History of a Friendship: Julio Ramón Ribeyro and Mario Vargas Llosa
For nearly three decades, the writers Julio Ramón Ribeyro and Mario Vargas Llosa were friends. After sharing literary tastes, signing political manifestos, and living in the same cities, they grew apart forever.
They met towards the end of 1958, not long after Ribeyro returned to Peru and not long before Vargas Llosa traveled to Madrid on a grant. Both had already begun publishing their work: the former had published the short story collections Los gallinazos sin plumas [The featherless buzzards] (1955) and Cuentos de circunstancias [Stories of circumstances] (1958), and the latter had published two short stories in 1957: “Los jefes” [The chiefs] in a supplement of the magazine Mercurio Peruano and “El abuelo” [The grandfather] in the Sunday supplement of the newspaper El Comercio.
In his memoirs, A Fish in the Water (1993), Vargas Llosa recalls that Ribeyro, before he met him personally, was the most esteemed of Peru’s young fiction writers. “We all spoke of him with respect,” he writes. In that same year, 1993, Ribeyro stated that he met Vargas Llosa at a friend’s house: “He had a very strong personality. He was always very sure of what he said and wrote. That was very impressive. Then, in Paris, I got to know him better. We were colleagues at the Agence France-Presse.”
After fruitlessly attempting to become a professor in San Marcos, and thanks to a grant awarded by the French government, Ribeyro settled in Paris in 1960. It was there that he met Vargas Llosa for the second time; he had been living in the French capital city for months, working in the Spanish-language section of the Agence France-Presse.
Thanks to Vargas Llosa and fellow Peruvian writer Luis Loayza, Ribeyro also became a part of this news agency. “Six hours of work a day, often exhausting, but decorously paid,” Ribeyro noted on April 21, 1961, in the second volume of La tentación del fracaso [The temptation of failure] (1993), his personal diaries. This was, without a doubt, the period of time when the two writers saw each other the most. They went to parties together. (In 1955, Vargas Llosa had married Julia Urquidi; they would divorce in 1964).
In a 2002 interview, Mario Vargas Llosa commented to the Spanish professors Ángel Esteban and Ana Gallego: Ribeyro “was perhaps the most timid person I’ve ever met, immensely inhibited with women, for example [...]. I watched his relationship with Alida grow. It was a little complicated at first, and she didn’t go easy on him.”
“I remember, in the news agency where we worked together a thousand years ago, how Ribeyro would amuse himself describing sinuous animals in between cables: crabs, octopuses, cockroaches,” Vargas Llosa commented in a 1984 article. Vargas Llosa, in 1962, moved to Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, where his salary rose and he had more free time to revise The City and the Dogs (1963), his first novel. Months after its publication, Ribeyro noted his opinion of this work in his diary, on March 16, 1964: “It is prodigiously well constructed, well written, well elaborated down to the smallest details. With a masterful coup de pouce [thrust], he has elevated the Peruvian and Latin American novel to the level of universal literature.” Of all the works of Vargas Llosa, this was Ribeyro’s favorite.
Similarly, Luis Loayza and Ribeyro spent this time concentrating on their novels Una piel de serpiente [A serpent’s skin] (1964) and Los geniecillos dominicales [The little Sunday geniuses] (1965). On this last book, Vargas Llosa commented in 1966: “With this novel, Ribeyro has not only outlined his spiritual biography as a writer, he has also written the most beautiful of his books, with the most certain and durable glory.”
On October 19, 1966, Ribeyro wrote to the German critic and translator Wolfgang A. Luchting: “When I used to spend time with Vargas Llosa and Lucho Loayza in Paris five years ago—I knew them in Lima, but not well—I would’ve bet a hundred to ten that the great Peruvian novel would be written by Loayza, not Mario. Loayza’s intelligence was so refined, so rich in nuance, so brilliant at times that all his literary opinions shook one’s own de fond en comble [to the core]. But it was Mario, not Loayza, who, two years later, published The City and the Dogs.”
The political leanings of both writers were well known in intellectual circles, but in 1965 they openly declared their support for the armed struggle of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Movement of the Revolutionary Left, or MIR), led by Luis de la Puente Uceda: they signed a manifesto along with six other Peruvians living in Paris. The text appeared in the magazine Caretas: “We approve of the armed struggle initiated by the MIR, we condemn the biased press that distorts the patriotic and redemptive nature of the guerrillas, we censure the violent repression of the government, and we offer our moral support to the men who now give their lives in the hopes that all Peruvians might live better.”
