The work of Peruvian writer Julio Ramón Ribeyro is destined to last, and we can call him a classic with no fear of falling into exaggeration or complacency. With The Word of the Speechless, La tentación del fracaso [The temptation of failure], and La caza sutil [The subtle hunt], he left his mark on literature.
Ribeyro is a classic writer, in good measure, because he transcended his own time. He wrote that any exhaustive pursuit of fashion leads inevitably to the Museum of Antiquities, and he displayed persistent independence: he read a great deal, he was knowledgeable of the French writers of the nineteenth century, and in a note published in the Spanish newspaper El País on May 3, 1983, he said Latin America had been considered a baroque continent, but he thought there was a place there for a more direct art “dominated not by forms but by function.” His independence was the cause of his late-coming recognition, but also of his durability.
Without a doubt, the characters of Julio Ramón Ribeyro will return again and again to the reader’s thoughts; they will appeal not only to her intelligence, her feelings, or her imagination, but also to her spirit, as in all good literature. His characters accompany the reader in their solitude, such as the child protagonists of “Los gallinazos sin plumas” [The featherless buzzards], sent by their grandfather to the garbage dump in search of food to fatten up his pig, Pascual; or Matías Palomino, the collection agent who finally has the chance to become a substitute teacher, who arrives a few minutes early to teach class and starts to doubt and confuse his concepts, fails, and returns home, where his wife waits for him with an apron tied around her waist, full of pride that will soon be extinguished, like that of Matías himself; or the protagonist of “Explicaciones a un cabo de servicio” [Explanations to a service corporal], Pablo Sardaña, a drunk man who, in the last line, exclaims that he is a man, “A man!”, and demands to be recognized as such. Or, in “Dirección equivocada” [Wrong way], where the protagonist saves a woman from foreclosure, not out of pity or justice but simply because “that woman was kind of pretty”; or the protagonist in “El marqués y los gavilanes” [The marquis and the sparrow hawks], the exaggerated and endearing aristocrat who refuses to admit that times have changed, or that the bourgeois have stolen his table at the Hotel Bolívar. Aren’t they magnificent characters?
Ribeyro wrote that, when his stories were critical of society, they were always critical indirectly. In the story “De color modesto” [Of modest color], which condemns racism, what is most clearly depicted is the almost general human incapacity to endure social ridicule. In “La piel de un indio no cuesta caro” [The skin of an Indian doesn’t cost much] the reader first suffers the unfair and forgotten fate of Pancho, only to end by accenting the final conformism of the protagonist, Miguel, in the face of a hypocritical social dynamic. And in “Al pie del acantilado” [At the foot of the cliff], where the protagonist Don Leandro is meaningfully forced to move his house out of the city, up to the edge of a cliff, and then to the beach, we witness the exclusion produced at that historical moment by the rapid growth of urban capitals, but the basis of the story’s development, which the ending puts forth as its central pillar, is something else: the symbol of the castor bean, with which the protagonist identifies, a hardly little plant able to grow among rocks. In reality, it is a universal story of resistance. Ribeyro’s attention and reaction to injustice shows through indirectly, as the universality of this writer is based on his precision in depicting interiority, at the margin of the issue at hand and the criticism of society. Not at all dogmatic, and not very pragmatic either, Ribeyro did not view literature as a means to transmit a message. So exclaims Luder, in the Dichos de Luder [Sayings of Luder]: “The worst of the readers (…) is the shiny-shoed intellectual who waits marxistly, sitting on the bench of books, for a message to appear.”
The literature of Julio Ramón Ribeyro, which hoped to be, in his own words, the “voice of the voiceless,” is principally realist, in spite of his excellent fantastic stories, and even within them. It is a sort of reflexive realism, not because it seeks to provoke reflection in the reader, nor because it pursues anything more than the simple form of a specific story, but rather because reflection is found in the intimacy of Ribeyro’s short stories, and this intimacy forms a transcendental part of it. The discreet characters of this world, lacking in social relevance or fallen into disgrace, who populate Ribeyran short stories, are beings that reflect. They may do so precariously, sometimes nonverbally, but they think and feel, and this is important in Ribeyro’s stories, which he hoped to make clear. He wrote about himself, perhaps offering a key to interpreting his work: “He had a particular goodness, not the goodness of alms nor the goodness of tearful letters to mother, but a marked interest in one’s fellow man and a desire to understand him, which he considered the most human form of helping him.”
This reflection has particular resonance in Ribeyro’s short stories. In his diary, Ribeyro wrote some of his impressions of his first book of stories, titled Los gallinazos sin plumas. One of these impressions states he is looking for psychological precision, and that the events of his plots matter little in and of themselves: the interesting part is the precision with which these events affect people.
There are many examples of this interest: the story “Los eucaliptos” [The eucalyptus trees], one of my favorites, in which the protagonist (who symbolizes an entire generation) watches how they cut down the trees that line his street and change the landscape he loved as a child: “The city progressed. But our street lost its shade, its peace, its poetry.” Far from taking action, the protagonist remains in the doorway of his house, smoking, “pensive.”
