Q&A with Peruvian Novelist Alonso Cueto

As the latest work in our Latin American Literature in Translation seriesThe Wind Traveler showcases the mesmerizing storytelling of Alonso Cueto at the top of his career. At the heart of his latest work is a seemingly ordinary man named Ángel, who sells kitchenware at a store in Lima. In the early 1990s, he had served as an army soldier, engaging in brutal acts whose aftermath still reverberates. He is forced to reckon with his past when a woman he was instructed to kill enters the store and buys a few items. How can she still be alive? What’s more, how can she not recognize Ángel? Remarkably, she asks him to deliver her purchases to her house. From this moment, Ángel feels compelled to make amends through any means necessary, even if it requires sacrificing his life of quiet retirement. Publishers Weekly gave the translation a starred review, writing:

“Staggering . . . Cueto imbues every page and character with the brutal consequences of war in his compulsively readable story of a man’s reckoning with a history of violence. Wynne and Mendez’s splendid translation brings readers an essential work of Peruvian literature.”

Publishers Weekly

We asked Alonso Cueto a few questions about the English translation of The Wind TravelerThe book publishes on October 13, 2020.

The Wind Traveler is set in Peru in the aftermath of guerrilla warfare and the insurgent violence of the Shining Path. Please describe the historical context.

The Shining Path war started in the context of the deep inequality of Peruvian society and the abandonment of the state in rural areas. In the area of Ayacucho, in the Peruvian southern Andes, a professor of philosophy—Abimael Guzmán, by then in his late forties—declared the insurgence of the group. Its first act was to burn the ballot boxes the day of the presidential elections in April 1980. Soon afterwards, inspired by the hard line of the Communist Party of China, members of the group demonstrated their disagreement with Deng Xiaoping’s government by hanging dogs from posts in downtown Lima. The dogs symbolized the new members of the Chinese Communist Party and the hanging of the animals was meant to meant to represent their symbolic execution as traitors. During the eighties and early nineties, Shining Path conducted a violent campaign in the southern Andes and then in the rest of the country. The execution of mayors in towns in the Andes, the massacre of villagers, and the explosion of buildings and banks were very frequent in those years. The government sent the army to Ayacucho and other areas. Soon the methods of the army became as violent and heartless as the ones implemented by the Shining Path. Many soldiers were forced to commit terrible crimes and the memories haunted them for the rest of their lives. The Wind Traveler tells the story of a man who was in the army and recognizes a prisoner of war whom he thought he had killed.

There is an element of haunting in The Wind Traveler, but this is neither science fiction nor magical realism. How would you describe this in formal terms and what makes it especially appropriate for writing about violent histories?

I agree. The memory of the main character has always haunted him and he is very aware of the power of its images and voices. The story is told from his point of view. The character deals with his past and I think it reflects everybody’s experience. Somehow we all have a permanent, conflicted relationship with our own past. The same can be said of societies and communities and their relationship with common memories. My first book of stories was called The Battle of the Past. Talking about this title, a friend once told me that we can still win the battle of the past; in other words, we can try to be at harmony with our own memories.

In one of the very first pages of The Wind Traveler, the character sees this woman, whom he thought he had killed, enter the store where he works. She doesn’t seem to recognize him and acts as any other customer would. This the way the past works sometimes, just surprising us when we least expect it to. I think of the quote by L. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” But it is also true that the past is our own country always and that we have it whispering its words and showing its images to us all the time. In The Wind Traveler, this past takes the shape of a woman who enters the daily life of the main character.

The narrative perspective is unique: oscillating between past and present, shifting from what initially seems like third-person omniscient to include first-person interjections. What can you tell us about the narrator?

I always try to change the narrator because I think all of us see our lives from different perspectives. We also have in our lives times with an omniscient narrator and times with a very intimate connection with ourselves. The way we talk to ourselves at different times of the day is an indicator of the changing of our own narrators. It is difficult to make these changes in a novel but it is also the best way to reflect our own life narration. I try to adapt the type of narrator to the moment of the story, depending on how the character sees himself in relation to his surroundings.

A character uses the Quechua word ñawpa, which feels central to this novel and your writing broadly. Please define this word for us.

The word ñawpa is an expression of the way the Quechua world imagines time as a whole. It means both future and past. Furthermore, it can also be said that the idea of the future for the Quechuas has to do with what is behind you, whereas the idea of the past is what is in front of you. In other words, we all face the past since we know what happened but we have our back toward the future because we don’t know what will happen. In another sense, ñawpa means both in front of and behind. The word expresses a sense of time as a unity and excludes the Western division of time as divided by terms such as past, present, and future. Time is a whole and the same can be said about space in the Quechua sense of reality. This idea of the past as something that is always in front of us although it is also behind us fascinated me from the beginning, and this is why I included it in the novel.

A number of your works have been translated many times over. Is the translation process different for every book?

The translator is a creator, a second writer, who adapts the instrument of the original words of the writer to new sounds, meanings, and nuances. I can only say that the translators of this novel have done a wonderful job.

Alonso Cueto is an award-winning novelist, playwright, journalist, professor of journalism, and author of more than thirty books whose works have been translated into sixteen languages.

Frank Wynne is a literary translator from Ireland, the author of I Was Vermeer, and the translator of Cueto’s The Blue Hour.

Jessie Mendez Sayer is a literary translator, editor, and former literary scout. She studied history and Spanish at the University of Edinburgh.