On March 14, 1966, Ribeyro told Luchting: “It’s been days since I’ve seen Mario. He’s meant to come have dinner at my house on Thursday. I’ll tell him you’re expecting his letter. Mario is a guy hors de pair [without equal]. I’m blown away by his self-assurance, his diligence, his equanimity, his practical, realistic, almost mechanical way of life. He’s a man who knows how to solve his problems. He sorts them out with lucidity and a cool head. And the worst part is that none of us knows anything about him. He makes himself known by his actions alone. The preparation and reasons behind his actions never come to light. He never lets you in on a secret. He is never discouraged by anyone, by anything. He never stops to think, his choices are always foolproof. There is no ‘dead time’ in his life, the time you or I so often waste sitting around in some café, thinking about things that don’t matter. What he conceives, he makes real. Between one and the other there is no phase of uncertainty, of mistrust, of laziness, like the one that sometimes neutralizes and stifles our finest purposes. Maybe that’s why he gives an impression of ‘inhumanity.’ Maybe that’s why he has many admirers, but hardly any friends. Maybe that’s the innate condition of the authentic creator: the condition of a man who flies far above us and our little feelings, settled into his own Olympus.”
In 1966, Vargas Llosa moved to London after the success of his second novel, The Green House (1966). On September 30, Ribeyro said to Luchting about the book: “This novel takes your breath away. In this book there is more talent and more innovation than in fifty years of Spanish literature. I can only imagine how much work the translation must be taking you. I wonder, though, what will be the result of such flaunting of technique, such skill in construction, such concealment, such conjuring of situations and characters, such savoir faire [knowledge], and so on.” In another letter, this time to his brother Juan Antonio on October 6, 1966, Ribeyro refers again to the same book: “His latest novel, which I’m reading now, is a show more than a book. Are we in the presence of a genius? His plot is woven masterfully and his style is a permanent revolution.” Referring to Los cachorros [The pups] (1967), Vargas Llosa’s short novel, Ribeyro told Luchting on January 1, 1967: “It reaffirms the style of The Green House (which turns out, to my judgment, a little tiring and contrived), but applied to a different reality: a group of students of the Champagnat School in Miraflores.”
In a 1966 letter to Luchting, referring to the particularities of Ribeyro’s work, Vargas Llosa stated: “All his stories and novels are fragments of a single allegory about the fundamental frustration of being Peruvian: a frustration that is social, individual, cultural, psychological, and sexual.”
It is known that Ribeyro met General Juan Velasco Alvarado in Paris in 1963, five years before he carried out the coup d’état that would bring him to power. Thanks to his friendship with the president of Peru, in 1970 Ribeyro entered the world of diplomacy as cultural attaché of the Peruvian embassy in France, and in 1972 he was named alternate representative of Peru before UNESCO.
In 1970, Mario moved to Barcelona, shortly after publishing Conversation in the Cathedral (1969). About this book, Ribeyro declared in 1971: “I liked it less than The City and the Dogs and The Green House. I think Vargas Llosa is not so universal in this work as in his others.”
On May 30, 1970, Ribeyro commented to Luchting: “I’m having trouble getting through the first part of Mario’s novel. I must confess that, up to this point, it has neither seduced me nor captured me nor blown me away as much as the ones that came before it. This is, of course, a provisional opinion, as I still need to finish it. I have the impression that the book doesn’t take off, or it takes too long to take off. I wonder if the guilt lies with the subject itself, with the Odría dictatorship, which was a narrow-minded and, sadly, unimaginative dictatorship. Or, perhaps, with Mario’s slight or nonexistent fondness for his own characters. Anyway, we can talk about this again once I’ve finished the novelón.”
