In the Rose Garden
(A tale of researching Julio Ramón Ribeyro)
Published in the book Sounds and Colours Perú (2015)
He sits at the kitchen table, watching the curtains stamped with tiny blue flowers twisting in the wind. Outside, the silent palm trees offer no answers. The first shops are opening. The newspaper reports the upcoming agenda, Bach’s concert for two violins. His thoughts are simple: sugar or not? What will he do that day? He knows himself to be a mediocre man, of solitary habits, afraid to take on the unknown. He embraced the noble profession of dentistry when, at the age of ten, he chanced upon some beautiful illustrations of mouths, showing teeth and molars, in an orthodontic advertisement in a magazine belonging to his mother. But the profession tires him. So many others in the field are not actually passionate about teeth, but simply consider them another part of the body, one that is particularly profitable. He watches the curtains, which go on twisting and twisting. The phone rings. He doesn’t answer. Today he will not come in to work. Or the next day, or the day after that, or any after that at all.
What he needs, he thinks, is to embark on a completely different project. He juggles several possibilities: an investigation into olive harvesting in the north of the country; a period of travel around Europe for six years, or until he woos a rich baroness who initiates him in the delights of her labyrinthine Italian castle; a minute tracing of his genealogical tree that determines once and for all the heraldic past of his European grandfathers. But none of this inspires passion in him. Apart from dentistry, his interests are two: cigarettes and the books of the Peruvian writer Julio Ramón Ribeyro. Ultimately the mouth, the physical aspect of communication, forms the node of all his interests. Perhaps this explains his attraction to Ribeyro. The title of his collected works is La Palabra Del Mudo (The Word of the Mute). The idea obsesses him in negative: the notion of those who keep their mouths shut, who can’t or won’t talk. In the end there’s something ethical about the mouth, which can give voice to philosophical discourse, joy or misery. Triumph fills him. Yes, this is what he will do. He will embark on Ribeyro’s biography, which should occupy him at least three years, working conscientiously. The stationer’s at the corner sells him a block of white paper and a new ballpoint pen. He is ready to begin.
The primary problem is locating the author’s collected work. Enthusiastic as he is for Ribeyro, the stories exist more vividly as memories than facts, since he left the books behind when decades ago he moved from Lima to Buenos Aires to study. He read the stories as an adolescent at his grandmother’s colonial house in Peru, where Ribeyro is a national icon. But here in Argentina his name is met with blank stares. Even in the very best shops, where the booksellers are experts on everything from gaucho lyrics to the correspondence of Horkheimer and Adorno, no one seems aware of Julio Ramón Ribeyro Zúñiga, winner of the Juan Rulfo prize, contemporary of Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the greatest Latin American short story writers of all time. At last, searching through library catalogues, he finds a copy of the collected works at the University of Buenos Aires’s Instituto de Literatura Hispanoamericana. When he arrives on a Tuesday the library is empty, and when he asks for the book he feels his Peruvian heritage more intensely than ever.
The reading room, where he’s asked to wait, makes him nervous, as does the heat. 36 degrees Celsius, no hint of ventilation. A framed photo of Ángel Rama stares down at him as he sits at the enormous table, a solid block cut from a walnut tree. On a bookshelf, three volumes of the university magazine Zama are on display. A woman enters with a digital camera to photograph every page of a thick volume, then leaves. At last, a university employee enters and sets the book before him, disappearing without a word. He copies a few pieces of information from the prologue.
— Born 1929, died 1994
— Began studying law but dropped out, despite high marks
— Most stories set in Lima, though lived mostly in Europe
— Spent time as a hotel concierge, train station parcel carrier, newspaper collector, translator, journalist, vagabond
— The 1964 French edition of Los Gallinazos Sin Plumas (Charognards sans plumes) published a photograph of a man from Mozambique, surname Ribeiro, on its author flap.
