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Authors: Mario Vargas Llosa

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And one day it happened that “Uncle José Luis,” the Peruvian ambassador to La Paz and a relative of my grandfather Pedro’s, was elected president of the Republic, in far-off Peru. The news electrified the whole family, in which Uncle José Luis was looked upon as a revered celebrity. He had come to Cochabamba and been at our house a number of times, and I shared the family’s admiration for this important relative who was so well-spoken, wore a bow tie, a hat with a ribbon-bound brim, and walked with his short legs spread wide apart, just like Charlie Chaplin—because on each of those visits to Cochabamba he had left a bit of spending money in my pocket when he said goodbye to me.

Once he had entered office, Uncle José Luis offered to appoint my grandfather to the post either of Peruvian consul in Arica or of prefect of Piura. My grandpa, whose ten-year contract with the Saids had just ended, chose Piura. He departed almost immediately, leaving the rest of the family with the task of clearing out our things from the house. We stayed there until almost the end of 1945, so that my cousins Nancy and Gladys and I could take our year-end exams. I have a vague idea of those last months in Bolivia, of the interminable succession of visitors who came to say goodbye to the Llosas, who in many ways were now a Cochabamba family: Uncle Lucho had married Aunt Olga, who, although Chilean by birth, was Bolivian by family background and heartfelt loyalties, and Uncle Jorge was married to Aunt Gaby, who was Bolivian on both sides of her family. Moreover, our family had grown in Cochabamba. Family legend has it that I tried to see the arrival in this world of the first daughter, Wanda, born to Uncle Lucho and Aunt Olga, by spying on her birth from one of the tall trees in the front patio, from which Uncle Lucho hauled me down by one of my ears. But that must not be true, since I don’t remember it, or if it’s true, I didn’t manage to find out very much, because, as I’ve already said, I left Bolivia convinced that children are ordered from heaven and brought into the world by storks. In any event, I was not able to spy on the appearance on this earth of the second daughter born to Uncle Lucho and Aunt Olga, my cousin Patricia, for she was born in the hospital—the family was resigning itself to modern ways—barely forty days before the return of the tribe to Peru.

I have a very vivid impression of the Cochabamba railway station, the morning we took the train. There were many people who had come to say goodbye to us and some of them were weeping. But I wasn’t, nor were my friends from La Salle who had come to give me one last farewell hug: Romero, Ballivián, Artero, Gumucio, and my closest friend of all, the son of the town photographer, Mario Zapata. We were grownups—nine or ten years old—and grownup men don’t cry. But Señora Carlota and other ladies, and the cook and the housemaids, were crying, and, holding fast to Granny Carmen, the gardener, Saturnino, an old Indian, wearing sandals and a cap with earflaps, was weeping too. I can still see him running alongside the train window and waving goodbye as the train pulled out of the station.

The whole family went back to Peru, but Uncle Jorge and Aunt Gaby, and Uncle Juan and Aunt Laura, went to live in Lima, which was a great disappointment to me, since it meant being separated from Nancy and Gladys, the cousins I had grown up with. They had been like two sisters to me and their absence was hard to bear during the first months in Piura.

The only ones who made that journey from Cochabamba to Piura—a long, unforgettable one in many stages, by train, boat, car, and plane—were my grandmother, Auntie Mamaé, myself, and two members added to the family through the kindness of Granny Carmen: Joaquín and Orlando. Joaquín was a youngster only a little older than I was, whom Grandfather Pedro had met on the Saipina hacienda, with no parents, relatives, or identity papers. Feeling sorry for him, he took him to Cochabamba, where he had shared the life of the house servants. He grew up with us, and my grandmother couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him behind, so he came to form part of the family entourage. Orlando, a boy a little younger, was the son of a cook from Santa Cruz named Clemencia, whom I remember as being tall and good-looking, and with hair she always wore loose. One day she got pregnant and the family was unable to find out who the father was. After giving birth, she disappeared, abandoning the newborn baby boy at our house. Attempts to discover her whereabouts came to nothing. Granny Carmen, who had grown fond of the child, brought him with her to Peru.

