Can we speak at all?
Let’s imagine a literary country, a country that doesn’t exist, that would have to be invented out of thin air like Macondo was invented, or Yoknapatawpha County, or any of those other places people believe exist. It doesn’t matter whether they believe it exists or not. The important thing here is to build it from scratch, from zero. It doesn’t exist, it simply doesn’t exist. Deep in their hearts they know it’s true, that’s one thing I’m certain of. Folks who have suffered worse than this already sense it. All they have to do is take a look at the past and what do they see? Poverty, hunger, unemployment, bombs, there’s no money, no water, no light. The streets are destroyed. In other words, there’s nothing. A shit country. That’s why those who could left, and those who couldn’t got screwed. Those are the people we’ve got today: the poor in spirit, as Jesus said. These guys don’t have to be bought or anything. They were sold a long time ago, they just don’t realize it. It isn’t a question of “buying” them; renting them, maybe. Rent them a while, for the good of the country. We distribute food in their shanty towns, in the suburbs, in the countryside, and since these people don’t have a photographic memory—because there, the only photos they’ve got are ones of the mountains, the desert—we give them our photo printed on notebooks for their kids, and that’s that. We use the same photo on the ballots and since they don’t know any other candidates from Adam, they end up voting for us, for the one printed on the notebook. And there you have it. From then until the next election, nobody can stop us.
“Don’t be poor,” my father told me. And I saw him there, laid out in the military hospital. His body opened up bit by bit while they did the autopsy required by law. The fool lost it all at the racetrack. As if luck existed in this country. The idiot. Sure, luck exists—it’s just always bad. Unless you take the time to think, to talk to the right people, to have a notebook where you jot down who is who, what they do in the mornings, what they eat for breakfast, if they have kids, a wife, mistresses, illegitimate children (everyone has a few of those running around, or they wouldn’t be men), if they have cars, if they take the bus, taxis, where their family’s from, their parents, their grandparents, if they’re Italian, Gringo, French, Chinese, German, or English, or if they’re just poor Peruvians without a more illustrious heritage than the one they invent: son of the mountains or of some remote part of the jungle. Jesus! The thing is to find out who they get together with, who their friends are, where they go for dinner, which hotel they take their mistress to, who she is, what she does, if she has kids. Is she from the city? The highlands? Is she mixed up in politics? Or is she just one of those women who spend their days walking around the city? The thing is to have a prodigious memory and since nobody has a prodigious memory, everything has to be written down. That’s why you’ve got the paper and pen and the best thing we’ve got going for us these days: technology. Photos, cameras, cellphones, recording equipment, the Internet, everything you need to know, who is who and what they’re up to. Everybody in this country is running away from something. And if they’re running it’s because they’re hiding some terrible secret. Maybe it’s not so terrible. What do you know! The important thing is that for them, it’s terrible. Maybe they killed somebody, or stole from their boss or family or friend. Or maybe they’ve got kids scattered all over the country, and they’re running from that. It doesn’t matter. If you know what it is and how to use it, then luck—bad or good—doesn’t exist. Only success does.
What’s the name of that poor bastard who was always pushing the boulder up the hill just to have it fall back down to the bottom? Anyway, that’s what these people are like. They believe they can carry that boulder up to heaven. But that’s not what it’s about. They can carry it to the top of the mountain, but before they reach it, we can make it so the peak doesn’t exist.
“Don’t be poor,” the bastard told me before me died. He left it written in that hole he lived in, there in the center of the city. The family found out and came up from the south. They wasted their time. I wasn’t going to let them see him, shut up inside that four-by-four box. Let them all go back where they came from! Like I care what they think! It was because of them that the old man’s life went to shit. Because of them, I might have gone to shit, too. But I didn’t. When I saw my father’s guts during the autopsy, when he was opened up bit by bit, I didn’t need to remember what his farewell letter said. I already knew. I swore I would never be poor. The rest is literature. Jesus! This is a literary country!
Here, nobody is a saint. And yet we act like we walk on water! Right? Have you ever asked yourself how you managed to do all the things you’ve done in your life? How you’ve managed to survive in the midst of the buses, the bombs, the rationing of electricity and water, the communists looking to usurp your homeland, the terrorists who want to destroy this country, the NGO sellouts who don’t love this land? Am I right? Go on, say something!