Sweltering in the heat, before reading he decides to open the doors and take in some air. On the window sill, a few plants wilt in their jars. When he unlatches the windows, an enormous dragonfly enters. He calls it a dragonfly, but it might well be some relic from a prehistoric period, when the insects were larger, with beadier eyes and wings that beat more rapidly. It alights on his trouser hem and looks at him intently. He shakes it off and moves from the window back to his chair, where his bare legs stick to the oilcloth surface. The temperature seems to be increasing, and he can’t concentrate on the words dancing before him. The dragonfly flits about, landing here and there. He is the only one in the room, and the heat is suffocating. He stands up and, open to fate, decides to follow the dragonfly wherever it may lead.
The insect, after a few rapid wingbeats to the left, and then right, as if delicately considering its options, hovers in place for a minute before flitting rapidly to the next room, where the reference books are shelved. There, behind a shelf, a man consults the Alexandrine verses of André Chénier. With his drooping moustache and gait, his mixture of disillusionment and hope, he is recognisable as a character from Ribeyro’s story “The Replacement Teacher” [El Profesor Suplante]. The dragonfly has disappeared but it doesn’t matter. Already he has decided he will follow this man wherever he might go. Tugging his moustache between two fingers as if in ecstatic understanding, the man, whose name he remembers is Matías, shuts the book and abruptly exits the room via a previously unseen staircase.
Uncapping his flask of whisky, which he keeps with him at all times to decrease his anxiety, he pursues the man via bus, taxi, bicycle, and stilts — at one point they pass through a traveling circus in the Plaza Libertad — to Retiro station, where following his lead once again, he purchases a ticket and boards the Mitre train from platform four. Immediately he feels more at ease. In his literary experience, trains are places for new encounters and profound personal realizations. He settles into one of the worn red seats, framed in corroded grey metal, in the same section of four seats as the man he is following. Luckily, he seems not to notice him. A vendor passes hawking large tablets of Nestlé chocolate, wrapped in red paper. A large sign reminds them not to smoke, which makes him feel about his lapel anxiously for the familiar rectangular packet, just to know it is there. The sound of the motor begins to whir above the rails; an employee outside whistles and the train begins to move. They cast out from the station, passing huts with sheet metal roofs, orange Hamburg Sud storage boxes, murals and hanging plants, station after station. Matías gets down at Juan B. Justo, but he decides to continue to the end of the line, farther north. Why not? What does he have to lose?
Once there, he walks for a while down Avenida Maipú, then boards a bus which takes him to a station near the river. He walks a while along the shore, traipsing through mud, passing gated yacht clubs, members only. He is growing tired, but at last he finds a place of repose, a pier in an area sheltered by trees of all kinds, their trunks proudly upright. Inexplicably, it is also hedged in by roses, subtle variations on red, yellow and pink. The sky above is increasingly grey; soon it will rain. Heavy metal chains on the shore moor the boats, which sit perfectly aligned, waiting for something or perhaps simply resting. Wooden sticks float on the water and the light assumes different forms on its surface. Perhaps there are parallels with European docks, Monet’s impressions. But here the fronds are larger and more threatening, the shrubs wave their spiny arms, colours and fragrances are more intense, the rustling of the trees approaches shrieking.
He sits on a bench and thumbs through the copy of La Palabra Del Mudo, which he still has with him, an unintentional theft. It surprises him, as the stories in his memory have almost nothing to do with those in its pages. He recognises himself in almost every one of the characters, solitary men obsessed with compiling knowledge, with smoking, with passing the time in detailed but irrelevant observation. He extracts a Pall Mall from its packet and smokes it with relief. Ribeyro smoked too, and wrote about his obsession; in the end he died from lung cancer. His thoughts go to his tablet of white paper. He might take meticulous notes with facts like these, pages and pages of biographical information; perhaps he might find a small academic editorial prepared to risk publishing the biography of a foreign author. But if he does so, will that contribute to his really having lived? Above a flock of birds passes, dispersing and coming together once more. Does that mean more than a compendium of Greek symbology? Can the two things even be compared? Can any meaning be read into them?
