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If summer is a time to travel it is also a time to read. For me combining the two is a great way to focus attention on the places visited, the food tasted and people met but also on the stories told and written, either in the distant past or the continuing present. Peru, in the summer of 2009, was such an opportunity. Our two guides had strong ties to the pre-Conquest communities they came from, one Quechuan, Lucio, from the highlands, the other, Rodolfo, an Ese’Eja from the rivers and jungles of the Tambopata river.

We spent several days with Lucio in and around Cuzco. In a matter of fact voice he told what the capital of the Inca empire must have been like before the Spaniards came, and guided us around its stupendous remnants. DSCN1076 [Desktop Resolution] Enormous stoneworks still stood in place in Saksaywaman where his ancestors had welcomed the winter solstice, ensuring the sun would begin to lengthen its daily visit and bring life to the people. Lucio had read much in archaeology and history and though Quechuan speaking was equally fluent and proud of his Spanish; a Quechuan-Peruvian as we might hyphenate him, enlarging the good and diminishing the bad from all threads of his ancestry. One of the last visits with him was to the tomb beneath “The Church of the Triumph,” where he made sure we saw the crypt where the ashes of the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (who died in Cordoba, Spain) are said to be resting, and that we understood his stature in Cuzcan culture.

garcilaso_comen_caraThe Inca Gracilaso, like Lucio, was a “mestizo,” a Quechuan-Spaniard, son of a Spanish captain and Inca princess. Born in Cuzco in 1539 and raised in his mother’s traditions, he left for Spain when he was about 21, there continuing his education in the classical Spanish manner of the time. In addition to serving in the Spanish army fighting the Moors for many years he wrote several histories including the two part Comentarios Reales de los Incas, published in Lisbon in 1609. It was the first widely read favorable account of the ways of life of the conquered people. With literary pretensions other then being a chronicler or even a memoirist he divided his book into two parts. The first drew together memories and stories he had been told by his family, while still in Peru, about Quechua life and the Inca kings. Viewed through the decades since his departure from Peru, and more openly proud of his mixed ancestry than most men of the time, he presents a glowing representation of the ways of the Inca, from the mythological —

“Our father the Sun … sent from heaven to earth a son and a daughter of his to indoctrinate (the people) in the knowledge of our father, the Sun that they might worship him…” —

to their social organization —

“In each village … there were men appointed exclusively to the cultivation of what we shall call the poor. On such and such a day the lands of the disabled are to be tilled…”

While much of what the Inca Garcilaso writes cannot be verified, much has been, from other writers of the period, or the physical evidence still available. The second part of the Commentarios, published after his death, was about the conquest itself. As might be expected from his years in the Spanish army and his fervent Catholicism he was more generous to the behavior of both church and army than history has shown them to have been. Be that as it may, over 100 years later, during the 1780 rebellion in Peru led by Tupac Amaru II, “Commentarios“was banned in Lima as seditious propaganda and wasn’t allowed again until 1918. It is still available and proudly spoken of in Cuzco and other Andean towns. An English translation with the title “The Incas,” by notable peace activist, Maria Jolas, is also available. While there are many later, and more thoroughly informed, books about Inca and pre-Inca life, the Commentarios, especially the first volume, are an enjoyable read and still part of modern Peruvian education. Many you might speak to while traveling there will be impressed that you have had the interest to read them.

There had been other chronicles written by the Conquerors before the “Commentarios,” including the Brevísima relación de la destruccDeLasCasasión de las Indias, by Bartolome de Las Casas [A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies] an excoriation of the treatment of the Indians by the Spaniards which is still available in Spanish and English. While most of De Las Casas work is about the atrocities he actually witnessed in Cuba and Mexico — burning to death by slow fire, burning the soles of the feet while held in a strappado, garroting, tossing infants into the air until they died when hitting the ground or the point of a sword– he does include a signed and sworn testimony by the Franciscan Friar Marcos de Niza who witnessed similar atrocities in Peru.

