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Authors: Mario Vargas Llosa

A Fish in the Water: A Memoir

BOOK: A Fish in the Water: A Memoir
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This book is dedicated to
Frederick Cooper Llosa
Miguel Cruchaga Belaunde
Luis Miró Quesada Garland
Fernando de Szyszlo

with whom everything began

and to my friends
of the Freedom Movement

Primitive Christians also knew very explicitly that the world is ruled by demons and that anyone who becomes involved in politics, that is to say, anyone who agrees to use power and violence as means, has sealed a pact with the devil, so that it is no longer true that in his activity the good produces only good and the bad bad, but that the contrary frequently happens. Anyone who does not see this is a child, politically speaking.

—M
AX
W
EBER
,
Politics as a Vocation
(1919)

One

The Man Who Was My Papa

My mama took me by the arm and led me out into the street by the service entrance of the prefecture. We walked along toward the Eguiguren embankment. It was the final days of 1946 or the first days of 1947, but exams at the Salesian school were already over, I had finished the fifth grade, and summer in Piura, with its white light and asphyxiating heat, had already come.

“You already know it, of course,” my mama said, without her voice trembling. “Isn’t that so?”

“Know what?”

“That your papa isn’t dead. Isn’t that so?”

“Of course. Of course.”

But I didn’t know that, or even remotely suspect it, and it was as if the world had left me paralyzed with surprise. My papa, alive? And where had he been all the time I thought he was dead? It was a long story that up until that day—the most important day in my life till then and, perhaps, in my later life, too—had been carefully hidden from me by my mother, my grandfather and grandmother, my great-aunt Elvira—Mamaé—and my aunts and uncles, that vast family with which I spent my childhood, first in Cochabamba and then, once my grandfather Pedro was appointed mayor of this city, here in Piura. An episode in a cruel and vulgar serial, which—I gradually discovered this later, as I went about reconstructing it with facts from here and there and imaginary additions in places where it turned out to be impossible to fill in the blanks—had made my mother’s family (my only family, in fact) terribly ashamed and ruined my mother’s life when she was still little more than an adolescent.

A story that had begun thirteen years before, more than two thousand kilometers away from this Eguiguren embankment, the scene of the great revelation. My mother was nineteen years old. She had gone to Tacna with my granny Carmen—who came from Tacna—from Arequipa, where the family lived, to attend the wedding of a relative, on March 10, 1934, when, in what must have been a jerry-built, very recently constructed airport in that provincial city, someone introduced her to the man who operated the radio transmitter for Panagra, the company that would later become Pan American Airlines: his name was Ernesto J. Vargas. He was twenty-nine years old and very good-looking. My mother was very taken with him, from that moment on and for the rest of her life. And he must have fallen in love at first sight, too, because when, after a few weeks’ vacation in Tacna, she went back to Arequipa, he wrote her a number of letters and even made a trip there, to say goodbye to her when Panagra transferred him to Ecuador. On that very brief visit of his to Arequipa they became officially engaged. The engagement was carried on by letter; they didn’t see each other again until a year later, when my father—whom Panagra had just transferred once more, this time to Lima—appeared in Arequipa again for the wedding. They were married on June 4, 1935, in the house on the Bulevar Parra where my grandparents lived, beautifully decorated for the occasion. In the photograph that survived (they showed it to me many years later), Dorita can be seen posing in her white dress with a long train and a transparent veil, wearing an expression not at all radiant, but solemn, rather, and in her big dark eyes a somber shadow of curiosity as to what the future would bring her.

What it brought her was disaster. After the wedding, they immediately journeyed to Lima, where my father worked for Panagra. They lived in a little house on the Calle Alfonso Ugarte, in Miraflores. From the very first, he gave evidence of what the Llosa family was to call, euphemistically, Ernesto’s strange-mindedness. Dorita was subjected to a prison routine, forbidden to visit friends of hers, in particular her relatives, and forced to remain permanently at home. Her only outings were made in the company of my father and consisted of going to a movie theater or visiting his older brother, César, and his wife Orieli, who also lived in Miraflores. Jealous scenes followed one upon the other on the slightest pretext, and sometimes without any pretext at all, and they could lead to violence.

