Sunday, July 17, 2011

Like So Many, Like You Yourself

La tentación del fracaso, the published diary of the Peruvian Julio Ramón Ribeyro, comes to an abrupt end in 1978, even though Ribeyro apparently went on keeping the diary until his death in 1994. According to his estate, the unpublished pages are kept in a safety-deposit box in a bank in Paris and will be released, as a "reward," only to a publisher that undertakes to bring out all of Ribeyro's work. Until that unlikely day, then, readers eager for more of Ribeyro's diary must settle for three entries that appeared in an anthology of Ribeyro's work published by Fondo de Cultura Económica. One of these entries, an account of a visit to Bordeaux, is translated into English below:
Bordeaux (Pessac)
Paris, 19 November 1981

It’s my fate always to end up in the most awkward, foolish, and ridiculous situations. Of all the invitations I’ve received lately (Madrid, Antwerp, Belgrade, Grenoble) I finally accepted one from the University of Bordeaux. And it’s the only one I shouldn’t have accepted, because everything, or nearly everything, was deplorable. To start, when I got off the train, it wasn’t the professor who had invited me who was waiting for me, but a short little student who didn’t know me and whom I spotted in the crowd by sheer chance, since she was holding up a sheet of paper saying RIBEYRO. She had me get in an ancient car and drove me to the university campus, telling me the professors from the Latin American section were waiting there to take me to the auditorium where I was supposed to give my talk. But nobody was waiting for me, so the girl took me to a kind of university cafeteria, where there were twenty or so students drinking and chatting, and she left me after saying something like “this is the Peruvian writer who’s going to give a talk.” The students looked up, glanced at me, and went on chatting. I stayed there not knowing what to do, my briefcase in one hand and the folder with my talk in the other. Now and then the students turned their gaze my way and gave me another look, with a mix of curiosity, surprise, suspicion, and irony. Finally, the professor who had invited me (an exiled Chilean) showed up, apologized—he had been teaching a class—and showed me a cardboard box sitting on a table. “Your books,” he said to me. “We ordered them from Gallimard. So you can give the buyers a dedication.” Since it was already one o’clock, he raised his voice: “Let’s go to the auditorium; it’s time for the talk.” Nobody moved from his seat, so he added: “Are you coming or not?” Some ten students got up and headed for the auditorium. On the way, another ten or so students who were in the hall joined them, and we went into a big room with stepped desks and chairs, as in an amphitheater. On the dais or stage were only a table and chair. No microphone, ashtray, or pitcher of water. The twenty or so students took their seats, but widely spread out rather than near each other, which heightened the impression of emptiness. “Let’s wait a while and see if more people come.” I sat there in front of the people, then, but without doing anything; we were silent, looking at each other, waiting for the metteur en scène to come back. I finally decided to light a cigarette and look over my notes. The professor, who had managed to recruit three or four more students, finally came back, introduced me, and I began my talk. I said what I had to say without much eagerness or enthusiasm, and I finished at just the right time, because it was already two in the afternoon, I hadn’t eaten, and my stomach was bothering me. Moderate applause, scattering of the students, disappearance of the professor, who told me to wait five minutes for him, and once again alone in a hall at the university, dying of hunger and not knowing what to do. Luckily, a French Peruvianist who knew me and had read my books happened by and took me to his office while we waited for the Chilean. It took him an hour to come (I think he had gone to teach another class) and he told me he would take me to eat lunch. It was already half past three in the afternoon. I thought we would go to a traditional Bordeaux restaurant, where I could at least indulge in a good local wine, but no, the Chilean was taking me to his house. On the way he stopped at a grocery store. “We’ll have steak and fries,” he said. I went with him to get the food and, on the way, since it looked as if he were going to get an ordinary wine, I begged him to let me offer the wine. Shame on Bordeaux: on the shelves were wines of terrible quality. I got the most expensive one (barely twenty francs) and we went to his place. A twenty-story building in a kind of suburb of Bordeaux. A small apartment. We went into a living room/dining room/kitchen, where his wife was watching television