The Country of a Thousand Faces
The city where I was born, Arequipa, is located in an Andean valley in the south of Peru. It is well known for its clerical and rebellious spirit, its lawyers and volcanoes, its clear sky, the flavour of the prawns and its regionalism. Also for la nevada (the snowfall), a kind of fleeting neurosis that affects its inhabitants. One fine day, the mildest of Arequipans refuses to acknowledge a greeting, spends hours brooding, behaves in the most extravagant nonsensical way and tries to throttle his best friend over a simple disagreement. No one gets worried or annoyed because everyone knows that this man is suffering from ‘the snowfall’, and that tomorrow he will be back to his normal, gentle self. Although my family took me away from Arequipa when I was one and I have never lived there since, I feel very much an Arequipan, and I also think that the jokes that are made all over Peru at our expense – we are known as arrogant, unpleasant and even mad – are the result of jealousy. Don’t we speak the purest Spanish in the country? Don’t we have that architectural wonder, Santa Catalina, a cloistered convent where some five hundred women lived during the Colonial period? Haven’t we been the setting for the most grandiloquent earthquakes and the greatest number of revolutions in Peruvian history?
From ages one to ten, I lived in Cochabamba, Bolivia. With regard to that city where I was innocent and happy, I remember not so much the things that I did and the people that I knew, but rather the books that I read: Sandokan, Nostradamus, The Three Musketeers, Cagliostro, Tom Sawyer, Sinbad. Stories of pirates, explorers and bandits, romantic love and the poems that my mother hid in her bedside table (which I read without understanding anything, just for the pleasure of what was forbidden) occupied the best part of my time. And because it was intolerable that these magic books should come to an end, I sometimes invented new chapters for them, or else changed the ending. Those additions and corrections to other people’s stories were the first pieces that I wrote, the first signs of my vocation as a story-teller.
As always happens with expatriate families, the fact of living abroad accentuated our patriotism. Until I was ten, I was convinced that the greatest fortune that could befall one was to be a Peruvian. My idea of Peru at that time had more to do with the country of the Incas and the Conquistadors than with the real Peru, a country that I only came to know in 1946, when my family moved from Cochabamba to Piura, where my grandfather had been appointed as Prefect. We travelled overland, with a stop in Arequipa. I remember my emotion when I reached the city of my birth and also the fuss that my uncle Eduardo made of me. He was a bachelor, a judge, and a very pious man. He lived with his servant Inocencia in the style of a Spanish provincial nobleman, tidy, methodical, growing old in the midst of very old furniture, very old portraits and very old objects. I remember my excitement when I saw the sea for the first time, in Camaná. I screamed and made a nuisance of myself until my grandparents agreed to stop the car so that I could take a dip on that wild and rugged beach. My baptism in the sea was not very successful because I was bitten by a crab. But, even so, my love at first sight with the Peruvian coast has continued. There are those who have nothing good to say about the two thousand miles of desert, scarcely interrupted by small valleys which have formed along the banks of the rivers that flow down from the Andes, to meet the waters of the Pacific. The most extreme defenders of our Indian tradition, who revile everything Hispanic, accuse the coast of being ‘foreign loving’ and frivolous and insist that it was a great misfortune that the centre of Peruvian political and economic life should have shifted from the sierra to the coast, from Cuzco to Lima, because it began an asphyxiating centralism which has turned Peru into a sort of spider: a country with an enormous head – the capital – and withered limbs. One historian called Lima and the coast the ‘Anti-Peru’. As an Arequipan, a man from the sierra, I should side in this argument with the Andes against the maritime deserts. But if I were forced to choose between this landscape, or the Andes or the Amazonian jungle – the three regions that divide Peru longitudinally – I would probably opt for these sands and waves.
