Three Plays: The Young Lady from Tacna, Kathie and the Hippopotamus, La Chunga

I would like to thank everyone who helped me with these translations, especially Mario Vargas Llosa, Marilyn Watts, and the actors who took part in the rehearsed readings at the Gate Theatre.
D. R. G.-Y.
A Play in Two Acts
To Blanca Varela
Lies that tell the truth
Although generally one might say that
The Young Lady from Tacna
explores such themes as old age, pride, and individual destiny, there is one underlying and pervasive idea encompassing all the others, which has turned out to be, I believe, the backbone of this play: it is the question of how and why stories come into being. I don’t mean how and why they are written, for although Belisario is a writer, literature is only one area of the vast field of story-telling, present in every culture, including those that have no written language.
It is as fundamental an activity for the individual as it is for societies as a whole – it is in fact an essential part of human existence, a means of enduring the burden of life. But why does man need to tell stories? Why does he need to be told them? Perhaps because, through helping him contend with death and failure, as it did Mamaé, it gives him an illusory sense of permanence and relief. It is a means of retrieving, through a system controlled by the memory with the help of the imagination, a past that, when it was actually being lived, had all the appearance of chaos. Story-telling, fiction, thrives on what real life – in all its bewildering complexity and unpredictability – inevitably lacks: a sense of order, of coherence, of perspective, a period of time in isolation in which a hierarchy of facts and events can be determined, the relative importance of the characters, causes and effects, and the links between the actions. In order to understand what we are, as individuals and as nations, our only recourse is to come out of ourselves, and, with the help of memory and imagination, throw ourselves into the world of fiction in which we are portrayed paradoxically as something similar to, yet different from, what we really are. Fiction is the ‘complete’ man, a perfect blend of truth and falsehood.
Stories are seldom faithful to what they appear to be relating, at least in any quantitive sense: the word, whether spoken or written, is an entity in itself and distorts what it is supposedly
trying to communicate. Memory is deceptive, selective and partial. The gaps it leaves, which are generally not accidental, are filled by the imagination: every story therefore has some elements added to it. These are never arbitrary or fortuitous, because they are governed by that strange force which is not the logic of reason but that of dark unreason. Creativity is often little more than a form of retaliation against a life we find hard to live: we perfect it, or debase it in accordance with our own cravings and feelings of bitterness; we rework the original experience, modify what actually happened in order to satisfy the demands of our frustrated desires, our broken dreams, our feelings of joy or anger. In this way, the art of telling lies, which is the art of story-telling, is also, surprisingly, the art of communicating a deep-seated hidden truth about humanity. An imperceptible mixture of authentic and concocted events, of real and imaginary experiences, story-telling is one of the few forms – perhaps the only one – capable of depicting man in his entirety, both in his everyday life and in his fantasies, as he is and as he would like to be.
‘The criterion of truth is to have invented it oneself,’ wrote Giambattista Vico, who maintained, in an age when scientific cant was rife, that man was only really capable of understanding what he himself created: that is to say, the history of humanity rather than the physical world of nature and the universe. I don’t know if that is true or not, but his principle is a marvellous vindication of the truth in story-telling, the truth in literature. This truth doesn’t lie in any similarity or slavish adherence of the spoken or written word (what is created) to a higher ‘objective’ reality, but in itself, as something created from the raw material of truth and falsehood which make up the ambiguous totality of human experience.
I’ve always been fascinated by that strange process: the birth of a work of fiction. I’ve been writing now for quite a number of years, and it has never ceased to intrigue and surprise me, that slippery and unpredictable path, along which the mind travels, as it probes memories, calling up the most secret desires, impulses, whims, in order to ‘invent’ a story. While I was writing this play, I was sure I was going to re-create (taking
quite a few liberties on the way) the story of a familiar character, who was connected with my childhood, but I never suspected that under this pretext I was in fact attempting to tell the story of that elusive, transitory, changeable yet eternal process through which stories themselves come into being.
Mario Vargas Llosa
MAMAE, an old lady of about a hundred
GRANDMOTHER CARMEN, her cousin, somewhat younger and better preserved
GRANDFATHER PEDRO, Carmen’s husband
AGUSTIN, their elder son, in his fifties
CESAR, their other son, somewhat younger than his brother
AMELIA, their daughter, younger than César, and in her forties
BELISARIO, Amelia’s son
JOAQUIN, a Chilean officer, young, handsome and dapper
SEÑORA CARLOTA, elegant and beautiful, in her thirties
The stage is divided into two sets: the grandparents’ house in Lima during the 1950s, and Belisario’s study, which can be anywhere in the world in 1980.