and his children (two years and ten months) were playing on the floor. Huge efforts to swallow the steak (it usually gets stuck in my throat; that’s why I eat only filet), the children were making a hellish racket, I find out that the professor isn’t a professor but what they call a vacataire and is very badly paid and that at six in the evening I have to go to a bookstore to sign my books and at nine at night to a meeting of the Túpac Amaru Association to give another talk. It’s already five in the evening, I’m falling over, the husband and wife disappear, and I end up babysitting the two kids and I worry because I’m afraid they’re going to split their heads open. At six my host reappears (he had been on the phone) and tells me that he has to go teach a class but that the owner of the bookstore will come by to pick me up. He comes by at half past six, has me get in a 2CV, and we head for the center of Bordeaux. We make it to the bookstore, a tiny and wretched den, and there isn’t anybody, apart from three friends of the bookseller, who are there for other reasons. The bookstore is called Dehors (get out) and beneath the sign is a little piece of paper saying “Julio Ramón Ribeyro book signing” in such a way that the whole could be read like this: “Get out, Julio Ramón Ribeyro…” On a table is the huge box with my books. The bookseller and his friends disappear into the back of the shop, from which music is coming. I’m alone and I take a look around the shelves: I realize I’m in a shop for anarchist and trade unionist books: shelves and tables are teeming with books, magazines, pamphlets, and flyers of this sort. What the hell am I doing here, freezing cold, to top it off, since there’s no heating, to the point that I have to put on my coat? Finally, a girl shows up, buys a book, and I sign it for her. By eight at night nobody else has come, except for a few anarchists who talk with the bookseller about something having to do with the passing out of tracts and propaganda. The bookseller decides to close, telling me: “Bordeaux is a dead city. Nothing is going on here. The bourgeoisie isn’t interested in culture.” When I ask him what we’re going to do and where I’m going to sleep, he tells me that we’ll go manger un morceau (grab a bite) before going to the meeting of the Túpac Amaru Association and that I’ll sleep in the house of a friend who lives by the train station, so I won’t have to worry about heading out the next day. We go out the back of the bookstore, where I see a girl putting on records and a series of microphones. “What is this?” I ask. “Our free radio,” he says. We start walking the streets at that cold hour. “We’ll see a bit of old Bordeaux,” my guide tells me. Empty, sinister, dark streets of a gloom that breaks your heart. I want only to go into an old Bordeaux tavern and have a bit of cheese with a good wine. “There aren’t those taverns here,” the bookseller says to me. “Only snack bars where nobody drinks anything but beer.” When I’m about to fall over in despair and anxiety, my guide leads me into a crêperie where, naturally, they serve only crêpes and cider, a drink I can’t stand. With no choice, I eat a bit of crêpe and listen absentmindedly to the bookseller, who is talking to me about local politics, which I know nothing about. When we leave the restaurant, I suggest taking a taxi to the Túpac Amaru Association, but he is against it, saying it’s right nearby. Another walk through even colder streets, empty and ghostly. My guide yells at me about some real estate speculation the mayor Chaban Delmas is mixed up in. We finally make it to the association. It’s a bar, a kind of tiny café-chantant. A bar, eight or ten little tables, and a lit stage with a standing microphone, as if for a singer. Behind the bar is a single person: the Chilean vacataire. As in the bookshop, there’s no heating. I don’t take off my coat. We wait a bit. Nobody comes. The Chilean goes to the phone several times, apparently in search of an audience. I see that the huge box of books, which I saw at the university and then at the Dehors bookshop, is following me, is now in this bar, as full as it was at first. At around half past nine the girl who bought the book up shows up with her mother and father, and they take a seat at one of the little tables. Later, three pretty students turn up and sit at a table on the other side. Then a mestizo comes in with a girlfriend. The bookseller and the Chilean are talking behind the bar, while I pace the floor in a state of utter exhaustion, followed by the gazes of the four cats in attendance, who are not even talking with each other and are just watching me. Since I can’t take it anymore I tell the Chilean we should start. “Of course,” he says to me, and speaking to the four cats he says in French: “The Peruvian writer