Today in the Americas, Ricardo Palma

ricardo-palmaRicardo Palma was born today in 1833 (176 years ago). Palma is remembered for his contributions to Peruvian literature and culture as well as his epic Tradiciones Peruanas.

Before this article, I had not read Palma, except for a short piece on him in a magazine almost a year ago. Over the past couple of decades, especially since Harriet de Onis’ 1945 translation Knights of the Cape, Palma’s stock has grown far beyond the often provincial and topical histories of his native Peru.

Palma served many posts in his lifetime including stints as a naval officer, a politician and a journalist. But it is two things that he will be forever remembered for. The National Library of Peru and his Tradiciones Peruanas.

Palma’s rise came upon the back of an especially bloody time to live in eastern South America. From 1879 to 1883, Chile fought with Peru (with Bolivia) in what became the War of the Pacific. This war was important for the brutal nature of the eventual Chilean triumph. It captured Tarapacá and Arica from Peru, two mineral-rich deposit areas, and took Bolivia’s one point of access to the Pacific, leaving it, to today, as a landlocked country. But, as mentioned above, it is Chilean brutality that plays into this story – it would be Ricardo Palma who would have to clean up after the sacking of the National Library in Lima.

Palma literally resurrected the library from the ashes. With no funds to rebuild, he turned to many of his friends. As a politician, Palma had developed a relationship with then president, Domingo Santa Maria, and with his help was able to recover an estimated 10,000 books from Chile. He also turned overseas for donations. By the turn of the twentieth century, the National Library of Peru was one of the best in South America once again.

Palma’s other, arguably more important, contribution lay in his writing. He was the author of four volumes of poetry, Poesias (1855), Armonias (1865), Pasionarias (1870), and Verbos y gerun- dios (1877). He also wrote a famous account of the Inquisition in Peru: Anales de la Inquisicion de Lima (1863) and Anales del Cuzco (1901). He also wrote memoirs and short stories, but he will always be remembered for Tradiciones Peruanas.

According to scholar Sturgis Leavitt (“Ricardo Palma and the Tradiciones Peruanas” [Hispania 34, No. 4, 1951]):

There were many imitations of the tradiciones peruanas both in Peru and in other Spanish American countries, but none of them quite equalled Palma at his best. A tradicion from Palma’s pen is a heady cocktail consisting of one part history and one part Palma, with dashes of jocose verse and folklore in varying proportions. The ingredients are stirred, not shaken, and the tasty results are best served two or three at a time. Like all proper cocktails with “personality,” it is better not to take too many at one sitting. Furthermore, they should be absorbed slowly, so that the various components can be appreciated to the fullest.

The Tradiciones conform to a mixture of popular culture (folktales, folklore, songs, plays, etc.) mixed with solid historical events backed traditionally by primary documents and sources. Some stories were generic in nature; some moral; and some criticized political, social, religious practices of the time and of his day. His stories were often set in Lima, with his audience primarily limenos .

Palma’s Tradiciones comes to us from deep in the belly of the great Herodotus (as well as the Romantic movement). Palma’s history is not based upon fact, but legend – arguably the basis for much of history, indeed. His work, the selected stories I’ve read from Merlin Compton’s Peruvian Traditions, is a mixture of the two. The history is spot on, for the most point, and the tales are, in general, creative and inventive. He is short on detailed descriptions, short in drawing conclusions of any satisfaction but large on words, as Leavitt points out, “he knows Spanish proverbs as well as Sancho Panza.”

His stories serve both the history and the literature aspects of Peruvian life. Back to Leavitt, he states that Palma wrote the stories for a local audience, then for the people and government. Then, for anyone willing to go along for the ride:

It must be said that not all of the tradiciones are of equal merit. Palma does not hit the bull’s-eye every time, but even so, he has given us a picture of Peru that is sprightly, artistic, interesting, and instructive. In creating the tradiciones, Palma developed a genre of his own, one of the few literary men in Spanish Amer- ica about whom this can be said. He modeled this narrative form so well that it has defied imitation to this day. The tradiciones are Palma and Palma is the tradicion peruana. His contribution to Spanish American literature is unique.

Palma died on October 6, 1919.

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~ by Daniel on February 7, 2009.

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