We live in uncertain times. What is certain, however, is that we must all stay indoors, self-isolate and think of productive and enjoyable ways to pass the time. As a writer, I have to admit that self-isolating – sitting at my desk – is a state of affairs I actually enjoy; but if the idea doesn’t appeal to you, then perhaps an inspiring read can lift your spirits. With that in mind, I have given some thought to a clutch of books about Peru. Not only have these books inspired my love of Peru but affirm my view that this country exists on two levels: the real and the imaginary.
Like any list, mine is subjective, leaning towards the kind of things I am passionate about: history, culture, politics, and of course magnificent writers of fiction. Given that access to a bookshop is not possible at the moment, I have selected books that are available from Amazon by post and downloadable on a Kindle.
Let’s start with the master, an author who combines the real, imaginary and magical.
Though renowned for The Feast of the Goat and Conversations in the Cathedral, I’d recommend this more recent novel which showcases the themes that characterize this Nobel laureate storyteller – humor and pathos, romance and social justice. Set in Piura and Lima, this book tells the story of ‘two honorable rebels,’ one a small businessman who falls victim to blackmail and the other the successful owner of an insurance company who plans to avenge himself against his two lazy sons.
As the London Times wrote, ‘Detective story meets soap opera, gangster novel meets family saga, moral fable meets mystery play in this new tale of everyday Peruvian folk…Vargas Llosa looks through an untinted lens at such big themes as the vagaries of fate, the duties of marriage pitted against the passions of eroticism and, most important of all, what it means to try to live a good life.’
If it’s history and culture you’re after then you need look no further than this doorstopper of a volume. This book about Peru covers early Peruvian civilizations, such as the Chavin and Nazca peoples; to the conquest and colonial rule; balanced accounts of the Shining Path years; the establishment of an cocaine economy, and concludes with chapters on modern political and cultural issues.
I particularly find the short essays Is Peru turning Protestant? (by Luis Minaya) and Interview with a gay activist (by Enrique Bossio) indication of how far Peru has come both socially and culturally.
This book about Peru takes us back to the early days of an independent Peru and is the personal story of a feminist and ardent socialist. Flora visits Peru in 1833 to claim a share of her father’s family fortune which, though unsuccessful, rewards the reader with a marvelous account of a journey through 19th Century Peru. There is an array of characters that could have stepped out of a Vargas Llosa novel: a Captain Chabrie who pursues Flora energetically and her patriarch uncle, Don Pio, who is trying to make his way in the heady mix of revolutionary politics.
It is also a very funny book. The heroine tells us that, ‘in Peru nothing is esteemed more than duplicit.’ As much as this is a book about Peru’s move towards independence, it is also a memoir of a woman’s journey towards independence of a very personal and ideological kind. A relevant and important theme for readers of today.
If you haven’t visited Peru yet, know that one of its wonders is the swaying rope bridge, built many years ago across the many gorges and river valleys. It is 1714 and it is on one of these Peruvian bridges that the American writer Thornton Wilder starts his story. Five people are making their way across the bridge when it suddenly breaks, plunging the travelers to their deaths. From this tragic beginning, Wilder tells the stories of these five people, who are all interconnected in some way, and in so doing explores issues of life and death; faith and unbelief; chance and God; and perhaps the most important of all, the power of love. Again, another book that speaks to us now.
This is perhaps the most extraordinary book that I have read about Peru and, more particularly, the Shining Path period. It is extraordinary because it is written in simple yet effective prose in which the author describes his life, first as a child soldier who fought for the Shining Path and then with the Peruvian military who fought against them; and then as a Franciscan priest, and finally as an academic. In this short, yet memorable autobiography, he describes brutality and kindness, misery and despair, solidarity and love.
Contrast, contradictions and paradoxes mark out not only the quality of these five books, but perhaps say something about the real and imaginary country described and celebrated by these five writers.
So there you have five books about Peru, though I could have easily made it twenty. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to escape from my self-isolation and meet a friend who is traveling home across a swing bridge and then on to Piura for a drink with a discreet hero who owns a bar.
Cover image: David Stephens
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