The theme of the book’s eleven brief chapters is that Peru’s colonial period has been wrongly idealized as an Arcadia in which master and servant, foreigner and native lived in peace and abundance. Originally a refuge from Chilean military occupation, this cult of the past was thereafter given impulse by the “great families” desiring to maintain their social, economic, and political advantage. In order to evoke colonial Arcadia the ruling caste promotes criollismo, a popular set of Lima-sponsored attitudes on language, music, food, religion, and succeeding in life (through viveza and perrickolismo). The “great families,” once mainly landowners, are flexible and have founded a banking system and developed a partly industrialized coast while using the fellowship of criollismo as a screen. Another but smaller segment of the upper class partakes of the “American way of life.” Both groups fear reform, revolution, and unionism and are convinced that their world will not end as long as Lima’s Edenic legend is superimposed on Peru’s reality.
Salazar Bondy asks whether Dame Fortune is not Peru’s deity. He then relates her to a general desire for better housing and education by means of which the individual of lower and middle class may approach the “great families” and their stability. Since the individual is trained to respect the socio-economic structure, and upward mobility through honest labor is slow, the criollo seeks his fortune through a stroke of luck (lottery, races) or a politician’s promise. As for Lima’s women, we are told that though they have thrown off a few of the lesser colonial fetters, the ruling caste has triumphed again by convincing them of the virtue of colonial womanhood. Thus the lady jet passenger is a viceregal tapada without shawl and holds firmly to so-called traditional values. Other characteristics of the Lima discussed above include the deformation of open criticism into self-apologetic satire (lisura), the unsuccessful and derided imitation of the upper classes by the lower (huachafería), and the cult of the dead (related to burial customs, superstition, and finds of treasure).
Chapter XI is argumentative and somewhat mars the high literary tone of the book. We read that the first effective critic of Lima’s misguided nostalgia was Manuel González Prada, in contrast to the literary champion of tradition, Ricardo Palma. The former failed in his revolutionary plans for a universalization of Peru and the participation of Indians and provincials in the nation’s affairs. Another representative pair of opponents were the Marxian José Carlos Mariátegui and the historian José de la Riva Agüero y Osma. Salazar closes by allying himself with the former and saying to Lima’s “horrible” mask of myth: “Vivir ahora es decir que no” (p. 102).
Though lacking bibliographic notes, the book quotes or mentions numerous writers. Several chapters are headed by apt entries from authors like Melville, Brecht, Neruda, and Maurois. Textual fragments accompany the twenty-seven illustrations producing an effect of poetic intensity. There is a fusion of ideas and splendid style in Salazar Bondy’s work, but others will have to test the validity of his thesis with further investigation.