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The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is an astute psychological portrait of a modern revolutionary and a searching account of an old friend's struggle to understand him. First published in English in 1986, the novel probes the long and checkered history of radical politics in Latin America.
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Mario Vargas Llosa is Peru's foremost author and the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1994 he was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's most distinguished literary honor, and in 1995 he won the Jerusalem Prize. His many distinguished works include The Storyteller, The Feast of the Goat, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Death in the Andes, In Praise of the Stepmother, The Bad Girl, Conversation in the Cathedral, The Way to Paradise, and The War of the End of the World. He lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE REAL LIFE OF ALEJANDRO MAYTA (Chapter One)
A morning jog along the Malecón de Barranco, when the dew still hangs heavy in the air and makes the sidewalks slippery and shiny, is just the way to start off the day. Even in summer, the sky is gray, because the sun never shines on this neighborhood before ten. The fog blurs the edges of things—the profiles of sea gulls, the pelican that flies over the broken line of cliffs that run along the sea. The water looks like lead, dark green, smoking, rough, with patches of foam. The waves form parallel rows as they roll in, and sometimes a fishing boat bounces over them. Sometimes a gust of wind parts the clouds, and out in the distance La Punta and the ocher islands of San Lorenzo and El Frontón materialize. It’s beautiful, as long as you concentrate on the landscape and the birds, because everything man-made there is ugly.
The houses are ugly, imitations of imitations. Fear, in the shape of gates, walls, sirens, and spotlights, suffocates them. Television antennas form a ghostly forest. Ugly, too, is the garbage that piles up on the outer edge of the Malecón and spills down its face. Why is it that this part of the city—which has the best view—is a garbage dump? Laziness. Why don’t the property owners tell their servants to stop dumping garbage right under their noses? Because they know that if theirs didn’t, the neighbors’ servants or the workers from the Parque de Barranco would. Even the regular garbagemen do: I see them while I’m running, throwing garbage down there they should be carrying to the dump. That’s why people have resigned themselves to the vultures, roaches, mice, and the stinking garbage dump whose birth and growth I’ve witnessed on my morning runs: a daily vision of stray dogs scratching in the dump under clouds of flies. Over the past few years, I’ve also gotten used to seeing stray kids, stray men, and stray women along with the stray dogs, all painstakingly digging through the trash looking for something to eat, something to sell, something to wear. The spectacle of misery was once limited exclusively to the slums, then it spread downtown, and now it is the common property of the whole city, even the exclusive residential neighborhoods—Miraflores, Barranco, San Isidro. If you live in Lima, you can get used to misery and grime, you can go crazy, or you can blow your brains out.
But I’m sure Mayta never got used to any of it. At the Salesian School, we’d be about to take the bus to Magdalena, where we both lived, when he’d suddenly run to give don Medaro, a ragged blind man with an out-of-tune violin who was always standing at the door of the María Auxiliadora Church, the bread-and-cheese snack the priests gave us at our last recess. And on Monday he would give don Medaro a real, which he must have saved from his own allowance. Once, during one of our Communion classes, he made Father Luis jump by asking him point-blank, “Why are there rich and poor people, Father? Aren’t we all God’s children?” He was always talking about the poor, the blind, the lame, the orphaned, the mad people wandering the streets. The last time I saw him, years after we had left the Salesian School, he brought up his old theme while we were having coffee in the Plaza San Martín: “Have you seen how many beggars there are in Lima? Thousands upon thousands.” Even before his famous hunger strike, lots of us in the class thought he would become a priest. In those days, to care about the poor was something we thought only a future priest would do, not something a revolutionary would do. Back then, we knew a lot about religion, very little about politics, and absolutely nothing about revolution. Mayta was a curly-haired, pudgy kid with flat feet and wide spaces between his teeth. He waddled: his feet looked like clock hands permanently set at ten minutes to two. He always wore short pants, a sweater with green stripes, and a scarf to keep warm. He would even keep that scarf on during class. We would tease him a lot for worrying about the poor, for serving at Mass, for praying and crossing himself so devoutly, for being so bad at soccer, and, most of all, for being named Mayta. All he’d say was, “Go pick your noses.”
Even though his family was of modest means, he wasn’t the poorest student in the school. The Salesian students could pass for public-school kids because our school wasn’t just for the lily-whites, as Santa María or La Inmaculada were, but for poorer kids from the lower middle class-the children of bureaucrats, petty officials, soldiers, unsuccessful professional men, artisans, and even the children of skilled laborers. Pure whites were a minority at our school: there were lots of mulattoes, black-and-Indian combinations, Chinese, Japs, “almost whites,” and tons of Indians. But even though many of us had copper-colored skin, high cheekbones, flat noses, and coarse hair, the only one I can remember with an Indian name was Mayta. Otherwise, he was no more Indian than the rest of us. His pale skin was greenish, his hair curly, and his features typically Peruvian—a mestizo.