“I testify that I saw with my own eyes the Spanish cutting off the hands, noses and ears of local people, both men and women, simply for the fun of it…”

The Short History, along with Eduardo Galeano‘s 1972 Open Veins of Latin America [which Hugo Chavez famously pressed upon President Obama] are two, non Peruvian specific books which would reward any traveler going to Peru or anywhere in South or Central America.

Peru had a modest colonial and post colonial literature continuing through the 19th century which is probably not of much interest to non academic specialists. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, following the Pacific War of 1880, involving Peru, Chile and Bolivia, and the First World War, as communications and travel between Europe and the Americas became more common, that Peruvian writers became known in wider circles. The poet Cesar Vallejo became one of the first widely known and admired Peruvian writers. Not only did his first widely known book of poems, Trilce take unexpected and imaginative leaps in structure, syntax and imagery — influencing poets in many other regions and languages– but he took the Spanish Civil War deep into his heart, writing on behalf of the besieged Republicans. There are many translations into English of Vallejo’s work. CesarVallejo

One that may be familiar is titled: Masa

from “Spain, Take this Chalice From Me”


When the battle was over,
and the fighter was dead, a man came over
and said, “Do not die; I love you so!”
But the corpse, it was sad!, went on dying.

And two came near and told him again:
“Do not leave us! Courage! Come back to life!”
But the corpse, it was sad! went on dying.

Twenty arrived, a hundred, a thousand, five hundred thousand,
shouting, “So much love, and it can do nothing against death!”
But the corpse, it was sad! went on dying.

Millions of people stood around
all pleading the same: “Stay here brother!”
But the corpse, it was sad! went on dying.

Then all the men of the earth
came around him; the corpse look up at them, deeply affected;
he pulled himself up slowly,
embraced the first man, and began to walk….

November 10, 1937

Trans by Robert Bly, [Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems, Beacon, 1971]
with interventions by Will Kirkland

A poem from Trilce, many years earlier, is especially sad and sweet.


In that corner, where we slept together
so many nights, now I’ve sat down
to take a walk. The bed of the dead lovers
was taken out, or perhaps that might have happened.

You come early for other things
and now you’re gone. That’s the corner
where I read one night, by your side
between your tender breasts
a story by Daudet. It’s the corner
we loved. Don’t confuse it with others.

I’ve started to remember the days
of summers gone, your entering and leaving
scarce and weary and pale through the rooms

On this rainy night
already far from us both, I suddenly start..
Two doors are opening, closing,
two doors come and go in the wind
shadow       after       shadow.


After James Wright [Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems, Beacon, 1971], and
David Smith [Trilce, Grossman, 1973]
Will Kirkland

One of the poets most closely associated with Peru, though himself a Chilean, is the 1971 Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda. Although his work is wide ranging and hardly to be identified with one country or theme, his Alturas de Macchu Picchu, as well as other poems about the Conquest and Peru from Canto General are among his most widely known and admired. No visitor to Peru can go without a serious reading of some of these poems.

There are many translations of The Heights of Macchu Picchu, notably John Felstiner’s Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu, a translation and account of Neruda’s development and Felstiner’s own understanding and coming to terms with the poems. But Canto General is much more than the Macchu Picchu cantos. It aims to be a poetic history of the cruelties of Latin American history as visited on it by the Conquest. Jack Schmitt has done the incredible job of translating the entire Canto General, which I can strongly recommend. It should be in all of our libraries. CantoGeneral

One of the most gripping, I find is Canto XIV, which begins, in Spanish

En Cajamarca empezo la agonia…

[Cajamarca, now a tourist destination of some fame….]

In Cajamarca the agony began.

The young Atahualpa, stamen of blue,
remarkable tree, listened to the wind
bring whispers of steel.
There was a confusion
of light and a tremor from the coast,
an incredible gallop
–hooves pounding and power–
of iron and iron through the weeds.
The Governors General arrived.
The Inca came out to the music
surrounded by his lords.