So many years living in grinding poverty, in the shadows, never looking around you! The only thing to do was wait, be patient, not lose hope. You know how it is! You work your whole life so you might someday have a better one. That’s why you’ve abandoned everyone, isn’t that right? But you haven’t abandoned them; they’ve abandoned you. Because they don’t want things to go well for you, they don’t want you to make something of yourself. You’ve known it this whole time, but nobody’s said it to your face. Again, the thing is to be silent, like a shadow. What do your secrets matter if nobody knows them! The important thing, the really crucial thing is to be in the right place at the right time and know everything. Have a thousand eyes, a thousand ears. The Incas—those great leaders!—they knew how to do it. They would send one guy, just one, to visit the different kingdoms of Tahuantinsuyo on foot, wearing some less respectable usutas than the Incas used. What? You don’t know what usutas are? What kind of a person doesn’t know a vulgar word (from the Latin vulgaris; that is, common, ordinary) like usutas? Maybe you’ll recognize one of its synonyms: sandals, flip-flops, some people call them thongs. Well, hermano, like I was saying, these guys walked to the different kingdoms, but they went in disguise, like the ekeko, like the devil, like Ulysses returning to Ithaca, and they recorded everything they saw in the area. And then, like the good intelligence agents they were, they returned and told everything to the Incaman—which is like saying “His Excellency” to refer to our President—and he would take care of the matter. That was also how they handled subversives back then: the Chankas, the Chimúes, all those people who didn’t love their homeland. Those proto-agents, called Tucuyricuy, were like our National Intelligence Service. Right, hermano?
This is—how can I explain it—an absolute truth, an undeniable truth that even Plato or his disciple, the Greek philosopher Aristotle understood. If you don’t learn to observe, you’ll never understand how nature works. Society is a body that has to be dissected, keeping in mind that in the end, all any animal wants is to sleep, eat, love. If we give them that, then they’re happy, aren’t they? And that’s what we’ve done. That’s how we made terrorism disappear from this wonderful country. It was only a question of time. Now everyone can rest easy. We pass out bags of food, Christmas baskets, rice, cans of tuna in all those shanty towns, in the most remote villages in the country. Now they can eat in peace. And, finally, we’ve built 6,662 schools throughout the country; we’ve installed electricity, water, and sewage systems in this thirsty desert, in these abandoned Andes, in this inhospitable jungle. And because of this, they all sing and dance with Señor Presidente. Because they know he’s the only one who’s taken a tough stance in this country of crooks.
As long as you follow Maslow’s pyramid, nothing else matters. What? You don’t know what Maslow’s pyramid is either? Not even who Maslow was? Christ, hermano, you don’t know anything. The world is a pyramid. This is something you have to learn when you’re little. Ever since you were a baby, you’ve had needs and you’ve had to know what they are, if you hope to satisfy them. For example, the ones I mentioned. Because the truth of the matter is you’re born at the bottom of the pyramid: you’re born poor, you’re born a slave. And, little by little, you begin to climb the pyramid. How do you do that? Well, how do you think you do it? The Syrians, or maybe the Egyptians, created the pyramids, then the Mayas and Aztecs had them, and finally the Incas made their own, of course! Abraham Maslow summarized all this in his excellent book A Theory of Human Motivation.
Just remember: every pyramid has a secret chamber.
But how do you achieve all this? By being better than the other guy, right? And how can you be better than the other guy? It’s like I told you: listening, writing everything down like the Tucuyricuy did, being invisible to other people even though they know you’re there. Almost like a ghost, but more real, more authentic, because no one believes in you. This is something else you learn from the time you’re a kid, right? And then to the pyramid. But don’t believe you’re going to climb somebody else’s pyramid just because you want to. Don’t be so stupid, hermano. That’s for fools. Climb while you can, but the trick, the hustle, the gimmick is in making your own pyramid, so that you’re on top from the beginning. If you’re thinking about climbing up somebody else’s pyramid, you’re crazy. You’ll waste your life trying, and like I already said, only fools try to go about it that way. I mean, here the houses just barely make it off the ground. What, are you blind? If we didn’t build their houses for them, you would only find half-built, ramshackle huts, with half a wall and a tarp, or with roofs made of rice or sugar sacks. Goddamn! How brilliant we are! That’s why we’re never without a place to sleep! Goddamn, this is a great country!
