Lima: Peisa, 2023. 364 pages.
While I was reading Carmen Ollé’s memoirs, the thought came to mind that she picked a great title. “Vagabond” is a meaningful word for describing Carmen. A vagabond on foot, trains, and airplanes that have taken her all over the world, on invitations to book fairs, talks, lectures, and workshops. Above all else, she is a vagabond, a migrant, a nomad in heart, spirit, and mind. I’ve never met anybody more inquisitive than Carmen, anybody who had a greater thirst for knowledge (of logic, quantum physics, is there a God?, il bello Modigliani), or more passions (for Perros Celestiales, for Enrique, Vanessa, and Stefano), and dreams (of authors like Kafka, Vallejo, Rimbaud, Nemirosky, Highsmith).
Reading her illustrated memoirs, carefully edited by Peisa, means asking how many Carmens fit into one. How many lives are in her? Fearless and affectionate, fervent and pained, wild and responsible lives. Unprejudiced lives. Like those of the nomad women Carmen watches in the park or from her window.
She fell in love with and married the poet Enrique Varástegui, someone she always admired despite their age difference, and she joined the Hora Zero collective in its second phase. She has been writing ever since. While living in Paris, she cleaned other peoples’ houses to provide for her family, she cooked meals (which she hated), she met with painter friends from time to time, she was a loving mother to Vanessa, and, years later, a contented grandmother to Stefano.
Carmen could be in a country where bombs were falling (isn’t this what happened to us in the 1980s?) and she would keep on writing. She is a born writer. She isn’t fussy and she puts one word down after another with a steady hand. And if her hand does tremble, it’s because what she sees and describes is uniquely intense.
She references her previous twelve works throughout her memoirs: two books of poetry, novels, collections of short stories and essays, and theatrical works. She uses them as examples of literary techniques or to reject or accept any criticism they received. As we travel from one page to another, it might feel like we’re reading a novel because, as Carmen often says, the border between truth and fiction is hazy. A character in Unamuno’s novel Don Sandalio, jugador de ajedrez says: “All autobiographies are nothing less than fiction.” Carmen is spellbound by the characters she reads in books. She even views the world through their eyes.
“HER CHARACTERS, OF THE CHARACTERS OF HER FAVORITE WRITERS, OR HER SUCCESSIVE LOVERS, ARE UNDER HER SKIN, AND SHE DESIRES THEM OR DISTANCES HERSELF FROM THEM DEPENDING ON THE TIME OF DAY”
Dear readers, what happened to me will happen to you: once you finish the first page, you won’t want to read anything else for days on end.
Book after book, regardless of genre. If genres are mixed together, even better; if they’re hybrids, even better; if they’re about sexually ambiguous lovers, even better. Carmen writes about all of it, in a complex, conflictive world.
She leads us through fantastical plots, introduces us to mysterious, malevolent, or extravagant characters. She puts Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, and Patricia Highsmith’s characters in unimaginable places, and suddenly we see them in a café or walking down the street or in a shadowy park…
Carmen is a standing invitation to irreverence and rebellion, and not because she intends to be, but rather because that’s just how she is. That’s how she started out, and that’s how she will carry on. She is a born individualist; she doesn’t want to start groups or lead any kind of revolution. She doesn’t buy into the business of “feminine poetry” or “poetry written by women.” If a woman is writing, what’s the problem? She’s not interested in slogans or waving banners. She gives us her very soul and her irrefutable desire in the pages she writes. She doesn’t put on any airs and she’s not trying to please anybody. In fact, she is so discreet that she never mentions having won the 2015 House of Peruvian Literature Prize or being honored three years prior at the Fifth Festival of Literature hosted by the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. Nor does she mention that Nights of Adrenaline has been translated and has inspired numerous critical studies and theses.
In her memoirs, Carmen tells us about her youth. As kids do, she played with spinning tops, marbles, and skates. She climbed trees and watched trains rolling down the tracks; in other words, she played with everything that moved. She didn’t bother with motionless things, such as dolls or playing the piano. She also tells us about the many houses and rooms she lived in, about her father, mother, siblings, and a long line of aunts and grandparents. Of course, she tells us about reading compulsively, including Russian authors, visual histories, and romance or detective novels. She tells us about her crushes and lovers, both real and fictional, and she shares her reflections on the profession and art of writing, which will surprise a reader or two.
Carmen’s great lesson is to read, read, and read some more. She didn’t get anything for free, so she grabbed ahold of stories and characters. She also observed life passionately, either on her own or accompanied by friends: Esther Castañeda, Pilar Dughi, Miguel Gutiérrez, Enrique Verástegui… Sadly, they have all passed away, but Carmen feels they are with her.
In some sense, Carmen lives in another dimension: a state of restless half-sleep. Her characters, or the characters of her favorite writers, or her successive lovers, are under her skin, and she desires them or distances herself from them depending on the time of day.
In 1970s Lima, she was a middle-class girl who studied at the Swiss international Pestalozzi School and who read a lot. A young woman who walked around central Lima, visited second-hand bookstores, studied at San Marcos, joined film clubs, taught at the Universidad de la Cantuta during a time when pro-terrorists spoke freely. She worked at Demus and CENDOC-Mujer and, even today, she continues to lead creative writing workshops. Who could forget that Carmen took Glenda, her dear dog, for walks in the park? When she moved to Paris, she wore herself out supporting herself, her husband, and Vanessa, her daughter who was only six-months old at the time. This left few opportunities to enjoy the beautiful city and its museums. We might read about all of this in Nights of Adrenaline, if the critics didn’t focus solely on the book’s eroticism, airs, bodily fluids…
Carmen leaves Lima and always returns to Lima. Even if she doesn’t love the city. This spirit of contradiction inspires Carmen and her words. There are no subjects she won’t touch, and she writes about all of them clearly and courageously, especially in a city like Lima. A city that’s among the best when it comes to hypocrisy, repression, and irrelevance.
Carmen asks why memoir or letter or document writing is so rare in Peru as opposed to in other countries. Other than Ribeyro or Arguedas, there’s hardly anybody…
Immerse yourselves in these enlightening, powerful, painful pages. Take the hand, or pulse, of this natural-born writer who, despite the obstacles, is happy to go hunting for a book, quickly locates one, and then loses herself in its pages. Losing yourself in a plot, in a story, in a surprising flow of words, is another form of vagabonding.
Above all else, thank you for writing, for giving us your unconventional characters, your fantastic plots, your serene and simultaneously unsettling literature.
Translated by Amy Olen
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee