- Andes by Michael Jacobs is travel writing at its very best. The book describes a trip of several months taken by the writer through the Andes in the early 2000s, starting in Venezuela and finishing in Argentina. Jacobs is following in the footsteps of the great 19th century South American liberator, Simon Bolívar, as well as the intrepid German 18th century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and he uses these characters’ travels to chart the history and describe the landscape and topography of the Andes. Jacobs is by training an art historian with an acute eye for visual detail, whether this be the facade of a church in a tiny pueblo or the majesty of the Ecuadorean volcanoes. And this book with its overarching theme is a good springboard as it gives us a sense of the continuity of history and culture throughout the Andes from which we can jump off and look at Peru itself in more detail.
- Which is what Ronald Wright does in Cut Stones and Crossroads, an account of a journey taken in the early 80s from Cajamarca in the north of Peru to the Islands of the Sun and Moon on Lake Titicaca in the south. Wright is in fact marking the history of Tawantinsuyu, the Inca empire, in reverse order. According to one legend, it is on these islands that Mama Oqllo descended from the Moon and Manku Qhapaq from the Sun, to unite together and found the Inca dynasty. And it was at Cajamarca that Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador, brutally killed Atahuallpa, the last of the Inca emperors. Ronald Wright is a scholar, a serious student of archaeology and anthropology, and he writes impressively about the Inca and pre Inca sites he visits en route. He is knowledgeable about Inca philosophy and belief systems as well as having a strong practical sense which helps him explain the amazing infrastructure projects achieved by the Incas. He is a student of Quechua or Runasimi, Peru’s second language after Spanish and still spoken in the Andes and quotes regularly from Runasimi poetry and song. But Wright is not just a boffin: he has a dry sense of humour and his narrative is peppered with sharp observations about other travellers and Peruvians, which made me LOL at times. Now, these are travellers from the 1980s, not todays’ backpackers and package holiday tourists, so the book may seem a little dated to the youth of today- but we loved it.
- Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams published in 2011 is a more contemporary read. Adams, an American journalist, has a sort of midlife crisis and decides to hire guide John Leivers to trace the steps of Hiram Bingham, the American who ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu, the ‘Lost City of the Incas’ in 1911. Now, I found Adams’ jaunty journalistic style somewhat irritating at the start of the book, particularly his airy self deprecating account of his hopelessness as a trekker, but this gradually ceded place to an interesting and reflective account of the personality of Hiram Bingham, the historical context of the ‘discovery’ of Machu Picchu – the early 20th century when exploration was a hot topic- and the ethical issues around ownership of ‘discovery’ and the artefacts found at the site. The book is accessible, easy to read, thoughtful and informative. Recommended to me by a lovely woman on a boat on Lake Titicaca, I am spreading the word.
- Eight Feet in the Andes by Dervla Murphy written in 1983 is another story of a journey in the steps of a historical figure. The eight feet of the title refer to Dervla Murphy, her 9 year old daughter Rachel and their mule, Juana, who follow more or less the route of Francisco Pizarro from Cajamarca to Cuzco in 1533. Dervla Murphy is a great writer and depicts the endless peaks and valleys of the Andes with great lyricism, evoking frequently the huge unforgiving vastness of the terrain she is in-which begs the question ‘what on earth were you thinking of, bringing a 9 year old child on such a trip?’. Because at times the landscape and pueblos are uncharted and unwelcoming and they don’t have enough to eat, they get ill, Juana gets lame and they are really up against it. But in addition to the riveting story of endurance, Murphy has some interesting observations to make about the peasant communities she travels through: it is not long after the land reform laws which broke up the haciendas and handed ownership back to the indigenous people and her account includes a commentary on the success or not of this transition.
