Peru: Land of B-Movies and Bad Novels

Land of cinematic violence, setting for spy novels and terrorist love stories: how does a Peruvian see his own country’s depiction in the imagination of the rest of the world?

A six-year-old boy turned killer: With a hoe, he destroyed the skull of his playmate, a boy with a cleft palate. More than 40 years later, the little murderer — now a millionaire Manhattanite — relives in detail what he wanted to forget. He does so while he watches, deeply shaken, a scene on television that seems to be taken out of a B movie: Police armed with machine guns and rifles surround a building that is in flames because it has been taken over by a frenzied mob, and just then one of them starts to cut off the leg (with a machete) of a hostage who tries to escape from the roof. It is real, it is the news, and it is happening at a prison in a barbarian land.

This all takes place in a 1986 novel by Gordon Lish, a North American writer more well-known for being Raymond Carver’s editor. The prison scene is so central to the story that it inspires the title: Peru (Periferica, 2009).

During the years of the Internal Conflict, our country’s name ceased to be associated (solely) with that exoticism Luis Loayza discusses in El Sol de Lima, the exoticism that fills most of the pages dedicated to Peru in history books and in novels, from Stendahl’s The Red and the Black to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

In more contemporary novels, Peru’s name appears linked to terrorist groups, to death, violence and horror. They are not written by Peruvians or Latin Americans, by people who are neither attacking the country nor wishing it ill. They are storytellers from diverse traditions, and all find the very name of our country brutal, and seeing in it the ideal stage for their spy adventures, crime novels and romantic dramas.

For example, Gerard de Villiers, perhaps the most widely-read French novelist of all time, set one of the stories in his famous SAS series in Peru, a corrupted land. In Chasse a l’homme au Perou (Plon, 1985), Son Altesse Serenssime (SAS) Malko Linge – an Austrian prince who works for the CIA – is sent here to arrest Abimael Guzman, the leader of the unyielding legions of the Shining Path. The tough-as-nails hero, who ordinarily plows through any man (or woman) who crosses his path, will end up quaking in fear, after his torture at the hands of the DINCOTE [Peru’s Counter-Terrorism Unit], realizing that in this country, violence is not the exclusive province of the terrorists, that it is shared by the police and the armed forces. Fortunately, fiction is in the end kind to Linge, who doesn’t leave the country without sampling the sweetness of its insatiable women, while suffering a few more bumps and bruises, absorbing enough trauma to leave him thinking of Peru as the true heart of darkness.

(De Villiers, superb at writing settings, came to Peru to study his new stage, try to understand what happened here, and, along the way, negotiate the serialized publication of his novel in the pages of the newspaper La Republica.)

The Celestine Prophecy, a book written – and at first edited, published and distributed – by North American James Redfield in 1993, sold more than 14 million copies. In this kitsch gem, manuscripts are found in the 1990s under Incan ruins near the town of Iquitos. They are nine pieces written in Aramaic (!) that date back to 600 BC. Each one of them contains a revelation that promises to change the course of humanity. But the Peruvian government hunts down anyone who tries to reveal the prophecies. In alliance with the evil Cardinal Sebastian, who is afraid the secret documents will put the Catholic faith and all of humanity at risk, the government uses all the military forces at their disposal. Fortunately, a gringo is available to overcome all the trials and adversities, cross the Andes to Machu Picchu and later travel to Iquitos so the world can know the truth, even if he must face the violence that is only found in savage lands like this. Oh my!

No less traumatic is the story Agustin Rejas (aka Ketin Vidal) tells to journalist John Dyer, the narrator in The Dancer Upstairs (Harvill, 1995), a novel by Nicholas Shakespeare. Rejas, played by Javier Bardem in the movie of the same name directed by John Malkovich in 2002, must capture Comrade Ezequiel, the leader of a bloody Maoist guerrilla group in a South American country that, although it’s never said to be Peru, is very much the same. Meanwhile, he must confront the wicked chief of intelligence Tristan Calderon (Uncle Vladi), an unscrupulous name if there ever was one, and avoid falling in love with his ballet-teaching daughter (probably Maritza Garrido Lecca). It’s odd that Mr. Shakespeare can talk about love in a place where everything seems to obey the simple rules of the most extreme violence. But then perhaps it is true that people can even fall in love under the strangest and most inhospitable conditions. That is, at least, what happens to the protagonists of Bel Canto (Perennial, 2001), the novel by Ann Patchett that won the 2001 Orange Prize. It too takes place in an unnamed South American country, but a country in which a terrorist group seizes the home of the vice president, holding numerous important people hostage (the president, who escaped by not attending, is of Japanese origin). This is a more naive novel, if you will, in which the love between a Japanese businessman and a North American opera singer, and the relationship between another singer, also Japanese, and the guerrilla fighter Carmen make up the nucleus of the story. Although Patchett takes great pains to rename the terrorist groups (“Martin Suarez’s Family” is the ridiculous name she gives to the MRTA) as well as giving new names to the country’s leaders, her mention of various local traditions, and of Santa Rosa de Lima – to whom the Carmen character is a devoted follower – clear up any doubts about where we really are.

In the much edgier Fuga dos Andes (Record, 2009) by the Brazilian Jose Pedriali, it is a journalist and a female terrorist in love who escape in a story full of blood, sweat and sex, dedicated to the victims of Uchuraccay [the massacre of eight urban journalists by rural peasants in 1983]. Another fiction with aspects of reality, it is based on a story that Pedriali himself confessed occurred to him in Peru in 1983 when he was working as a correspondent for a Brazilian newspaper. At any rate, in relation to the more acceptable gastronomical trend in Peru, the protagonist of Fuga dos Andes seems to be obsessed with our food, besides being obsessed with Beatriz, the girl from Ayacucho “with emerald eyes, a small sharp nose, a long delicate neck, a light brown face, harmonious forms and straight Chanel-style hair”.

(A side note: Peruvian “guerrillas” are always good, like the ones who go on adventures with MacGyver in the episode filmed here (The Treasure of Manco, ABC, 1990), in which the terrorists only want to find the Incan treasure so they can bring justice to a population oppressed by the army and politicos. The sad part is that the treasure is not the desired gold, but a silo full of seeds with which to replant the Andes. Or they are like the terrorists that appear in the infamous, unforgettable movie Lima: Breaking the Silence. In this film from 1999, starring the enigmatic Joe Lara, the typical muscular, long-haired Latin lover, it’s difficult to tell if the bad guys are on the side of the MRTA or President Fujimoro (sic) and his villainous henchman General Monticito Frantacino (double sic). Fascinating.

In the fictional Peru, it seems, love and death live together in harmony, between bloodthirsty terrorists, corrupt policemen, beautiful and exotic women doomed to tragic and violent deaths, and men who do not understand that in the midst of this collapsing country, there is always – always – an opportunity for someone to see the light… or at least tell a story. Those terrible years here are much like the psychopath played by Willem Dafoe in the David Lynch classic Wild at Heart: Bobby Peru. [In fiction], the country was transformed from the land of the noble savage, to a land of savagery.

It remains to be seen what fiction has in store for our country in the coming years. I fear Peru will be a somewhat more boring and less adventurous place for storytellers. That is, unless [leftist president]Ollanta Humala keeps up his meticulous efforts to the contrary.

Translated for International Boulevard by Brian Hagenbuch.

Alejandro Neyra