Read The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta Online

Authors: Mario Vargas Llosa

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (4 page)

BOOK: The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta

“Russian,” said Mayta. “He died in Mexico.”

“Enough politics, or I'll throw you both out,” Zoilita insisted. “Come on, cousin, you haven't danced even once. Come on, let's dance this waltz.”

“Dance, dance,” Alci begged for help, from Pepote's arms.

“With whom?” said Vallejos. “I've lost my partner.”

“With me,” said Alicia, dragging him to the floor.

Mayta found himself in the middle of the floor, trying to follow the beat of “Lucy Smith,” the lyrics of which Zoilita hummed in a cute way. He tried to sing too, to smile, while he felt his cramped muscles and an enormous shame at having the lieutenant see how poorly he danced. The room can't have changed much since then; except for wear and tear, this must be the same furniture as that night. It isn't difficult to imagine the room overflowing with people, smoke, the smell of beer, the sweat on people's faces, the music blaring, and, even, to discover them, in that corner next to the vase with wax roses, sitting one out, immersed in chatter about the only subject that mattered to Mayta—the revolution—a chat that lasted until dawn. The external scene—faces, gestures, clothing, objects—is there, quite visible. But not what happened within Mayta and the young lieutenant over the course of those hours. Did a current of sympathy flow from the first moment between the two, an affinity, the reciprocal intuition of a common denominator? There are friendships at first sight, more often perhaps than loves. Or was the relation between them from the outset exclusively political, an alliance of two men pledged to a common cause? In any case, they met here, and here began for both of them—although in the disorder of the party neither could suspect it—the most important event of their lives.

“If you do write something, don't mention me at all,” doña Josefa Arrisueño begs me. “Or at least change my name and, above all, the address of the house. Many years have gone by, but in this country you never know. See you soon.”

“I hope we do see each other soon,” said Vallejos. “Let's continue our talk another time. I have to thank you because, you know, I've learned a great deal.”

“See you, ma'am.” We shake hands, and I thank her for her patience.

I go back to Barranco on foot. As I cross Miraflores, the party fades little by little and I find myself evoking an image of that hunger strike that Mayta went on when he was fourteen or fifteen years old, so he could be on a par with the poor. Out of all that talk with his aunt-godmother, the image that remains clearest in my mind is that midday bowl of soup and that slice of bread at night: all he ate for three months.

“See you soon.” Mayta nodded. “Yes, of course, we'll go on talking.”



The Action for Development Center is located on Avenida Pardo in Miraflores. It's in one of the last of the old low-rise buildings to resist the advance of “urban development,” the skyscrapers that have replaced these brick-and-wood houses and the gardens that surround them. Once the old houses were graced with shade, the rustle of leaves, and the chatter of sparrows—the effect of the ficus trees, once the lords of the street and now mere pygmies, reduced by the scale of the giant buildings. The good taste of Moisés—of
Moisés Barbi Leyva, as the receptionist reminds me—has filled the house with colonial furniture that fits in perfectly with the building itself, which is one of those forties copies of the architecture of our colonial era: balconies with awnings, Sevilian patios, Moorish-style arches, tiled fountains. It has a certain charm. The whole house glows, and you can see people working in the rooms that face the garden, itself well trimmed and neat. Two armed guards who frisk me to see if I'm carrying a gun patrol the entranceway. While I wait to see Moisés, I look over the center's most recent publications, all on view in a display case illuminated by fluorescent light: studies on economy, statistics, sociology, politics, and history, all nicely printed, with a kind of prehistoric seabird colophon on the title pages.

Moisés Barbi Leyva is the backbone of the Action for Development Center. Thanks to his ability to wheel and deal, to his magnetic personality, and his prodigious appetite for work, the center is one of the most active cultural entities in the country. What is extraordinary about Moisés, beyond his cyclonic will and his bulletproof optimism, is his ability to negotiate, an anti-Hegelian science that consists in reconciling opposites, like San Martín de Porres—also from Lima—getting a dog, a mouse, and a cat all to eat from the same plate. Thanks to Moisés's eclectic genius, the center gets subventions, grants, and loans from capitalists and communists, from the most conservative governments and foundations as well as the most revolutionary, Washington and Moscow, Bonn and Havana, Paris and Beijing. They all think the center is
institution. Naturally, they are all wrong. The Action for Development Center belongs to Moisés Barbi Leyva and will belong to no one else until he dies. And doubtless it will die with him, because there is no one in this country capable of replacing him.