The majority of the action takes place in the grandparents’ house: the living room cum dining room of a modest middle-class flat. There are two doors, one leading on to the street, the other to the inner part of the house. The furniture reflects the family’s financial straits, which are verging on the desperate. The essential pieces of furniture are the old armchair where Mamaé has spent the best part of her latter years, the little wooden chair, which she uses as a walking aid, an old wireless set, and the table where the family supper takes place in Act Two. There is a window on to the street, through which trams can be heard going past.
The set should not be realistic. It is as Belisario remembers it. It is a figment of his imagination and so objects and characters should take on a reality separate from their real-life counterparts. Besides, in the course of the action, the same set is used to represent various different locations: a drawing room in the house in Tacna where Grandmother and Mamaé lived when they were young; the dining room of the house in Arequipa, when Grandfather was managing the Camaná cotton plantation in the twenties; the house in Bolivia where Mamaé told Belisario stories during the 1940s, and Pedro’s lodgings in Camaná where he wrote his wife the letter Mamaé read in secret. The set has also to represent locations that are purely imaginary, such as Padre Venancio’s confessional. So it is appropriate for it to have a certain indeterminate quality which facilitates (or at any rate doesn’t hinder) these transformations.
Belisario’s study consists of a plain wooden table covered in papers, notebooks, pencils, and perhaps a portable typewriter. However simple it is, it is important that it should reflect a man whose life revolves round his writing, who spends most of his time there; it is the place where, apart from writing, sleeping and eating, he delves into his past life, confronts himself with it and speaks to his phantoms. Belisario may be between forty
and fifty, or even older. Either way, he has had considerable experience as a writer, and what happens to him in the course of this story will almost certainly have happened to him on previous occasions. Judging by his clothes and general appearance, he is a man without resources, disorganized and careless.
The dividing line between the two different sets may be apparent or not as required by the production.
The costumes should perhaps be realistic, as one method of signalling the time changes from one scene to another could be in the way the characters dress. The Chilean Officer should wear a uniform from the beginning of the century, with gold buttons, belt and sword, and Senora Carlota a dress of the same period. The grandparents and Mamaé should dress modestly in clothes that place them firmly in the 1950s. As for Belisario, he is a character of today and his clothes, hair, etc., should reflect this,
This translation of
The Young Lady from Tacna
was first performed as a rehearsed reading on 8 April 1989 at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill. The cast was as follows:
Sheila Grant
Geoffrey Collins
John Burgess
Diana Bishop
Anna Gilbert
Alan Barker
Anna Gilbert
Colin Bruce
William Haden
David Graham-Young
The stage is in darkness. A voice can be heard. It is
She sounds anxious, distressed and agitated. The lights come up, revealing that unforgettable face of hers: a mass of wrinkles.
MAMAE: The rivers, the rivers are overflowing … Water, little drops of water, foam, everything’s being drenched by the rain, it’s coming in waves, the whole world’s being swamped, it’s the flood, the waters are seeping through, they’re bursting out, escaping everywhere. Cataracts are forming, bubbling, it’s the deluge, little drops of water, the river … Ahhh!
Lights come up on the whole stage.
is sitting huddled in her old armchair and there is a little puddle at her feet.
is at his desk, writing furiously. His eyes are lit up, and as he writes, his lips move as if he were dictating something to himself.
Coming in
) Oh, for heaven’s sake Mamaé, you haven’t peed again on the sitting-room floor already, have you? Why don’t you ever ask? Then at least we could take you to the bathroom. The amount of times you’ve been told. I suppose you think I enjoy it? Well, I’m fed up with you and your filthy habits! (
.) I hope you haven’t done something else as well.
A gesture of irritation from
responds to with a smile and a little bow. She falls asleep almost immediately.
mops up the mess with a cloth. As
has been talking,
s attention has gradually been wandering, as if his mind has been taken off his writing by some sudden extraneous idea. He puts his pencil down. He looks discouraged. He talks to himself, in a mumble to begin with.
BELISARIO: What are you doing here, Mamaé, in the middle of a love story? A little old woman who used to wet and dirty her knickers, who had to be put to bed, dressed, undressed and cleaned up, because her hands and feet no longer did what she wanted them to do – what can a person
like that be doing in a love story? (
Hurls his pencil on the floor in a sudden fit of anger.)
Well, are you going to write a love story or what, Belisario? Am I going to write something or what? (
Laughs at himself, becomes depressed.
