‘The death of Lucien de Rubempré is the great drama of my life,’ Oscar Wilde is said to have remarked about Balzac’s character. I have always regarded this statement as being literally true. A number of fiction characters have affected my life more profoundly than most of the real people I have known. In the heterogeneous, cosmopolitan circle of my literary imagination, a handful of friendly ghosts regularly come and go – today, for instance, I might casually include d’Artagnan, David Copperfield, Jean Valjean, Prince Pierre Bezukhov, Fabrizio del Dongo, the terrorists Cheng and the Professor, and Lena Grove. But no character has been more persistently and passionately present than Emma Bovary.
My first memory of Madame Bovary is derived from a film. It was 1952, a stifling hot summer night, at a recently opened cinema in Piura, on the Plaza de Armas with its swaying palm trees. James Mason played Flaubert; the lean Louis Jourdan was Rodolphe Boulanger; and Emma Bovary appeared through the nervous energetic gestures of Jennifer Jones. I could not have been terribly impressed, because afterwards – during a time when, as a voracious reader, I was staying up nights to devour novels – I was not compelled even to track down a copy of the book.
My second memory is academic. On the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Madame Bovary, the University of San Marcos in Lima organized a ceremony to honour the occasion. The critic André Coyné was impassively questioning Flaubert’s reputation as a realist when his arguments suddenly became inaudible amid the cries of ‘Viva Algeria Libre!’ and the shouting of more than a hundred San Marcos students, armed with stones, making their way through the hall toward the platform where their target, the increasingly pale French ambassador, awaited them. Part of the celebration in honour of Flaubert was the publication, in a little booklet whose ink rubbed off on our fingers, of an edition of Saint Julien I’Hospitaller, translated by Manuel Beltroy. That was the first work by Flaubert I read.