The visitors
from another planet, sweating and bearded,
went forward in tribute.
The chaplain
Valverde, traitorous heart, a rotting jackal,
holds out a strange object, a bit
of a basket, a fruit
perhaps from that planet
where the horses had come from.
Atahualpa takes it. He doesn’t know
what it is: it doesn’t shine, it makes no noise,
and he lets it fall, smiling.

vengeance, kill him, I absolve you all!”
shouts the jackal with the murderous cross.
The thunder gives aid to the bandits.
Our blood is spilled from the cradle.
In the hour of agony the princes
surround the Inca like a chorus.

Ten thousand Peruvians fall
beneath crosses and swords, the blood
soaks the robes of Atahualpa.
Pizarro, the swine from Extremadura
has the delicate arms of the Inca
cinched behind him. Night has descended
on Peru like a black ember.

Neruda, Canto XIV, Canto General,
After James Wright [Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems, Beacon, 1971], and
Jack Schmitt, Canto General, University of California, 1991
tr, W Kirkland

The Peruvian writer best known to most present day readers is likely Mario Vargas Llosa, essayist, novelist, journalist, script writer. He has seemed to do everything, including run for political office, except perhaps poetry. Aunt Julia and the Script Writer, Conversations in the Cathedral, Time of the Goat, Death in the Andes are just a few of his over thirty volumes of fiction, non-fiction and drama.

I took up The Time of the Hero, Lysander Kemp’s 1966 translation for Grove Press of Vargas Llosa’s La Cuidad Y Los Perros, (The City and the Dogs) before we left, though with some trepidation. I had tried many years before to grapple with the Spanish of this, his first novel, and still found it difficult, even in a parallel reading with English. Not only is the vocabulary of a particular place and time — 1950s, military academy in Lima — but he was beginning his long stylistic journey of fractured time and place, multiple first person singular accounts – with little clear identification — and other literary inventions that upset and confounded what many wanted to think of a “realism.” In addition, the scenes of the hellish world of young boys becoming young men under the implicit tutelage of military men in a militarized oligarchy was much too close to my own similar introduction to adulthood in a U.S. military college. Hazing would be too mild a word for what the protagonists endure and inflict on each other, and which Vargas Llosa himself underwent. TimeOfTheHero

In his view the Academy is a microcosm not only of Peruvian military dominated life of the era, with its class and ethnic and sexual conflicts written in brutality, notions of loyalty, theft, revenge, cover-up and thuggery, but of life — always dominated by men– in general. When the novel began to get attention in Peru in 1962, after winning a literary prize in Spain, the Academy, written about by name, The Leoncio Prado Military Academy, burned 1,000 copies in a ceremony of contempt for its recent graduate.

Once sorted out, the story is easy to summarize, but like much of Vargas Llosa’s work it demands full attention to pull what is found into narrative order. Influenced by Faulkner among others, the multi-prismed story-telling technique –without the helpful names of characters as chapter titles as in Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” — generates a shifting, sometimes baffling, set of landmarks. The main characters’ back-stories emerge, along with the brutal/jocular life at the Academy, a retribution killing, subsequent “investigation” and “resolution” of the crime.

Vargas Llosa followed The Time of the Hero with two more novels. The Green House, [in English in a Gregory Rabassa translation,] set largely in the Amazonian jungle with a plot and telling even more difficult that its predecessor and took up the lives of natives and immigrants in the Peruvian jungle, with their love and anger, their interrelations, cultures overlapping and intermixing. It was received with great acclaim in Europe and in Latin America and Vargas Llosa, before he was thirty, was the new wunderkind of Latin American letters. Conversation in the Cathedral followed, [also in a Rabassa translation,] an immense, two volume work, that returned, to the themes of militarism, violence and repression in Peru, centering on the Odria dictatorship of 1948-1956. He continues to write today, of course, his most recent being, The Bad Girl, [La Nina Travesura], a re-working, as some see it, of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, in Peruvian dress. Not one of his sweeping political-historical novels, this may be more accessible to some, though critics have typically thought little of it.

