Saturday, December 02, 2006

Literary renaissance in Peru

Lima is once again one of Latin America's brightest literary scenes, and in the last year, Peruvian writers have won prestigious literary prizes in the Spanish-speaking world for novels that deal with fallout from the war years and, in doing so, add to a growing literature of terrorism and the risks to democracy in fighting it.

Alonso Cueto, who lives in Lima, received the Herralde prize for "The Blue Hour," about a lawyer who discovers that his father, a naval officer, oversaw the torture of political detainees.

Another Lima-born author, Santiago Roncagliolo, won the Alfaguara award for "Red April," about a prosecutor who investigates a bizarre murder in Ayacucho, the region at the center of the violence between the Shining Path guerrillas and government forces.

Even if the plots evoke violence, the general style of writing is reflective and even casual, a relief from the darkness of the past.

"People here are still very melancholic, but they are much more relaxed than they used to be," said Álvaro Lasso, who two years ago founded Estruendo Mudo, a publishing house that has released more than a dozen books by Peruvian and foreign authors. "I'm hesitant to say this, but there is almost a sense of optimism in Lima."

Hopefulness in Peru, of course, comes clouded in narratives that describe how war's legacies seep into daily life. Adrián Ormache, the upper- class lawyer in Cueto's book, finds his comfortable life disrupted when he encounters a woman who escaped captivity by his father; the shock prompts him to plunge into Lima's demimonde of discotheques and roadside bars.

"His father and the Andean world were much closer than he thought," Cueto said of the lawyer. "With its unresolved conflicts, Lima is an ideal place for a writer."

Similarly, Roncagliolo questions the tacit approval of atrocities in a nominal democracy. In his book, a prosecutor is confronted with having experienced the war almost abstractly in Lima as it raged in Ayacucho, and in one passage, an officer challenges him: "I suppose you were reading little poems by Chocano. Literature, right? Literature says too many pretty things, Mr. Prosecutor. Too many. You intellectuals despise the military because we don't read."

In some ways, impoverished Peru is an unlikely spot for a literary renaissance. Its literacy rates trail those in countries like Mexico and Argentina. And literary exile is a longstanding tradition. Like Vargas Llosa, who returns to Lima from homes abroad for a few months each year, Roncagliolo lives abroad, in Spain.

Painful revelations of the cruelties of the "internal war," which essentially ended in 2000, still come to light. It was not until last month that Abimael Guzmán, the Shining Path's messianic founder, was sentenced, to life in prison, after a chaotic retrial in 2004.

Today the mood is ambivalent - hesitant to be too hopeful. People seem intent on avoiding the potentially destabilizing populism that has swept Venezuela and Bolivia. The economy is growing, and Peru wants closer ties with Chile and the United States.

"I remember the ritual of taking candles to parties in case of blackouts," said Roncagliolo, who is writing a book on Guzmán. "As Peru's situation improves, terrorism has become a global theme."

The magazine Etiqueta Negra captures Peru's new sense of breaking out of isolation. Founded five years ago, the monthly publishes narrative journalism by foreigners as diverse as the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski and the American author Susan Orlean, as well as by Peruvian writers.
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