Ah, of course, we’re never without the bad elements of society who only want to see it destroyed, to make everything we’ve earned disappear, to take a step back, but not then take two steps forward, who only want to demolish the deep tranquility and democratic change we’ve brought to this beautiful land. A few of them are already in jail. Like my fellow countryman and colleague, Abimael. What? You didn’t know we’re from the same place? Don’t get carried away, just because we’re from the same area. (If you still don’t where where that is, get the hell out of here.) And colleagues, shit! Who knew! I’ve always said, there’s no better career than law. Do you know how law and literature are alike? You don’t know? Both work with reality but write only fiction. What? You didn’t like that one? How about this one? Were you born a dumbass, or did you have to work on it? Ha ha ha. That one you did know, didn’t you?
The question, hermano, is what to do with these bad elements, these bad apples from the Garden of Eden, these poisonous snakes who are always so pessimistic about everything. That’s why, like I said, you have to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. Chinese philosophy! Sun Tzu! You don’t know who Sun Tzu is, either? Alright, that’s one you’re going have to look up yourself. Don’t be such a slacker. I was saying, again, that the thing is to build yourself a secret chamber inside your pyramid. And that’s where you bring these bad citizens, where you invite them to tell you what their plans are, who else is with them. The thing is to make them collaborate, because if they don’t want to collaborate, that’s when things get tricky, hermano. That’s when you have to get tough. All for the sake of our pacification.
For instance, my agents are already trained for these things. They learned it all so long ago, they’ve got doctorates in the subject. First, in the ‘70s. Ah, it seems like only yesterday. From there to Belaúnde and Alan in the ‘80s was easier than saluting the flag. A question of trial and error. Like with nature: nobody is born knowing. So they rehearsed in the ‘70s, trained in the ‘80s, and earned their doctorates in the ‘90s. Why else? Of course, there’s always some inept bastard that comes to you with “I’m tired,” “I can’t sleep,” telling you he hears their screams, their voices in his head, echoing, that there are thousands of voices, these dipshits have told me, thousands of voices as if each one wanted to say something, but they don’t say anything, they’re murmurs, like the wind when it gusts, like buses when they start up, like waves breaking against a cliff. I think it’s all a lie. I’ve never heard anything like that. And I’ve been present at one or two interrogations myself. But don’t bother me with this garbage! A person’s over here, thinking about how to fix this country, and these wimps come and whine at me about how there’s something keeping them up at night. Pills! Problem solved! That’s why sometimes I send them on a trip when they get picky, so they can get some rest and quit bothering everyone. Not all of them at once, of course. You’d have to be a complete idiot to send them all on vacation at once. As long as they don’t come out with how they’ve fallen in love with a terruca, or that they feel bad for the poor girl, there’s no problem. That’s when you have to be careful. But there are ways. They’re taught that these guys are the enemy, that they shouldn’t feel bad for them because they wouldn’t feel bad for us, if the tables were turned. That’s why we keep photos of the massacres of police or top military brass around, so you don’t let those terrucas seduce you, right? We put the screws to the ladies, too. We make sure they’re really and thoroughly screwed. That’s why they’ve got two little holes. You put one stick in the ass, the other in the cunt, and see if the dumb bitches don’t start talking. They want to fuck all of us. But we’ve already graduated. That’s why we never have any of this “I fell in love” crap. My people don’t fall in love with terrucas. And the fear of sleep doesn’t exist. I’ve already told them: no wimps, goddamnit! If you can’t sleep, you do what everyone else does to deal with it. A few beers, a good whiskey, and everyone off to bed. Jesus!