When I inquired at an upscale bookstore in Cuzco in July a young man proudly pressed on me a pile of books I could no more carry than read. I picked out several he especially recommended. Both turned out to be very good reads by young, several-times published authors, both in the vein of “policiacas,” or crime stories.

AmpueroFernando Ampuero‘s [1949] “Hasta que me orinen los perros,” had particular appeal as an ex-taxi driver myself. The title is taken from a phrase uttered by those (men) in Peru who announce their intention of going out for a night of drinking, and to drink “until the dogs piss on me.” The “hero” of the story Alberto, husband to Rosa, who has recently been “re-engineered” out of his job, [“A modern labor plan to obtain the highest yield for the minimum of resources,”] decides to use the family car as a taxi, which is soon stolen and the couple, having been exiled from Rosa’s parents home because the bedroom is needed for her sisters who HAVE children, are in desperate straights. Alberto, no dummy and still hanging around the taxi gas-up, sees that a few of the drivers are doing better than others. Pressing his desperation into a friend he is taken in on the secret: the cabbies cruise well known night-club districts looking for the drunkest patrons they can find. Driving them around in circles until they fall into a stupor of sleep, the drunks are relieved of half the contents of their wallets and then taken to certain well-known thieves’ dens and sold for a “tip” extracted from the remaining contents of the wallets. The thieves then take on the real work of relieving the men of of their fancy Rolexes, big finger rings and pendants, and determining — by pummeling– the codes for their ATM cards, verified before their release, in their underwear. There is little danger in getting caught because the lads shouldn’t have been out drinking so hard in the first place and being known in public as a drunk, a fool, and having been found in the early hours in their underwear is a disincentive to calling the police.

Speaking of the police, Rosa, childless, and of no little ambition, is studying to be a motorcycle cop. She is coming out at the head of her class, in exams, in motor cycle maneuvers and in the figure she cuts in the tight trousers, form-fitting shirt and leather boots. Alberto, naturally enough doesn’t want to reveal fully where the extra money is coming from. While intimating it is coming from drunks he manages to put off her inquiries with declarations, and acts, of love distracting enough to put off the day of reckoning. Before long the taxi friends begin to branch out — after one of them is savagely beaten for selling a friend of one set of thieves to another. What’s the point of jobbing out work they can do themselves? A warehouse is rented, a thug is brought into the scheme to do the dirty work and they begin to “extract the highest yield with the minimum of resources.”

Of course, things are bound to get worse. But first Rosa gets pregnant, to their mutual incredible joy. And in this joy she demands that, whatever it is Alberto is doing, it can’t be good, and he will have to give it up. He protests “they are only drunks,” but she insists. He agrees. Fate intervenes, as it usually does, and Rosa, on her way to the end of her shift on her motorcycle is side-swiped by an overtaking car and thrown off. She loses the child but lives. As they share their sorrow at their loss and happiness at her life the report comes in: the automobile driver was driving blind drunk. Alberto confesses his whole “work plan” to Rosa and she gives in: the victims, after all, she says, “are only drunks.” It’s a delightfully droll inverted morality tale told with nice descriptions of Lima most visitors would not want to see for themselves. Worthy of a good translation.

ACvueloThe second novelist I encountered was Alonso Cueto [b. 1954] in his slender, intriguing, El Vuelo de la Ceniza [Flight of the Ash]. More typically a crime story than Ampuero’s, we follow a distinguished Peruvian doctor, returned from Canada to avenge his father’s death — in the arms of a mistress — with a series of surgical like murders of Lima prostitutes.

“I am Gelman. Boris Gelman.”

She smiles. “Nice to meet you, then.”

A furrow appears, like a streak, across Boris’ forehead. Then his cheeks tighten. “The name doesn’t mean anything to you?”

“Boris who?”

“Boris Gelman. Victor’s son.” Miriam sits up slowly. Her thighs press together on the mattress like scissors.
“Do you remember Doctor Gelman?”

