by Jorge Coaguila*
It would be a mistake to think that literary works must be autobiographical, or that these are better than entirely made up stories. This examination was written to observe the way Julio Ramon Ribeyro’s work was built.
Riberyo once declared, in an interview with Gregorio Mar- tinez and Roland Forgues (1983), that he was trying to write an autobiographical book, but couldn’t find the right way to do so, since he wanted to avoid convention. Anyone who writes about his own life is forced to confront certain topics. «You start talking about your ancestors, your parents, your childhood, your school, your friends, the trips you took. All biographies, in the end, are alike», explained Ribeyro.
The writer had, at that point, spent three or four years of his life trying to find a way to approach a book on his life. He had a series of symbolic ele- ments in mind, though they may have seemed trivial. For example, beaches. All the beaches he had ever been to, from childhood on. He also conside- red using an approach based on all the hotels he had ever stayed in. «I must have stayed in around one hundred hotels», he declared. Other subjects he considered: libraries, books, cats, restaurants, brands of wine, shoes.
In a nutshell, he was searching for elements with would allow him to gather a series of memories together in relation to a central theme. In the end, the cigarette was used as the excuse to talk about his life.
In 1983, Ribeyro refers to a chapter of his autobiography titled, «Terre- motos y temblores» [«Earthquakes and Tremors»]: «I was there for the earthquake that hit Lima in 1940, and later lived through very strong earthquakes. Through these earth- quakes, I wrote about what had happened to me, to my family, or what was happening in the country. The thing is that I can write a series of chapters on these elements, but how do I then put them together? This is what I am trying to figure out. I have to put them together somehow».
In an interview in 1973, Reynaldo Trinidad asked: «It is said that most of your stories are autobiographical. Is this true?» To which Ribeyro responded, «Exactly. My stories, to em- ploy statistical terms, are 80 percent realistic and 20 percent imagination. When I say realism, I am referring to experiences I myself have had, or those which were told to the author directly by their protagonists. As such, my next book will be a collection of stories told to me by friends, entitled «Lo que tú me contaste» [«What you told me»]. The memory is an inexhaustible archive of material to be turned into prose».
Besides the fact that this book was never published, how much of Ribeyro in the flesh appears in his writing? Let us examine his first two novels. The first, Crónica de San Gabriel [Chronicles of San Gabriel] (1960), is in reality the transposition of a season he spent at a hacienda in Tulpo, in the mountains of La Libertad province, north of the capital city of Lima. The characters are real, all exist or existed at the time.
His second novel, Los geniecillos dominicales [Sunday Elves] (1965), is also autobiographical. The Lima- born narrator proclaims that all of the episodes contained in the book are taken from his own experiences. Real life friends and acquaintances of Ribeyro’s who inspired characters in the book include Doctor Jorge Puccinelli (Rostalínez), Carlos Eduardo Zavaleta (Carlos), Fran- cisco Bendezú (Cucho), Eleodoro Vargas Vicuña (Eleodoro), Wáshington Delgado (Franklin), Hugo Bravo (Hugo), Pablo Macera (Pablo), Manuel Acosta Ojeda (The Wise One), Juan Gonzalo Rose (Gonzalo), Alberto Escobar (Manolo), and Víctor Li Carrillo (Victoriano). Other elements taken from real life include: «Letras Peruanas» magazine (Prisma) and the Insula Cultural Center (Ateneo cultural center).