- Another account of a woman’s journey in Peru is that of the 19th century French feminist and political activist Flora Tristan in ‘Peregrinations of a Pariah’, translated by Jean Hawkes. The book is in fact an autobiography but contains an account of Flora’s trip to Peru to claim her family inheritance from her Uncle Pio. Flora shows remarkable resourcefulness, both in her dealings with the ship’s crew and with the somewhat stiff and inscrutable Peruvian society she finds in Arequipa when she arrives. And she gives us an invaluable portrait of middle class Peruvian society in 1833, 12 years after independence from Spain- the boring monotony of the women’s lives, the lack of culture compared to Paris. She finds herself caught up in an uprising and seeks refuge in the convents of Santa Rosa and Santa Catalina in Arequipa for a while. I found the convent of Santa Catalina grim despite the lovely frescos in the cloisters, so was buoyed up by Flora’s account of the kindness and warmth of the Mother Superior there and the relaxed and humane regime she allowed. I was pleased to read in the Guardian review that Richard Evans’ new book about the 19th century has Flora Tristan as an important figure. Oh and she was also the grandmother of Paul Gaugin.
- Readers of fiction will be looking for novels about Peru and novels by Peruvian writers and will find both in Peru’s greatest literary son, Mario Vargas Llosa. His novels Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and A discreet Hero are reviewed elsewhere in my blog but I want to point readers to Lituma in the Andes/ Death in the Afternoon which explores some interesting themes in contemporary Peru. The novel’s protagonist, police sergeant Lituma and his assistant Tomás have been sent to an inhospitable and far flung mining town in the Andes and are investigating the mysterious disappearance of three people. This is the time when the Maoist terrorist group El Sendero Luminoso- The Shining Path- is holding sway in the Andes and in fact the rest of Peru. They are known to descend on communities, kill many and coerce the rest to join their ranks, so there is every chance the disappeared are their victims. However, in his investigations Lituma encounters the beliefs of the mountain people in the ‘apus’ or gods of the mountain who need to be wooed and satisfied- possibly by some kind of sacrifice. Vargas Llosa really conveys here the mutual incomprehension between Peru’s coastal/ urban and mountainous people and the range of viewpoints and possibilities is reinforced by some typically vargasllosian techniques of multiple narrators and narrative threads sliding into one another and overlapping. This is the great writer at his dazzling best.
- If like me you have become intrigued by the life and times of Vargas Llosa himself you may enjoy his memoir A Fish in the Water/ El Pez en el Agua. The book alternates chapters on his childhood and adolescence- he was born in 1936-with chapters on his political engagement and campaign for the presidency between 1987 and 1990. The chapters on his early life deal with the difficult relationship with his father, whom he only knew from the age of 10 and never got close to, and I admire the honesty with which he describes this. I was also fascinated by the account of his school experiences and the lowlife world of Lima he encountered as a young 15 year old newspaper reporter. Now his conviction that the only way to save Peru economically was through the free market policies of the likes of Milton Friedmann does not sit well with those of us who saw these policies espoused by Margaret Thatcher and her decimation of the miners and their communities. But he does give an interesting account of the problems and corruption of previous Peruvian political leaders as well as the campaign itself and the mistakes he made along the way. And his conclusion that the electorate don’t vote for policies but from an irrational and emotional place- I can only concur with that given the outcome of our recent referendum on leaving the EU.
- My other favourite writer of fiction on Peru is Daniel Alarcón, a writer of Peruvian origin now living in California. Two of his previous books, War by Candlelight and At Night we walk in Circles have also been reviewed here. On this trip I read Lost CityRadio and enjoyed it as much as the others. Set in an unspecified South American country, which has some characteristics of Peru, its main protagonist Norma has her own phone in radio programme which unites people with family members and friends who have gone to the city and disappeared. One day a child from the jungle area, Victor is brought to the studio and abandoned. Norma takes the boy home and in her tracing of his history we the readers learn about Norma’s past and the previous decade of civil war and terrorism which has devastated the country. The chaos and uncertainty of the times is reflected in the narrative structure which goes back and forth in time and encompasses a range of narrators, yet the immediacy of the situations described and the vivid characterisation means that the reader is riveted throughout. My travelling companion, who is not such an avid reader of fiction as myself, thought this was a ‘terrific read’ and is planning to give it to his friends.
So these are my reading recommendations for Peru- happy reading and I’d love to hear what you read too.