The coast was the periphery of the Inca Empire, a civilization that radiated out of Cuzco. It was not the only pre-Hispanic Peruvian culture, but it was certainly the most powerful. It extended throughout Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and part of Chile, Colombia and Argentina. In their short existence of little more than a century, the Incas conquered dozens of peoples, built roads, irrigation systems, fortresses and citadels and established an administrative system that allowed them to produce enough to feed all Peruvians, something that no other regime has managed since. Despite this, I have never much liked the Incas. Although I am dazzled by the monuments that they left, like Machu Picchu or Sacsahuamán, I have always felt that Peruvian sadness – a notable feature of our character – was perhaps born with the Inca state: a regimented and bureaucratic society of antmen, out of which an omnipotent steamroller squeezed all traces of individual personality.
In order to maintain power over the peoples that they conquered, the Incas behaved with refined cunning, appropriating, for example, their gods and incorporating the vassal leaders into their own aristocracy. Then there were the mitimaes, the transplantation of peoples, who were thrown out of their native lands and made to resettle a great distance away. The oldest Quechuan poems that have come down to us are elegies by bewildered men in foreign lands who sing of their lost fatherland. Five centuries before the Great Soviet Encyclopedia and George Orwell’s 1984, the Incas manipulated the past in accordance with the political needs of the present. Each Cuzco emperor ascended the throne with a retinue of amautas or wise men, whose task it was to alter history so that it could be seen to have reached its apogee with the ruling Inca, who would be accredited from that moment with all the conquests and great deeds of his predecessors. The result is that it is impossible to reconstruct this history, which has been distorted in such a Borgesian fashion. The Incas had the quipus, an elaborate mnemonic system for recording quantities, but they had no writing and I have always been convinced by the argument that they did not want to have writing, since it would be a danger to their type of society. The art of the Incas is austere and cold, without the fantasy and skill that one can observe in other pre-Inca cultures such as the Nazca and the Paracas, which produced incredibly delicate cloaks of feathers and cloth woven with enigmatic figures that have retained their colour and charm to this day.
After the Inca period, the Peruvians had to endure another steamroller: Spanish domination. The Conquistadors brought to Peru the language and the religion that the majority of Peruvians speak and profess. But any indiscriminate glorification of the Colony is as fallacious as the idealization of the Incas. For although the Colony made Peru the head of a Vice-royalty that also encompassed territories which are today different republics, and made Lima a capital with a magnificent court and an important academic and ceremonial life, it also brought with it religious obscurantism, the Inquisition, censorship that managed to ban a literary genre – the novel – and the persecution of the unbeliever and the heretic, which, in many cases, meant the persecution of those who dared to think. The Colony led to the exploitation of Indians and blacks and the establishment of economic castes which have survived to this day, thus making Peru a country of immense inequalities. Independence was a political phenomenon which barely changed a society divided into a minority, who enjoy the privileges of modern life, and the masses who live in ignorance and poverty. The pomp of the Incas, the colonial period and the republic has not made me forget that all the regimes under which we have lived have been unable to reduce to tolerable proportions the differences that separate Peruvians, and that this stigma cannot be compensated for with architectural monuments, warlike deeds or courtly brilliance.
None of this, of course, was in my head when I returned from Bolivia. My family had biblical customs. Everyone – uncles, aunts, cousins – moved in the wake of my grandparents, who were the centre of the family. That is how we arrived in Piura. This city, surrounded by sands, was my first experience of Peru. In the Salesian school, my classmates made fun of me because I spoke like a serrano, sounding my rs and ss, and because I believed that babies were brought by storks from Paris. They explained to me that things happened in a less airborne manner.
My memory is full of images of the two years that I spent there. Piurans are extrovert, superficial, full of jokes and warmth. In Piura at that time, there was good chicha (corn alcohol) to drink, the regional dance, the tondero, was danced with grace and the relationship between cholos (mixed race) and whites was less fraught than in other places; the informality and the boisterous nature of the Piurans closed the gap between classes. Lovers serenaded under girls’ balconies and suitors who met with parental opposition abducted their girlfriends: they would carry them off to a hacienda for a few days and would then – happy ending, reconciled families – celebrate the religious ceremony, with all splendour, in the cathedral. Th...