Any given Monday, Mr Vallejo, any given Monday, Zavalita
In Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel, Conversación En La Catedral (Conversation In The Cathedral, 1969), Santiago Zavala (Zavalita to his friends) – the idealistic son of an influential Peruvian politician and now a journalist who has rejected his social origins and struggles to eke out a living with an unimportant newspaper – sets out to look for his dog in the streets of Lima. At a shelter for stray dogs, Zavalita meets his father’s aging former chauffeur. They haven’t seen each other in over 15 years and, over beers at La Catedral, a bar nearby, they exchange reminiscences of the Ochenio, as the eight years of General Manuel Odría’s regime (1948-1956) are still often referred to here.
Gen. Odría was fiercely opposed to the social democratic APRA, then led by its founder Víctor Haya de la Torre and today by Peru’s President Alan García. Gen. Odría entered politics in 1945 as Police Minister when the then President José Bustamante – who had attained office with the support of APRA – dismissed his Aprista Cabinet and replaced it with a military one including Gen. Odría. When President Bustamante refused to bow to military pressure to ban APRA altogether, Gen. Odría resigned but in 1948 he led a successful coup and became President.
While Gen. Odría was certainly close to Peru’s economic elites – he has been called “the instrument of the export aristocracy” – who trampled on civil rights and repressed the left, like Perón he was a populist who successfully buttressed the power of his utterly corrupt government by wooing the poor with expensive social policies. Gen. Odría, soon accepted by the US as a precious Cold War ally, was typical of a period that saw the left in Latin America defeated everywhere.
A leading Aprista lamented that “the year 1948 was terrible for everyone. Some sinister hand had decided to crush our hearts, not only mine, not only those of the Apristas, but the hearts of all Latin Americans”.
This did not stop APRA from allying itself with Gen. Odria’s Unión Nacional Odriista (UNO) to oppose the 1963-68 Belaúnde government.
This cynical pragmatism on the part of both the left and the right, this readiness to consort with the devil – for both sides had demonised each other in a previous political season – led to a bitter disenchantment with politics on the part of romantic idealists such as Mr Vargas Llosa’s Zavalita. Although his novel refers to the period 1948-1956, it was published in 1969, one year after leftist general Juan Velasco Alvarado deposed Fernando Belaúnde’s elected government.
It is also relevant that it hit the shelves one year after Cuban poet Heberto Padilla published his anthology Fuera Del Juego (Out Of The Game), an expression of profound dissatisfaction with the path taken by Fidel Castro’s revolution. Note that Vargas Llosa broke with Cuba precisely because of Mr Padilla’s imprisonment. From then on the Peruvian writer moved ever further to the right.
Many more Peruvians today will have heard and uttered Zavalita’s question: “En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?” (At what point did Peru get screwed?), than will have read through the book’s more than 600 pages. The Conversation leads nowhere and Zavalita does not provide a reply to his own question.
Not only does this otherwise great novel not inspire the reader to action but it discourages you from hoping ever to find an answer. You are led to despair that there is a way, left or right, to straighten out a crooked country.
The resolutely leftist César Vallejo (1892 – 1938) could not be a more different than Mr Vargas Llosa, although both contributed to elevating Peruvian literature to world stature and both are included in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon among those authors that have produced the most enduring works of world literature. His poem La Cena Miserable (The Wretched Dinner), published in his 1918 anthology Los Heraldos Negros (The Black Heralds), is known to every educated Peruvian, especially the refrain “Hasta cuándo” and “y cuándo” (How long… when?)”. He asks: “How long shall we be waiting for what/is not due to us?” and “And when shall we see ourselves with the rest, at the edge/of an eternal morning, all of us breakfasted?”
Although a declared Marxist militant, Mr Vallejo, like Mr Vargas Llosa, is ultimately sceptical about the possibility of his country’s redemption.
I have just watched Movistar Peru’s clip Un Lunes Cualquiera (Any Given Monday) – you can do so too on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-mXiTFzhEs – and I can’t help marvelling at how well this brilliantly conceived advert (because, after all, that’s all it is) captures Peru’s present mood.
There is still plenty of poverty around, no doubt, as well as injustice and corruption, but there is an unprecedented will to move on and to overcome an almost fatalistic pessimism. I had not felt this during previous visits.
The ad quotes Mr Vallejo: “And when shall we see ourselves with the rest, at the edge/of an eternal morning, all of us breakfasted?” and then replies “Any Monday, Mr Vallejo, any given Monday.” Echoing Mr Vargas Llosa’s Zavalita, it asks: “And, hey, when will Peru get straightened out?” and then replies: “Any Monday, Zavalita, any given Monday.” I can’t help thinking that there is a lesson for us too in this. I’ll try to explain why next time on this page, on Monday after the next.
February 25, 2010, Arequipa, Peru
This article appeared on Mario Vella regular Times of Malta column today March 1, 2010, and may be accessed in the original at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100301/opinion/any-given-monday