television. I do not deplore this; I am merely pointing it out, and registering my joy at having been born at the right time, so that I would acquire the vice of reading. This is a vice that does not go unpunished, as Valéry pointed out: we pay dearly for it, in fact, through feeling dissatisfied with and mistrustful of life as it is, for it can never scale the heights and plummet to the depths that we invent, spurred on by our desires.
In any event, the fictions of my Bolivian childhood are more vivid in my memory than flesh-and-blood people. Memory is decisive proof. Although the recollections of my friends and adventures are very much alive, the landscapes and characters of the literary illusion are even more alive, they still sparkle in my memory. The woods of Genevieve of Brabant and those of Ivanhoe, full of knights with lances and armour, mounted on graceful white horses with flowing manes. The African jungle where Tarzan meets Jane (who talks to him in every imaginable language, without him understanding her), presents her to Chita and swings her on lianas through the undergrowth, saving her from crocodiles and cannibals. The burning mountains of the Mission of San Juan de Capistrano, where the crack of the avenging whip of Zorro resounds. The seas of Sandokan and his partner Yanes, and of the terrible pirates who fought with scimitars and daggers with complicated shapes, like the wavy-bladed kris, into whose depths the Nautilus of Captain Nemo slides silently and fantastically. The currents of air that propel the balloon of Phileas Fogg on his journey round the world, just in time to win the bet. And the icy and violent steppes, with the brave and blinded courier of the Tsar galloping on his horse.
It was not in Bolivia, however, but later, in Piura, that I experienced my first literary passion: Alexandre Dumas. The immortal three musketeers, who were four – D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis – dazzled me for ever. My final years of primary school and my first years of secondary school were lived in the shadow of Dumas, whose series of novels – The Count of Monte Cristo, The Queen’s Necklace, Memories of a Doctor, the musketeers book, Twenty Years After and the Vicomte Bragelonne and so many others – filled those years with heroic gestures and romantic tenderness, bathed in bright and spectacular colour. But in Cochabamba I had a taste of what was in store for me in two books by Miguel de Zevaco, Nostradamus and The Son of Nostradamus, which I managed to borrow from a young friend of my mother called Julia Urquidid who – such are life’s surprises – I would end up marrying ten years later. Although, if I had to mention just one of these fictional heroes that stands out from the rest in my memory of my earliest readings, it would be William, the boy invented by Richmal Crompton. The Just William books had red covers, and each told a different story of a boy who was about my age, who, like me, had an unquenchable thirst for adventures and also a grandpa who was both an accomplice and a friend, despite the age difference.
Grandfather Pablo wrote poems that he sometimes recited to family gatherings, and he had a number of poetry books in an old glass-fronted bookcase. He was very proud of his father, my great grandfather, Don Belisario Llosa Rivera, a poet and a writer, and he kept a novel of his (Sor María, that had won a prize in a competition organised in 1886 by the Ateneo in Lima), which he gave me. It disappeared in all the moves and journeys that my maternal family (in effect, the only family I had) made after 1945, when a relative of ours, José Luis de Bustamante, was elected President of Peru, and he nominated my grandfather Prefect of Piura. My mother and grandparents were delighted that I was such a keen reader, and they encouraged me to learn poems by heart and recite them in front of the family. Grandma and Mamaé read poems by José Santos Chocano and Juan de Dios Peza and novels by Xavier de Montépin – The Mad Women’s Doctor and Paris-Lyon-Mediterranean – and a novel by Vargas Vila (‘the only presentable novel by him’, they said), Aura or the Violets, that had many ellipses and that I flicked through. My mother had on her bedside table an edition with a blue cover dotted with little golden stars of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda that she had forbidden me to read. This was the first maudit book that I read in my life, nervously, in hiding, with that particular delight that danger brings. Two lines from the first poem (‘My rough labourer’s body tunnels into you/And makes the child leap up from the depths of the earth’) really intrigued me, but I intuited that it would be imprudent to ask the grown-ups to decipher them for me.
There is no doubt that my vocation as a writer began to gestate there, in that house on Ladislao Cabrera, in the shade of these readings and as a natural derivation of the hypnotic happiness that I felt as I lived all those adventures through the miracle of reading. That life was not the same life of school, my friends, the family and Cochabamba but, although it was intangible, it was no less real, that is, no less felt, enjoyed or suffered than the other life. And it was also much more diverse and intense than the life of daily routines. To be able to travel, by simply concentrating on the letters in a book, to the depths of the ocean, to the stratosphere, to Africa, England, Belgium or the seas of Malaysia, and to travel back from the twentieth century to the France of Richelieu and Mazarin, and, with each character of fiction, to be able to change skin, face, name, love, fate, to become in this way so many different people while staying myself, was a miracle that revolutionised my life and put me from that time on completely under the spell of fiction. I would never tire of repeating this magic, with the fascination and enthusiasm of my early years, until it became the central concern of my existence.