The problem is when they have seizures, hermano. Then they splatter God-knows-what all over the room. Partially digested food, saliva, blood, bile, some reddish-green foam. Ha ha. Forgive me for laughing, but I just remembered an excellent story by one of our literary masters, Julio Ramón Ribeyro: “Bubbly in the Basement.” I recommend it. None of the writers we’ve got nowadays hold a candle to him. In fact, no one in Latin America writes like he did, except for one other Peruvian. The one that won the Nobel Prize. But now that idiot went and became a Spaniard. What a jackass! He even ran for president! Against my candidate! But let’s not get off track (now’s not the time for lectures on literature. Don’t go overboard!) When they splatter all over the place, the floor is a mess. And who’s going to clean that up? Why, the Joint Command of the Armed Forces, who else? That’s what they’re there for! To clean up all the communist, socialist, Maoist trash in this country. A little bit of water and everything gets nice and clean. A little bit of water for the floor, a little for the young man, a little for the young lady, a bit of bleach or detergent in the eyes, on the cock, in the ass, on the balls, in both little holes, and a little bit of soap for the agents and we start all over again. You tie the guy’s hands behind his back—he’s buck naked and blindfolded—grab him by his little cock (so small because he’s scared shitless), and wrap it in stripped wire. You ask him again to tell you the whole truth, and if he doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to know, you switch on the current till he talks. Just don’t let him die, because if he does, everything gets shot to hell. And then again you’d have to decide who will be the one to chop him up, and who’ll light the oven, and it’s a pain in the ass, because whoever does has to stay there all night, and then they come to me to ask for the extra hours to be recognized. The bastards!
If that doesn’t happen—simply put, if the asshole doesn’t die and wants to talk, we bring him to another room. We tell him, “Look, sit here. Here’s the judge with no face, here’s the district attorney with no face, and here’s your lawyer with no face.” And then we take his statement. And nobody can come to us with accusations about Human Rights, or irregular proceedings. Ha. I just remembered a really good one. When these bastards demand their rights, Sapolio brings out his sand-filled leather cane and says, “Your rights? You want your rights? Well here they are!” and he starts hitting them in the back, on the ass, on their balls, depending on his mood. One time his “Rights” split open from so many strokes. Poor Sapolio, he got so sad, the bastard. No one had even died. In the end, I sent him to get more sand from the beach. Since we’ve got more than enough sand in this desert.
The problem is with the ladies, the chicks. They cry like you wouldn’t believe, hermano. With them, it’s better not to get involved. Get your subordinates to do it and inform you if they get some name, some piece of intel. The problem is that sometimes these guys get out of hand. One time, they left this chick in the room for three days to see if she would tell them something, but when they took her out and she still wouldn’t talk, they started beating her, all over her back. They put the wires on her toes and the little lady fainted. My subordinates joined me for breakfast and brought me up to date on the situation. Then and there I had to give them a lecture on the Constitutional Tribunal, because these guys don’t know anything. The idiots don’t even read Condorito or Mafalda! One has to tell them what’s going on in the country. Well, they may not be well-read, but they get results better than anybody! After that, they went to see if the skinny bitch had woken up yet. And I told them that if she didn’t talk, they shouldn’t waste their time on her, that they should take her downstairs and find someone else who would talk.
And if they get bored, they can always go to the beach. One time, Cebolla brought us one of those terrucos from the south, beyond Lurín. About two hours from here? In the end, Cebolla said to him, “You like the ocean? The waves? You like to surf?” They stripped the guy and left him on the beach with his hands tied, then they shot at him to make him run into the beautiful Pacific. He ran like nobody else. Where did he think he was going? Malaysia? China? Like he was the Kon-Tiki! What an idiot! They ended up pulling him onto the sand so he would talk, but they still got nothing out of him. So into the water he goes, the wimp! They had him half drowned between the sand and the water. That beach is an excellent place to spend a day. The waves are calm, there’s not much breeze, and if you’re lucky, you can see little crabs, jellyfish, sea urchins, all those animals that kids like. I’m only telling you in case you want to take your family. Agents need distraction, too, otherwise they get stressed. Jesus! Nobody understands that we’re human beings too!
And I’m not going to tell you everything you have to do with your secret chamber, either. Don’t be such a slacker!
Hermano, have you seen The Invaders? No? Maybe you’re too young to remember. David Vincent was an architect who saw a flying saucer one night on his way home from some bender, probably. A flying saucer, yes. From that day on, he realized that there were these beings from some extinct planet that had come to take over Earth. And the worst part was that they take our form. They dress like us, talk like us, go to school like us, eat like us, but they’re not us. Their only desire is the complete destruction of the human race so they can have our planet. In the series, nobody believes Vincent because he’s alone, the poor bastard. Who are they going to believe then! But anyway. The invaders arrived in Peru a while ago. I’m sure you didn’t even realize it. They got here before the ‘70s, before my Generalísimo. What’s more, if the Generalísimo wasn’t one of them, he was at least on their side. And later, when we discovered them, they turned more violent. That’s why they set off so many bombs. The good thing is that they’ve almost completely disappeared. But their allies are still around. They’re not so Martian-like as the originals, because they’re human beings like you and me, they eat the same things you do, they work like you, they study like you. So how do we recognize them, how do we trap them? Easy, hermano. It’s not for nothing that we’ve been at work pacifying this conceptious country all this time. You don’t know what conceptious means? You’ve got to be kidding me, hermano!
