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  • The Precarity of Literary Form:Julio Ramón Ribeyro and His Fabled Narratives
  • Eunha Choi

For most of his life, the Peruvian writer Julio Ramón Ribeyro was perceived as a tormented figure, someone haunted by a form that denied him personal and public gratification, let alone indubitable success. On many occasions he noted that the novel was the genre that set him apart from many of his contemporaries, especially those who made up the internationally successful Latin American literary boom (Ribeyro 1995; Tenorio Requejo 1996; Ospina Villalba 2006). Before giving up altogether on the long narrative form, however, Ribeyro wrote three novels that satisfied neither him nor his followers or critics: Crónica de San Gabriel (1960), Los geniecillos dominicales (1965), and Cambio de guardia (1976). Despite his ambivalence toward the novel at times, or his express hostility other times, during the 1960s and 1970s he pursued the novelistic form with a zeal rubendariana.1 In public conversations Ribeyro never hid his desire to contribute with his version of the grand novel to the Peruvian and Latin American literary archive. In one of the essays analyzed below, for instance, he points out how Lima was in need of a great novel that reflected the city's complex transformation into a densely inhabited urban center during the mid-20th century. As he remarks poetically in the essay, it was not he who rejected the novel, but rather the grand novel seemed to have eluded him all his life. Despite his committed effort and desire to write a master narrative, from his pen such an incarnation never took satisfying form. But the story does not end in failure or infertile frustration. Ribeyro wrote, and at times he wrote copiously though always painstakingly and by exerting tremendous effort, for the act of and time for writing never came easily to him.

Ribeyro wrote a vast collection of short stories that, overshadowed by the boom, offered a muted alternative to the many things for which the boom writers and their projects stood. Notions such as totality, master narrative, formal experimentation, cosmopolitanism, nation-state, and commitment to aesthetics belong to the bag of broad and often reductive or equivocal concepts that are generally associated with the boom writers and their novels (Levinson 2002; Legrás 2008; D'Lugo 1997). Ribeyro's short fiction, on the other hand, invites us to forge new models of critique that challenge those models that I will name self-transcendent abstractions, namely, paradigms that comprise far more than they seem to initially. I propose that Ribeyro's short stories adopt the formal architecture of fables2 because, resulting from what proved a negative quest (which [End Page 91] should not be conflated with a failed quest) his short stories destabilize on their surface level the binary reality / appearance and truth / myth. Reinforcing such binaries, on the other hand, the experimental boom novel obscures, glosses over, or reconfigures them after an intense effort at formal deconstruction. The boom novel deploys many of the avant-garde techniques (fragmentation, self-reflexivity, and deconstructed narrator among other rhetorical and formal strategies) while always pursuing a totalizing portrait of a certain reality and a totalizing representation of the text itself. By reading closely Ribeyro's thoughts on the novel and short story genre, and literature in general, I show how Ribeyro puts forth a fable-like narrative that exposes, rather than masquerade, the feebleness of literary form.

Hardly am I the first to propose that Ribeyro's short stories inhabit the seemingly tenuous universe of fables in which falsity and truth, fiction and fact, and appearance and the real (or essence) ought to maintain an exquisitely balanced tension. Julio Ortega insists that Ribeyro's short stories read like fables primarily due to their prosaic style: "lisos en su superficie, equilibrados por un lenguaje despojado y preciso y por una presentación inmediata y expositiva." In other words, his narrative seems to lack the kind of affectation that, as we will see Ribeyro say below, must be inevitably identified with the novel and literature at large. Ortega additionally explains that the fable, like Ribeyro's fiction, "con sabiduría […] habla por sí misma."3...


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