strange things are happening every day
Strange Things that Happened to Ribeyro
These lines have no other purpose but to offer a few personal glimpses of Julio Ramón Ribeyro. Naturally, my perspective results from my binary condition as a friend of his with many fond memories, on the one hand, and as a grateful reader on the other.
In the magical exchange between literature and reality, it’s not the same to read a friend as it is to read any other writer. When we read a friend, we hold a set of keys, consciously or unconsciously, and a much greater frame of reference. We know the inclinations, the phobias, the sympathies, and many other details of the author’s character. All of this information broadens and enriches our perception. On the one hand, it gratifies us as it would any reader, and on the other, it assists us in deciphering the writer’s enigmas. For me, for example, reading Julio has resulted, among other things, in an obsessive desire to puzzle out the mystery of his fragility and his integrity, two starkly contrasting components of his personality that defined him not only as an individual, but also, to my way of thinking, as a writer and an artist.
Of course, I also read Julio like any other reader would, looking to enjoy the read itself and to better understand the world in which we live; and, lastly, I read him as a writer. What I mean by that is that I analyze and celebrate, with great interest, his novel uses of language, the twists and turns of his plots, the meticulous design of his characters, his ripples of poetry, or simply the simplicity and efficacy of his prose and the emotion that lies latent in his stories.
Julio Ramón wrote novels, plays, diaries, and long-form prose, but, in his readers’ opinion, his greatest contribution—the one in which he invested both heart and guts—was to the short story, a genre that, on this side of the American continent, boasts a long tradition of brilliant authors. In these lands, during colonial times, we saw the cronistas de Indias, followed in the Republic by the costumbristas, and then, moving through the prolific twentieth century, authors like Quiroga, Borges, Cortázar, García Márquez, Rulfo, Arreola, Onetti, and Benedetti, to cite just a few names. In Peru, Ricardo Palma and Abraham Valdelomar were two masters of the short story; Valdelomar was, without a doubt, the originator of the short story in its modern form. Julio Ramón was born as a man of letters on the shoulders of such authors, but his sources of inspiration were the Russian and French masters of the nineteenth century: Chekhov, Turgenev, and Maupassant. He decided, halfway through the twentieth century, to write like a nineteenth-century author. He made this decision out of vocation, out of a desire to cultivate a clean style, stripped of extravagance and useless ornamentation, and because to write any other way would have been against his nature. Nonetheless, anyone who has read him knows he was an author who had also read Franz Kafka and James Joyce, with great dedication at that, and who, in spite of emulating the tone and certain conventions of nineteenth-century writing, is inevitably a contemporary writer.
Julio Ramón, I’ll say it once and for all, wrote like a classic and became the most modern of our classic writers. His books of short stories, the various volumes that make up The Word of the Speechless, display the purity and the vigor of the classics. Ribeyro’s prose is classic in the clarity and beauty of its style, and at the same time it is modern in its vision, in its way of looking at itself and looking at us. His is a twentieth-century writing that flows like fresh water, a prose that never grows old.
Ribeyro was obviously not an avant-garde writer, as we’re used to saying in allusion to the front line of an army, but rather a writer of the rear-guard. He marched among the troops who recover the wounded and the dead who fall in combat, who are in fact just as important as the front lines, lending strength, spirit, and covering fire to any and all offensive maneuvers. His greatest fear, as he confessed to me on one occasion, was of becoming a relic, an anachronistic author. Some critics, perhaps confused by his methods, saw him as such. By this point, nonetheless, we know him to have been the most piercing and compassionate chronicler of the middle classes of his time, and, ultimately, the most modern and current of our classics.
Who Is This Black Guy?
I’ll turn now to my memories of some of the strange things I mentioned in this note’s title. During his first few years living in Paris, Julio Ramón convinced the important Gallimard press to translate his stories into French. He was very happy and very much looking forward to seeing his first book in the language of Flaubert, and it didn’t take long to reach his hands. But his happiness only lasted the few seconds it took us to take a look at the front and back covers of the fresh volume. The press had made a terrible mistake: they mixed up the author’s photo. Instead of his face, they had printed a photograph of a black man, an African author, writing in Portuguese, who shared his last name. Julio Ramón was frozen solid. For a few hours, as he told me, he stayed hidden away in his house, anxious and unsure of what to do, in the saddest and most piteous of solitudes. To understand this reaction, this bog of unease and uncertainty, you must remember that Julio was a withdrawn person, very respectful of courtesy and good manners.
Faced with this absurd and embarrassing mistake, he didn’t know how to complain. He debated over whether to call on the phone or go to the publishing house in person; he even debated over what tone of voice he should use to make his complaint. He suffered those heartrending trances that only the timid suffer: stiff muscles and panic attacks. His greatest fear was being misunderstood, since his complaint could be taken as racist. He was about to resign himself to the fact that this gentleman, the unknown black man in the photo, would be the Ribeyro behind his stories. But in the end, with all the strength his slender frame could muster, his dared to pay a visit to the publishing house and, stammering, spouting apologies, to ask them, please, if it was not too inconvenient, to fix the mistake.
