Lima: Alfaguara, 2022. 295 pages.
In Peruvian author Gustavo Rodríguez’s most recent novel, Treinta kilómetros a la medianoche, the narrator-protagonist tells the story and reminisces in the first person, creating a persona that reminds us of the writer himself. Consequently, the comfortable seats of the narrator’s luxury car occasionally become a therapist’s couch. Moreover, when the narration becomes fraught with confessions, the fictional pact falls apart and autobiography mixes with fiction. Clearly, the best sources for creating literature are our own lives, and Rodríguez certainly has the creative talent and confidence to turn factual events into fiction and vice versa.
In the past decade, the rise of so-called autofiction in the Peruvian novel has led to the overexposure of authors at the expense of true narrators—those beings who live on the pages of a book and who organize and drive the narration. In a world dominated by digital narcissism, an autofictional novel might seem like a single raindrop in a downpour. The best examples, however, examine the simulacra of the “I” and the masks or personas we inhabit. Rodríguez’s novel does exactly that.
In Treinta kilómetros a la medianoche, the story’s construction, its segmentation, and chapter endings are precisely calibrated: the narrative is impeccably organized, it speeds up and slows down, playing intelligently with the readers’ expectations. The novel is open-ended, hinting at a second story of perturbing and inexplicable animosity between teenage friends.
Each chapter follows the same formula: a road joining two parts of Lima, the description of two corresponding urban spaces (shopping centers, parks, houses, pharmacies, Starbucks) that immediately conjure up fragments of the protagonist’s past and connect with key events in Peru’s tragicomic political history. Despite its common, formal schema, every chapter has a unique brilliance, and the narrator conveys the anguish of waiting and revealing his intense internal life. The protagonist is a fifty-something man from Lima’s upper class, and his internal monologues build a structure of feelings struck through with sexual desires, the ups and downs of fatherhood, infidelity, the challenges and demands of masculinity, classism, and even racism.
One episode serves as the common thread running through the narrative world of the novel: a father learns that his daughter has been in an unspecified accident, and he goes to a hospital thirty kilometers away to be with her. The protagonist doesn’t know what state she is in and, strangely, he is unable to communicate via cell phone, but this is the surface level of the story, a thriller acting as a textual mask. The true journey happens on the inside, in the creases of the narrator-protagonist’s own consciousness, from the family history that emerges in the figure of a working, alcoholic father to his own experience of fatherhood and his three daughters; from the women he loved to the bodies he desired; from the hard and painful move from the middle class to the upper class; from quick laughs to a more developed sense of humor; from the renowned author to the timid young man who early on wished for the support of Oswaldo Reynoso, a mentor to many aspiring writers.
Lima isn’t a city in this story. It’s a chaotic sum of isolated life experiences. Except for the sandbanks, the social inequality, and the buzzards, everything is fleeting. Lima in this novel has well defined socio-geographic points of reference: Cieneguilla, Rinconada del Lago, La Molina, Chacarilla, Surquillo, Miraflores, and Barranco. Such a version of Lima maintains its traditional economic power while it goes through the final “siege” of a sociocultural mestizaje that is taking over these upper-class streets and neighborhoods.
Constructing a totalizing fictional universe from one unique perspective or with one unique lived experience, for as rich and entertaining as that experience might be, is a very difficult task. Nonetheless, Rodríguez’s novel overcomes this challenge because the narrator frames his world in other discourses, he listens closely to other characters’ voices, and he respects the worlds of those who travel in his car without being there: his first wife, his three daughters, his friends, Svetlana. Further, he entertains his readers with quotes: “falling in love is tragicomic; love is bittersweet,” “every alcoholic is a low intensity suicide.”
Hitler, the Afro-Peruvian chauffeur, is the novel’s only working-class character, and he offers more relief than depth to the narrative. His interactions with the narrator-protagonist suggest the possibility of interracial and cross-class dialogue, which always harbors secrets and fears, or ends in indecent proposals. Surely, some readers will associate the chauffeur with the “zambo” Ambrosio in Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) due to his different jobs and the different weapons he uses to make his employers happy. Thus, literature also becomes a collection of celebrated intertextualities.
Treinta kilómetros a la medianoche is a frenetic, entertaining novel that unceremoniously portrays a life; one that, ultimately, is an arrangement of confusions built between birth and death. It tends to be an erratic voyage riddled with absurdity and contradictions and, more often than not, it is a journey without a copilot.