Saturday, October 9, 2010

From Vargas Llosa to Dorchester Avenue

I finally got around to reading an English translation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversación en La Catedral a few years ago. The thick paperback had been stacked on a shelf at three different locations for as many decades. But I was hooked right away by the crapulous opening. And it’s even better in the original:

Desde la puerta de “La Crónica” Santiago mira la avenida Tacna, sin amor: automóviles, edificios desiguales y descoloridos, esqueletos de avisos luminosos flotando en la neblina, el mediodía gris. ¿En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?

A newspaper reporter—let’s say a reporter washed out before he’s forty, or grey at noon and descolorido, if you will—looks out on the dreary streetscape of Peru’s capital city and wonders (in much more polite terms) what went wrong.

A Peruvian native who writes for the Jamaica Plain Gazette, Andy Zagastizábal, describes this fictional reporter as “a desperate person who feels he has lost everything.” When we had talked about this passage a few years ago, Andy quoted the last sentence in the original and asked me if I knew what the verb meant in English. I came fairly close. Even in translation, this was a memorable passage. I certainly remembered it last Thursday when I learned that Vargas Llosa had just won the Nobel Prize for literature. And, after I shared this news with Andy, he called this passage “one of the best beginnings of a novel.”

I’ve never seen Lima, but a college classmate who grew up there once described it as a rather depressing place with a lot of gray weather (he much preferred the Peruvian jungle). I’ve always imagined a much less pleasant San Francisco, with a swelling periphery of shanty towns.

The title of the book actually refers to the name of a seedy bar. This is where the journalist meets with his rich and influential father’s chauffeur, who fills him in on some dark family secrets, overlapping with the underside of Peru’s military dictatorship in the 1950’s. True, there’s something in common here with the post-traumatic effects of other dictatorships, whether you read them in works by Junot Díaz or Viktor Pelevin (who once described Russia of the early 1990’s as “a banana republic that imports bananas from Finland”). But, when I read the beginning of Conversación en La Catedral, I think of a place in Boston.

To be precise, I think of an unremarkable bar on Dorchester Avenue, Vaughan’s Tavern. This was in the mid-1970’s, and Vaughan’s was just another brick-faced bunker with small rectangular windows, where there surely would have been the kind of skeletal avisos luminosos tracing the name of some beer. As for decor, I remember few details except for a portrait of Bobby Kennedy hung on a wall, just above a couple of rifles. The bar was right across from Edison Green, which at the time was only a vacant lot where there used to be substandard housing.

As it turned out, I went to Vaughan’s on the first story I covered in Dorchester. This wasn’t even a story as much as a way of meeting people and gathering dots that could later be connected as stories. Some of those stories would concern trouble over liquor licenses, so it was a good idea to sit on the meeting, which took place in a storefront next to the bar. Also making an introductory visit was the newest member of the Boston Licensing Board. He was meeting with leaders of Dorchester neighborhood groups, among them a no-nonsense leader from Savin Hill, Kit Clark. After much else on the agenda, Clark finally let him speak and told him to keep it brief.

There was one more reporter in the room, a columnist for The Boston Globe, Alan Lupo. He thought it would be a good idea to finish connecting dots for his piece about the man from the Licensing Board at the bar next door. Lupo graciously invited me to tag along, and, after that, I mainly listened and watched, if not all that perceptively.

I do remember that the man from the Licensing Board stood out from his surroundings. He wore a suit and he spoke with a certain deferential confidence about listening to concerns of people in the neighborhoods and being responsive. After all, he had been a concerned neighborhood leader himself in another part of Boston.

The most memorable thing happened as the three of us were on the way out. One of the customers, who’d had a bit to drink, for some reason went up to the man from the Licensing Board like a voter courting a politician (yes, it sometimes works this way, too). Taking the man in the suit by the hand, the customer told him, “I’d want my son to grow up some day to be just like you.”

To this day, I’ve never really been sure whether this was an outburst of admiration or sarcasm. In any event, time would later prove it to be misdirected. The man from the Licensing Board would, among other misfortunes, go on to have a tarnished career.

But I would keep reading Alan Lupo’s columns and books for many more years, until he passed away in 2008 (or, in the words on his voicemail, “shrugged off his mortal coil”). And, by sometime in the 1980’s, the vacant lot across the street would become an elderly housing complex named after Kit Clark.

First impressions do linger, and maybe no less when they mislead. As benchmarks, they help show how the dots that seem so factual, even if logged in a notebook or pixelated in a photo, can also be fictitious, or at least a kind of mythology. If some of these dots are deceptions that need to be exposed, others are symbols that instruct and inspire by keeping alive the memory of a role model.

The other side of this is how fiction draws on fact. In the case of Vargas Llosa that especially means his earlier career as a journalist. After learning Thursday that he won the Nobel Prize, he told the Spanish paper, El País: "El periodismo me ha dado la obligación de confirmar, de verificar, me ha enseñado lo importante que es la perseverancia. Si no hubiera tenido esa disciplina no hubiera sido un escritor; sigo verificando, sigo corrigiendo, obsesivamente. Es un gozo para mí escribir, sin duda, pero si detrás no hubiera este esfuerzo no hubiera escrito las historias que ahora forman parte de mi vida. Es una servidumbre y un gozo, un gran gozo".

To hazard a translation: "Journalism has given me the obligation to confirm, to verify, has taught me the importance of perseverance. If I hadn't had this discipline, I wouldn't have been a writer; I keep verifying, keep correcting, obsessively. Writing is a joy for me, without a doubt, but if there hadn't been this effort, I wouldn't have written the stories that now form part of my life. It is a servitude and a joy--a great joy."

What Vargas Llosa speaks of here might be what Dante called “la mente che non erra”—the mind that gets it right. That’s not always available at all times, so there’s a need to fall back on something for guidance, or at least a standard. Dante, washed out and middle-aged, meets Vergil in a dark wood and starts making his way out by making his way down—with the plod of reason. Myself, I think of another “low dishonest decade” and a conversation in a certain dive on Dorchester Avenue.