A Fish in the Water: A Memoir

Free A Fish in the Water: A Memoir by Mario Vargas Llosa

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Authors: Mario Vargas Llosa
internationalization of modern life—of markets, of technology, of capital—permits any country, even the smallest one with the fewest resources, if it opens out to the world and organizes its economy on a competitive basis, to achieve rapid growth. In the last two decades, by practicing, through its dictatorships or its civilian administrations, populism, exclusively economic nationalism, and government intervention in the economy, Latin America chose instead to go backward. And through its military dictatorship and Alan García, Peru pursued, farther than other countries, policies that lead to economic disaster. Up until those days of the campaign against the nationalization of the financial system, I had the impression that, though deeply divided on many subjects, among Peruvians there was a sort of consensus in favor of populism. The political powers that be disagreed as to the amount of intervention that was desirable, but all of them appeared to accept, as an axiom, that without it neither progress nor social justice would be possible. The modernization of Peru seemed to me to have been put off till pigs had wings.
    In the public debate I had with my adversary, on June 3, 1990, the agricultural engineer Alberto Fujimori gibed: “It seems that you would like to make Peru a Switzerland, Doctor Vargas.” Aspiring to see Peru “become a Switzerland” had come to be, for a considerable portion of my compatriots, a grotesque goal, whereas for others, those who would prefer to turn it into a Cuba or a North Korea, it was something intolerable, not to mention impossible.
    One of the best essays of the historian Jorge Basadre is entitled “La promesa de la vida peruana” (“The Promise of Peruvian Life”), published in 1945. Its central idea is pathetic and splendid: there is an unfulfilled promise throughout the whole of the history of the Republic of Peru, an ambition, an ideal, a vague necessity that never managed to take shape, but that since emancipation was always there, buried and alive, amid the tumult of civil wars, the devastation wrought by military rule, and the eloquent oratory of the debates that took place on political speakers’ platforms. A hope forever reborn and forever frustrated from saving us, someday, from the barbarism we had been brought to by our persistent inability to do what we ought to do.
    But on the night of August 21, 1987, standing before that deliriously enthusiastic crowd in the Plaza San Martín, and then later in the Plaza de Armas of Arequipa, and on the Avenida Grau of the Piura of my childhood, I had the impression—the certainty—that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Peruvians had suddenly decided to do what was necessary to make our country “a Switzerland” someday—a country without people who were poor or illiterate, a country of cultivated, prosperous, and free citizens—and to make the promise at last become a part of history, thanks to a liberal reform of our incipient democracy.

Three

Lima the Horrible
    The Lima-San Miguel streetcar went along the Avenida Salaverry, in front of the little house in La Magdalena where we came to live in those final days of 1946 or early 1947. The house still exists, faded and shabby, and even now, when I pass that way, I feel sharp pangs of anxiety. The year and a little more that I lived in it was the most agonizing one in my life. It was a two-story house. Downstairs there was a little living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and across a little patio, the maid’s room. And upstairs, the bathroom and my bedroom and my parents’, separated from mine by a short staircase landing.
    From the moment we arrived, I felt excluded from the relationship between my mama and my papa, a man who, as the days went by, seemed to keep his distance from me. It infuriated me that they shut themselves up in their bedroom during the day, and on one pretext or another I kept going to knock on the door, until my father upbraided me, warning

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