Peruvian writer Gustavo Rodríguez (1968), author of more than a dozen novels, has refined his narrative work over the years and has widened his universe enough to express, in an adequate manner, concerns belonging to his vision and literary work. His latest book is the novel Cien cuyes, which earned him the Alfaguara Prize in 2023. The dignity of death is a pivotal element in this novel. The way to face the inevitable situation of dying leads a group of elderly people living in the capital to consider different options. For the closer you are to death, the more the past swirls—that varied past, good or bad, that seems to want to give you that little push towards the abyss. Thus come solidarity and friendship, with the candor and the memory of warriors. And in this space, in this system in which we all are, which in a sense banishes them, appears Eufrasia, a carer for the elderly, a woman whose family—her sister and son—ends up revolving around the wisdom of old age.
Ricardo Sumalavia: The work of certain writers is built by blocks, and in other cases by stages or cycles. In hindsight, how do you see your narrative work?
Gustavo Rodríguez: I think there are two blocks in my novels. First, one that is related to exploring my younger years, and is associated with certain social phenomena that have always concerned me, such as racism or classism, but in relation to someone like me, who has always seen himself as being in-between. Perhaps during that stage I was hoping to be taken seriously. I think those are interesting novels, and some of them were even finalists for some international book awards. However, I think they were missing that tone I did accomplish in the second block. I believe that from when I wrote Te escribí mañana (2016) onwards—it has been four novels in a row—I found a way of storytelling that is based on tenderness and humor. You see that more in some novels than in others, but I think that is the path that has satisfied me the most.
R.S.: A character of its own in your novels, as we can clearly see in Cien cuyes, is the city of Lima. What is your creative relationship with that city?
G.R.: Yes, I think Lima is much more present in a conscious way in this second block of novels, because I’ve reached the conclusion that the more authentic my writing is, the better it is received. And Lima is the city I know the best in the world. Fortunately, and also unfortunately, Lima is a scenario of huge contradictions. It crystallizes the confrontations that take place in Peru. It is also a fascinating city in which there is not only a privileged geography, but also a mix of all the cultures that inhabit us as a country. So, from that point of view, I find it a fascinating challenge to try to paint that city as the background for my stories.
R.S.: In terms of structure, the alternation of the chapters in your novel Cien cuyes produces an agile rhythm and allows us to see how the characters grow more and more complex. On social media, you showed a sketch of what this novel would be. What changed during the process? What did you abandon and what came to be a part of it during the writing process?
G.R.: I just checked what I wrote in pen in the original structure and I compared it to what was finally published, and there aren’t many changes in what happens in the story. I usually prefigure my playground very well, the setting for the game I will give the reader. And my challenge as a writer is that people do not notice the control I have had; I always compare this to that picture of Fred Astaire where he is suspended in mid-air, looking graceful, with his hat on. And I say, well, every fiction writer who choses my method must look like Astaire (and not make noticeable the number of attempts and ankle-sprains that were necessary to accomplish that illusion of spontaneity).
On the other hand, something that did happen while I was making the sketch was that I wanted the novel to end up as choral, with those Siete Magníficos and their adventures. I was surprised to see myself surrounded by those characters and feeling like I had not felt before: welcome, amused, and touched by them. It was as if the older people who took care of me during my life had come back with their voices to take me in; so much so that that cliché, when you end up missing the characters you created, did come about with this novel. Another thing that called my attention was the fact that I set myself an almost non-verisimilar mission for the main character, Eufrasia. So, making the psychological process of all the characters verisimilar, especially for the Siete Magníficos, such that in the end the task that Eufrasia performs with them is believable, that did take a lot of caution. Even once I had the award, I checked the manuscript again, I made a couple adjustments to avoid having any loose ends, any threads of doubt regarding that final task.
R.S.: Peru has a well-formed satiric tradition. Sly humor is one of our traits. Of course, in the case of literature, our Peruvian tradition has incorporated nuances such as those of Bryce Echenique or Fernando Iwasaki. In your previous books we also see that, but how did you intend to strengthen that in this novel?
G.R.: Even though my latest novels are labeled as tragicomic I do not consider that the use of humor in my narrative work is a merit of mine, because it comes very naturally to me. Since I was little, humor has been my tool to navigate the world surrounding me. It has served me as an icebreaker. It has helped me not to become a naive laughingstock. You know what happens to the shy ones, readers, who don’t know how to fight. But, specifically in the case of Madrugada (2018) and Cien cuyes (2023), for example, I realized I wanted to strengthen the humor. Actually, two types of humor. First: I have looked for an ironic narrative voice that, sometimes, grants itself certain games. But where I strengthen humor the most, perhaps to the point of bursting into laughter, is through my characters and their dialogues. There, it’s as if I were cut into parts, giving them many of the nasty things and outbursts that come to my mind and that I withhold out of courtesy when I am around other people.