He lived around the corner from La Magdalena Church, in a narrow house with its paint peeling off and no back yard. I got to know the place very well because over the course of a month I went there every afternoon. We read The Count of Monte Cristo aloud to each other. I got the book for my birthday, and we both loved it. Mayta’s mother worked as a nurse in the maternity ward and gave people shots at home. We would see her from the bus when she opened the door for Mayta. She was a robust woman with gray hair, and she would always give her son a quick kiss as if he were late. We never saw his father, and I was sure he didn’t exist. Mayta swore he was always on the road doing some job or other: he was an engineer (the most respected profession at the time).
I’ve finished running. Twenty minutes out and back between Parque Salazar and my house seems appropriate. Besides, as I ran I managed to forget I was running, and I dredged up memories of the classes at the Salesian School, Mayta’s superserious face, his waddle, and his high-pitched voice. There he is, I see him, I hear him, and I will go on seeing and hearing him as I catch my breath, leaf through the paper, eat breakfast, shower, and begin work.
His mother died when we were in our third year and Mayta went to live with an aunt who was also his godmother. He always spoke tenderly of her and told us how she gave him Christmas presents, birthday presents, and took him to the movies. She really must have been a good person, because Mayta kept up his relationship with doña Josefa after he was out on his own. Despite his irregular life, he went on visiting her over the years, and it was in her house that he had that encounter with Vallejos. I wonder how doña Josefa Arrisueño is doing now, twenty-five years after that party. I’ve been wondering ever since I called her, overcame her misgivings, and persuaded her to let me visit her. I’m still wondering as I get off the bus that leaves me on the corner of Paseo de la República and Avenida Angamos, where the Surquillo district begins. It’s a neighborhood I know well. When I was a kid, I’d come here with my friends on party nights to drink beer in El Triunfo, or I’d bring shoes to be fixed or clothes to be altered, or I’d come to see cowboy films in the neighborhood’s uncomfortable, smelly theaters—the Primavera, the Leoncio Prado, and the Maximil. It’s one of the few neighborhoods in Lima that has barely changed at all. It’s still full of shoemakers, tailors, alleys, printing shops with compositors setting type by hand, city garages, cavernous stores, cheap bars, storage depots, dumpy shops, gangs of punks on the corners, and kids playing soccer right in the street, with cars, trucks, and ice-cream carts going by. The crowds on the sidewalks, the badly painted one- or two-story houses, the oily puddles, the hungry dogs: they all seem the same as they did then.
But now these streets that once housed only thugs and prostitutes are also marijuana and cocaine centers. The drug traffic is worse here than in La Victoria, Rímac, Porvenir, or the slums. At night, these leprous corners, these sordid tenements, these pathetic saloons all turn into drug drops where marijuana and cocaine are bought and sold. Every day, they find another crude laboratory that processes cocaine. When the party that changed Mayta’s life took place, none of these things existed. There were few people in Lima who knew how to smoke marijuana, and cocaine was something for bohemian types and high-class nightclubs, something only a few night people would use to get rid of their hangovers so they could go on partying. Cocaine was far from being the most prosperous business in the country, and it wasn’t spreading all over the city. But none of this drug business is visible now as I walk along Jirón Dante toward the intersection with Jirón González Prada, just as Mayta must have walked that night to get to his aunt-godmother’s house—that is, if he came by bus or streetcar. In 1958, the streetcars still rattled along where cars from Zanjón now whiz by.
He was tired, foggy, with a slight buzzing in his head and a tremendous desire to soak his feet. There was no better remedy for physical or mental fatigue: that fresh, liquid sensation on his soles, arches, and toes relieved fatigue, dejection, and bad moods, and raised his morale. He had been walking since dawn, trying to sell Workers Voice in the Plaza Unión to the workers who were getting off the buses and streetcars and going into the factories on Avenida Argentina. Later, he had made two trips from the room on Jirón Zepita to Plaza Buenos Aires, in Cocharcas, first carrying some stencils and later an article by Daniel Guérin, translated from a French magazine, about colonialism in Indochina.
He had been on his feet for hours in the tiny print shop in Cocharcas, which, despite everything, still went on publishing the paper (with a bogus masthead, and payment in advance). He helped the compositor set the type and he corrected the proofs. Later, taking only one bus instead of the two that were really needed, he went to Rímac, where, every Wednesday in a tiny room on Avenida Francisco Pizarro, he would lead a study group of students from the University of San Marcos and the Engineering School. Afterward, without taking a break, with his stomach growling because all day he’d eaten only a dish of rice and greens in the university restaurant on Jirón Moquegua (he got in with an ID card from God knows when, which he updated from time to time), he attended the meeting of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party (Trotskyist), in the garage over on Jirón Zorritas, which lasted two long, smoky, polemical hours.
