LITERATURE TENDS TO precede history and politics, to condense them, reveal them. Zavalita’s phrase in Mario Vargas Llosa’s famous novel, “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” has become the painful epigraph of life in Latin America.1 By asking “when,” Vargas Llosa was also asking how much, how, for what purpose, due to whom, and why. The question searched for an explanation and, secretly, a light, an exit. The character lived in a feeble country, one that does exist. He lived in a country that took the wrong path, lost opportunities, lived on dreams, tolerated sharp inequalities, tore its social fabric, and suffered many times under tyranny. However, he also lived in a country that held then, and holds now, an invaluable historical, artistic, and cultural treasure: its indigenous roots, those “subterranean rivers” to which José María Arguedas referred, and that miracle of mestizo convergence (communion) between the indigenous and the Spanish that is the unique essence of “The Inca,” Garcilaso de la Vega.
Then came the tumultuous but promising nineteenth century, with its poorly digested if authentic liberalisms and positivisms, followed by an inexhaustible flow of isms in the twentieth century, some noble (like those of José Carlos Mariátegui) and some abominable (like Sendero Luminoso’s Maoism). Peru was and is a land emblematic of an unresolved and perhaps insoluble tension between the deep presence of the past and the urgency of the inevitable future, a mythical paradise yet also an inferno for the conquistadores, a crucible and Babel of ethnicities and religions.
Zavalita’s celebrated phrase reached far and wide, as Vargas Llosa’s mention of Peru referred not only to Peru; his readers in every corner