Every writer is firstly a reader and to be a writer is also a different way of continuing to read. I discovered the intimate relationship between reading and writing in those years because – and I’m also sure of this – the first things that I wrote, or, better, I scribbled, were changes to, or extensions of, the adventures I was reading, either because I was sad that they had come to an end or because I would have liked them to have turned out differently to the ways decided by their authors. These corrections and additions were, as I understand them, precocious manifestations of the vocation that would produce, years later, all the stories, novels, essays and plays that I have written. And I do not feel in the least uncomfortable, quite the reverse, to recognise that in my vocation and in my fictions, I am a flagrant literary parasite.
Everything I have invented as a writer has its roots in lived experience. It was something that I saw, heard, but also read, that my memory retained with a singular and mysterious stubbornness, that formed certain images which, sooner or later, and for reasons that I also find very difficult to fathom, became a stimulus for fantasy, a starting point for a complete imaginary construction. I would not have written Time of the Hero if I had not spent two years as a cadet at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, where the action of the novel takes place, nor would I have invented the stories about Fushía and Aquilino, Lalita and the Jungle Woman, the missionary nuns of Santa María de Nieva and the unfortunate Aguaruna head man Jum, without the trip to the Upper Marañón that I went on in 1958 with the Mexican anthropologist Juan Comas, organised by the University of San Marcos and the Summer Linguistic Institute. That journey gave me material for The Green House, as did the solitary brothel, in the middle of the sands of Piura, that was the focus of my schoolmates’ fantasy and desires in the Salesian college where I was enrolled as soon as we settled in that northern city in Peru after leaving Cochabamba.
In Piura I also lived or experienced in some way the events that, turned into memories, became the raw material for most of the stories in my first book, The Cubs: the attempt at a school strike, the fist-fights in the dry river bed, the abuses of the estate owners on their lands, where they still ruled as tyrants. The world of nostalgia and youthful memories that my grandparents and Mamaé retreated into as their long lives neared the century gave me the theme and characters of The Young Lady from Tacna. I found the story of Pichulita Cuéllar, by contrast, in a newspaper I was reading in Lima, on the bus from Miraflores to the city centre. The hired scribe I invented in Kathie and the Hippopotamus, who exaggerates and sugar-coats the travel journal through ‘the yellow Orient and black Africa’ written by a woman from Lima who had discovered her literary vocation somewhat late in life, was based on my life, in the first instance, when I was doing piecework in a Paris garret for a woman with an inventive imagination and deficient syntax.
But just as much as my lived experience, what I have read – which is another, sometimes more noble and sumptuous, way of living – has also had a decisive influence on the gestation of all my stories, although, in this case, I hesitate when it comes to giving specific authors and titles. I am sure that Sartre’s ideas on committed writing, which in the fifties and early sixties I believed in blindly, had a great deal of influence on the critical intentions and ethical preoccupations of my first novels, and that the epic style and romantic mythology of André Malraux, whom I read with great passion during my university years, left its traces in my first stories along with my idols of those years, the US novelists Hemingway, Dos Passos, Caldwell, Steinbeck, Scott Fitzgerald and younger writers like Truman Capote and Paul Bowles. But the greatest influence was, had to be, that of the supreme teacher of so many novelists of my generation (and also of the generations that immediately preceded and followed mine) throughout the world: William Faulkner. Without the wonderment that I felt when I discovered the richness of shades, allusions, perspectives, harmonies and ambiguities of his prose, and the absolutely original way in which he organised his stories, I would never have dared to rearrange ‘real’ narrative chronology in my own work, or to present an episode from different points of view and levels of reality, as I did in Time of the Hero, Conversation in the Cathedral and in the rest of my novels, nor would I have written a book like The Green House, in which the words are as visible, and sometimes more visible, a presence as the characters themselves – a landscape for the story – and in which the construction – the perspectives, the flow of time and the changing narrators – is all of labyrinthine complexity. For it was thanks to the Yoknapatawpha saga that I discovered the prime importance of form in fiction and the infinite possibilities offered by point of view and the construction of time in a story.
‘Influence’ is a dangerous word, and, when applied to the writing of literature, it is also a contradictory term. There are influences that stifle originality and others that allow writers to discover their own voices. In any event, it is very likely that the most fertile literary influences are those that are not very evident to us, that we are not very conscious of. For that reason, although I know which authors captivated me and opened up to me the world of dreams, and which writers taught me about writing and the structure of fiction, I would not venture to say that these are the writers – and I would add to that list, of course, Flaubert, Melville, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanc, Thomas Mann and many others – to whom I owe the greatest debt, let alone specifying exactly what this debt might be.
The only thing that I am absolutely certain about is that it was in these early childhood years, spent in that large house on Ladislao Cabrera Street in Cochabamba, in the heart of my extensive, almost biblical, family presided over by my grandparents, when I started reading my first stories, in books and children’s magazines that Baby Jesus brought me for Christmas or which I bought with my pocket money, that I first became interested in writing fiction, something that has shaped my life from then on. And in some discreet and distant way, these early stories still kindle my dreams.
London, 24 June 1997
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