Many years later, when I already had gray hair and it was possible for me to talk with her about the five and a half months that her marriage lasted, my mother was still putting forward the family’s explanation for its failure: Ernesto’s bad disposition and his fiendish fits of jealousy. And casting part of the blame on herself, too, perhaps, since she had been such a pampered young girl, for whom life in Arequipa had been so easy, so comfortable, had not prepared her for that difficult test: having to leave overnight to go live in another city with such a dominating person, so different from all those around her.

But the real reason for the failure of their marriage was not my father’s jealousy or his bad disposition, but the national disease that gets called by other names, the one that infests every stratum and every family in the country and leaves them all with a bad aftertaste of hatred, poisoning the lives of Peruvians in the form of resentment and social complexes. Because Ernesto J. Vargas, despite his white skin, his light blue eyes and his handsome appearance, belonged—or always felt that he belonged, which amounts to the same thing—to a family socially inferior to his wife’s. The adventures, misadventures, and deviltry of my paternal grandfather, Marcelino, had gradually impoverished and brought the Vargas family down in the world till they reached that ambiguous margin where those who are middle-class begin to be taken for what those of a higher status call “the people,” and in a position where Peruvians who believe that they are
blancos
(whites) begin to feel that they are
cholos
, that is to say mestizos, half-breeds of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, that is to say poor and despised. In particolored Peruvian society, and perhaps in all societies which have many races and extreme inequalities,
blanco
and
cholo
are terms that refer to other things besides race or ethnic group: they situate a person socially and economically, and many times these factors are the ones that determine his or her classification. This latter is flexible and can change, depending on circumstances and the vicissitudes of individual destinies. One is always
blanco
or
cholo
in relation to someone else, because one is always better or worse situated than others, or one is more or less poor or important, or possessed of more or less Occidental or mestizo or Indian or African or Asiatic features than others, and all this crude nomenclature that decides a good part of any one person’s fate is maintained by virtue of an effervescent structure of prejudices and sentiments—disdain, scorn, envy, bitterness, admiration, emulation—which, many times, beneath ideologies, values, and contempt for values, is the deep-seated explanation for the conflicts and frustrations of Peruvian life. It is a grave error, when discussing racial and social prejudices in Peru, to believe that they act only from the top down; parallel to the contempt that the white shows toward the mestizo, the Indian, and the black, there exists the bitterness of the mestizo against the white and the Indian and the black, and of each one of these latter three against all the others, feelings—or perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of impulses or passions—that lie concealed behind political, professional, cultural, and personal rivalries, in accordance with a process which cannot even be called hypocritical, since it is rarely rational and seldom openly revealed. In the majority of cases it is unconscious, stemming from an ego that is hidden and blind to reason; it is taken in with one’s mother’s milk and begins to be shaped from the time of the Peruvian’s first birth-cry and babblings as a baby.

That was probably true of my father. More intimately and decisively than by his bad disposition or his jealousy, his life with my mother was ruined by the sensation, which never left him, that she came from a world of names that meant something—those Arequipa families that boasted of their Spanish forebears, of their good manners, of the purity of the Spanish they spoke—that is to say, families from a world superior to that of his own, impoverished and brought to ruin by politics.

My paternal grandfather, Marcelino Vargas, had been born in Chancay, a town not far from Lima, and learned the métier of radio operator, which he was to teach my father in the brief calm interludes of his frenzied existence. But the passion of his life was politics. He entered Lima through the Cocharcas gate with Pierola guerrilla fighters on March 17, 1895, when he was a young lad. And later on he was a faithful follower of the charismatic liberal leader Augusto Durán, at the latter’s side throughout all his political vicissitudes, living for that reason a life of continual ups and downs, the prefect of Huánuco one day and deported to Ecuador the next, and many a time a jailbird and an outlaw. This life on the run forced my grandmother Zenobia Maldonado—whose photographs show her with an implacable expression—to perform all sorts of miracles in order to feed her five children, whom she brought up and educated practically all by herself (she had eight children, but three of them died shortly after they were born). My father used to say, in a voice full of emotion, that she had no compunction about whipping him and his brothers till she drew blood when they misbehaved.

