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Broken Blossoms

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta

by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Alfred MacAdam
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 310 pp., $16.95

Until recently Latin American fiction was preoccupied with forms of helplessness. History was seen as farce or fable, an endless parade of ogres and thieves. Decent people could watch it, run from it, hide in it, subject it to mockery, ravel it in fantasy. What they couldn’t do was change it. The Cuban revolution suggested that the helplessness was willed rather than fated, a victory of irony and schism and despair over action, but this lesson only deepened the problem. The parade continued in most places, and a lack of historical necessity never made anyone’s plight less real. Indeed, much of the energy of the so-called boom in Latin American writing, chiefly associated with the work of García Márquez, Fuentes, Donoso, and Vargas Llosa, seems to have come from a new awareness of how much style and imagination had been devoted to life in an impasse: a cultural triumph, no less, the preservation of wit, even gaiety, through a hundred years of turpitude.

The preoccupation of Latin American writers now, it appears, is not with helplessness but with failure—another animal entirely. To have failed you must have tried, have had chances to miss or spoil. Your emblem is not impotence but ruin. The boom images of carnival and circus give way to obsessive recalls of spreading garbage and a corpse washed up by the sea. The two books under review have different settings, colors, complaints, but both are about broken or failed experiments, promises not kept. One asks why the revolution hasn’t come to the rest of Latin America as it came to Cuba; the other, set in Cuba, asks where the revolution went wrong, why it turned a Caribbean island into a cage. Both are angry books, full of a sense of waste. They don’t tell the whole story of Latin American moods, of course. In particular they ignore the recent, cheerful developments in Argentina and elsewhere. Vargas Llosa, in a lecture given in Chile last year, argues that the people of Latin America, given the choice, always opt for freedom. It’s just that they don’t get the choice very often. But the two novels do tell an important story. They register a moment in which helplessness reached out for action and was baffled.

On the first page of Vargas Llosa’s big novel Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) a character wonders bitterly, “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” Vargas Llosa’s last novel, the admirable War of the End of the World (1981), studied a strange rebellion in the Brazilian backlands, the resistance and destruction of a raggle-taggle band of religious fanatics whose only crime was to have refused modernity. What forbidding prophecy was to be found in this event? Now in his new work, published in Spanish in 1984, Vargas Llosa places the question in Peru again, but with a wider angle, and a curiosity obviously shaped by his recent historical researches. In many ways this book is an appendix to The War of the End of the World, a defense of its method, an attempt to take it home.

The story is simple. In 1958, just before Castro topples Batista in Cuba, a lonely (and I take it, imaginary) Peruvian Trotskyite joins forces with an ardent army lieutenant to start the revolution in the high Andes, “a land of condors, snow, clear sky, jagged ocher peaks,” as Vargas Llosa puts it. Their plans are precarious, uncoordinated, amateurish. Along with two hesitant peasant leaders and a handful of very young cadets they take over a provincial prison and civil-guard post, cut off communications (but not thoroughly enough), rob a bank, and set off in two trucks for the remoter villages, where they hope to build support and establish a base. They are caught before they get very far; some are beaten and killed, others jailed; the boys are held for a while then sent to their homes. For the government of the day they are just bandits. For a young writer in Paris, reading a tiny news item, they are a first glimmer of political talk put into practice. The novel recounts this writer’s investigation into and reconstruction of the sparse, sorry story.

The English title The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta expands and alters the more laconic Spanish Historia de Mayta, but works well enough if we catch the ironies clinging to the phrase “real life.” The translation is not always so happy. It keeps dipping into slang which is dated before it hits the page (“You know you really knock me out?”), and has odd moments of uncertainty about vocabulary. A word for “noticed” is given as “pointed out”; the phrase que envidia, meaning roughly “I wish I had such luck,” is opaquely rendered as “what envy.”

Mayta is the Trotskyite, a dedicated revolutionary, about forty, a man who has hitherto known nothing but failure and small-time conspiracy, a figure whose “secret, intact integrity” attracts the writer who becomes his historian. Mayta is described as a political orphan, as an amateur suicide. He believes that even Stalinists may have a role to play in a real revolution; he is seen as an adventurer, even as an informer. But the dominant impression is of a man who believes in “the true, the integral revolution, the one that would abolish all injustices without inflicting new ones.”

Is this romantic dream his “real life”? This is one of the two chief questions the novel wishes to ask. The other is, What does this life, real or not, mean for later generations, what lessons or warnings or promises lurk in it? Is Mayta Castro’s unlucky twin, the miss that mirrors the hit? Is he a trial run, a precursor? Or is he a model of failure, an explanation, among others, for the fucked-up condition of Peru? The writer in the book hesitates. He doesn’t know why he is looking into Mayta’s life.

