Irecall a remark made by James Baldwin, the black American novelist: ‘Whenever I’m in a group of white intellectuals, I have a method for discovering the racists. I talk nonsense. Utter unqualified rubbish. I then support it with theories of the most grotesquely absurd nature. If the whites around me listen with respect and at the end overwhelm me with applause and praise, I have no doubt: they’re racist pigs.’

Baldwin’s anecdote describes a special kind of intellectual condescension: one that assumes that its victim – obviously ‘crippled’ by race or class or upbringing – is so mentally limited as to deserve little more than an amused pity. The anecdote came to mind recently. I was at a conference on the Latin-American novel. It was being held in Denmark – at the Museum of Modern Art – but it could well have taken place anywhere in Europe. The conference was organized around a series of seminars, and during each one a fellow Peruvian writer interrupted the proceedings and asked to speak. And every time, he was not merely given permission; he was veritably ushered to the podium. His first speech took me by surprise; it also took by surprise the two women who were expected to translate his curiously colloquial Spanish – full of the slang peculiar to the streets of Lima – into a language that future Danish readers might understand. He gesticulated. He shouted. It was, really, as if we were at a street rally. And eventually he explained how his novels were special. They were not published by bourgeois publishers but by the trade unions. And the trade unions were also responsible for their distribution. He wrote, he told us, not to satisfy personal vanity or greed. He wrote to raise the revolutionary consciousness of the Peruvian masses. And therefore he never accepted royalties, preferring to donate them to popular movements.

It was, I think, at this point that someone in the audience asked about sales figures, and my compatriot unhesitatingly quoted a number of so many thousands that it was high enough to give the other novelists present an acute sense of vertigo. Another man spoke up – obviously a publisher from Copenhagen – and asked if my compatriot’s moral reservations about capitalist publishing houses concerned only those in Peru, or did they apply equally to all publishers – even those, say, in Denmark? The question had a curious effect; the Peruvian was visibly agitated. He was, he informed us, not at all dogmatic. What would be the point? For as the great Latin-American Marxist theoretician Mariategui has pointed out, Marxism should never be a mindless reiteration of ideas, but was meant always to be a heroic creation. We must – he urged us to recognize – always make our decisions in strict accordance with the perceived objective conditions of each situation, since to do otherwise would represent a fall into subjectivism, the dangers of which have been pointed out from the very beginning by Marx and Engels and Lenin – and a long list of others whom I’m unable to recall.

The Danes listened with the greatest attention. Some took notes. Everyone applauded, passionately.

What exactly was the fascination? The image, I assume, of an effervescent Peru in which writers, instead of being the hired clowns of the bourgeoisie, were transubstantiated into political heroes by the working classes who printed, reprinted and purchased – in enormous quantities – all the copies of their books. It was, however, more than fascination. Or at least it appeared to be. Because no one tried to silence or contradict my compatriot. There was a time when young Peruvian writers attending international conferences were so overwhelmed by a sense of their own cultural inferiority that they said nothing. This has obviously now changed. The difficulty of Peru’s champion of the proletariat was not that he said nothing; but that there seemed to be no time when he did. He spoke from beginning to end. He denounced enemy after enemy – so many enemies that even I wasn’t able to identify most of them: they were obviously groups or individuals at the university in Peru with whom he had fallen out (it must have been an especially curious list to the Danes, many of whom, I know, had enough difficulty identifying exactly where you might find Peru on a world map.) But this was not all. There were also the clichés and the jargon and the catchphrases and – perhaps worst of all – the rhetorical flourish with which my compatriot finished each speech, raising his arms (fists clenched) in anticipation of his applause. His speeches were grotesque; and they were tragic. They were tragic because they turned not just a country but even the continent into an unreality. Latin America emerged at the end of our seminars as so deformed that even the crimes of Pinochet or the repression in Argentina or the horrors of Central America appeared, like the thousands of trade unionists clamouring for his books, as nothing more than the stuff of fairy tales.

Mystery without End
Human Moments in World War III