South America is awash with X-messages. Elections in Peru and Brazil in recent weeks, and an equally important poll looming in Argentina in 2019, made my long-planned visit to those countries a happy coincidence of pleasure and politics.
Peru held provincial and mayoral elections nationwide on 7 October, a day that also saw a ban on selling and drinking liquor in public. The next day was a public holiday, sensible planning given that Peruvian voters must return to their birthplace if they wish to take part in the ballot. An inescapable backdrop to the voting was the continuing out-of-jail and back-to-jail story of former Peru president Alberto Fujimori, convicted of ordering the systematic murder of ethnic and minority peoples.
Brazil’s presidential election and its subsequent runoff was taking place on the other side of the continent, with LGBT and universal human rights seemingly very much at stake. At the same time, Argentina’s continuing economic crisis was influencing the prospects and candidates for next year’s general elections. Graffiti in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, declared “Vamos FMI”, a demand that the International Monetary Fund go away.
It was in a bar favoured by locals in Miraflores, just outside the Peruvian capital Lima, that the significance of that country’s local polls became evident. Miraflores is now a middle-class and tourist enclave, but it was and remains a colony for artists and writers. Late one night and deep into the next morning, four middle-aged Peruvian men argued the merits of the parties and their candidates. One word resonated throughout, “importante”, and a lot of things were.
Jetlagged and tired from more than 24 hours of travelling to reach Miraflores, and relying on whatever principles of applied Latin I could recall from university, I was able to follow the debate only patchily. But what was apparent throughout was the commitment to reasoned argument delivered genially. Their long discussion reminded me eventually of one of the classics of Peruvian and world literature, Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa.
Published in 1969, when its author was only 33, the novel is confessional and investigational. The son of a powerful family, Santiago Zavalla, runs into an old family servant, the chauffeur Ambrosio. That their chance meeting should be at the dog pound will surprise no one who has experienced the free-running dogs of Lima and, to a far greater extent, those of Cusco. Some of these are pets, but many more of them are streetwise street dogs who scavenge through the garbage for food and acknowledge no human master, although many people are sympathetic to their living conditions. (Cars slow down for dogs in Cusco, and humans feed them scraps and titbits.)
Brought together again, Santiago and Ambrosio retreat to the Cathedral, which is not a place of religious worship but a bar. As the present gives way to the past, Santiago presses Ambrosio on what he knows of the role played by Zavalla senior, a government minister, in the murder of an underworld kingpin. Through Santiago’s line of searching and relentless enquiry, Vargas Llosa (his full surname, the paternal name being Vargas and the maternal Llosa) is able to examine and expose the workings of the Peruvian dictatorship of Odria, which was imposed on the country at the time.
Seemingly specific to Peru, Conversation in the Cathedral lays bare the machinations of all dictatorships and their terrible ability to control, limit, destroy and end lives. In the almost 50 years since Vargas Llosa’s unflinchingly pessimistic and comfortless novel, the world has seen many autocrats, despots and megalomaniacs extend their authority and end that of their opponents by extrajudicial executions, the manipulation of the judiciary, and the assumption of extraordinary constitutional powers. The powerlessness and hopelessness that exude from Vargas Llosa’s novel did not make for pleasant reading in the past, and in 2018 it is glummer still.
But there have been changes in Peru, and there is hope there. For one, Vargas Llosa ran against Fujimori in the 1990 presidential election. He lost, beginning a decade of a slippery, sushi-subtle dictatorship by Fujimori. In that time, the despot accumulated more and more power, and banked influence and wealth for the day he might leave office. In 2000, he went to Japan, faxed his resignation as president, and did not return to Peru until 2007, when he was extradited. In 2009, he was charged with corruption and the genocide of minorities, tried, convicted, and jailed. His recent brief release from prison was a political ploy by one of his successors, who hoped the Fujimori faction in the country would help him cling to power.
That expedient move was reversed in early October, when the country’s new president vowed to abide by the decision of Peru’s highest court, which sent Fujimori back to jail. That judgment was just in time for the Fujimori factor not to be a distraction for voters in the municipal and provincial polls. Those who had lost fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, and friends and lovers to the ruthless killing machine that lay behind the Fujimori smile, felt a second wave of relief.
And it is not inconceivable that Vargas Llosa himself would have savoured the repeated television montages of Fujimori, which moved in montage from the man in presidential pomp to the slightly bowed accused charged with corruption and murder, the shrunken convict, the buoyed released prisoner, the stooped and aged man before the constitutional court, and finally the bewildered and reimprisoned convict.
As the son of Japanese immigrants to Peru, Fujimori would know the ancient Chinese saying that heaven has eyes, and that heaven’s net is wide but its mesh is very fine. A fishy customer for decades, Fujimori has now been caught once and for all, and some of the gloom Vargas Llosa depicts as endemic and everlasting in Conversation in the Cathedral seems to have lifted. When I left Lima, a city on the sea often shrouded in mist, it was on a day of open skies and sunshine.