They must have lived in great poverty, for my father studied at a public secondary school—the Colegio Guadalupe—which he left at the age of thirteen so as to contribute to his family’s support. He worked as an apprentice in an Italian shoemaker’s shop, and then, thanks to the rudiments of radiotelegraphy that Don Marcelino taught him, in the post office as a radio operator. In 1925 my grandmother Zenobia died and that same year my father was in Pisco, working as a telegrapher. One day with a friend he bought a ticket in the Lima lottery that won first prize: a hundred thousand soles! With his share, fifty thousand, a fortune in those days, he went off to Buenos Aires (which, in the affluent Argentina of the 1920s, was to Latin America what Paris was to Europe), where he led a dissipated life that made his fortune dwindle very quickly. With what little he had left, he was prudent enough to complete his studies in radiotelephony, at Trans Radio, from which he received a professional diploma. A year later he won a competitive examination as a junior operator in the Argentine merchant marine, where he remained for five years, plying all the seas in the world. (There existed from this period a photograph of him, very handsome, in a navy-blue uniform, that stood on my night table during my entire childhood in Cochabamba, and apparently I kissed it when I went to bed, saying good night to “my beloved papa who’s in heaven.”)

He returned to Peru around 1932 or 1933, having been hired by Panagra as a flight operator. He spent more than a year in those little pioneer airplanes flying through the unexplored Peruvian skies until, in 1934, he was assigned to the Tacna airport, where that meeting of March 1934, thanks to which I came into the world, took place.

His transient and varied life did not free my father from the tortuous rancors and complexes that constitute the psychology of Peruvians. In some way or other and for some complicated reason, my mother’s family came to represent for him what he had never had, or what his family had lost—the stability of a middle-class home and fireside, the strong network of relations with other families like his own, the reference point of a tradition and a certain social distinction—and, as a consequence, he conceived an enmity toward that family that came to the surface to the slightest pretext and turned into insults against “the Llosas” in his fits of rage. In all truth, these feelings had almost no basis in fact in those years—the mid-1930s. The Llosa family, which for some generations after the arrival in Arequipa of the first of their lineage—the field marshal Don Juan de la Llosa y Llaguno—had been well-off and possessed of aristocratic airs, had gradually come down in the world until, in my grandfather’s generation, it was a middle-class Arequipa family of modest means. It was true, nonetheless, that the family had solid ties to the little world of “society” and was firmly established. This latter fact was, in all likelihood, what that rootless being without a family and without a past, my father, was never able to forgive my mother for. My grandfather Marcelino, after Doña Zenobia’s death, had put the finishing touch on his adventurous life by doing something that filled my progenitor with shame: going off to live with an Indian woman who braided her hair and wore wide skirts, in a little village in the central Andes, where he reached the end of his life, a nonagenarian with countless offspring, having worked as a stationmaster for the national railway system. Not even the Llosas gave rise to such invective as that inspired in my father by Don Marcelino, on the rare occasions when he mentioned him. His name was taboo in my father’s house, as was everything else related to him. (And, no doubt for that reason, I always harbored a secret liking for the grandfather I had never known.)

My mother became pregnant with me shortly after marrying. She spent the first months of her pregnancy by herself in Lima, with the occasional company of her sister-in-law Orieli. Domestic quarrels followed one upon the other and life was very hard for my mother, yet her passionate love for my father never flagged. One day, Granny Carmen sent word from Arequipa that she would come to Lima to be at my mother’s side during her lying-in. My father had been entrusted by Panagra with the job of going to La Paz to open the company office there. As though it were the most natural thing in the world he said to his wife: “Go have the baby in Arequipa instead.” And he arranged everything in such a way that my mother hadn’t the least suspicion of what he was plotting to do. On that morning in November 1935, he said goodbye like an affectionate husband to his wife, who was five months pregnant.

He never phoned her again or wrote to her or gave any signs of life till eleven years later, that is to say, till very shortly before that afternoon when, on the Eguiguren embankment of Piura, my mother revealed to me that the father whom up until that moment I had believed was in heaven was still on this earth, alive and wagging his tail.

“You’re not telling me a fib, Mama?”

“Do you think I’d lie to you about a thing like that?”

BOOK: A Fish in the Water: A Memoir
6.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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