Julio Ramón Ribeyro was a Peruvian author best known for his short stories; his work is enjoying a surge of attention in Peru on the 90th anniversary of his birth. Shopping in Lima I was torn between his collected stories, a formidable brick of a book, and his Prosas apátridas, a collection of fragments that never found a home elsewhere. I chose the latter, because it was more portable and because it mirrors the kind of writing I’m doing right now. I was interested to see what sort of whole he built out of stray observations.
Ribeyro lived much of his life in France, and when Peru comes up it’s as a memory or a fantasy of the future. At first he annoyed me as an older relative might (and as Chilean author Pedro Lemebel did, in his similar book Háblame de amores): he’s cranky, stuck in his ways, too sure that his bourgeois interior life is richer than that of his doorman, and in his attitudes to gender very much a man of his time. But like that older relative (or Lemebel, a very different man), I’ve become attached to Ribeyro’s foibles with a fond exasperation. I like how he dwells on the concrete details of his routine, and knits them together into long sentences: they evoke his afternoons in Paris, thinking, smoking, writing and drinking. I admire how much he can draw out of a single phrase, like the young landlady’s “We’re beginning,” or something glimpsed in the street, like the llama used as a circus animal. I’ve translated some of his fragments below.
The young and pretty owner of the studio that I had on rue Saint-Séverin burst out, on the day that I returned the keys, when she realised that there was a spot on the wall, a cigarette burn on the edge of the table and three or four glasses missing. That she’d demand compensation for these tiny damages seemed normal to me, but what drew my attention was the argument she used: “Don’t forget that my husband and I are a young couple. Nous commençons.” This brief formulation, without continuation or complement, was more expressive and convincing that any discourse: “We’re beginning.” There was no need to add more to know the insides of the person. To begin meant in this case to begin to own houses, to have tenants, to charge, to take advantage in whatever form of the owner’s privilege, to dispute confidently from a position of strength, to threaten, to be relentless with the debtor, not to cede an iota of her rights, not to renounce any form of income, to lay the cornerstone of a life project that involved the accumulation of new assets, the multiplication of rent, the defence of property, of security, of order, so to become, in twenty or thirty years a rich, odious and well provided for old woman, installed confidently in the setting of a wealth of stocks and real estate, which would not free her however from pettiness, oblivion, or death.
The strange thing, in our bodies, is the submission to the rules of symmetry. We have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two sets of the exact same number of teeth, two tonsils, two collar bones, two bronchial tubes, two lungs, two shoulder blades, two nipples, two arms, two kidneys, two hips, two buttocks, two legs, two testicles, two hands, two feet, two sets of ribs. Who could have implanted this binary order which seems traced from a previous thought? What relationship is there between these repeated organs or members, and the single ones like the tongue, the oesophagus, the stomach, the heart, the liver, the phallus, the anus? We are a combination of the solitary and the double, which seems to indicate that whoever invented us doubted and, in the end, without knowing which line to take, opted a little randomly for eclecticism.
There are times when the itinerary that we follow by habit, without major mishaps, is populated by every class of obstacle: an enormous truck stops us crossing the path, a taxi almost runs us over, an fat old man with cane and bag obstructs the whole footpath, a ditch that wasn’t there the day before obliges us to make a detour, a dog emerges from a hallway and barks at us, we meet with nothing but red lights at each intersection, it begins to rain and we haven’t brought an umbrella, we remember that we’ve left our wallet at home, some imbecile we don’t want to see approaches us, in short, all those small accidents that occur in isolation in the course of a month are concentrated in a single journey, by some fault in the mechanism of probabilities, like when the roulette wheel hits on black twenty times in a row. Extrapolating this observation from a single day to the scale of a life, that fault is the difference between happiness and unhappiness. For some it’s their turn for a bad day, as for others a bad life.
Vision of a llama in Rue de Sèvres, a captive llama, exploited by some acrobats. Until now I had seen bears, goats and monkeys in these street shows, but never a llama. Foreshadowing of what awaits us: our culture, our symbols, or if you like, the symbols of our culture, converted into circus objects, into knick-knacks in the public plaza. The little white llama, with celestial eyes, wore a collar with horrible plastic flowers and watched the traffic, frightened, wondering what the hell it was doing there, so far from the Andean plains. Poor little Peruvian animal! The life in your pampas is not easy either, you carry heavy loads, climb steep slopes. But you’re not a foreigner.