) It’s always worst at the beginning, it’s the most difficult part of all, when all those doubts and feelings of inadequacy are at their most crippling. (
Looks at
MAMAE.) Every time I start something new, I feel like you, Mamaé, I feel like an old man of eighty, or a hundred, and my thoughts dart about like grasshoppers, just like yours did, when you were that complicated, helpless little creature we all laughed at, felt sorry for and were even a little afraid of. (
Gets up, goes over towards
and slowly walks round her, with the pencil he has picked up from the floor between his lips
.) But your mind was still a hive of activity, wasn’t it? Had you lost your teeth by then? Of course you had. And you couldn’t wear those false ones Uncle Agustín and Uncle César gave you because they scratched your gums. What on earth are you doing here? Who invited you? Don’t you realize you’re stopping me from working? (
Smiles and returns to his desk, spurred on by a new idea.
) Mamaé … Mamaé … Didn’t somebody once call you Elvira? No, it wasn’t Grandma, or Grandpa, or Mama, or my uncles either. (
Sits at his desk and starts to write on the sheets of paper in front of him, slowly at first, then becoming more fluent.
) The name sounded so strange to people outside the family. ‘Why do you call her that? What does it mean, where did it originate?’ Yet they all ended up calling her Mamaé too.
who has finished cleaning the floor. As
reaches the end of his speech,
the Chilean officer, comes in. His uniform is of the style worn at the turn of the century; it is brightly coloured with silver or gold braid.
will carry on writing throughout the whole of the following scene; he spends most of his time absorbed in his papers, but pauses occasionally, putting the end of his pencil to his mouth and chewing it, as some new idea comes to him or he recalls some incident from the past. By way
of light relief, he turns round at odd moments to watch
and takes a passing interest in what they say. Then he returns to his papers to write or read over what he has written. The expression on his face is constantly changing.)
Whispering, as if leaning over a wrought-iron grille or balcony
) Elvira … Elvira … Elvira …
opens her eyes. She listens; smiles mischievously and looks around; she is flustered and excited. Her movements and speech are now those of a young woman.
MAMAE: Joaquín! But he’s out of his mind. At this hour! Uncle and Aunt are going to hear him.
JOAQUIN: I know you’re there, I know you can hear me. Come out, just for a second, Elvira. I’ve got something important to say to you. You know what it is, don’t you? You’re beautiful, I love you, and I want you. I can hardly wait till Sunday – I’m literally counting the hours.
sits up. Although clearly delighted, she remains demure and reticent. She goes over to the wrought-iron grille.
MAMAE: Whatever do you mean by coming here at this hour, Joaquín? Didn’t anyone see you? You’re going to ruin my reputation. Here in Tacna the walls have ears.
voraciously kissing
s hands
) I was already in bed, my love. When suddenly I had this feeling, right here in my breast; it was like an order from a general, which I had to obey: ‘If you hurry, you’ll find her still awake,’ it seemed to say. ‘Make haste, fly to her house.’ It’s true, Elvira. I had to see you. And touch you. (
He eagerly tries to grasp her round the waist, but she shies away from him.
If I hadn’t been able to see you, I wouldn’t have slept a wink all night …
MAMAE: But we spent all afternoon together, Joaquín! What a lovely walk we had in the garden with my cousin! When I heard you, I was just thinking about all those pomegranates and pear trees, quinces and peaches. And the river, wasn’t it looking lovely too? How I’d like to go plunging into the Caplina again sometime, just as I used to when I was a little girl.
JOAQUIN: This summer, if we’re still in Tacna, I’ll take you to the Caplina. We’ll go at night. When no one will see us. To that same pool we had tea at this afternoon. We’ll take off all our clothes …
MAMAE: Oh hush, Joaquín, don’t start … !
JOAQUIN: … and bathe together naked. We’ll play in the water. I’ll chase you and when I catch you …
MAMAE: Please, Joaquín! Don’t be so uncouth.
JOAQUIN: But we’re getting married on Sunday.
MAMAE: I won’t have you being discourteous to me when I’m your wife either.
JOAQUIN: But I respect you more than anything in the world, Elvira. I even respect you more than my uniform. And you know what a uniform means to a soldier, don’t you? Look, I couldn’t be discourteous to you, even if I wanted to. I’m making you annoyed, I know. I do it deliberately. Because I like it when you’re like this.
MAMAE: When I’m like what?
JOAQUIN: You’re such a sensitive little flower. Everything seems to shock you, you’re so easily intimidated, and you blush at the least provocation.
MAMAE: Isn’t that how well-brought-up young women should behave?
JOAQUIN: Of course it is, Elvira, my love. You can’t imagine how I ache for Sunday. The thought of having you all to myself, without any chaperons. To know that you depend on me for the slightest thing. What fun I’m going to have with you when we’re alone together: I’ll sit you on my knee and make you scratch me in the dark like a little kitten. Oh, and I’ll win that bet. I’ll count every hair on your head; there’ll be more than five thousand, you’ll see.
MAMAE: Are you going to count them on our wedding night?
JOAQUIN: Not on our wedding night, no. Do you want to know what I’m going to do to you on our wedding night?
