Renato Cisneros couldn’t remember the day his sister Valentina turned four; at the time, he’d been only fifteen months old. But recently, on an old 8 mm film, he found some footage of her birthday party, held at a country club in Lima during the spring of 1977. As Cisneros writes in his memoir, The Distance Between Us, he was enthralled by the discovery:
Grainy as they are, the images show around a hundred grown-ups mingling in the gardens of the Real Club de San Isidro, watching their children as they enjoy a clown show, dance to a band and take turns whacking a piñata with a plastic stick. Everything is decorated with balloons and streamers with the colours and textures of the period. A banner reads ¡Que viva la fiesta!
The camera captures their father, Luis Federico Cisneros Vizquerra, in a natty blue suit, cigar and whisky in his hand. Despite his commanding air, Cisneros senior quickly gets stuck in. He plays with the clowns; he sings Feliz cumpleaños a ti to his daughter; he ‘smiles and does the limbo and guzzles a fizzy drink from a baby’s bottle’, that baby being little Renato himself, now in his forties, staring back at this bygone age.
Cisneros senior would have thought he deserved to relax. He was not only a Lieutenant General of the Peruvian Army, but – it being one of Peru’s intermittent periods of military rule – the Minister of the Interior, and right-hand man to the President, General Francisco Morales-Bermúdez. Five days before Valentina’s birthday, it was therefore Cisneros who had arranged for Carlos Alberto Maguid, an Argentinian left-wing activist, to ‘disappear’ from Lima’s streets. This was a personal favour to the new military junta in Buenos Aires; the dictator Jorge Rafael Videla had paid a visit to Lima and expressed, over ‘liquor, cigarettes and chocolates’, what he thought of political gadflies who tried to hide abroad. Maguid’s fate is a mystery today; Videla’s junta would sometimes drop its desaparecidos into the ocean, sometimes incinerate them alive. And yet, despite knowing General Cisneros’s complicity, Renato can only see a ‘fond father’ in the video, a daddy full of ‘enthusiasm and joy I almost never saw’. Que viva la fiesta.
‘Memoir’ is my word, and one that Renato Cisneros avoids. He refers to The Distance Between Us as ‘una novela’ instead; Fionn Petch, whose English translation is nicely unfussy, preserves this as ‘novel’. While Renato freely admits that his subject is Luis Federico, the Us of his title being father and son, he insists that this is ‘not a biographical novel’ either, and ‘not a historical novel’, and ‘not a documentary novel’. Instead, he describes his book as obsessed with its own fallibility, ‘conscious of the fact that reality occurs only once and that any reproduction made of it is condemned to adulteration, to distortion, to simulacrum’. Its narrator has always lived this way, steeped in contradictions. In Renato’s grainy memory, daddy is a ‘uniformed figure who appears on television’, the little boy’s hero who ‘every morning, after kissing us goodbye, crosses the threshold to become a supervillain’. When he wasn’t singing for his daughter, or dancing milongas through the kitchen, Cisneros radiated ‘Olympian arrogance’, and served as ‘the most hard-line minister’ in the Peruvian military regime.
If the General’s two faces, public and private, were inconsistent, his domestic principles were cloudier still. He helps his two brothers to hide their gay affairs, but cuts Renato’s ponytail off as he sleeps, and explains at breakfast, without lifting his eyes from the newspaper, ‘I won’t have poofters in my own home.’ As a child, he had been so disobedient that a family doctor named him ‘il Gaucho’, after the ranchers on the Patagonian plains; as an adult, he was indulgent to Valentina and Facundo (his youngest), yet to Renato his parenting style usually ‘bordered on aggression’. The irony, as Renato writes sourly, was that his father seemed ‘utterly uninterested in explaining why he found it so important to impose the same disciplinary whims that had comprised his own upbringing’. Comprised, or compromised? His only constant star was the military, the home of order for order’s sake; he loved the Army, loathed anything to its political left, and held fast to that pride and rage until his death in 1995, aged 69.
The General’s lack of interest in familial habits is baffling to Renato, because Cisneros senior was so clearly trapped in the role of his own father, who had played his father before that. They were all ‘illegitimate, uprooted men’. The first Cisneros was ‘a bastard’, with a faked paternity to cover for the real culprit, a priest. The second was ‘an exile’, sent away from home for three decades in France. The third, Renato’s father, was born in Argentina, and left a youthful beloved – called, with improbable romance, Beatriz – behind him. (The General’s later devotion to the Argentinian junta reads to me not merely as political solidarity, but more than that, an offering of twisted love.) The variety in the men’s careers, as the fourth Cisneros can see, was merely a glitch of circumstance:
All three […] played different characters. Luis Benjamín was the accomplished poet. Fernán, the precocious editor of La Prensa. And my father, the hard-line, authoritarian minister of state. […] All three were men of renown in their fields who never let themselves be known. All three were condemned to leave. All three underwent sudden changes and then could not or would not – save for moments at a time – be the men they once were.
They all betrayed the nuclear family, too, while holding onto it like a crutch. Luis Benjamín stole the reigning president’s mistress and had three children, then fled the country, returning years later to find a new partner and have five more. Fernán, more efficiently, maintained two families in the same city. Luis Federico splits his father’s difference, leaving number one for number two, and dreaming of Beatriz all his life. It’s as if the family were a ladder down which each son can only fall.
