Sunday, February 11, 2007

Battlegrounds Real and Fictional

By Daniel Alarcón*

In 1980, there were many reasons to be optimistic about the future of Peru, most significantly, the restoration of democracy after twelve years of military dictatorship. The same man who’d been deposed in1968 was returned to the presidency, and the elections had gone off with relatively few disruptions. Some ballots were burned in a town called Chuschi, in the province of Ayacucho, but this was anecdotal really, and nothing worth paying attention to. It was the year my family left for the United States, and very few people had any idea what was coming. We certainly didn’t.
We left and made our lives in the southern United States, and Peru existed, in those days before CNN and the internet and cheap international phone calls, as a rumor, more or less. We exchanged letters and audio cassettes with family back home. News was always hard to come by, and if a daily paper or a weekly magazine from Lima arrived, these were devoured. By the mid 1980s, the news had taken on a grim tone. Chuschi turned out to be not so insignificant after all—that act of armed civil disobedience had been the opening salvo in a war that would last over a decade. Ayacucho and a handful of other provinces were declared emergency zones. It was all still faraway, but one had the sense that trouble was coming. The city of Lima, naturally, ignored the war as long as it could.
Which wasn’t so difficult to do. The worst of it was taking place far from the city, in the countryside, in the sierra, in isolated Andean villages, where the Shining Path demanded loyalty from besieged villages, while the armed forces meted out often indiscriminate punishment upon the same terrorized residents. The conflict pushed thousands from their homes and toward the relative safety of the coast, and these displaced came from the same marginalized class the state had always ignored: poor, indigenous, rural, Quechua-speaking Peruvians. They filled the slums of the city, and the war came with them, to the place where it had always belonged: after all, the intellectual authors of the war were not campesinos—they were urban, educated, and angry. Lima, the seat of power in a highly centralized state, was the logical target. In the city, the war took the form of blackouts, kidnappings, and car bombs. In July 1992 alone there were nearly 300 guerrilla attacks in the Peruvian capital. Torture, extrajudicial executions, mass graves—all the hallmarks of a clumsy state response to an enemy it does not understand—these, too, migrated to the coast. All told, some 70,000 were killed in an armed conflict that lasted more than a decade.
Of course, in some surprising ways, the war is still being fought. A Peruvian writers’ conference hosted last year by the Casa de America in Madrid, began as a discussion of the national literature of the last twenty-five years and quickly became a messy airing of grievances, degenerating into an extended shouting match that stretched on for months. In the weeks after the gathering, the arguments played out in the pages of Lima’s various newspapers, and again, it came down to a question of access: which authors were being accepted by the elites (or the perceived elites), which were being ignored, and why. Who controlled the publishing in Peru, and how this power was wielded—who, in other words, was allowed to tell the story of the conflict. For the purposes of simplifying a much more complicated debate, a convenient shorthand was created—Andean versus Creole. This reductive binary gave birth to others: brown versus white, supporters of Maoist terror versus those who preferred the state-sponsored variety, those working with Indigenous narrative traditions versus those writers more self-consciously cosmopolitan, and on and on.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt less Peruvian than I did at that conference, watching the conversation deteriorate, the factions impose their fearsome logic. A discussion I found to be inane was carried on passionately by people whose intelligence and integrity I never questioned. From an outsider’s perspective—mine—it seemed that this proliferation of false dichotomies was the function of a great and unfinished trauma. Clearly, the war, its scarring, was much worse than I had considered. Nearly fifteen years after the dismantling of Shining Path, five years after the fall of the Fujimori dictatorship, there was still little room for nuanced dialogue about what had happened.
It has been said that Peru’s literature is only now beginning to come to terms with its violent past. This is not entirely true: novels and stories and plays have been diagnosing the schisms of Peruvian society for decades—before, during, and the in immediate aftermath of the war. If anyone had wanted to know the shape of the coming conflict, he had only to read the work of José María Arguedas, for example, to know it would not be pretty. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that the heat of the conflict and the resulting polarization of society obscured our ability to assess much of the work that was being written and published. Official Peru was under siege, and any literary attempt to understand the conflict as it was—complex, multilayered, with root causes that were in themselves indictments of the national project—could be interpreted as apologia for terrorism. A struggle between good and evil was being fought, and any piece of writing that did not begin from this premise was dutifully and necessarily ignored.
Many American readers will recognize these circumstances, of course, and nor is Peru the first country to sacrifice its appreciation of literature and art to the Manichean logic of war time. But this has passed, and the creative explosion taking place in Peru today is testament to one of the more hopeful truths about artistic recovery: though the reality described may seem fraught beyond reckoning, the texts that survive are sometimes able to redeem it.
In selection these texts, Juan Manuel Chávez and I began from the premise that an exhaustive or comprehensive view of the war and its impact on Peruvian writing is imposible. We looked at wide array of short fiction and picked texts that we hope will add to a conversation we feel is long overdue. There are literally dozens of writers we could have included here, writers of merit who deserve to be read: Luis Nieto Degregori, Alonso Cueto, Pilar Dughi, Guillermo Niño de Guzmán, to name just a few. The idea behind this portafolio was simply to provide a snapshot of country through its literature.

* A Public Space 3, New York, winter 2007, 121-123.