Sketch of Lima, Peru, by Manuel Atanasio Fuentes, 1866. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.
The Hour of Ribeyro
Antonio Muñoz Molina
Translated from the Spanish by Pankaj Mishra
From time to time, over the many pages and years of his journals, Julio Ramón Ribeyro reflects with a certain melancholy on his inability to write those massive all-encompassing or totalising novels published by almost all members of his Latin American generation. He notes, at one point, that European readers and critics prefer novelists of epic ambition, which he lacks completely. He tends towards brevity and stories of unglamorous people; and he realises that to be celebrated in Europe he would need to radiate the exoticism and extravagance so successfully cultivated by the most celebrated of his contemporaries, García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Alejo Carpentier, the José Donoso of The Obscene Bird of Night, or his compatriot and occasional friend Mario Vargas Llosa. Ribeyro says he envies those novels that critics call “frescos”: great panoramas of epochs or countries. “I will never be able to conceive of a ‘fresco’, let alone write it, it is not in my spirit to encompass it.” In their encyclopedic novels, Carpentier, Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes seemed to want to measure the breadth of history, the geographies and mythologies of an entire continent. As Ribeyro wrote in a note from 1970, “I have always passed by the side of history and have entered life through smaller and more concealed doors, such as private adventure or anecdote.”
The partiality for the concise and the fragmentary, for those smaller and more concealed doors than the columned porticoes preferred by others, has to do with the secondary place usually reserved for Ribeyro in the fiercely competitive and masculine hierarchy of Latin American literature in the decades of the boom. As the term itself implies, there was something excessively explosive and even inflationary about that movement, a kind of arms race in which each author aspired to overwhelm all the others and the reading public and critics with ever more outsized narrative artefacts: novels like aircraft carriers, like nuclear-tipped missiles, like spaceships the size of those that were beginning to fill cinema screens around the same time. The personas of Latin American writers expanded at the same speed as their novels: they took on a presence as symbols of their countries, of the entire continent; they travelled as presidents or plenipotentiary envoys; they acted as confidants or courtiers of dictators who even seemed to have stepped out of the novels they themselves had written. Carlos Fuentes would enter a room with the same poise as a Mexican president, surrounded by aides-de-camp. Mario Vargas Llosa almost became president of Peru. García Márquez was part of the inner circle of Fidel Castro, who, as he aged, looked more and more like a tyrant from a Latin American baroque novel—from, to be precise, The Autumn of the Patriarch. The model for all of them seemed to have been Pablo Neruda, with his pontifical aura, his predilection for official settings, his Andean cascades and accumulations of overflowing verse. Without giving names, Julio Ramón Ribeyro ironically sums up the whole school in an entry in his Prosas apátridas: “The literary ostentation of many Latin American writers. Their complex of coming from peripheral, underdeveloped areas, and their fear of being taken for uneducated. The demonstrative will of their works… To prove that they can also encompass an entire culture and express it in an encyclopedic sheet that summarises 20 centuries of history. The nouveau-riche aspect of their works: heteroclite, monstrous, ornate palaces…”
There were much less visible writers, though undoubtedly more versatile, who moved more or less in the shadow of those monumental masters, a bit like mammals in a world dominated by dinosaurs. Julio Ramón Ribeyro was one of them: like Juan Carlos Onetti, for example, or like Idea Vilariño, Silvina Ocampo, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Onetti spoke ironically about the superiority of Vargas Llosa’s brothel in The Green House compared to his own in Juntacadáveres: “Mario’s was better because it had an orchestra”.
The era of the great dinosaurs seems to be behind us; a meteorite was not needed to wipe it out. For, the great frescoes, the colossal murals, overwhelm us now, and we prefer formats closer to those of everyday experience, voices that speak to us naturally, seemingly in a low voice and in our ear, instead of thundering at us from a pulpit or from the public address system of a stadium. Love, passion and political vehemence shake us more deeply in the verses of Idea Vilariño than in those of Pablo Neruda. And what attracts us to Julio Ramón Ribeyro is the very thing that seemed to him, in his moments of uncertainty, to be an inadequacy: the murmured tone of his style, the intimate scale of the worlds he imagines and narrates; the ability to sum up a fragment of true life in a brief scene observed in the street, and the candour of a strictly personal voice, which never imposes itself through preaching or the epic mode, and which dares to examine unemphatically, without egocentrism, one’s own feelings, the fragile and the doubtful and the unworthy in one’s own life. The instrument of this exploration is his journal, or the notebook in which he kept a daily record of occurrences, uncertainties and revelations.
Like anyone who knows best how to concentrate on the concise, Ribeyro was remorseful that he had not dared to write long novels. But in his journal he was creating precisely—without intending to, without the effort of erecting complex narrative scaffolding—what he felt least capable of; a book that encompassed a whole life and a whole epoch, his journey back and forth between Peru and Europe, the transit through cities, loves, friendships, readings, poverty, literary vocation, fatherhood, illness. The first notes of La tentación del fracaso were written in Lima in 1950; the last is dated 30 December 1978. The great novel that Julio Ramón Ribeyro thought he would never achieve was written, day after day, for 30 years. This, and no other, was the literary form that corresponded to his detached and genial way of being in the world: “I float between two waters, I pick from here and there, I accept contradictory ideas with the utmost coolness, I have absolutely no opinions”.
Read Amit Chaudhuri’s response to this essay here
Antonio Muñoz Molina is a Spanish writer and, since 8 June 1995, a full member of the Royal Spanish Academy. He received the 1991 Premio Planeta, the 2013 Jerusalem Prize, and the 2013 Prince of Asturias Award for literature. His most recent novel, Un andar solitario entre la gente, 2018 (To Walk Alone in the Crowd) won the Prix Médicis étranger 2020.
Pankaj Mishra’s second novel, Run and Hide, was published this year. He has been learning Spanish, and the essay above is the first work he has translated from the language.