Allow us to review Ribeyro’s short stories. The story which goes back furthest in his life is «Por las azoteas» [«On the Rooftops»], which is based on experiences he lived at his child- hood home at 117 Jirón Montero Rosas in Santa Beatriz, on the southern edge of downtown Lima. Most people think that Ribeyro was from the Mira- flores district, but in fact he was born in Santa Beatriz and only moved to the Santa Cruz section of Miraflores in 1937, at the age of 7. His childhood trips to the eastern mountain town of Tarma allowed him to write two stories set in the city: «Vaquita echada» [«Cow laying down»] and «Silvio en El Rosedal»[«Silvio in the Rose Garden»]. The latter is not particularly autobiographical, but there is a certain representation of Ri- beyro in the protagonist: a somewhat solitary individual, who creates art for the few, and is a seeker of truth. Champagnat Elementary and High School in Miraflores, where Ribeyro was a student from 1935 to 1945, is the setting for several of his stories. From this period of his life, we have «El señor Campana y su hija Perlita» [Mr. Bell and his daughter Pearl»], «Mariposas y cornetas» [«Butterflies and Bugles»], «Los otros»[«The Others»], «La música, el maestro Berenson y un servidor» [«Music, Berenson the Maestro, and a servant»] and y «Sobre los modos de ganar la guerra» [«On the ways of winning a war»], which takes place at the near- by Juliana archeological site. «Página de un diario» [«Page from a diary»] on the other hand, is taken from one of his most painful experiences: the death of his father, who passed away in 1945.
The stories set in the Old World are generally part of the Los Cautivos [The Captives] collection: Madrid, in «Los españoles» [Spaniards] a small Belgian town in «Ridder y el pisapapeles» [Ridder and the Paperweight], Frankfurt in «Los cautivos» [«The Captives»], Warsaw: «Bárbara», which is based on his trip to the Polish capital in 1955 as one of the thirty thousand children attending the Fifth World Youth and Student Festival, in which 114 countries participated, the slogan of which was, «For peace and friendship!»
He said very little regarding his time at Agence France-Presse (1961- 1972), as a news writer and translator, which was the most productive period of his life as a writer. Only the story «Las cosas andan mal, Carmelo Rosa» [«Things are going pretty bad, Carmelo Rosa»], which is based on the Catalan novelist Xavier Domingo, the protagonist being a Spaniard who is in charge of quotes on the stock exchange, gives us a window into his life as a newspaper employee. Not a single line of fiction deals with his time as a diplomat, either as the cul- tural attache of the Peruvian embassy or later as a permanent delegate to UNESCO.
What were Ribeyro’s last years like? We can find something out from the protagonist of Dichos de Luder [Luder’s Sayings] (1989), who returns to Peru after a long sojourn in Paris. «In his spacious library, where he would spend most of his time reading, writing, or listening to music—be it Verdi operas or boleros by Agustín Lara—he would very occasionally be visited in the afternoons by two or three friends and the few young authors or students who had read the couple of books he had published. These evenings were simple. They drank only wine (red wine, Bordeaux if possible, on this Luder was firm), and they would talk about anything and everything, without rhyme or reason. You could see that Luder drew a lively pleasure from these visits, which allowed him to break through his isolation and escape, even if for only a few moments,’a reality that was increasingly strange, and, in many ways, unbearable».
«Surf» is the last story Ribeyro wrote. Bernardo, somewhere around 60, moves into an apartment in Barranco, right above the sea. He was planning to write the book that would make everyone hold him in high esteem. After a few weeks, he feels the project is shipwrecked and decides to hold parties. The country is living in a climate of violence, with never-ending guerilla attacks. «He began to receive visits from a small and happy group of young friends, mostly writers, and of young intelligent girls who loved literature as much as they loved to party and live the turbulences of nightlife. In his study, memorable parties, dinners, and dances went on until the early morning in an atmosphere of febrile euphoria, at times almost distressing, as if they were living the last days of a time which would soon be up» says the narrator. Ribeyro died soon after writing this story, which is dated Barranco, July 26th, 1994.
Ribeyro’s characters are born of memories, the observation of reality, and complex creations. In an inter- view with Ernesto Hermoza, the writer confesses, «I don’t think that there is a single character that I created from head to toe. All are either real life characters that I have observed and known, or compound characters created from pieces of real people. You take two or three people, put them together, and shape a character».
* Master of Peruvian and Latin American Literature from the Universidad Nacional Mayor San Marcos. He is considered one of the leading researchers on the works of Julio Ramón Ribeyro.