In Mayta's time, Moisés was a radical revolutionary. Now he is a progressive intellectual. His genius lies in having maintained intact his image as a man of the left, of having actually strengthened it as the center prospered—and he along with it. In the same way, he has been able to maintain excellent relations with the most violently opposed ideological adversaries; he has been able to get along with all the governments this country has had in the last twenty years, without selling out to any of them. He has a masterly sense of proportion and distance and knows how to counteract any concession that might seem excessive toward any one side with a compensatory rhetorical outburst toward the other. When I hear him at a cocktail party speak out all too forcefully against the rape of our natural resources by multinational corporations or against imperialist perversions of our Third World culture, I know that this year the U.S. contributions to the center's programs have been larger than those of the opposition. And if, at an exhibition or concert, I hear him alarmed about Soviet intervention in Afganistan or pained at the repression of Solidarity in Poland, it's that this time he's received some help from the Eastern Bloc. With feints and shifts like these, he can always prove his ideological independence and that of the institution he heads.

Every Peruvian politician capable of reading a book—there aren't that many—considers him his intellectual mentor and is sure the center works directly for him. In a vague sort of way, they're all right. Moisés has been wise enough to make all of them feel that getting along well with his institution is necessary for them, and that feeling is in fact no illusion, because the right-wingers linked with the center feel like reformers, social democrats, almost socialists by virtue of that connection; the same connection makes the left-wingers socially acceptable, moderates them, tricks them out with a certain scientific gloss, an intellectual varnish. Moisés makes the military men feel like civilians, the priests like laymen, and the bourgeois like proletarians, true native sons of the nation.

Because he is successful, Moisés arouses venomous envy. Many people say the very worst about him and make fun of the wine-colored Cadillac in which he is driven around. The most virulent bad-mouthing comes, of course, from the progressive intellectuals who, thanks to the center—to Moisés—eat, wear clothes, write, publish, travel to congresses, and increase their status as progressives. He knows what people say about him, but he doesn't let it bother him. And if it does bother him, he covers it up. His success in life and the preservation of his image are based on a philosophy from which he never deviates: people may hate Moisés Barbi Leyva, but Moisés Barbi Leyva hates no one. His only enemies are abstract monsters—imperialism, latifundism, militarism, the oligarchy, the CIA, etc.—which are as useful for his purposes as are his friends (the rest of humanity). The intractable fanatic that Mayta was thirty years ago would doubtless have said that Moisés was the typical example of the revolutionary intellectual who “got sensualized,” which is probably the case. But would he have recognized that, despite all the deals he has to make and the acts he has to put on in this bedeviling country he lives in, Moisés Barbi Leyva has managed things so that several dozen intellectuals have earned a living, have worked instead of wasting their time in university cliques corrupted by frustration and intrigues, and at least the same number have traveled, taken special courses, and kept up a fertile association with their colleagues in the rest of the world? Would he recognize that, even if he is “sensualized,” Moisés Barbi Leyva has done, all by himself, what the Ministry of Education, the Institute of Culture, or any of the universities in Peru should have done? No, he wouldn't recognize any of it. Because those things for Mayta were distractions from the primordial task, the only obligation for anyone with eyes to see and enough decency to take action: the revolutionary struggle.

“How are you?” Moisés shakes hands with me.

“And how are you, comrade?” replies Mayta.

He was the second to arrive, a rare event, because for as long as the committee had been meeting he had been there to open the garage on Jirón Zorritos, the local headquarters of RWP(T). The seven members of the committee all had keys and all of them had at one time or another slept in the garage if they had no other place or if they had some work to do. The two university students on the committee, Comrade Anatolio and Comrade Medardo, studied for their examinations there.

“Today I beat you.” Comrade Medardo was shocked. “A miracle.”

“Last night I went to a party and didn't get to bed until late.”

“You, at a party?” Comrade Medardo laughed. “Another miracle.”

“Something interesting,” Mayta explained. “But not what you're thinking. I'm going to report to the committee right now.”

The outside of the garage had nothing that would even suggest the kind of activities that went on there. Inside, you saw first a poster with the bearded faces of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky that Comrade Jacinto had brought back from a congress of Trotskyist organizations in Montevideo. Stacked against the walls were piles of
Workers Voice
and handbills, manifestos and statements favoring strikes or denouncing them, which they had never got around to handing out. There were a couple of chairs with their bottoms hanging out, and a few three-legged stools that looked as though they might belong either to a milkmaid or to a medium. Some mattresses were piled on top of each other and covered with a blanket. They were also used as seats when necessary. On a bookshelf made of boards and bricks, a few books covered with plaster dust languished, and in a corner there was the skeleton of a tricycle without wheels. The local office of the RWP(T) was so tiny that, with only a third of the committee present, it looked as though there was a quorum.

“Mayta?” Moisés leans back in his desk chair and gives me an incredulous look.

“Mayta,” I say. “You remember him, don't you?”

He recovers his aplomb and his smile. “Of course, how could I ever forget him. But it's just strange. Is there anyone anywhere in Peru who remembers Mayta?”

“Barely any. That's why I have to squeeze out the memories of the few who do remember.”