How to conceptualise these men’s behaviour, Renato wonders. Self-invention? Departure? Erasure? Too grand: ‘Maybe it’s just about writing. Maybe writing means exiling yourself. Maybe this book is a discreet form of exile.’ ‘Writing’, as a live participle, because it suits all four: even the General, like the editor and poet before him, was a writer of truculent skill. He penned article after article defending military rule in Peru, and each one clipped along in ‘rhythmic prose, free of barrack-room slang’. His children would gather round to applaud when he read his drafts aloud. Off the cuff, his speech inclined more to Clint Eastwood than César Vallejo, but it had the same earthy crack as his prose. Tasked with bringing that voice into English, it isn’t Petch’s fault that a typical ‘il Gaucho’ declaration, such as ‘I prefer a dead “hero” to a living terrorist leader’, loses a little acoustic punch: ‘Yo prefiero un “héroe” muerto que un dirigente terrorista vivo’. What a line.
Renato has spent his life aspiring to this style: ‘trying to write like him, calling a spade a spade, then re-reading what I’ve written and realising how lukewarm I sound’. But when your father’s capacity for love is entwined with one for violence, is it safe to inherit his gift for expressive force? ‘Both of us wrote,’ Renato thinks, ‘but we never talked about what writing meant to us.’ To the General, it meant control: he used ‘we’ and ‘the state’ as synonymous subjects and considered a sentence to be a means of exerting power. In that sense he was, Renato now thinks, ‘a writer who didn’t know he was a writer’, and everybody else, from his family to his country, was a character in his plot.
To Renato, by contrast, writing squares up to control. The novela he’s written here, built on ‘adulteration’ and ‘distortion’, slews between hazy memories and present-day meetings with family and friends. Rather than framing his childhood in a ‘memoir’, as if a childhood were ever a finished thing, Renato gives us a messier and therefore more candid display of how remembering works. His writing exerts power through its fragility, through letting you empathise with its naked self-suspicion: The Distance Between Us isn’t just, as Petch says in an afterword, a ‘book about doubt’, but one built around it. Its author is an exemplary figure by being just like anyone else; he sketches in words the nature of an emotional narrative arc, while knowing his book can only show what, about emotions, words can never quite make cohere.
Civilian rule was restored in Peru in 1980, but the new government still had a military strain. The Shining Path, a Maoist group, had rejected the ballot box and launched a violent insurgency, and General Cisneros became Minister of War. By 1982, the Shining Path held invisible power in the city of Ayacucho, and were using it for their operational base. The General, to whom self-restraint was practically cowardice, gave a notorious interview to the magazine Quehacer, in which he complained that the army’s job was tough. ‘We don’t know who or what they are. They all look like anyone else living in the mountains.’ The Shining Path could spot the police or the army a mile away, but not vice-versa. The interviewer knew his target, and kept probing. So what could the army do better, General? What’s holding them back? Well, said the General, we have few options, what can we do, logically we’d have to shoot everyone in the city, wouldn’t we, and that would be ‘the worst possible option’.
To the General’s opponents, who (Renato says) forever omitted the final caveat, this interview proved what they had been saying all along. Cisneros was never just a gaucho; he hankered after massacres, disappearances, a country ruled the Argentinian way. This controversy still flares up in Peru from time to time, and during one such moment in 2007, Renato lost his cool, penning a fierce article in his father’s defence. The General’s words to Quehacer, he railed, had been ‘taken out of context’. To infer some genocidal urges was really ‘a massive leap’. Someone had to speak up and ‘preserve the dignity of his name’, ‘safeguard the serenity of his memory’. Now, a decade later, he winces, and wonders what led him to do it. ‘It was a naïve defence that no one had asked me to launch, but which I felt was my right to set out, moved by what forces I do not know.’ Above all, why would he speak up on his father’s behalf? It wasn’t that he was on the wrong side, more that he dared to pull rank. ‘What in hell’s name was I thinking, depriving him of his aura?’
The latter stages of The Distance Between Us are morally the most difficult, and emotionally the most affecting. Tracing the General’s final years and the legacy he leaves, they’re shot through with rage and guilt and all the forces Renato does not know. The historical details are seen only dimly, flickering in the background; crucial actors like Abimael Guzmán, leader of the Shining Path, barely appear at all, and there are no street scenes from Ayacucho or the febrile villages beyond. This book is stiflingly personal, all its local colour hemmed into the Cisneros family home. The restrictive atmosphere means that all the politics are inseparable from personal feeling, but why not? It’s an accurate picture of Renato, this man who edits and writes and presents, but has had to reckon for the most part in silence with the gulf between what he feels and feels able to say. Until this novela was unlocked, he’d been hiding his guiltiest emotions, embarrassed on their behalf. Asked one year to award poetry medals to a former left-wing terrorist and a commander of the Shining Path, he acquiesced, but he felt an immediate ‘wave of betrayal’, a ‘sense of disloyalty’. ‘My father would have strung them up. I hung medals around their necks.’ It would be easy to say that the son was right. I think it’s a mark of Renato’s bravery, his honesty, that he won’t.
The Distance Between Us was triggered by a visit to a psychoanalyst, who advised Renato – depressed, single, lost – to look into his family’s history. His parents’ marriage, it was pointed out, was never legal, because in a delicious act of perpetual revenge, the General’s first wife died without granting him a divorce. As a result, the analyst tells him, ‘you’re the child of a myth’. A myth: a coercive force, even violent, which lacks anything tangible a person can break or leave. Paternal love is one such myth. And so, as the spell begins to break, Renato starts to write. He thinks of a moment in 2000, when he got a copy-editing job in the Peruvian Congress – the Congress for which his father ran unsuccessfully near the end of his life. He remembers sneaking into the chamber and sitting in what would have been the General’s place. Now it makes sense. ‘It was one of those useless, poetic acts you believe can mend the bitter fissures of the past – only to realise later that the crack has only deepened, that nothing can be fixed, that nothing is ever fixed.’