Alfredo Bryce Echenique and a Microcosm of Peru [Month of a Thousand Forests]
Up next in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Alfredo Bryce Echenique, whose entry in A Thousand Forests includes a bit from his novel A World for Julius and a previously untranslated story, “Manzanas.”
One of the most intriguing things about Echenique’s life is the plagiarism case that he was involved in. Here’s a bit from Valerie’s intro that makes me think there’s a lot more to this story:
In 2007, Alfredo Bryce was embroiled in a bizarre accusation of multiple plagarisms. The episode, itself with the coloring of a spy novel, carried with it a certain enmity, but also the unconditional support of those who, like Enrique Vila-Matas and Mario Vargas Llosa, have been uncompromising in defending their faith in the writer, who continues to steer his literary course between suffering and laughter.
And remember, you can only get Echenique’s previously untranslated story by purchasing this collection. And if you buy it before the end of the month, use the code FORESTS and it’ll only be $15.
Above all I like the pages I picked from Un mundo para Julius for their efficiency. Let’s not forget that they’re the first pages in the book and, in a condensed way, although not lacking in subtleties, they contain a lot of information about the novel’s central characters, with the exception of Juan Lucas—Julius’s stepfather and the novel’s antagonist—whose presence is implied in the nocturnal outings of Susan, Julius’s frivolous, widowed mother. But in addition to introducing the book’s main characters, these pages also introduce the book’s principal settings. The boy’s house is a microcosm of Peru, with borders that he crosses for the first time when he goes from the elegant part of the large mansion where he lives into the so-called “servants’ quarters,” an accurate reflection of a whole country that is profoundly and cruelly divided between the very rich and the very poor, and into distinct regions such as the coast, the world of the Andes, and the Amazon. From these immense and varied regions of Peru come the so-called servants of this wealthy family who, instead of taking interest in their own country, live with their eyes fixed principally on Europe and secondarily on the United States. And so Julius and his siblings attend British and American schools, where the few Peruvian teachers working there come off as deeply pretentious in the eyes of their students.
“Manzanas” is the long monologue of a young and beautiful nymphomaniac who competes with any good-looking girl who crosses her path, and who, at the same time, maintains a romantic relationship with an important musician who is much older, and is able to see her in a good light, even to overlook her infidelities. The tension comes from her admiration for the refined, cultured, and respectable man combined with her desire to surpass him in some way, petty as it may be. She doesn’t say any of this. She just suggests it. A murder, although only symbolic, might be the only way for the guilt-ridden girl to escape from her constant and spiteful obsessions and contradictions.
Julius was born in a mansion on Salaverry Avenue, directly across from the old San Felipe Hippodrome. The mansion had carriage houses, gardens, a swimming pool, and a small orchard into which two-year-old Julius would wander and then be found later, his back turned, perhaps bending over a flower. The mansion had servants’ quarters that were like a blemish on the most beautiful face. There was even a carriage that your great-grandfather used, Julius, when he was President of the Republic, be careful, don’t touch! it’s covered with cobwebs, and turning away from his mother, who was lovely, Julius tried to reach the door handle. The carriage and the servants’ quarters always held a strange fascination for Julius, that fascination of “don’t touch, honey, don’t go around there, darling.” By then his father had already died.
Julius was a year and a half old at the time. For some months he just walked about the mansion, wandering off by himself whenever possible.
Secretly he would head for the servants’ quarters of the mansion that, as we’ve said, were like a blemish on a most beautiful face, a pity, really, but he still did not dare to go there. What is certain is that when his father was dying of cancer, everything in Versailles revolved around the dying man’s bedroom: only his children were not supposed to see him. Julius was an exception because he was too young to comprehend fear but young enough to appear just when least expected, wearing silk pajamas, turning his back to the drowsy nurse and watching his father die, that is, he watched how an elegant, rich, handsome man dies. And Julius has never forgotten that night—three o’clock in the morning, a lit candle in offering to Santa Rosa, the nurse knitting to ward off sleep—when his father opened an eye and said to him poor thing, and by the time the nurse ran out to call for his mother, who was lovely and cried every night in an adjoining bedroom—if anything, to get a bit of rest—it was all over.
Daddy died when the last of Julius’ siblings, who were always asking when he would return from his trip, stopped asking; when Mommy stopped crying and went out one night; when the visitors, who had entered quietly and walked straight to the darkest room of the mansion (the architect had thought of everything), stopped coming; when the servants recovered their normal tone of voice; and when someone turned on the radio one day, Daddy had died.
No one could keep Julius from practically living in the carriage that had belonged to his great-grandfather/president. He would spend the entire day in it, sitting on the worn blue velvet, once gold-trimmed seats, shooting at the butlers and maids who always tumbled down dead by the carriage, soiling their smocks that the Señora had ordered them to buy in pairs so that they would not appear worn when they fell dead each time Julius took to riddling them with bullets from the carriage. No one prevented him from spending all day long in the carriage, but when it would get dark at about six o’clock, a young maid would come looking for him, one that his mother, who was lovely, called the beautiful Chola, probably a descendant of some noble Indian, an Inca for all we know.
The Chola, who could well have been a descendant of an Inca, would lift Julius from the carriage, press him firmly against her probably marvelous breasts beneath her uniform, and not let go until they reached the bathroom in the mansion, the one that was reserved for the younger children and now belonged exclusively to Julius. Often the Chola stumbled over the butlers or the gardener who lay dead around the carriage so that Julius, Jesse James, or Gary Cooper, depending on the occasion, could depart happily for his bath.
And there in the bathroom, two years after his father’s death, his mother had begun to say good-bye. She always found him with his back to her, standing naked in front of the tub, pee pee exposed, but she never saw it, as he contemplated the rising tide in that enormous, porcelainlike, baby-blue tub, which was full of swans, geese, and ducks. His mother would call him darling, but he never turned around, so she would kiss him on the nape of his neck and leave very lovely, while the beautiful Chola assumed the most uncomfortable postures in order to stick her elbow in the water and test the temperature without falling in what could have been a swimming pool in Beverly Hills.
And about six-thirty every afternoon, the beautiful Chola took hold of Julius by his underarms, raised him up and eased him little by little into the water. Seeming to genuflect, the swans, geese, and ducks bobbed up and down happily in the warm, clean water. He took them by the neck and gently pushed them along and away from his body, while the beautiful Chola, armed with soapy washcloths and perfumed baby soap, began to scrub gently—ever so gently and lovingly—his chest, shoulders, back, arms, and legs. Julius looked up smiling at her, always asking the same questions, such as: “And where are you from?” and he listened attentively as she would tell him about Puquio, a village of mud houses near Nasca, on the way up to the mountains. She would tell him stories about the mayor or sometimes about medicine men, but she always laughed as if she no longer believed in those things; besides, it had been a long time since she had been up there. Julius looked at her attentively and waited for her to finish talking so he could ask another question, and another, and another. And it was like that every afternoon while his two brothers and one sister finished their homework downstairs and got ready for dinner.
(Translated by Dick Gerdes)