Throughout that entire journey, crossing the Altiplano by train, or Lake Titicaca on a little steamer that plied between Huaqui and Puno, my one thought was: “I’m going to see Peru, I’m going to get to know Peru.” In Arequipa—where I had been once before, with my mother and my grandmother, for the Eucharistic Congress of 1940—we again stayed at Uncle Eduardo’s, and his cook Inocencia again made me those reddish, very hot, highly spiced fresh shrimp stews that I dearly loved. But the highlight of the trip was the discovery of the sea, on reaching the top of “Skull Hill” and catching sight of the beaches of Camaná. I was so excited that the driver of the car that was taking us to Lima stopped so that I could dive into the Pacific. (The experience was a disaster because a crab pinched my foot.)

That was my first contact with the landscape of the Peruvian coast, with its endless empty expanses, tinged gray, blue, or red depending on the position of the sun, and its solitary beaches, with the ocher and gray spurs of the cordillera appearing and disappearing amid the sand dunes. A landscape that would always remain with me as my most persistent image of Peru when I went abroad.

We stayed a week or two in Lima, where Uncle Alejandro and Aunt Jesús put us up, and the only thing I remember about that stay is the little tree-lined streets of Miraflores, where they lived, and the roaring ocean waves at La Herradura, where Uncle Pepe and Uncle Hernán took me.

We went by plane north to Talara, for it was summer and my grandfather, thanks to his post as prefect of the
departamento
, had a little house there, made available to him during the vacation season by the International Petroleum Company. Grandfather met us at the airport of Talara and handed me a postcard showing the façade of the Salesian elementary school in Piura, where they had already registered me for the fifth grade. Of those vacations in Talara I remember friendly Juan Taboada, the chief steward of the club owned by International Petroleum, a head of a labor union and a leader of the APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana: American Popular Revolutionary Alliance) party. He also worked in the vacation house and took a liking to me; he took me to see soccer matches and, when they showed films for underaged children, to performances at an open-air movie theater whose screen was the white wall of the parish church. I spent the entire summer immersed in the International Petroleum swimming pool, reading little stories, climbing the cliffs close by and spying in fascination on the mysterious goings and comings of the crabs on the beach. But, to tell the truth, feeling lonely and sad, far from my cousins Nancy and Gladys and my Cochabamba friends, whom I began to miss a great deal. In Talara, on March 28, 1946, I turned ten.

My first encounter with the Salesian school and my new classmates was not at all pleasant. All of them were a year or two older than I was, but they seemed even bigger because they used dirty words and spoke of nasty things that those of us at La Salle, in Cochabamba, didn’t even know existed. I came back home every afternoon to the big house that was a perquisite of the post of prefect, to complain to Uncle Lucho, scandalized by the obscene words I had heard and furious because my schoolmates made fun of my highland accent and my rabbit’s teeth. But little by little I began making friends—Manolo and Ricardo Artadi, Borrao Garcés, plump little Javier Silva, Chapirito Seminario—thanks to whom I gradually adapted myself to the customs and the people of that city which was to leave such a profound mark on my life.

Shortly after entering the school, the brothers Artadi and Jorge Salmón, one afternoon when we were taking a dip in the already ebbing waters of the Piura—at the time a river in flood—revealed to me the real origin of babies and the meaning of that unutterable dirty word:
fuck
. It was a traumatic revelation, although I am certain that this time I silently mulled the subject over in my mind and did not go to tell Uncle Lucho about the repugnance I felt on imagining men who turned into animals, with stiff penises, mounted on top of the poor women who had to tolerate being gored. That my mother had been able to endure such an attack so that I could come into the world filled me with disgust, and made me feel that, by finding out about it, I had sullied myself and sullied my relationship with my mother and somehow sullied life itself. To me, the world had suddenly become dirty. The explanations of the priest who was my confessor, the one person whom I dared consult about this deeply distressing subject, must not have brought me any peace of mind, since the matter tormented me day and night and a long time went by before I resigned myself to accepting that that was what life was like, that men and women did together the filthy things summed up in the verb
fuck
and that there was no other way for the human species to continue to exist and for me to have been born.

The job as prefect of Piura was the last steady one my grandfather Pedro ever had. I believe that during the years that the family lived there, until Odría’s military coup in 1948, which brought down José Luis Bustamante y Rivero, it was quite happy. Grandpa’s salary must have been very modest, but Uncle Lucho, who was working at the Romero Company, and my mother, who had found a job in the Piura branch of the Grace Line, contributed to meeting the household expenses. The prefecture had two patios and several mucky garrets where bats nested. My friends and I explored the garrets on our hands and knees, in hopes of catching one of those winged rats and making it smoke, since we held firmly to the belief that a bat in whose mouth anyone managed to place a cigarette could be killed off with a few puffs, since it was an avid smoker.