After having lunch with the Vargas Llosa family on July 4, 1971, Ribeyro noted in his personal diary: “One of many sporadic encounters over the past few years since Vargas Llosa, let’s say, climbed on the wagon of celebrity. Communication difficult, despite the presence of Alfredo Bryce. There is an affability, a cold cordiality in Vargas Llosa that immediately established (it has always been like this, I realize more and more every time) a distance between himself and others. This time I noticed, besides that, a tendency to speak over others, to listen less than before, and to carelessly interrupt the development of conversations that had the potential of going far. [...] Vargas Llosa gives the impression of never doubting his own opinions. Everything he says is, for him, evident. He possesses—or thinks he possesses—the truth. Nonetheless, conversing with him is almost always a pleasure due to the passion and the emphasis he places upon conversation, and his tendency towards hyperbole, which makes his speech somehow both amusing and convincing.”
Alan García (1985-1990) appointed Ribeyro as a permanent delegate of Peru as ambassador to UNESCO. Ribeyro occupied this post until July 1990, when Alberto Fujimori came to power. Months later, on April 6, 1986, the Aprista president awarded him the Orden del Sol, the highest honor granted by the Peruvian government. In the aforementioned interview from 2002, Vargas Llosa recalled: “They invited me as well, but I suspected that something was going to happen and I didn’t attend. When he realized he was caught in a trap, Julio Ramón had no choice but to accept, with great reluctance, and he had to publicly thank the government for the award.” Weeks later, Ribeyro visited the Peruvian head of state to thank him for the recognition.
Two months later, on June 18 and 19, the massacre of prisoners in the Lurigancho, El Frontón, and Santa Bárbara prisons took place. Vargas Llosa immediately wrote a letter to Alan García, which was published in the newspaper El Comercio under the title “Una montaña de cadáveres” [A mountain of cadavers], in which he argues: “The way in which these riots have been suppressed suggests a coming-to-terms with the enemy more than an operation aimed at reestablishing order.” Ribeyro, on the other hand, opted to remain silent: a decision criticized by intellectuals of various ideologies.
The next year, in 1987, when Vargas Llosa spoke out decidedly against the proposed nationalization of banks proposed by Peru’s then-president, Ribeyro indicated to the Agence France-Presse: “I have an old and close friendship with Mario Vargas Llosa, and I admire him greatly as a writer. I am therefore mortified to have to disagree with him regarding the debate over the nationalization of credit. But the interests of the country must come before any personal sentiments. And, by my judgment, these interests are supported by the governmental project of President Alan García, based on the grave circumstances Peru now faces as well as my own convictions. The present debate, on the other hand, has overstepped the bounds of its original purpose and become a confrontation between supporters of the status quo and supporters of change. And in this debate, I think the position taken up by Vargas Llosa identifies him objectively with the conservative sectors of Peru, placing him in opposition to the irresistible eruption of the popular classes who fight for their own wellbeing, and who will end up imposing their own social model, more fair and humanitarian, as much as it might upset us as sons of the bourgeoisie.” Vargas Llosa responded with attacks; Ribeyro kept silent.
Niño de Guzmán states: “When Julio was dying, he gave me the keys to his apartment in Barranco. ‘Go with my brother,’ he told me, ‘to put my diaries in a safe place.’ When I went to get the manuscripts, I found no fewer than nine version of a letter he had started writing, in response to Vargas Llosa, but that he never finished. Each one was a new sheet of paper in the typewriter.” He did not ask for forgiveness; rather, he explained why he agreed with the measures taken by Alan García.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Jorge Coaguila was born in Lima in 1970. He earned his Master's degree in Peruvian and Latin American Literature from the National University of San Marcos, where he is currently completing a doctorate. He has published the books Ribeyro, la palabra inmortal [Ribeyro, the immortal word] (1995) and Vargas Llosa, la mentira verdadera [Vargas Llosa, the true lie] (2017), which compile studies dedicated to these Peruvian writers. He has also edited Julio Ramón Ribeyro: las respuestas del mudo [Julio Ramón Ribeyro: the answers of the speechless] (1998) and Mario Vargas Llosa: entrevistas escogidas [Mario Vargas Llosa: selected interviews] (2004).
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
In our twelfth issue, we pay homage to two giants of Latin American letters: Ida Vitale of Uruguay, winner of the 2018 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro of Peru, whose work we celebrate on the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. We also feature poetry, interviews, and stories that range from the Caribbean to the Andes and from Central American to Brazil, exclusive book previews and reflections from translators, and a special section dedicated to the work of Edwin Lucero Rinza, a young poet who recently published the first ever verse collection in Kañaris Quechua.