“Doctor Gelman?” she repeats.

“I’ve here because of him.” Boris pushes his chair closer to her head. “Because of you he was disgraced,” he murmurs. “But you already know that…” Boris pauses. Miriam is moving towards the edge.

“I think you’re a little crazy you know. We’d better leave now. But before that, you have to ….”

While she is talking, Boris has raised the knife. He stabs her just once, in the stomach, cutting upwards. He has scarcely made a sound. Everything had happened as he had planned. As he had practiced that morning.”

It turns out, Boris has made a mistake. He has killed the sister of the mistress who seduced his father, humiliated his mother and was with the gentleman at his death. The living sister connects to the ex-cop / private eye who is on the trail. She is a fox, of course and the detective can’t help falling in love, while several more murders take place, including that of Doctor Boris Gelman himself, his first victim revenged by his intended. With all the requisite cynicism of the modern hard-boiled detective novel, the lady-love, now killer, leaves Lima for a while — perhaps forever– and the detective’s heart in pain.

Cueto is well versed in European literature. His book Suenos Reales [Real Dreams,] is a series of essays about James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Svevo and others we are familiar with. His fiction, as one reviewer has said is unlike Vargas Llosa’s work with its theme of the emerging middle class being both heroic and pathetic, but is more like “Raymond Carver’s North American neorealism which explores the banal daily life of its subjects and shows their nakedness before the tragic forces of their mediocre social fortune.”

I haven’t found any English translations of Cueto’s work though I certainly wish there were. If I could find a serious promise of publication and payment I’d love to take on a few myself. Meanwhile, all I can say, is keep an eye out for his name.

The last author you might want to know about, in a Peru state of mind, is available in a fine English translation by Edith Grossman [Cervantes, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa…] I ran into Santiago Roncagagliolo’s name on a book binding in the Lima airport on the way home. I’d already spent my book budget but was intrigued by a novel titled Abril Rojo [Red April.] Promising to be a thriller set in the city of Ayacucho with a bumbling prosecutor, serial murders, the bacchanal of a Peruvian Easter Week, love and love lost — all against the background of a possible re-rising of the murderous Sendero Luminoso– I salivated to get my hands on it and do a translation example and proposal to a U.S. publisher. Lucky for me I turned up a fine used copy of Grossman’s translation at Powell’s once I’d returned. I can report it is a book well worth reading — either as a crime reader or someone interested in the current political-historical scene of Peru. RedApril

I particularly like the droll opening paragraph:

On Wednesday, the eight day of March, 2000, as he passed through the area surrounding his domicile in the locality of Quinua, Justino Mayta Carazo (31) discovered a body.

According to his testimony to the duly constituted authorities, the deponent had spent three days at the celebration of Carnival in the aforementioned district,where he had participated in the dancing of his village. As a result of this contingency, he affirms he does not remember where he was on the previous night or on the two proceeding nights, at which time he reports having consumed large quantities of alcoholic beverages. This account could not be confirmed by any of the 1,576 residents of the municipality, who attest to having also been in the aforementioned alcoholic state for the past seventy-two hours on account of the aforementioned celebration.

Now this locution is not due to an inept translation but a very fine one of the bureaucratic language which Assistant District Prosecutor, Felix Chacaltana Saldivar, depends on as much as others do on biblical language to guide his daily life, his sense of duty and to give purpose to his being.

This body is the first of several the Prosecutor will come upon and, contrary to the wishes of the police, the military and the clerical elite, the mystery of which he will pursue — as that’s what the regulations require. Each body appears with a different limb hacked off — it seems, with a two man saw. And with each murder the specter of a revival of the Sendero Luminosa of the 1980s, with their gutted and hanged dogs, their victims’ bodies exploded in the main plazas, their graffiti, threats and executions, grows ever more real.