Julio Ramón Ribeyro was not only a fiction writer; he was also a man of thought. For example, he wrote a diary titled La tentación del fracaso [The temptation of failure], but he also accompanied this writing with many hours of reading other diaries, of reflecting on the genre itself. In the article “Dos diaristas peruanos” [Two Peruvian diarists], he points out an empty space in this particular topic. This is one of the critical essays collected in La caza sutil, a book published in 1976 by Carlos Milla Batres, not to be published again until 2012 by the Universidad Diego Portales, in Chile, with a few additional essays. Its latest, definitive edition dates from 2016, from Revuelta Editores in Lima, with a prologue by Jorge Coaguila. Surprisingly, thirty-six years passed between the first publication and the second. In my opinion, this is a book that will take on greater importance with time. In its pages, an unusual critical sharpness unfolds, an extraordinary skill for the observation and synthesis of complex contexts.
Ribeyro was interested in literary theory, and he developed his own theory both precisely and agreeably while writing the “impressionistic” and “subjective” criticism that suited his taste. In an article written in 1992, “Amor sobre ruedas” [Love on wheels], he analyzes three nineteenth-century French novels, all of which include an episode in which a sexual act takes place in a coach: “Merimée falls silent; Flaubert suggests; and what does Maupassant do? He neither falls silent nor suggests: he describes.” Ribeyro rigorously studies the various modes of narrating the scene, but he also leaves room for humor. Humor is a constant that runs surprisingly throughout Ribeyro’s work, wonderfully present in his fiction as well as his Prosas apátridas [Stateless prose], and in many of his deep, critical essays. Irony and humor can be found on many of Ribeyro’s pages.
Julio Ramón Ribeyro was a man of thought, but not of seriousness. The previous idea would be quite inaccurate without a touch of humor. The work of Julio Ramón Ribeyro would have been much more sobering and grim without its humor. Humor lightens his work, makes the failure of its characters more bearable, and pushes us toward fondness. Like the masterful opening of the story “Una aventura nocturna” [A nocturnal adventure], which has a hint of humor in its syntax and its diction, even while presenting the protagonist’s harsh circumstances:
At the age of forty, Arístides had every right to consider himself a man “left out of the banquet of life.” He had neither wife nor sweetheart, he worked in the basements of the city annotating records for the Civil Registry, and he lived in a miniscule apartment on Avenida Larco, full of dirty clothes, rickety furniture, and photographs of artists stuck to the wall with pins. His old friends, now married and prosperous, drove by in their automobiles while he waited in line for the bus, and if they happened to run into him in some public place, they went no further than to give him a quick handshake, which left a certain dose of repugnance in its wake. Because Arístides was not only the moral image of failure, but also the physical symbol of neglect: he was badly dressed, he shaved carelessly, and he smelled of cheap food, of grotty cafs.
My admiration for Julio Ramón Ribeyro was restimulated when I read his Cartas a Luchting [Letters to Luchting], compiled and with a prologue by Juan José Barrientos, recently published by Mexico’s Universidad Veracruzana. Since these are his letters to his German agent, some are more tedious than others, containing the figures and functions of everyday life. But many are deeply interesting, giving access to the hidden details of a life dedicated to literature, to notions expressed with embryonic naturality only to be later overturned, one way or another, in the author’s work. There is also a sense of humor and of objectivity toward the writer himself; in an exercise of simplicity and rigor uncommon in our contemporary world, Ribeyro is not afraid to point out the defects and limitations of his own work. This clear vision makes him a great writer. In these letters he writes: “My new novel continues to grow, it is already practically finished. I do not know yet if it’s a pamphlet, a detective story, a jumble of stupid scenes, or a gallows where the only one to be hanged is myself.”
In Ribeyro there is sharp reflection, which impregnates all of his work, and there is also humor. He is a synthesizing writer, like all the few writers who become classics: those who have been able, with the most varied of styles, to speak depths in few words, and to write what, without genius, can only be expressed imprecisely.
Ribeyro is a classic, and he has the capacity to become a popular classic, read by many, and also by the young, as he is already in Peru. In Spain, my home country, attention to his work is growing, and Seix Barral is now republishing his work, but he is still not a popular reference. And in Mexico, where I live—besides the Universidad Veracruzana, which is reviving his memory with La insignia y otros relatos geniales [The insignia and other wonderful stories] and Cartas a Luchting—the rest of his books are either difficult to find or very expensive.
Upon opening the books of Julio Ramón Ribeyro, the reader feels a deep sense of recognition, of affirmation. The reader feels in good company, seeing herself depicted in the human longing, the human frustration, the limitation, the love, the pride, the contradiction, the weakness, the injustice… the particular, neverending interior struggle with the world. But if, on the occasion of the anniversary we are currently celebrating, you were to ask me why you should read Julio Ramón Ribeyro, I would answer, quite simply, for pleasure.
Translated by Arthur Dixon