Alfredo Bryce Echenique. Un mundo para Julius. Edición conmemorativa 50 años. Lima: Peisa, 2021. 576 pages.
Some novels leave an indelible mark on the literary history of a country. Not only do their characters become part of the social collective memory and the private worlds of their readers, but their authors also become an essential reference within the nation’s cultural tradition. Such is the case with Lima native Alfredo Bryce Echenique and his first novel, Un mundo para Julius. Since its publication in 1970, this novel has occupied a key position in Peruvian literature, and fifty years later, it continues to garner the praise of its many readers. From the start, Un mundo para Julius was lauded as one of the most remarkable depictions of the Peruvian upper class, and it turned Bryce into one of the most celebrated writers in Peru and beyond. Five decades later, this novel remains a classic of Peruvian and Latin American literature, and a necessary reference for examining the privileged existence of the Peruvian bourgeoisie and its view of the country’s social life during the first half of the twentieth century.
Bryce has told the origin story of Un mundo para Julius many times. In 1967, while living in Paris and after finishing his first volume of short stories, Huerto cerrado (1968), Bryce had the idea of writing a story tentatively titled “Las inquietudes de Julius.” This story was supposed to be no longer than ten pages. Nonetheless, chance, good fortune, and the author’s rich imagination allowed the story to grow and grow until it became Un mundo para Julius as we know it today. Bryce recalls that writing his first novel was a pleasant experience; a long creative process that quickly took on a life of its own. As he continued to write, Bryce found what all writers hope to discover: a narrative voice of one’s own. And this is precisely what all his readers appreciate today—an expansive, torrential voice that narrates both tenderly and mischievously. He fashions his narrative voice from a sense of humor and refined orality that progressively reveals the trials and tribulations of the world he depicts. Through sudden digressions and reiterations, Bryce’s narrator always whispers something in our ear, thereby turning the act of reading into what seems like a long conversation between friends, which is to say, between the author and the reader.
In Un mundo para Julius, all of Bryce’s verbal play has a crystal clear purpose: telling us about the life of a curious and sensitive boy from Lima’s upper class who is destined to inherit the ostentatious world of his elders. Yet, as Julius learns about the world around him, he also discovers the enormous chasms between the rich and the poor in 1950s Peru. Thus, the novel’s open ending poses a question for the readers, as it invites speculation about who the sensitive, solitary child will be when he becomes an adult.
In 1970, Un mundo para Julius was a finalist for Barcelona-based Seix Barral’s Biblioteca Breve Prize. Another novel in the running was Chilean José Donoso’s El obsceno pájaro de la noche. However, because of disagreements among the members of the jury (which included Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez), the prize was never awarded. In all truth, a crisis of greater proportions was afoot that, when all was said and done, would mark the end of Seix Barral, which throughout the 1960s had published the biggest names in the Latin American novel. Given this context, the first edition of Un mundo para Julius finally appeared in October, 1970 in Barcelona, inaugurating the Nova Hispánica collection created by Catalán writer Carlos Barral’s new publishing house, Barral Editores. Critical acclaim quickly followed. Nonetheless, given the many errors in the text, which were undoubtedly the product of a proofreader who didn’t understand the many Peruvianisms in the novel, Bryce requested that his editor pull the book from circulation. As a result, a new edition of Un mundo para Julius, this time proofed by the author, began circulating in Peru in 1971. The novel caused a stir in the Peruvian literary world, which shortly thereafter spread to a significant part of the Spanish-speaking world and, over time, to other parts of the world.
Reflecting on the run Un mundo para Julius has had over the fifty years since it appeared, there can be no doubt about its place as an essential novel in the evolution of Latin American literature. It is important to note that, by 1970, the so-called Boom generation had reached its peak. During the decade prior, writers such as Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez had produced important novels that would signal a new direction in Latin American narrative. In this context, the original narrative voice in Bryce’s first novel surprised audiences because of its willingness to explore new directions in storytelling through orality, humor, and a skillful use of irony. For these reasons, five decades later, Italo Calvino’s words describing what defines a classic are useful: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” An affirmation such as this certainly roots itself in the rich nuance Bryce’s novel offers through his protagonist, his vast array of characters, his highly original depiction of limeña society, and the many narrative devices comprising the fabric of the story.
It is worth repeating once again: Un mundo para Julius is a masterpiece of Latin American literature. In Peru, the novel not only won the National Literature Prize in 1972, but two decades later, in 1995, it was deemed the greatest Peruvian novel in a survey by Debate, a magazine based in Lima. For all of these reasons, it is no exaggeration to say that Un mundo para Julius is a book that has aged well and continues garnering the praise of new generations of readers.
The current commemorative edition, which includes an excellent prologue by Spanish writer Luis García Montero, was slated to come out in 2020, which would have coincided with the half century since its publication in 1970. The pandemic prevented that wish from coming to fruition. Nonetheless, its arrival deserves much praise, as Un mundo para Julius is a classic to which we must always return.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Translated by Amy Olen
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee