Authors: Mario Vargas Llosa
“I don't know. I'm just not sure,” I said to her. “Sometimes I think it was the other way around.”
“That's silly,” said MarÃa, joining in. “How could a kid get a savvy old guy like that involved in as crazy a deal as that?”
Exactly, Mother. Mayta was a revolutionary from the shadowy side. He had spent his life conspiring and fighting in insignificant little groups like the one he was a member of. And suddenly, just when he was reaching the age at which people usually retire from militant activism, someone turned up who opened the doors of action to him for the first time. Could there have been anything as captivating for a man like Mayta than out of the blue having someone stick a sub-machine gun in his hands?
“This is make-believe, a novel,” says Juanita, with a smile that forgives me for my transgression. “This isn't at all like the real story, in any case.”
“It won't be the real story, but, just as you say, a novel.” I confirm her ideas. “A faint, remote, and, if you like, false version.”
“Then why work so hard at it?” she insinuates with irony. “Why try to find out everything that happened, why come to confess to me like this. Why not just lie and make the whole thing up from top to bottom?”
“Because I'm a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it,” I explain. “That's how I work. And I think the only way to write stories is to start with Historyâwith a capital H.”
“I wonder if we ever really know what you call History with a capital H,” MarÃa interrupts. “Or if there's as much make-believe in history as in novels. For example, the things we were talking about. So much has been said about revolutionary priests, about Marxist infiltration in the Church â¦ But no one comes up with the obvious answer.”
“The despair and anger you feel at having to see hunger and sickness day and night, the feeling of impotence in the face of so much injustice,” said Mayta, always choosing his words carefully so as not to offend. The nun noticed that he barely moved his lips as he spoke. “Above all, realize that the people who can do something never will. Politicians, the rich, the ones in the driver's seat, the ones with power.”
“But why would you lose your faith because of that?” asked Vallejos's sister, astonished. “I would think it would make it stronger, that it would â¦”
Mayta went on, his tone hardening: “No matter how strong your faith is, there comes a moment when you say,
. It just can't be possible that the remedy for so much iniquity is the promise of eternal life. That's how it was, Mother. Seeing that hell was right here in the streets of Lima. Especially over in El MontÃ³n. Ever been to El MontÃ³n?”
Another shack city, one of the first, no worse, no more miserable than this one where Juanita and MarÃa live. Things have gotten much worse since that time when Mayta confessed to the nun; the shacks have proliferated, and in addition to misery and unemployment, there is murder now. Was it really the spectacle of MontÃ³n that fifty years ago transformed the devout little boy that Mayta was into a rebel? Contact with that world has not had the same effect, in any case, on Juanita and MarÃa. Neither gives the impression of being desperate, outraged, or even resigned, and at least as far as I can see, living with iniquity has not convinced them that the solution is assassination and bombs. They went on being nuns, right? Would the shots fade into echoes in the LurÃn desert?
“No.” Vallejos aimed, fired, and the noise wasn't as loud as Mayta thought it would be. His palms were sweaty with expectation. “No, they weren't for me, I lied to you. The books, well, in fact I bring them all to Jauja so the joeboys can read them. I have faith in you, Mayta. I'm going to tell you something I wouldn't even tell the person I love most in the world, my sister.”
As he spoke, he put the sub-machine gun in Mayta's hands. He showed him how to brace it, how to take off the safety, how to aim, squeeze the trigger, load and unload.
“A big mistake. Never talk about things like that,” Mayta admonished him, his voice shaken by the jolt he had felt in his body as he heard the burst of fire and realized from the vibration in his wrists that it was he who had fired. Off in the distance, the sand extended, yellowish, ocher, bluish, indifferent. “It's a simple matter of security. Nothing to do with you, but with the others, don't you understand? Anyone can do whatever he likes with his life. But no one should endanger his comrades, the revolution, just to show a friend he trusts him. And suppose I worked for the cops?”
“That's not your style. Even if you wanted, you couldn't be a squealer.” Vallejos laughed. “What do you think? Easy, huh?”
“You know, it's really easy,” Mayta agreed, touching the muzzle and burning his fingers. “Don't tell me any more about the joeboys. I don't need proof of your friendship, jerk-off.”
A hot breeze had come up and the salt flats looked as if they were being bombarded with grains of sand. It was true that the second lieutenant had chosen the perfect placeâwho would hear the shots in this solitude? He shouldn't think he knew all he had to know. The main thing was not loading, unloading, aiming, and firing, but cleaning the weapon and knowing how to take it apart and put it back together.
“I told you because I had a purpose.” Vallejos returned to the subject, gesturing at the same time that they should head back to the highway, because the land breeze was going to suffocate them. “I need your help, brother. They're boys from the Colegio San JosÃ©, over in Jauja. Really young, fourth or fifth year. We got to be friends playing soccer on the little field near the jail. The joeboys.”
They walked on the sand with their heads bent to the wind, their feet buried up to the ankles in the soft earth. Mayta quickly forgot the shooting lesson and his anger of a moment before, intrigued by what the second lieutenant was saying.
“Don't tell me anything that'll make you sorry you did,” Mayta reminded him, even though he was beside himself with curiosity.
“Shut the fuck up.” Vallejos had tied his handkerchief over his face to protect himself from the sand. “The joeboys and I went from soccer to having a few beers together, then to little parties, to the movies, and to meetings. Since we've been holding these meetings, I've tried to teach them the things you teach me. A teacher from the Colegio San JosÃ© helps me out. He says he's a socialist, too.”
“You give classes in Marxism?” Mayta asks.
“You bet, the only true science,” Vallejos says, gesticulating. “The antidote to all those idealist, metaphysical ideas they get pumped into their heads. Just as you yourself would have said it in your own flowery style, brother.”
A moment before, when he was showing Mayta how to shoot, he was a dextrous athlete, a commander. And now he was a timid boy, awkwardly telling him his story. Through the rain of sand, Mayta looked at him. He imagined the women who had kissed those clean-cut features, bitten those fine lips, who had writhed under the lieutenant's body.
“You know you really knock me out?” he exclaimed. “I thought my classes in Marxism bored you to death.”
“Sometimes they doâto be frankâand other times I get lost,” Vallejos admitted. “Permanent revolution, for example. It's too many things all at the same time. So I've scrambled the joeboys' brains. That's why I'm always asking you to come to Jauja. Come on, give me a hand with them. Those boys are pure dynamite, Mayta.”
“Of course we're still nuns, but without the disguise.” MarÃa smiles. “We've got a surplus of jobs, not vows. They free us up from teaching and let us work here. The congregation helps us out as best they can.”
Do Juanita and MarÃa have the feeling they really are helping in a positive way by living in this shack city? They must. Otherwise, the risk they run by living here under these conditions would be inexplicable. A day doesn't go by without some priest, nun, or social worker in the slums being attacked. Setting aside whether what they do is useful or not, it's impossible not to envy them the faith that gives them the strength to withstand this daily horror. I tell them that as I walked here I had the feeling I was crossing all the circles of hell.
“It must be even worse there,” Juanita says, without smiling.
“You've never been in this place before, young man?” MarÃa interjects.
“No, I've never been in El MontÃ³n,” Juanita replied.
“I have, often, when I was a kid, when I was such a devout Catholic,” said Mayta. She noticed that he had an abstractedânostalgic?âexpression on his face. With some boys from Catholic Action. There was a Canadian mission in the dump. Two priests and a few laymen. I remember one young, red-faced, tall priest who was a doctor. âNothing I've learned is of any use,' he would say. He couldn't stand the fact that children were dying like flies, he couldn't bear the high incidence of tuberculosis, and that at the same time the newspapers were filled with page after page on parties, banquets, the weddings of the rich. I was fifteen. I would go back to my own home and at night I could not pray. God doesn't hear, I would think. He covers His ears so He can't hear and His eyes so He doesn't have to see what's going on in El MontÃ³n. Then one day I was convinced. To fight against all that, I had to stop believing in God, Mother.”
To Juanita, it seemed like drawing an absurd conclusion from correct premises, and she told him so. But she was moved by the fervor she saw in him.
“I've had my moments of anguish about my faith, too,” she said. “But, happily, I've never gotten to the point of demanding a reckoning from God.”
“We don't talk only about theory, but about practical things as well,” Vallejos went on. They were walking along the highway toward Lima, trying to flag down a truck or a bus, the sub-machine gun concealed in a bag.
“Practical thingsâyou mean like how to make Molotov cocktails, set dynamite charges, manufacture bombs?” mocked Mayta. “Practical thingsâyou mean like your revolutionary plan of the other day?”
“Everything in its proper time, brother,” Vallejos said, as always in a jovial tone. “Practical thingsâI mean like going to the Indian communities to see the problems of the peasants on site. And to see solutions. Because those Indians have begun to move, to occupy the lands they have been demanding for themselves for centuries.”
“To recover them, you mean,” Mayta said softly. He fixed a curious gaze on Vallejos. He was disconcerted, as if, despite the fact that they had been seeing each other for so many weeks, he was just now discovering the real Vallejos. “Those lands belonged to them, don't forget.”
“Exactly, the recovery of lands is what I mean,” agreed the second lieutenant. “We go and talk with the peasants, and the boys see that those Indians, without the help of any party, are beginning to break their chains. That's how the boys are learning the way the revolution will come to this country. Professor Ubilluz helps me out with the theory, but you'd help me much more, brother. Will you come to Jauja?”
“Well, I have to say you've left me gaping,” Mayta said.
“Shut your mouth before it gets filled with sand.” Vallejos laughed. “Look, that bus's going to stop.”
“So you've got your group and all,” repeated Mayta, rubbing his eyes, which were irritated from all the dust. “A Marxist studies circle. In Jauja! Plus you've made contact with peasant groups. Which means that â¦”
“Which means that, while you talk about the revolution, I do it.” The lieutenant gave him a pat on the back. “Fuckin' right. I'm a man of action. You, you're a theoretician. We've got to put it all together. Theory and practice, buddy. We'll get the people moving, and no one'll be able to stop them. We'll do great things. Shake hands and swear you'll come out to Jauja. Our Peru is a great place, brother!”
He looked like an excited, happy kid, with his impeccable uniform and his crew cut. Once again, Mayta felt happy to be with him. They took a corner table and ordered two coffees from the Chinese storekeeper. Mayta imagined they were both the same age, both boys, and that they had sealed their friendship with blood.
“Nowadays, there are lots of priests and nuns in the Church just like that Canadian priest from El MontÃ³n,” the Mother said, not at all upset. “The Church has always known what misery is, and, whatever you say, it has always done what it could to alleviate it. But now, it's true, it has understood that injustice is not individual but social. The Church no longer accepts the fact that the few have everything while the majority has nothing. We know that under today's conditions purely spiritual aid is nothing but a joke â¦ But I'm wandering from the subject.”
the subject,” Mayta urged her on. “Misery, the millions of hungry people in Peru. The only subject that counts. Is there a solution? What is it? Who's got it? God? No, Mother. The revolution.”
The afternoon has slipped by, and when I get around to looking at my watch, I see I've been there for almost four hours. I would have liked to hear what Juanita heard, to hear from Mayta's mouth how he lost his faith. Over the course of our conversation, children have appeared at the half-open door from time to time: they poke their heads in, spy on us, get bored, and go away. How many of them have been recruited by the insurgents? Did my old schoolmate ever tell me about his trips to El MontÃ³n to lend a hand to the Canadian mission? How many of them will kill or be killed? Juanita has stepped over to the nearby clinic to see if there are any problems. Did he go every afternoon, after classes at the Salesian School let out, or did he only go on Sundays?
The clinic is open from eight to nine, run by two volunteer doctors who take turns; in the afternoons, a male and a female nurse come to give vaccinations and first aid. Did Mayta help the redheaded, desperate, angry priest bury the babies wiped out by hunger and infection, did his eyes fill with tears, did his heart pound in his breast, did his childish, believer's imagination soar to heaven to ask why: Why do you permit this to happen, Lord? Next to the clinic, in a shack made from boards, is the office of Communal Action. Along with the clinic, that office is the reason why Juanita and MarÃa are in the slum. Did the Canadian mission where Mayta did volunteer work look like this one? Did a lawyer go to that one to give free legal counsel to the neighborhood, was there also a technical adviser to advise them on establishing businesses? Mayta would go there, would plunge into all that misery, his faith would begin to falter, and at the Salesian he wouldn't say a word about it. With me, he went on talking about serials and how terrific it would be to see a picture based on
The Count of Monte Cristo