Who would have wanted to go to a party after a day like that? Plus, he always hated parties. His knees were shaking, and he felt as though he were walking on hot coals. But how could he not go? Except when he was away or in jail, he had never missed one of his aunt’s parties. And in the future, tired or not, with his feet a wreck or not, he would not miss one, even if it meant just dropping in for a minute, just long enough to tell his aunt he loved her. The house was filled with noise. The door opened straightaway: “Hello, godson.”
“Hello, godmother,” Mayta said. “Happy birthday.”
“Mrs. Josefa Arrisueño?”
“Yes. Come in, come in.”
She’s well preserved. She has to be over seventy, but she sure doesn’t show it: no wrinkles, and very little gray in her dark hair. She’s plump, but she has a nice figure. Wide hips. She’s wearing a lilac-colored dress with a red sash. The room is big, dark, with unmatched chairs, a big mirror, a sewing machine, a television set, a table, a Lord of Miracles, a San Martín de Porres, photos on the wall, and a vase filled with wax roses. Did the party where Mayta met Vallejos take place here?
“Right here.” Mrs. Arrisueño nods, looking around the room. She points to a rocker loaded with magazines. “I can just see them there, yakking away.”
There weren’t many people, but lots of smoke, the clinking of glasses, and the waltz “Idolo” at full blast. One couple was dancing and several were keeping time to the music, clapping hands or humming. Mayta, as always, felt out of place and sensed he might make a fool of himself at any moment. He would never be at ease in company. The table and chairs had been pushed into a corner so there would be space for dancing. Someone had a guitar under his arm. The people one might expect to see were there, and some others as well: her cousins, lovers, neighbors, relatives, and friends one would remember from other birthdays. But the skinny chatterbox—this was the first time he’d ever been seen there.
“He wasn’t a friend of the family’s,” says Mrs. Arrisueño, “but a lover or relative or something of a friend of Zoilita’s, my eldest daughter. She brought him, and no one knew anything about him.”
But they soon found out he was a nice guy, a good dancer, a good drinker, a smooth talker, and knew lots of jokes. Mayta said hello to his cousins, took a ham sandwich in one hand and a glass of beer in the other, and looked for a chair where he could collapse. The only free one was next to the skinny guy, who was standing there gesturing, holding forth to a chorus of three: the cousins Zoilita and Alicia and an old man in slippers. Trying to pass unnoticed, Mayta sat down next to them so he could let a respectable amount of time pass and then go home to sleep.
“He’d never stay long,” says Mrs. Arrisueño, rummaging through her pockets for a handkerchief. “He didn’t like parties. He wasn’t like other people. Never, not even when he was a kid. Always serious, always a little gentleman. His mother would say, ‘He was born old.’ She was my sister, see? Mayta’s birth was the tragedy of her life, because the moment she figured out she was pregnant, her boyfriend disappeared. Never saw him again. Do you think Mayta was that way because he had no father? He only came to my birthday parties to be polite. I brought him here when my sister died. He was the boy God never gave me. I only had girls. Zoilita and Alicia. They’re both in Venezuela, married, with children. Doing fine. I might have been able to remarry, but my daughters were so against it that I stayed a widow. A big mistake, let me tell you. Because now look at my life: I’m all alone, like a mushroom, a target for the thieves who’ll break in here any time now. My daughters send me a little something every month. If it weren’t for them, I’d be in a bad way, see?”
As she speaks, she looks me over, just barely dissimulating her curiosity. Her voice cracks once in a while, just like Mayta’s; her hands are big; and even though she smiles from time to time, her eyes are sad and watery. She complains about the rising cost of living, about the muggings—“There’s not a single woman in this neighborhood who hasn’t been attacked at least once”—about the robbery at the branch of the Banco de Crédito where so many poor people got shot, and about not being able to go to Venezuela too, where the streets are paved with gold.
“At the Salesian, we all thought Mayta would become a priest,” I say to her.
“That’s what my sister thought, too.” She nods, blowing her nose. “Me, too. He would make the sign of the cross whenever he passed a church; he went to Communion every Sunday. A little saint. Who’d ever have said it—I mean, that he would turn out to be a communist. In those days, it didn’t seem possible that a kid as religious as that would become a communist. But that’s all changed; now there are lots of communist priests, right? I can remember perfectly the day he walked through that door.”
He came up to her with his schoolboo...
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