The Delayed Arrival of the Writer: An Interview with Jorge Eduardo Benavides

In our second installment in WWB's Our Man in Madrid series, Jonathan Blitzer speaks to Jorge Eduardo Benavides, whose story "The Reckoning" appears in the March issue of the magazine. Read it over here.

Jonathan Blitzer: When did you leave Peru, and how did you finally come to arrive here in Madrid?

Jorge Eduardo Benavides:  I left Peru in the 1990s because it was a society, and an economic moment, particularly grim and difficult.  Sometimes, when for whatever reason (whether for a presentation or talk) I have to reread parts of my novel Los años inútiles [which deals with those years], I’m dumbfounded that there really is no exaggeration there.  It is a novel, of course, but it describes real events that I lived through: levels of inflation that pulverized all expectation and advance planning, constant strikes, astronomical rises in gas costs, strikes and stoppages organized by the Shining Path (coordination, on their part, designed so that people wouldn’t go to work), bombs, assassinations, disorder.  And I wonder: how did we manage to live there?  Because there I had my friends and studies, my days at the beach and time for sports and university, for trips…what the hell were we doing to be able to continue living there in the middle of all that?  This is what I always think about.  I came to Spain to dedicate myself to writing, and although the principle [of leaving Peru] was a bit thorny for me, I don’t regret moving at all.  I arrived in Madrid after more than ten years in Tenerife, simply because here in Madrid are my publishing house, my literary agency, and the cultural world and writers that Tenerife just doesn’t have; Tenerife is an island for which I have enormous affection, though, and I visit it often. 

JB: What did those years in Peru mean to you as a budding writer at the time? 

JEB:  What is for sure is that those years set off in me the idea that if I wanted to be a writer and dedicate myself to writing professionally, then I had to leave the country.  Things these days are much different, not only because the social and political situation is better in Peru now than it was then, but also because new technologies have shrunken the world, and it is not so unheard of that a writer lives in one corner of the globe and publishes in another.  The Lima of those terrible years, perhaps the worst years of the republican period of the country, also conditioned my perception of the world, of the fragility of all that we take for granted, of the vulnerability of our principles if they’re not well established.  I think those years, when I was pretty young, shaped in me the ideas I have to this day.

JB:  You’ve written, while in Spain, what might be considered a trilogy about the Peru of the recent past.  Los años inútiles is about the end of the 1980s; El año que rompí contigo turns on the transition of power from Alan García to Alberto Fujimori.  And Un millón de soles tells the story of the coup attempt launched by Juan Velasco in 1968.  How did the idea for this trilogy arise? 

JEB:  The idea of the trilogy did not come to me immediately, but rather emerged out of some research that came after writing the first novel, Los años inútiles.  Since it was a social and political sort of inquiry that motivated me to write the novel, this interest expanded and occupied much of my thinking; this is how the second novel emerged, which at heart is concerned with the same historical period (the years of the first Alan García government), only it is told from a different perspective and puts its emphasis on the last stage of that period, which is to say, the complete disintegration of García’s APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana) regime and the arrival of Fujimori in power.  But these two novels led me to investigate—always from a literary point of view—the origin of this crack in Peruvian society, which, from a novelistic standpoint, was fascinating.  How had these things occurred during those terrible years of our society?  It wasn’t only a failure of governing and a problem of disorder, but it also suggested that something was truly rotten in our country.  Then I wanted to visit, so to say, the period prior to the resumption of democracy in 1980—that is, the eleven years of military dictatorship we had since 1968.   The characters of the two novels I had just finished writing had a past: as politicians, journalists, businessmen, influence peddlers, military men. This novel—which I would call Un millón de soles—presented something like the genesis of what happened in Los años inútiles.  This is a novel that seeks to understand how the singular and centralized power of a dictatorship functioned from its innermost reaches.  And it interested me to organize the novel in such a way that it formed part of what I had discovered in the context of the trilogy: three novels linked by the same need to take up, and novelize, an extended period of our recent history.

JB:  And being in Spain while you wrote these—and other—books?

JEB:  In terms of what Spain represents for me on an imaginative level, I’m still not sure. I have realized that when a writer emigrates, it takes much longer for him to arrive as a writer than as a person.  What I mean by that is: while as a person and a social being, I adapt rapidly, the writer that exists in me follows [or is responsive to] a time anchored in what the writer has lived or what interests him in terms of narrative experience.  This, at its core, seems fairly logical because, after all, a novel requires more time to be developed, and it cannot have a process of interiority and formation that someone has as a human being on a day-to-day level.  The novelist, in turn, takes longer to ground himself as a writer than as a person.  At least this is what has happened in my case, and my narrative interests are slowly shifting toward writing about what happens, or has happened, to me in these nearly twenty years of living in Spain. 

JB:  Your last novel, La paz de los vencidos, tells the story of a Peruvian who has recently arrived in Tenerife in the 1990s.  You also moved to Tenerife before coming to Madrid, so there’s a certain similarity (at least in a general sense) between the character and yourself.  Was this the first time you wrote about Spain? 

JEB: La paz is a brief novel in which I concern myself with the periods of time between those discussed in Los años inútiles and El año que rompí contigo, and it allowed me to “escape” somewhat the overwhelming reality and technical complexity that I was pursuing in those other two novels.  It is a novel that came out in 2009, but that I wrote in the final years of the 1990s, when I had been living for a few years in Tenerife . . . It is also the first novel that occurs entirely outside the realm of Peru, although the protagonist is Peruvian.  It is an intimate account, related in the form of a diary, and that meant that I had to revive several things: my perception of that tranquil world, the prosperous and good-natured Santa Cruz de Tenerife that I knew, coming—as I had come—from a country on the verge of collapse, economically destroyed, devastated by terrorism.  The immigrant that is the narrator, and that ultimately is something of an alter ego, arrives in Spain when a new migratory trend was beginning to be felt that has changed Spain over the past two decades.  And as such the character’s preoccupations are more existential, more personal and theoretical than his story would have been had it occurred today.  In those pages, the character is not an immigrant in the eyes of others: he is only a Peruvian who happens to be there [in Spain]; the people around feel no need to integrate him [or his presence] as part of a broader or more complex social phenomenon. 

JB:  Could you say a few words about your story “The Reckoning”?

JEB:  “The Reckoning” is perhaps one of the first stories in which I seek to meld the fantastical with the political.  The idea is simple, and it begins with the allegory of a fearful presence that kills or devours those who dare to confront it . . . The allegory of totalitarianism, of the doctrinaire rigidity that destroys the best part of human life and that wipes out especially the intellectuals.  Naturally, put that way, the story has more of a political or even philosophical bent, and what I wanted was a story based on that period in which Peru was trapped by the fundamentalist terror of the Shining Path.  And the question was: what would happen if this were to come to pass?  If we had a government of illuminated Ayatollahs like the Shining Path purported to be . . . what would happen to intellectual life?  For that reason, the story is situated temporally in the moments prior to the arrival of that dystopian universe willed into being by the orders of the Shining Path, when a few professors realize that that “presence” that circles them like a tiger or a fierce beast is capable of killing them.