- The Rarified Air of the Modern: Airplanes and Technological Modernity in the Andes by Willie Hiatt
Willie Hiatt’s book engages a fascinating topic: Peru’s encounter with the imported technology of flight during the first half of the twentieth century. Besides many dramatic narratives and anecdotes, for Hiatt modern aviation (in a nation notoriously fragmented by both the Andean mountains and its deep postcolonial ethnic and social divides) opens a window into complex questions of Peruvian relationships with modern technology and their implications for cultural and national identity.
Hiatt previews the history and takes readers through a range of conceptual issues in the Introduction. Airplanes inspired widespread technological awe but also fuelled a lingering sense of national technological or racial deficiency. Chapter 1, “Modernity’s Surprise Landing in Andes 1910–11” starts with the tale of Peru’s celebrated pioneers of flight, like Jorge Chávez and Juan Bielovicic, [End Page 197] typical oligarch enthusiasts of the so-called Aristocratic Republic (1895–1919). French born Chávez, paradoxically, was in 1910 the first man to fly over the Alps, not the Andes, and was martyred in his attempt. (Tourists to Peru will recognize his name on the Lima-Callao international airport.) Bielovicic flew across both the Andes and the Alps, but was also plagued by crashes—a recurrent theme as the story unfolds.
The next chapter, “The Peruvian Air Farce” chronicles the World War One era and the modernizing 1920s “oncenio” dictatorship of Augusto Leguía. A cult of aviation grew during the 1920s, which introduced Peru to many French, Italian, and U.S. aircraft models, yet the overall story is one of “debacle”: both the continuing litany of mishaps and fatalities as well as well disappointing technical missions, such as a French aeronautics training school of the late 1920s.
Chapter 3 “Flying Cholo” tells the inspirational 1920s story of Cuzco native Velasco Astete, the protagonist of a provincial elite (cholo) or indigenista (pro-Indian) imaginary about flight, Astete‘s daring stunts made him a kind of Andean “superman,” notable in constructing a regional identity. However, like other pioneers, he dies gloriously in an air race to Puno, a major setback to highland aviation. The next chapter “High Technology in Jungle” traces the airplanes’ impact on Peru’s third great geographic space, the marginalized Amazonian lowlands east of the Andes. Flight seemed the ideal way to conquer unfathomable jungle distances and the temporal distance of its orientalized native Amazonians from modern technology. However, aerial disasters also played out over the Amazon and aviators remained largely touristic explorers.
Chapter 5, “The Window Seat of Modernity” charts the origins of 1920s commercial flight in Peru, which by the 1930s gave Peru three fairly stable airline companies. Much of the chapter ruminates on the cultural effect of passengers seeing Peru from above, both romanticized versions of national landscapes and a deepening sense of placelessness in the modern world. The chapter that follows, “When Technology Bombs” deals with military adoption and applications of aircraft, which in Peru were used against insurgents in the 1932 Trujillo political rebellion, the 1933 Amazonian conflict, and the late 1930s boundary war with Ecuador. The last produced a new kind of national hero, air force pilot José Quiñones, who propelled his craft kamikaze-style into Ecuadorian forces in July of 1939. The book’s Epilogue briefly carries the story forward past the 1940s: the coming of airline-driven post-war tourist industries, the creation of a national airline (Aeroperá), air-force politics, a fire sale of national companies during and after the 1980s neoliberal era, and even the illicit cocaine jungle airstrips of the 1990s.
There is little doubt that aviation had a visible imprint on Peru. Given the country’s rugged topography, this revolutionary technology was bound to stir imaginations (the way modernizing railways did in the previous century), and more concretely by the 1960s the country had the second largest air force in South America after Argentina. Beyond its quite original research, Hiatt...