J. R. R. is going to talk to you now about the contemporary Peruvian novel.” And to me he adds in a whisper: “You have to speak in French; I don’t know these people.” It’s too much for me now. I’m standing up in the middle of a shadowy bar, eight people are at three little tables separated from each other, I don’t know where I’m going to put myself in relation to them (whether on the musicians’ stage, behind the bar, or at a table), and I have to give a talk in French on the Peruvian novel, a topic I already went over at the university! I start by saying I’m not going to give a talk and would they please get closer together so I can sit by them and at least chat. But nobody moves. So I decide to take a seat at a table, too, as far from the others as they are from each other, and I then begin the most absurd performance any man of letters or conference speaker has ever given. I ask for questions, not about literature, because I get the feeling these people don’t know what it is; let them ask me whatever they want to and however they want to, but nobody opens his mouth. They go on looking at me in stupefaction. After a long, long silence, the Chilean makes up his mind and asks me to explain to him why Chile has great poets and Peru doesn’t. I have to explain to him that Peru has had and has great poets, that the Nobel Prizes for the poets Gabriela Mistral and Neruda have a relative value. I mention César Vallejo, César Moro, and Martín Adán, but since I get the feeling he hasn’t heard of them I decide not to bring up Westphalen and the good poets of later generations. Another very long silence ensues. I expect the Chilean professor to go on asking me questions, but my having contradicted him or objected to the relevance of his earlier question has silenced him. Since I don’t know what to do, it occurs to me to ask questions myself and, to say something, I ask why the place is called Túpac Amaru and if anybody knows who Túpac Amaru was. The people look at each other, and finally one of the three pretty girls raises a finger and says: “He was a Peruvian leader.” “A leader, yes,” I say, “but a leader of what?” Neither she nor anybody else can answer. So I talk a bit about Túpac Amaru’s uprising, about his personality, about the meaning of his act as far as its being a precursor of our independence. I interrupt myself because a black guy opens the door to the café-chantant, peers in, and asks if there’s music. “It’s a talk,” says the Chilean. The black guy, without responding, shuts the door and disappears. Enough. I’m not going to go on talking any longer. I tell the Chilean: “I think that’s enough for now. I’m tired.” The audience seizes the chance to take off. Suddenly, I find myself alone with the Chilean (since even the anarchist bookseller has left without a word) in that dark, freezing, sinister bar. “Take me to the hotel, please,” I tell him. “I have to be up early tomorrow.” But my adventure hadn’t ended: “It won’t be a hotel; you’ll be staying at my house.” I picture the drive to the Bordeaux suburb, the couch they will surely give me, the trouble of finding a place to stay, and I sink exhausted into a chair. I remember, besides, that I haven’t been reimbursed for the travel expenses. It’s fine that I don’t get paid anything to give one or two talks, even if I talk to a wall, but let it at least not cost me money to put myself through these ordeals that take everything out of me and give me nothing back. There must be a telepathic channel of communication, because the Chilean asks me how much the ticket cost me. When I tell him the amount and show him the ticket, he starts. I see him dig around the cash register at the bar, count banknotes, reach into his pocket, pull out more banknotes, count again. “Let’s go home,” he says at last. “We’ll sort this out in the morning, before you leave.”

An hour later back on the nineteenth floor of the building. Noblesse oblige. My host makes an effort to coddle me. “Just as well there’s a guest room,” he says to me as he takes me to it, but it’s clear I have been given the master bedroom: because of the big bed, the pictures, the books, the papers, and the personal items I realize it immediately. His wife has whipped up a Spanish omelette and a salad and put out cheeses. There’s a little wine left over from lunch. We talk about his life, his problems. A delightful individual, I tell myself, and, besides, understand him, Julio Ramón: he’s an exile, he can’t go back to his country, his two children were born abroad, he dreams all the time of Chile, he’ll never get used to living in a city in the French provinces, he’s a déraciné like so many, like you yourself, although for other reasons. Appreciate him and thank him. The world is certainly complicated.

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