Hospital Tablespoons, Hospital Teaspoons
Equally strange, and at the same time intensely dramatic, was what befell him several years later in a public hospital in France. Julio Ramón, who was at the time an extremely slender man—the skinniest of the skinny—was convalescing after an operation to remove his stomach cancer. His condition was grave and the doctors had no high hopes, so they placed him in the hospital’s general ward. This ward, also known as the eviction ward, was a dangerous place to be. There, they put screens around the sick; that is to say, they separated them or covered them up so the rest of the patients couldn’t watch their dying moments. So, if a patient truly desired to get better, he had to get out of the general ward. But, to achieve such a purpose, and to gain access to another ward where the doctors provided better treatment and provisions, it was imperative to show signs of recovery. Skinny as he was, Ribeyro realized that his life depended on his weight; he had to get heavier. They weighed the general ward’s patients every day, and those who gained weight were the best candidates to be moved to a different ward, under the approving smiles of the doctors and nurses. Gaining weight was the passport to be transferred to a special ward, far from the hopelessness of the last stop.
And so Julio Ramón, in his determination to gain weight, started methodically stealing tablespoons and teaspoons from the dinner trays of other patients; he hid them, with consummate stealth, in the pockets of his pajamas and his robe. And, with this extra weight, he stepped onto the scales. He went into the daily weighing with the suspense of a Hitchcock film. “They were moments of great tension and self-control,” he told me, “in which I had to be sure no one would realize that the weight I was gaining day by day was not grams of fat and muscle, but rather grams of tablespoons and teaspoons.” This fictitious weight saved his life and allowed him to access his longed-for special ward, where he was better fed and, as a result, his health improved. He lived for twenty more years.
Aside from an exceptional biographical circumstance, the spoon anecdote is a typical Ribeyran situation. Julio Ramón, sometimes just as weightless and spiritless as the characters of his stories, suffered the trance of approaching the abyss in the flesh, and decided to take a peek over the edge. This glance was comprehensive and ironic, like the vision he offers in his literary work. He thought that, faced with the hard knocks of life that so often test us, we must respond with equal parts courage and serenity: unsheathing a fencer’s smile.
Who Stole Julio Ramón?
In the end, his life bid him farewell in the same way, ironically, with a slight smile: the same attitude he so often conferred upon his characters. The day is still fresh in my memory when, from Mexico, a friendly voice told him he had won the all-but-holy Juan Rulfo Prize. This recognition made Julio very happy, but he would never receive it personally, as he died just a few short weeks before the award ceremony.
Julio called me to tell me the news, asking me to keep it private; we talked about the money (a tidy sum of one hundred thousand dollars), we talked once more about the sailboat that we were going to buy and that we never bought, and finally we agreed to meet up later that night. Along with Anita Chávez, his partner at the time, we went out for some drinks to La Rosa Náutica, a lovely restaurant overlooking the sea in Miraflores. Back in those days, we would often try our luck on roulette wheels at the casinos, and La Rosa Náutica had just opened its own casino shortly before our visit. And, well, Julio Ramón was having a lucky day; not only did he find out about the literary prize, he also won at roulette. He won almost three thousand dollars. And, consequently, a few days later a sculptor showed up, sent by the organizers of the Juan Rulfo Prize, now known as the FIL Prize, to take photos of him (he took them while they had lunch together in Barranco, in the restaurant of Negro Flores, which no longer exists). Based on these photos, he modeled and cast a bust of Julio Ramón, as is traditional for all authors honored with the Rulfo Prize.
Months later, after Julio’s death, they sent a copy of this bust to Lima: a copy that, thanks to the actions of his widow, Alida de Ribeyro, would rest atop the central pedestal of the second oval of the Alameda Pardo, in Miraflores, the neighborhood where Julio lived almost all his life, where he spent a part of his childhood and adolescence, and where just a few months later his literary talent would be honored with a park, dedicated in his name for all posterity.
So where’s the strange part of this story? The strange and funny side to all this—I’m sure Julio is still laughing about it, wherever he may be—is that in less than a week the bust was stolen by some fumones, or “smokers,” according to the police, who stole it to sell the bronze and use the money to buy the drug that would help them in their continued efforts to escape from this world. It sounds like the ending to one of Ribeyro’s stories, and, indeed, it is. An ending with his atmosphere of surprise and disenchantment, with his impassible shrug of the shoulders, with his resigned frustration and silence.
Now they have placed a replica of his bust in the park, this time made of cement painted the color of bronze, so it won’t get stolen again, or end up broken into bits and melted down in an alleyway by some poor kids who probably never knew who Ribeyro was, or what urban realism means in Peruvian literature, but to whom belongs, nonetheless, a part of the inheritance of the word of the speechless.
Is Julio Ramón a writers’ writer? Why, during the sixties and seventies, in the midst of the Latin American Boom, did his name not echo like that of his countryman, Mario Vargas Llosa? There are many ways to respond to these questions. Julio Ramón wrote short stories, not novels, although for my taste he wrote a wonderful short novel, Crónicas de San Gabriel [Chronicles of San Gabriel]. Short stories, according to the Spanish publishers, sell less than novels. And, on top of that, Julio Ramón worked against himself. Retiring and mistrustful, he rigorously defended his privacy and his personal time, he was annoyed by promotion and interviews, he avoided contact with strangers. Only very late in his life, in his last three years, did he open up a little to the public. But he never liked it. He preferred a low profile, discretion.
At any rate, in Peru, Julio Ramón is a part of the canon, although the world has not yet discovered him as it should. Prestigious Spanish press Seix Barral’s republication of his excellent works Prosas apátridas [Stateless prose] and La tentación del fracaso [The temptation of failure], along with new editions from Alfaguara of The Word of the Speechless, the collection of his complete short stories, earn him enthusiastic readers year after year in Spain and Latin America, placing him among the most outstanding authors of literature in the Spanish language.
Edited text of a talk given by Fernando Ampuero in 2009, in the Inca Garcilaso Cultural Center of the Ministry of Foreigh Relations of Peru
Translated by Arthur Dixon