Covering her ears
) No! No, I don’t!
They laugh.
Will you be as loving and affectionate as this after we’re married, I wonder? You know what Carmencita said to
me on our way back from the walk: ‘You’ve really come up trumps with Joaquín, you know. He’s good-looking, well-mannered, in fact quite the little gentleman in every way.’
JOAQUIN: Is that what you think too? You mean you don’t mind that I’m a Chilean any more? And you’ve got used to the idea of being one yourself?
MAMAE: No, I have not. I’m a Peruvian, and that’s the way I’m going to stay. I’ll never forgive those loathsome bullies who won the war. Not till the day I die.
JOAQUIN: It’s going to be very funny, you know. I mean, when you’re my wife, and I’m posted to the garrison in Santiago or Antofagasta, are you going to spend all day arguing with my fellow officers about the War of the Pacific? Because if you say things like that about the Chileans, you’ll get me court-martialled for high treason.
MAMAE: I’d never jeopardize your career, Joaquín. Whatever I think of the Chileans, I’ll keep it strictly to myself. I’ll smile and make eyes at your fellow officers.
JOAQUIN: That’s enough of that! There’ll be no smiling or making eyes at anybody. Don’t you know I’m as jealous as a Turk? Well, with you, I’m going to be even worse.
MAMAE: You must go now. If my aunt and uncle found you here, they’d be so upset.
JOAQUIN: Your aunt and uncle. They’ve been the bane of our engagement.
MAMAE: Don’t say that, not even in fun. Where would I be now if it hadn’t been for Uncle Menelao and Aunt Amelia? I’d have been put in the orphanage in Tarapacá Street. Yes, along with all the bats.
JOAQUIN: I know how good they’ve been to you. And I’m glad they brought you up like some rare exotic bird. But we have been engaged for a whole year now and I’ve hardly been alone with you once! All right, I know, you’re getting anxious. I’m on my way.
MAMAE: Till tomorrow then, Joaquín. At the eight o’clock Mass in the Cathedral, same as usual?
JOAQUIN: Yes, same as usual. Oh, I was forgetting. Here’s that
book you lent me. I tried to read Federico Barreto’s poems, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. You read them for me, when you’re tucked up snug in your little bed.
Pulling out a hair from her head and offering it to him
) I’ll whisper them in your ear one day – then you’ll like them. I’m glad I’m marrying you, Joaquín.
Before he leaves,
tries to kiss her on the mouth, but she turns her face away and offers him her cheek. As she goes back towards her armchair, she gradually takes on the characteristics of an old woman again.
Looking at the book of poetry
) What would Joaquín do, I wonder, if he knew about the fan? He’d challenge the poor man to a duel – he’d kill him. You’ll have to destroy that fan, Elvira, it’s just not right for you to keep it. (
She curls up in her armchair and immediately falls asleep.
has looked up from his papers. He now seems very encouraged.
BELISARIO: That’s a love story too, Belisario. Of course, of course. How could you be so stupid, so naïve? You can’t set a love story in an age when girls make love before their first Communion and boys prefer marijuana to women. But Tacna, after the War of the Pacific – when the city was still occupied by the Chilean Army: it’s the perfect setting for a romantic story. (
Looks at
MAMAE.) You were an unrepentant little chauvinist then, weren’t you Mamaé? Tell me, what was the happiest day in the life of the young lady from Tacna?
Opening her eyes
) The day Tacna became part of Peru again, my little one!
She crosses herself, thanking God for such bounteous good fortune, and goes back to sleep again.
) It’s one of those romantic stories that don’t seem to happen any more. People no longer believe in them – yet you used to be so fond of them, didn’t you, old friend? What do you want to write a love story for anyway? For that meagre sense of satisfaction that doesn’t really seem to compensate for anything at all? Are you going to put yourself through all that agonizing humiliation
yet again, Belisario, just for that? Yes, you are – for that very reason. To hell with critical conscience! Get away from here, you damned spoilsport! Bugger your critical conscience, Belisario! It’s only good for making you feel constipated, impotent, and frustrated. Get out of here, critical conscience! Get out, you filthy whore, you tyrant queen of constipated writers.
He gets up and runs over to where
is sitting. Without waking her up, he kisses her on the forehead.
Welcome back, Mamaé. Forget what I said to you, I’m sorry. Of course, I can use you. You’re just what I need – a woman like you. You’re perfectly capable of being the subject of a beautiful and moving love story. Your life has all the right ingredients, at least to be going on with. (
Returning to his desk
) The mother dies giving birth to her, and the father not long after, when she was only … (
Looks at
MAMAE) How old were you when my great-grandparents took you in, Mamaé? Five, six? Had Grandmother Carmen been born yet?

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