He phones the university to apologize for his absentmindedness, promising safe delivery of the book. The voice on the other end sounds tinny, distant, unsurprised. He begins to write, the only thing he can think to do. It will be a diary composed in advance, day-by-day notes on what he will do when finally he plucks up the courage to leave his job. He knows himself to be a mediocre man, of solitary habits, afraid to take on the unknown. For now he sits at the kitchen table, watching the curtains stamped with tiny blue flowers twisting in the wind, and dreams…
* * *
Interview with Jorge Coaguila
Recently I spoke with Jorge Coaguila, Lima resident and expert on Ribeyro’s work. He has written and edited several books about the author, including La palabra inmortal: conversaciones con Julio Ramón Ribeyro (2008) and Las respuestas del mudo: entrevistas escogidas a Julio Ramón Ribeyro (2012).
Julio Ramón Ribeyro is repeatedly cited as one of the best contemporary short story writers in Latin America. What influence did he have on his contemporaries? Does he still exercise an influence on today’s authors?
I don’t think he had any influence on his contemporaries, some of whom were members of the Latin American Boom [referring to the period of the 60s and 70s when writers such as García Marquez, Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortazar came to international prominence]. In contrast, today’s young authors do take him as an example, although mostly as a model of determination confronted with the difficulties of being a writer. There are also those who follow him as an example of someone who distanced himself from traditional genres by not just writing novels, poetry or theatre. For example we have his diaries, his Dichos de Luder [in which he collected ironic sayings and short texts all attributed to a person called Luder], his “stateless prose”.
Many of Ribeyro’s stories feature a solitary figure as protagonist — an outsider, foreigner or other person who feels uncomfortable, or is seeking something that a place doesn’t give him. Why was Ribeyro so interested in this theme?
Perhaps because Ribeyro himself was an outsider. In Lima he was marginalised by the well-to-do class, especially after the death of his father, which left him economically helpless. He didn’t fit in with the lower classes either because of the colour of his skin. There was no room for a “white boy” like him in the popular classes. In Europe he took odd jobs such as working as a hotel concierge, loading freight at a train station and selling old newspapers. That made him a marginal character.
I have the impression Ribeyro is fairly well known in Peru, but not necessarily outside the country. Do you agree? To what extent is that the case for Peruvian writers in general, due to the challenges of diffusion?
He isn’t well-known outside of Peru, that’s true. He needs greater diffusion. His books circulate very little in Spain and much less in the English-speaking or Francophone world. Ribeyro made sure his work wouldn’t receive interest in other areas by not taking on exotic themes, something that attracts the European public that reads Latin American literature. He didn’t set his work in the Amazon, except in one story (“Fénix”); he didn’t focus on the dictators; he wasn’t interested in the Andes (save for a few short stories like “El Chaco” and the novel Crónica de San Gabriel).
Ribeyro spent many years in Paris, first as a student, then as a journalist for Agence France-Presse and as Peruvian ambassador. What influence did Paris and European culture have on his work?
Ribeyro spent three decades in Paris. However, he never stopped having an intense contact with Peru. That is clear from the correspondence with his older brother, Juan Antonio, with whom he exchanged views on literature, football and local politics. He often worried about his family, his mother and his siblings. His friends too. He was a great reader of French literature, a great admirer of Flaubert, Stendhal, Maupassant. He didn’t know other languages besides his mother tongue and French.
What was the relationship between Ribeyro and Mario Vargas Llosa (and other Boom writers)? How did he view his own position with respect to his contemporaries?
With Cortázar he had a good friendship. With other members of the Boom, nothing except with Vargas Llosa. On that subject I have a long article, “Story of a Friendship: Julio Ramón Ribeyro and Mario Vargas Llosa” (available at http://goo.gl/hDBl3P), in which I point out that the two commented on each others’ work in public, above all in interviews. I also comment on the meetings they had in Paris when Vargas Llosa came to visit. Finally, I talk about their falling-out, which had to do with the support Ribeyro gave to a reform by President Alan García, a reform the liberal Vargas Llosa energetically rejected.