The Piura of those days was a very small and happy place, with prosperous and good-humored hacienda owners—the Seminarios, the Checas, the Hilbcks, the Romeros, the Artázars, the Garcías—with whom my grandparents and my aunts and uncles established ties of friendship that were to last throughout their lives. We went on outings to the pretty little beach at Yacila, or to Paita, where bathing in the ocean always involved the risk of being attacked by stingrays (I remember one lunch, at the Artadi house, when my grandfather and Uncle Lucho, who had gone swimming at low tide, got stung by a ray and how a fat black woman cured them, right there on the beach, by heating their feet with her brazier and squeezing lemon juice on their wounds), or to Colán, at that time just a handful of little wooden houses built on pylons amid the vastness of that gorgeous sandy beach full of sparrow hawks and seagulls.

At the Yapatera hacienda, belonging to the Checas, I rode horseback for the first time and heard England spoken of in a rather mythical way, since my friend James MacDonald’s father was British, and both he and his wife—Pepita Checa—revered that country, which they had more or less reproduced in those arid reaches of the highlands of Piura (at their house at the hacienda five o’clock tea was served and the conversation was in English).

That year in Piura that was to end on the Eguiguren embankment with the revelation concerning my father lingers in my memory like a jigsaw puzzle: vivid, isolated, exciting images. The young Civil Guard who kept watch over the back door of the prefecture and made Domitila, one of the housemaids, fall in love with him by serenading her with the song
Muñequita linda
, in a voice filled with exaggeratedly heartfelt feeling, and the excursions with a bunch of my schoolmates along the dry riverbed and the sand pits of Castilla and Catacaos to watch the prehistoric iguanas or see the donkeys fornicating, hidden among the carob trees. The dips in the swimming pool of the Club Grau, our efforts to sneak into the films for grownups at the Variedades movie theater and the Municipal, and the expeditions, which filled us with excitement and guilt-ridden consciences, to spy from the shadows on that green house, the Casa Verde, built in the open countryside separating Castilla from Catacaos, concerning which myths redolent of sin circulated. The word
puta
, whore, filled me at one and the same time with horror and fascination. Going to post myself in the vicinity of that building, so as to see the wicked women who lived there and their night visitors, was an irresistible temptation, though I knew full well that I was committing a mortal sin and I would be obliged to go to confession afterward to reveal it.

And the stamps that I began to collect, spurred on by the collection that my Grandpa Pedro had—a collection of rare postage stamps, triangular, multicolored, from exotic countries and in exotic languages, that my great-grandfather Belisario had collected and the two volumes of which were one of the treasures that the Llosa family had lugged all over the world—which he allowed me to look through if I’d been a good boy. The parish priest of the Plaza Merino, Father García, an aged, grouchy man from Spain, was also a stamp collector and I used to come to exchange duplicate stamps with him, in bargaining sessions that sometimes ended with one of those fits of rage of his that my friends and I took great delight in arousing. The other family keepsake was the Opera Book that Granny Carmen had inherited from her parents, a lovely old illustrated volume with red and gold backings, which contained the plots of all the great Italian operas and some of their main arias, and which I spent hours reading and rereading.

The gusty winds of local politics in Piura—where the political forces were more in equilibrium than they were in the rest of the country—touched me only in a confused way. The bad guys were the members of the APRA party, who had betrayed “Uncle José Luis” and were making life impossible for him there in Lima; the leader of APRA, Víctor Raúl de la Torre, had attacked my grandfather in a speech, there in Piura in the Plaza de Armas, the main square, accusing him of being a “prefect who was against the APRA.” (I went in secret to have a look at that APRA demonstration, despite my family’s having forbidden me to do so, and I discovered my schoolmate Javier Silva Ruete, whose father was a dyed-in-the-wool Aprista, waving a placard bigger than he was that read: “Maestro, young people acclaim you.”) But despite all the evils that the APRA embodied, there were, in Piura, a few decent Apristas, friends of my grandparents and my aunts and uncles, men like Jaime’s father, Dr. Máximo Silva, Dr. Guillermo Gulman, and Dr. Iparraguirre, our family dentist, with whose son we organized evening theatrical performances in the entry hall of his house.

BOOK: A Fish in the Water: A Memoir
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