Sunday, February 2, 2014

Paper Wings and Baseball

Getting back to Bukowski, why is it that in a country such as ours [Peru] a writer like him never appears or appears only most rarely? I mean a writer who writes with “his guts,” whatever comes to mind, in the most direct, brutal, and vulgar way, without any self-censorship (saying Nixon is a piece of shit, Bernard Shaw a cretin, Genet a little woman, Shakespeare a bore, and so on), without the slightest pretension of the man of letters or the subtle thinker, and without accepting any convention (literary, moral, civic, and so on)? It’s apparently inexplicable. It could be explained that it would be difficult for a writer of this sort to emerge in France, for example, because it’s a country with a pure literary tradition, where whoever devotes himself to writing already has all the models in his head and has had rhetoric beaten into him since elementary school and has also received a language chewed over or refined over centuries of collective work and with which it’s difficult to do anything new. This is not the case in Peru, where it’s theoretically possible to get to literature (to write) by non-established or uncommon ways, which would permit Bukowskian forms of writing. The reasons for this phenomenon are complex. Several come to mind: literature in Peru is reserved for the élite, for people who have been to university, with all that that implies. Whoever hasn’t been to university or at least high school doesn’t write simply because he’s never learned to read and write. The U.S., on the other hand, allows for the assimilation of literature and a cultural apprenticeship outside the confines of school. Besides that, there’s another element: the lack of roots. No matter how underdeveloped Peru may be, its population is more deeply rooted in society, through misery, mediocrity, prosperity, or riches. We don’t have that demographic mass of immigrants or children of not yet integrated immigrants who are looking for cultural roots and, unable to claim any, are freer. All this is horribly explained. But I understand myself and that’s what matters to me now. In our environment, a Bukowski-type literature has no ticket, because before starting out to write you have to have learned a lot of things, among them belles-lettres and other idiocies. There’s neither a place nor an audience for those on the margins of these standards. With us, everybody wants to “write well,” to show, to prove that things can be done as well as or better than in other places. Dependence, imitation, performance. The writer has to be knowledgeable, clever, know it all, be a show-off. One writes par rapport à other literatures or a certain commonly accepted notion of literature rather than par rapport à oneself. 

With what I say here I’m not defending Bukowski’s literature, not at all. It’s fine with me if people write that way, but also in another way. I in any case—who will never attain a fraction of B.’s audience—will never write that way. For the reasons I’ve mentioned and for others. What Bukowski writes is impressive, but reading him exhausts you. There’s no more than what’s said. His discourse fits precisely over his meaning. There aren’t those fissures, the unsaid, that which is silenced or repressed, the merely insinuated, which to me give writing its breadth and its meaning. Also, no desire for transcendence, to rise above instinct, above the immediate, the bestial, the ordinary. The beefsteak in your face and that’s it. We all know that man is a beast, as Pascal said, but he also said that he’s an angel. B.’s angel has paper wings and plays baseball. I don’t believe in angels with paper, flesh, or aluminum wings, but I do believe in the need to soar over the vulgar when writing and to seek something other than the hyper-realistic summary of our much too familiar miseries.

--Julio Ramón Ribeyro, La tentación del fracaso (26 September 1978)


  1. Ribeyro seems to nail Bukowski well - I have no desire to read Bukowski for the reasons given. I get a sense of literary ecology. Peru, apparently, is a former colony that is still trying to live up to the cultural expectations of the colonial powers. America, on the other hand, defeated England and became wealthy. America is arrogant and artistically naive, whereas Peru is stuck in the past. Neither alternative is desirable.

    1. Ribeyro is also describing himself (that is, he leaves out precisely what Bukowski ("your pussy probably stinks") puts in.

      Sorry about the delayed response. I've just moved (to Briançon) and am without an internet connection of my own for the moment.