I know he'll help me, because Moisés is an obliging type, always willing to help anyone. But I realize at the same time he'll have to break through his own psychological reservations, do himself a kind of violence, since he had worked closely with Mayta and they had certainly been friends. Is he made uncomfortable by the memory of Comrade Mayta in this office full of leather-bound books, a parchment map of old Peru, and some fornicating pre-Colombian deities from Huacas in a glass case? Does having to speak again about the activities and illusions he and Mayta shared make him feel he is in a slightly false situation? Probably. Remembering Mayta makes even me—and I was never one of Mayta's political buddies—ill at ease, so the important director of the Action for Development Center must…

“He was a good guy,” he says prudently. At the same time, he looks at me as if to discover in my deepest, most secret innermost self my own opinion of Mayta. “An idealist, well-intentioned. But naïve, deluded. At least, as far as that rotten business in Jauja is concerned, I have a clean conscience. I told him he was getting into a mess and I tried to get him to reconsider. A waste of time, of course, because he was stubborn as a mule.”

“I'm trying to reconstruct the beginning of his political life,” I explain. “I don't know much, except that when he was still a kid, before the university, or in the first year, he joined APRA. And later…”

“And later he became everything, that's the truth,” says Moisés. “APRA, communist, revisionist, Trotskyist. Every sect, every group. The only reason he wasn't in more is that in those days there weren't more. Nowadays he'd have more options. Here in the center we are charting all the parties, groups, alliances, factions, and leftist fronts there are in Peru. How many would you think? More than thirty.” He drums his fingers on the desk and assumes a pensive attitude.

“But there's one thing you have to recognize,” he quickly adds in a very serious voice. “There wasn't a drop of opportunism in any of those changes. He may have been unstable, wild, whatever you like, but he was also the fairest person in the world. And another thing. He had a self-destructive streak. He was always heterodox, a rebel by nature. As soon as he got involved in something, he began to dissent and he ended up in the dissenting faction. Disagreeing was his strongest instinct. Poor Comrade Mayta! What a fucked-up life, don't you think?”

“The meeting is called to order,” said Comrade Jacinto. He was secretary general of the RWP(T) and the oldest of the five present. Two committee members were missing: Comrade Pallardi and Comrade Carlos. After waiting half an hour for them, they had decided to begin without them. Comrade Jacinto, in a gravelly voice, “read” the minutes of the last meeting, three weeks ago. As a precaution, they took no written minutes, but the secretary general jotted down the principal theme of each discussion in a notebook and now he was looking at it—he squinted as he spoke. How old was Comrade Jacinto? Sixty, maybe older. A solid, upright
, he had a crest of hair over his forehead and an athletic air that made him seem younger. He was a relic in the organization and had lived its history since back in the forties, when they held those meetings at the poet Rafael Méndez Dorich's house. Trotsky's ideas were brought to Peru by a handful of surrealists who had come back from Paris—Pablo de Westphalen, Abril de Viveo, and César Moro. Comrade Jacinto was one of the founders of the first Trotskyist organizations, the Marxist Workers' Group (in 1946), the forerunner of the Revolutionary Workers' Party. In Fertilizantes, S.A. (Fertisa), where he had worked for twenty years, he had always been a member (a minority member, of course) of the union directorate—this despite the hostility of APRAs and Communist Party men. Why had he remained a Trotskyist instead of joining one of the other groups? Mayta was happy about it, but never understood it. The whole Trotskyist old guard, all of Comrade Jacinto's contemporaries, had stayed in RWP. Why, then, was he in the Revolutionary Workers' Party (T[rotskyist])? So he wouldn't lose touch with the young people? That must have been the reason, because Mayta doubted that the international Trotskyist polemic that raged over the revisionism of Michel Pablo, secretary of the Fourth International, mattered much to Comrade Jacinto.

Workers Voice
,” said the secretary general. “That's the most urgent matter.”

“Left-wing childishness, being in love with contradiction, I don't know what to call it,” says Moisés. “The affliction of the ultra-left. To be the most revolutionary, to be further to the left than So-and-so, to be more radical than the other guy. That was Mayta's attitude all his life. When we were in APRA Youth, snotnose punks still wet behind the ears, APRA still underground, Manuel Seoane gave us a talk about Haya de la Torre's theory of historical space and time, how he had refuted and gone beyond Marxist dialectic. Mayta, of course, declared that we had to study Marxism so we would know just what we had refuted and gone beyond. He formed a circle, and within a few months the APRA Youth had to discipline us. And that's how, without our knowing it, we ended up collaborating with the Communist Party. The concrete result was the Panóptico prison. Our baptism of fire.”

He laughs and I laugh. But we're not laughing at the same thing. Moisés is laughing at the games played by the precociously politicized children he and Mayta were then, and by laughing he tries to convince me that it was all unimportant, a case of political measles, anecdotes gone with the wind. I'm laughing at two photographs I have just discovered in the office. They face each other and balance each other out in their silver frames: Moisés shaking hands with Senator Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was in Peru promoting the Alliance for Progress, and Moisés next to Premier Mao Ze-dong in Beijing, with a delegation of Latin Americans. In both, he flashes a smile of neutrality.

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