Julio Ramón Ribeyro (1929-1994), a Peruvian short story writer of the El Boom era, has been less known outside the Spanish speaking world as he was not translated into English till recently.
As one trying to learn Spanish, I attempted a translation of a few of his stories, including five that I believe have not been translated before. These will appear on this blog over the next one week.
This is how Mario Vargas Llosa, his contemporary and friend summarizes Ribeyro’s writings :
All his stories and novels are fragments of a single allegory about the fundamental frustration of being Peruvian: a frustration that is social, individual, cultural, psychological, and sexual.History of a Friendship: Julio Ramón Ribeyro and Mario Vargas Llosa by Jorge Coaguila
(Thanks to Carlos D, my friend and guide in learning Spanish and who patiently helped with the translations over many weeks).
Barely had his mother closed the door, when Perico jumped from the mattress and listened, with his ear to the door, the steps fading away in the long corridor. When they had completely disappeared, he pounced towards the kerosene stove and rummaged through one of the burners that was no longer functioning. There it was! Pulling out a leather bag, he counted the coins one by one – he had learned to count while playing marbles – and to his astonishment, discovered that he had forty soles. He put back twenty soles in his pocket and returned the rest into their place. It had not been in vain, when during the night, he had pretended to sleep to spy on his mama. Now he had sufficient money to achieve his grand project. He had no excuse now. In those alleys of Santa Cruz, the doors were always ajar so the neighbours could poke their nose around. Putting on his shoes, he scampered off towards the street.
On the way, he pondered on whether to invest all his capital or just a part of it. And he remembered the meringues – white , pure, steaming fresh. He decided to spend all of it. How long had he gazed at them through the window pane until he could feel the bitter taste of saliva in his throat? For how many months had he been coming to the bakery and been content to just look at them? The attendant already knew him and whenever he saw him entering, he seemed to be momentarily permissive, before giving a knock on his head and saying:
“Get out of here, kiddo, you’re troubling the customers!”
The clients, fat men in suspenders or old women with bags, crushed and stepped on him, noisily buying everything in sight.
He remembered, no doubt, some happy events too. A gentleman, noticing the anxiety on his face, asked his name, age, if he attended school, if he had a father and finally gifted him a spongy doughnut. He would have preferred a meringue but he realized that one did not have a choice when bestowed with a favor. On another day the cook’s daughter gave him an egg-yolk bread that was a bit hard to chew on.
“Catch!”, she said, throwing it over the counter.
He had to make a great effort but nevertheless the bread fell to the ground and he suddenly remembered his puppy at which he threw morsels of meat, enjoying the spectacle as it jumped to catch it in its canines.
But it was neither the egg-yolk bread, nor the alfajores nor the piononos that attracted him, he only loved the meringues. Even though he had never tasted them, he always remembered the images of the boys who brought them to their mouth as if they were snowflakes dusting their collars. From that day, the meringues became his obsession.
When he arrived at the bakery, there were already many customers crowding at the counter. He waited for the space to clear a bit, but when he could no longer remain patient, he started to push his way through. Now he did not feel any embarrassment and the money that he clutched in his hands bequeathed him a certain authority and the right to rub shoulders with the men in suspenders. After much effort, his head appeared at the same level as the counter before the astonished attendant.
“You are here again! Get out of the shop!”
Perico, far from obeying, raised his head, and with an expression of triumph, responded: “Give me meringues for twenty soles!” His loud voice rose over the hubbub of the bakery as it fell into a curious silence. Many looked at him, intrigued, as it was certainly surprising to see someone greedily buy such sickly-sweet candies in such a large quantity. The attendant ignored him and soon the ruckus resumed. Perico remained somewhat disconcerted, but encouraged by a feeling of power, repeated, in a tone of urgency, “Meringues for twenty soles!”
The attendant looked at him, this time with a certain perplexity but continued to attend to the other customers.
“Did you not hear?” Perico insisted excitedly, “I want meringues for twenty soles!”
The attendant came closer and pulled him by the ear.
“Are you kidding me, you prick?”
“Show me the money!”
Without concealing his pride, Perico put a handful of coins on the counter. The attendant counted the money.
“And you want to buy meringues for all this money?”
“Yes”, replied Perico with a conviction that brought smiles to the onlookers.
“You will get indigestion if you are going to have them all,” someone commented.
Perico turned around. Noting that he was being observed with pitiful benevolence, he felt embarrassed. As if the attendant had forgotten, he repeated, “Give me the meringues.” But this time his voice had lost its vitality, and Perico understood that for reasons he could not explain, he was asking a favor.
“Are you leaving or not?” rebuked the attendant
“Attend to me first.”
“Who has asked you to buy this?”
“You must have heard her incorrectly. Twenty soles? Go and ask her again or ask her to write it on a piece of paper.”
Perico remained thoughtful for a moment. He extended his hand towards the money and started to slowly withdraw it. But seeing the meringues through the glass, his desire was rekindled, and he no longer demanded as if he was robbing but with a pleading voice asked, “Give me meringues for only ten soles!”
Watching the attendant approaching him angrily, before he could throw him out, he repeated, whining, “Just ten soles, nothing more!”
The attendant bent over the counter and gave him the usual punch on the ear, though to Perico it appeared to carry an unusual force this time.
“Get out of here! Are you crazy? Go and crack such jokes elsewhere!”
Perico left the shop, furious. With the money clenched between his fingers and eyes wet, he wandered around.
He soon arrived in an alley. Seating himself on a high cliff, he contemplated the beach. It appeared difficult to restore the money to its original location, and he mechanically threw the coins one by one, making a tinkling sound on the stones below. While doing so, he was thinking that these coins were worthless in his hands and soon, on this very day that was both grand and terrible, he would cut the heads of all those men and of all the workers at the cake shop, while the pelicans quacked indifferently around him.
Los Merengues by Julio Ramon Ribeyro, La insignia y otros relatos geniales