In a favorite essay of mine, Mario Vargas Llosa describes the most charismatic and influential teacher of his life as “a small pot-bellied man with a large forehead and a pair of blue eyes that became impregnated with malice every time he mocked someone.” Porras Barrenechea was a lecturer who filled his university halls with standing-room-only crowds by transforming the dry catalogue of history into “anecdote, gesture, adventure, color, psychology.”
Last Thursday, the day Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, I told all of my Spanish students to Google him and print out the funniest picture they could find. “One with a mustache,” I said, “or caterpillar eyebrows.”
My seventh graders were game. “Look Señora!” one of them shouted, loping into my classroom and nearly catching his foot on the chord of the projector cart. “I couldn’t find one with a mustache, but look!” He ran his finger across the photo. “How do you say sideburn in Spanish?” The photo was mask-sized, and I cut out the mouth and eyes and had students take turns standing up on their chairs and putting the paper over their face. “Quién eres?” I shouted at their blinking eyes. “Yo soy Mario Vargas Llosa,” they shouted back. “¡Soy de Peru! ¡Tengo setenta y cuatro años!“
The Porras Barrenechea essay aside, I don’t like Vargas Llosa all that much. I heard him interviewed on public radio a few years back and found him fair-minded and eloquent, patient and eminently likable. For some reason it offended me. I’ve tried to read The Green House at least a half a dozen times, but the baroque descriptions put me off. Or maybe it’s his prolificacy that bothers me; he’s written more than thirty novels and seems to keep the door between his outer and inner life endlessly open.
The slightest breeze slams mine shut. At 19, halfway through War and Peace, I not only stopped writing, but could no longer read. Driving, I would replay the last scene I remembered: Prince Andrei lying in a wheat field, staring at the stars. I carried those stars with me for a long time. They were with me the first time I fell in love, and out again. They were watching as I gave birth to a dark-eyed baby boy.
When I brought my son home from the hospital, I set him down in a basket full of wrinkled laundry and pulled out the copy of Goodnight Moon that my mother had tucked into his layette. The pictures alternated between black and white ink sketches and orange-tinged oils that turned small rooms into worlds. At the end of the book there is a drawing of a white horizon punctuated by six large stars. “Goodnight stars,” whispers the text. “Goodnight air.” When I look at my son, my life becomes a tiny, incandescent room.
In his essay, Vargas Llosa concludes that the life of his beloved teacher is “a tragic story” because he dies without ever writing his magnum opus–a definitive and evocative history of Peru. “When he was perfectly ready to embark upon it,” writes Vargas Llosa, “pressing on with assurance through the labyrinthine jungle of chronicles, letters, testaments, rhymes, and ballads of discovery and conquest that he had read, cleansed, confronted, and almost memorized, sudden death put an end to his encyclopedic information.”
I think he had already embarked. Face to face with his students in the dank and crumbling lecture hall, Barrenechea donned the mask of history. Each testament and rhyme and ballad and letter lent another surface to his conjuring, rising and rising until the walls around him dissolved into an echo of silent sky.