Like I was saying, it’s easy. You have to be in the places they are: where they eat, where they go for a beer, where they meet, where they plan some violent act against our peace and wellbeing. For example, when they re-emerged at the Japanese ambassador’s house. You remember? Nobody expected them there. That time I wrung the hell out of my people, the incompetent fools. Eight hundred people were there and those sons of bitches took over everything. And for four months, we were there like idiots, with all the international media breathing down our necks. In the end, it all turned out perfectly. All those sympathizers went back where they came from. And this country returned to normal.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself why the hell I’m telling you all this. You can’t guess? I don’t need to convince you of anything, hermano. Spooks don’t lift up each other’s bedsheets. I don’t have any reason to lie to you. Because if I lie to you, wouldn’t it be like lying to myself? Do you think I don’t know what’s going on out there? Don’t you know it yourself? The brainwashed are still out there. Extraterrestrials who’ve come from God-knows-where and can’t be saved. Not even with “Human Rights,” if you’ll forgive the joke. So we’ve sent our guys to all the same places where these aliens used to hang out. Exactly. To the universities: San Marcos, the Catholic University, the Cantuta, the Callao, et cetera, et cetera. We’re right beside these bastards who quit studying to dedicate themselves to the same shit as those bastards who seized the Ambassador’s house. But this time, we’re ready: we’ve got our undercover agents in there egging them on, so these bastards throw a couple of bombs and then the police know what to do. The important thing is to grab as many of them as we can off the street. If one of our men falls, what does it matter! Simply put, if that happens, we figure out how to get them out, give them amnesty, change their names, we get them a visa to Europe or the U.S. I mean, we’ve got the Gringos on our side! Those guys have been fighting extraterrestrials longer than we have! Ha ha ha!
You think I don’t know about the protest, hermano? The march is headed for disaster, like any strike or protest in this country. But people don’t learn. They think that going out to whine over everything is democracy. But of course, when a bomb goes off, we have to run to defend them. Order is what this country needs. Order and silence. Order like it was a military school, silence like it was a cemetery. And for that, we need our undercover operatives, our spies selling soda, water, sandwiches, corn nuts, ice cream. If everyone is dying of hunger and dying of thirst, they’ll come shopping, and right there in situ, we’ll ask them two or three things, and since they’re such idiots, they’ll tell us everything. And then we’ll act.
Now it’s your turn, hermano. Imagine a literary country.
Translated by Gillian Esquivia-Cohen
Carlos Villacorta Gonzales is a writer and Associate Professor of Latin American Literature at the University of Maine. He has published the novel Alicia, esto es el capitalismo (2014) and four books of poetry, most recently Materia Oscura (2017) and Ciudad Satélite (2007). He co-edited the anthologies Cuentos de Ida y Vuelta: 17 narradores peruanos en Estados Unidos (2019) and Los relojes se han roto: Antología de poesía peruana de los noventa (2005). His short fiction and poetry have been translated into English and French. In 2018, he published the nonfiction book Poéticas de la ciudad: Lima en la poesía peruana.
Gillian Esquivia-Cohen, a dual citizen of the United States and Colombia, is a writer and translator. She is currently an MFA candidate at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she is working on a novel.
In our August 2020 issue, we celebrate the work of women writers and translators in honor of Women in Translation Month, highlighting the work of Victoria de Stefano, Krina Ber, Rowena Hill, and Margara Russotto—four women united by the coincidence of emigrating to Venezuela and becoming renowned writers in Spanish. We also pay homage to a giant of Latin American letters, Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, and we highlight the work of Mé’pháá writer Hubert Matiúwàa in our Indigenous Literature section. This #WITMonth issue is rounded out with exclusive previews of upcoming books from women translators and an interview with translator Annie McDermott, plus poetry, fiction, interviews, and reviews of fascinating new releases from across Latin America.
Cover Photo: Grupo Mondongo