Because his case was the first in a series that would typify the period? Because he was the most absurd? Because he was the most tragic? Because his person and his story hold something ineffably moving, something that, over and beyond its political and moral implications, is like an X-ray of Peruvian misfortune?

This writer is nameless, but bears more than a passing resemblance to Vargas Llosa. He is well known in Peru, and in the course of the book has a prison library named after him. He seeks out and interviews everyone he can find who knows anything about Mayta’s sad and distant adventure: Mayta’s aunt, the sister of the enthusiastic lieutenant, old political comrades and enemies, locals who were present at the uprising, the cadets now grown old and respectable, and ultimately Mayta himself, who after years in jail has put politics behind him. “It’s not that I gave up politics,” he says mildly. “You might say that politics gave me up.”

The technique of the novel is quite dazzling, and reveals its true subject: not Mayta but the story of Mayta; not the old adventure but its digging up and dusting off. Questions asked in the present are answered in the past, and vice versa, as if there were no break, as if then and now were a single time. Mayta says hello to his aunt in 1958, for example, and she says “Come in” to the writer in 1983. This method is followed throughout the book, and is not as confusing as it sounds—not confusing at all, in fact. The weaving of histories is tight, but the tenses are clear—even when the writer, in moments of strong identification with Mayta, says “he” and “I” indiscriminately.

What the writer—the writer in the book and the writer of the book—makes heavy weather of is not his ineffable involvement in the inquiry, but the philosophical status of what he is doing. He keeps stumbling into terrible banalities and offering them as discoveries—I think because his starting points are too easy and too broad. What is he doing? Well, writing a novel, a story, not history—the Spanish word nicely takes both meanings. Then why does he need the facts, the witnesses? “Because I’m a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it…. That’s how I work.” The writer/narrator repeats this explanation several times in the book, as if it explained something. “I didn’t do it so I could relate what really happened…but so I could lie and know what I’m lying about.” Somewhere buried in here is the traditional defense of fiction as truer than history, but the notion is blurred by too many concessions and not enough irony—and a conception of truth rather alarming in a novelist. If the lies of fiction don’t touch some order of truth, they are pointless: just lies. In any case most of the lame conclusions this writer comes to have to do with the difficulties of history, not fiction:

One thing you learn, when you try to reconstruct an event from eyewitness accounts, is that each version is just someone’s story, and that all stories mix truth and lies.

But the more I investigate, the less I feel I know what really happened.

Yet another proof of how mysterious and unforeseeable the ramifications of events are, that unbelievably complex web of causes and effects, reverberations and accidents that make up human history.

As Hamlet’s friend Horatio almost said, there needs no ghost come from the jail to tell us this.

Vargas Llosa confronts these issues rather more satisfactorily in the setting he describes and in his conclusion. The contemporary scene, the point from which 1958 is viewed, is not “the Peru of the near future,” as the blurb suggests, but a dark dream-Peru of 1983—twenty-five years on from 1958, as the writer keeps saying. There is rationing, there is a curfew. The (doubtless real enough) garbage of Lima assumes hallucinatory proportions; the slums seem to come from A Clockwork Orange. Rebel armies have taken over entire areas of the countryside, Russian-backed Cuban regiments have invaded across the Bolivian border. The ruling military junta has asked for (and will presumably get) the aid of US troops and supplies. Che Guevara’s plea is being met: another Vietnam, one of a chain, perhaps. “Here we go. The war is no longer a Peruvian affair.” Here is a fiction that reflects the truth of our danger, and the violence of our talk.

At the end of the novel the writer meets the “real” Mayta, and explains that he is working on a book about him. He has changed a few things, he says, in the past character as in the present place. “I’ve pretended…that we were schoolmates, that we were the same age, and lifelong friends.” The writer hopes, of course, in spite of his talk of lying, to have kept the essentials. Mayta embarks on his crazy project because he is tired of committee-room revolution: “The possibility of taking concrete action…electrifies him.” He is an “obstinate optimist,” a “man of faith who loves life despite the horror and misery in it.” Does the flesh and blood Mayta recognize himself in this portrait? No, and we don’t recognize the writer’s Mayta in this sad and ruined figure, “a man destroyed by suffering and resentment, who has even lost his memories.” And so the shabby fact and the noble fiction stare at each other. Is the fiction what Mayta could have been, once was, but can no longer remember being? Or is it only a figment of the writer’s wishing, the revolutionary ancestor he longs for, a stick to beat the present day? More the second, probably, but then this is the novel’s deepest theme: not the past but our need of the past, the memory and the measurement of failure.

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