R.S.: In this world of ironies, how do you articulate the image of the cuyes (guinea pigs from the Andes) within the universe of this novel?
G.R.: The cuyes were originally a playful metaphor for a payment of services. It is not the case that in exchange for her help with fulfilling their last wishes the elders were going to pay Eufrasia in guinea pigs, obviously, nor that she was going to buy them to set up a business. They are, rather, the indicator of the practical mind of a poor woman who has to make a living, unlike the well-off elderly people she takes care of. And so the cuyes placed before us that dilemma of doing something unfathomable in order to work, or out of love. Then, after the Alfaguara Prize verdict, those little animals reached, outside of the novel, a status of cultural demand in an editorial market that is usually populated by Western or Spanish voices, without a counterpart from the Andean countries. That consequence makes me glad.
R.S.: What personal and immediate canon could you link to Cien cuyes?
G.R.: I’m not good at linking my novels to previous narrative works, for a very simple reason: I usually forget everything I read. It’s a condition I have. I forget the titles of novels, their plots, the names of the authors. It would be impossible for me to teach literature because I would always be asking: “what’s this one called?, what’s it called, what’s it called?” I do remember, though, the literature that left a mark on me as a teenager. That, I do remember. From then onwards, it all becomes a mixed and quite varied liquid medium. The same thing happens with the movies I have seen. It all becomes one big mass kept inside, unconsciously, which I then tap into during my creative processes. The same happens to me with the influences of Cien cuyes; however, in this case I do believe there is a movie from the early 2000s that left a mark on me: The Barbarian Invasions. It was Canadian, I think. I was young, but it had an impact on me given the strength with which a man faces natural death. I believe something from that movie communicates with this novel in a remote way. Additionally, I must admit that I feel I write better since I have embraced the pop side of my influences, the popular culture side. When I started writing, I was a bit scared by the idea that critics would see me as strange, coming from working in advertising, and I guess I wanted to seem more bookish than I am. But I have to say that along with the immense number of books I have read in my life there is also an immense storehouse of films and songs that populate my imagery. I think the more honest I am in embracing them, the more authentic my novels are and, perhaps, the better they are.
R.S.: “The death of the father” has become a very interesting topic among writers from your generation (those born at the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s). In the case of your novel, we would have to use the plural: father and mothers, a group that faces its end in a society they might consider insensitive. How did you intend to explore the themes of old age and death?
G.R.: I find this quite interesting, the death of the father. It is true, my work has not lacked that. In fact, I have a novel whose basis is the death of my own father, called Cocinero en su tinta. In that book, an alter ego of mine, who is a cook, tries to explain to himself the relationship he had with his late father. Also, I introduce a reference to that novel and that circumstance in Treinta kilómetros a la medianoche (2022). In the case of Cien cuyes, I believe the topic is not lacking either, because in a way the trigger of its writing was the death of a father figure of mine, my father-in-law, Jack Harrison. I hurried up and wrote it after having seen the last months of his life, because he had a very dignified death. I believe, then, that writing about death in general and old age in loneliness was an excuse to keep talking to my father-in-law, in a way. But, in addition to that, it is true that during these past few years I have been concerned about the idea of the naturalization of death. In fact, I have a book for young people—children and youths, let’s say—which is about a child who has to accept death in his own house, a loved one dies, and how that close relative helps him and explains that dying is natural. That book is finished, I even have a publishing contract for it, but it has not come out yet. I wrote it before the pandemic. So, yes, the theme of death and its naturalization has been haunting me for years. Certain personal things had to happen for all that to manifest in Cien cuyes, with its new things and seasonings.
R.S.: So, to you, death implies a link to someone else; someone leaves and someone stays, and thus comes about a sort of act of support to safeguard dignity. Does Peru, the Peru we live in today, foster the recovery of that dignity? Or, on the contrary, due to its lack of this dignity, does it become a literary driver in this novel?
G.R.: Both, I believe. A society that grows more and more conservative—and that even wants to legislate how your most private moments must be, such as your readings, your sexual relations, and your death—makes you want to use art to create an alternative reality not just as an escape, but also as a path towards empathy.