The Writing Life
Last year I met a Peruvian at a bar in San Francisco. These chance encounters necessitate, at the very least, a conversation: Where are you from? Which soccer team do you root for? The man was about my age, and he had also been born in Lima and raised here in the United States. The conversation quickly became the usual call and response, the listing of streets and neighborhoods, dingy markets and grimy bars whose existence warmed our hearts. Periodically, he would turn to his friends, and exclaim, "This fool is Peruvian!"
We recalled the delicious acidity of tiny Peruvian limes, made plans to drink pisco together at some undefined future date. I bought a round of drinks, and then he raised his shirt to show off his tattoo of a pre-Columbian indigenous symbol, a Tumi, which is a national symbol as well. It was brand-new, the skin on his back still pink. I have a similar tattoo and, though I suddenly felt clichéd, I could see real emotion in my new friend's eyes. So I decided, for once, not to be cynical. I showed him my Tumi, and we embraced like brothers. The Peruvian raised his glass in salute. "Damn, you don't understand, dawg," he protested, near tears. "I love Peru like I love the 49ers!"
When I was growing up, Peru was hard to imagine and more like a rumor: There were vaguely recalled family members and their various misfortunes, a sense -- one my parents wanted yet were loath to cultivate -- that I, by virtue of being raised in the United States, was missing something. I used to believe that everything I saw on our family trips home that I had never seen in the United States was a Peruvian invention. I knew I was supposed to be proud of my birth country, but I didn't know why. So we were, I decided, the nation that had invented badminton, bullfighting, raw fish lunches and the Volkswagen Beetle.
Peru rarely cracks American headlines, unless a DEA plane goes down in the Amazon or there is an election featuring an extreme candidate. Andean countries make news in clusters of two or three. A referendum in Bolivia becomes a platform from which to speak in general terms about the region and its shifting politics. In the interests of a manageable media story, the identity of each nation is blurred. Even during our most newsworthy decade, when a violent civil war was claiming tens of thousands of lives, Peru remained on the periphery of American consciousness. It was all very far away, the conflagration one of many in an endlessly turbulent region.
That night at the San Francisco bar, I understood perfectly the sentiment my paisano was expressing. In fact, the entire conversation was one I'd had with myself before: You tend to reduce a place -- because it is unfathomably complex and you know too little about it -- to its artifacts, to easily definable expressions of culture: your favorite fruit, your favorite ice cream. The longing for these stands in for other, more complicated yearnings: to know, for example, why your parents are laughing at a Peruvian joke you can't quite understand. I wasn't offended by my countryman equating Peru with a professional football team. This abstracted variety of patriotism -- the love for a place one's parents are from -- is special and requires idiosyncratic expression. The emotion would not have been any more authentic, the love any more genuine, if my paisano had sung the Peruvian national anthem. In fact, what he did was much more real: A man conversant in the lore of two cultures used a detail of one to define his affection for the other.
Which is what I do as well. Or rather, attempt to do. I write about the country where I was born but not raised, using English, a language not spoken there except in classrooms and boardrooms. At times, I've flattered myself into thinking that I am writing from within the culture and that the language I use is a mere accident of migration, but clearly this is not true. My relationship to Peru is complicated by the fact that I am always translating. There are certain things I cannot know, and so I must invent the sense of them. This is the work of writing, I suppose, and I would be doing much the same if I were composing stories about my American childhood, though perhaps on another scale.
A few months ago I came across an old paperback of Tadeusz Konwicki's brilliant 1977 novel The Polish Complex . I love Konwicki's work for many reasons, not the least of which is his particularly Peruvian sensibility: His best work is fatalistic, acerbically funny, with an eye for the poetry and violence inherent in daily life. Poland, I have always thought, must be a lot like Peru. In her introduction to the novel, Joanna Rostropowicsz Clark wrote something that has stayed with me: "Small nations are not only politically impotent, but they are also helpless in the face of the vulgarization and the plagiarism of their own suffering by the literature and the mass media of the great nations."
Certainly the world of Peruvian letters does not need me. There are writers of my generation attacking the same themes I have attempted to address, and many are doing so with real verve and skill. A publishing renaissance is underway in Lima, and this year Peru can celebrate that two of the three major prizes in the Spanish-speaking literary world -- the Alfaguara Prize and the Herralde Prize -- were won by Peruvians, Santiago Roncagliolo and Alonso Cueto, respectively.
In a few months, my first book of stories, War by Candlelight -- published last year in the United States -- will be published in Peru. I've been looking forward to the Spanish version anxiously. It's not just a matter of worrying about how the translation will sound; it's deeper than that. My incomplete knowledge of the place will be on display before critics who are least likely to be forgiving. To be panned by an American reviewer would probably have more of an impact on my career, but similar treatment at the hands of Peruvian critics might do more spiritual damage. I've taken what I know about a place, written it in English, and now those people depicted in the stories will have their say. Exoticism will not color their understanding of the work, and the stories will be read on their own merits. These readers will not be seduced by a pretty sentence or a well-observed detail: They will know instantly if the book is true or not, whether I have added something of substance to the discussion of Peru's national trauma or have simply plagiarized our suffering.
That night in San Francisco, after meeting the Peruvian, I went home happy, drunk and full of memories of Lima, the city where so much of my imaginative life is led. I replayed parts of the conversation to myself, laughing, and I noticed that, in this version, I had translated it all into deep Lima slang. I'm not sure how it happened or why. In fact, my new friend and I had managed to feel very close to a faraway place without sharing a single complete sentence in Spanish. All this reverence, this nostalgia, and all of it in English! What a spectacle. It made me wonder: Faced with such an alien nationalism, how would a real Peruvian have felt? ·