The Assistant Prosecutor pursues the clues as he sees them, dutifully telling his mother of his successes and failures, as he cares for her in the most tender of ways, laying out her dress in the morning and telling her of his day before turning out the light, though she has been dead for long and house empty for years. And, he beings to feel once again, after a painful divorce from his wife in Lima — for lack of ambition — interest in, and from a young woman who tries to serve him dinner whenever he appears.

As in any good crime novel the clues do not take you where they might; the torsion bar is wound tightly and unimaginable events happen. The crimes are solved and the solution, in effect, destroys the solver. What makes Red April particularly interesting, and particularly Peruvian is that the cycle of violence we read of, is explicitly, though obliquely, referred back to the cycles of violence from the beginning of Inca and Spanish history together. The appearance of each body with a missing limb is seen to refer back to the quartering of Tupac Amaru [1572 wk] after a failed rebellion against the Spanish.

“Why, Father? Why can’t they simply kill? Why does it have to be like this?”

“There is a reason beyond barbarism.” The priest’s paternal warmth was congealing into a dry, serious tone. “In the Andes there is a myth of the Inkarri, the Incan King. It seems to have emerged during the colonial times, after the indigenous rebellion of Tupac Amaru. After suppressing the rebellion, the Spanish army tortured Tupac Amaru, they beat him until he was almost dead … then they attached his limbs to horses until he was pulled to pieces.

…the Prosecutor’s mother had told him the story once, in Cuzco, the city that the chief had besieged and where he had been killed. The prosecutor’s mother was Cuzcan. The priest continued:

The Andean campesinos believe that the parts of Tupac Amaru were buried in different parts of the empire so that his body would never join together again. According to them, those parts are growing until they can rejoin. And when they find the head, the Inca will rise again and the cycle will be closed. The empire will rise again and crush those who bled it. The earth and sun will swallow the God of the Spaniards brought in from outside.

The head, of course, is the last part of the puzzle but before it comes to be, those who were suspect become cleared, those who were friend become enemies, those who were loved become victims. In the last face off between Chacaltana and his nemesis, a soldier in the decade long war against Sendero Luminosa, the deep sinews of violence are voiced.

“I didn’t want it, little Chacalita. I didn’t want it to be this way. They forced me.”


Now the commander twisted beside the desk, fell to the floor, and his eyes filled with tears. He was trembling.

“Don’t you see them, Chacalita? Is it possible you don’t see them? They’re everywhere. They’re always here.”

Then Chacalana saw them. In fact, he had been seeing them for a year. All the time. And now the blindfold fell from his eyes. The mutilated bodies crowded together around him, their chests, split open from top to bottom, reeked of the grave and death. There were thousands and thousands of corpses, not only there in the commander’s office but throughout the city. He understood that then that they were the dead who sold him newspapers, drove the buses, made handicrafts, sold him food. There were no other inhabitants in Ayacucho; even those who came from elsewhere died. …

They asked me not to spill blood in vain, Chacaltana, and I didn’t: a terrorist, a soldier, a peasant, a woman, a priest. Now they’re all together. They form part of the body demanded by all those who died before. Do you understand? They’ll help to construct the history, recover the greatness, so that even the mountains tremble when they see our work. At the beginning of the eighties we promised to resist the bloodbath. Those who have been sacrificed recently have not died. They live and feel in us. Only one more is needed to make the earth shudder, the prairie burn, the world turn upside down. Only the head is missing….

Red April will reward your reading, and trigger your curiosity about Peru and its history, of 500 or 50 years ago.

There are other books you might read, before, during or after a trip to Peru. Daniel Alarcon, though Peruvian by birth, writes in English and his books are translated into Spanish. He lives in Oakland, California and teaches at Mills College. His inaugural book of short stories, War by Candlelight is available and a fine read. His first novel, Lost City Radio came out in 2007. He also writes political commentary for Harpers, and others. The NY Times in 2006 offered a brief resume of the literary scene in Peru a few years back, that will still serve you.

Have a good read while you’re walking. Just watch your feet and don’t miss your train stop along the way.