I grew up in a leafy first-ring suburb of a segregated Rust Belt city. My childhood lay on the sunny side of the Clinton years, my parents taking full advantage of immigration policies that favored highly skilled foreign workers. We made regular return trips to Peru, visiting my father’s family in Lima and my mother’s in the volcano-ringed city of Arequipa. By the time I was a teenager, I had come to see Peru as a place where I could be someone else, someone with a history.
I came across the name of my great-grandfather Mariano Iberico Rodríguez sporadically during these years. A legal scholar and metaphysical philosopher of some renown, he’d written eleven books throughout his career. As I began nursing fantasies of becoming a writer, I started thinking of him as someone whose example, in elegant leather-bound editions that sat above the small table where my father paid bills and played online solitaire, proved that it could be done. Once, on a trip to Arequipa, I found a slim volume of his book Notas Sobre el Paisaje de la Sierra in a used bookstore. At the time, my Spanish was barely good enough to hold a coherent conversation about the weather, let alone decipher a philosophical text about the Andean countryside. But the unexpected encounter—complete with an author’s photograph in which he looks strikingly similar to my grandfather and my father—stuck with me.
In my final year of college, I encountered his name again while scrolling through microfilm archives of Amauta, a short-lived magazine founded by the heterodox Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui in 1926. I was surprised to see Mariano’s name there—I knew little of my extended family’s politics beyond their general distaste for outward political commitment. Leftism in Peru is generally associated with fanaticism and terror, due to the bloody war waged by the Maoist guerilla groups Shining Path and MRTA in the 1980s and ’90s. Yet in Amauta’s pages I was being shown another example, a Socialism that placed my great-grandfather’s abstruse reflections on the relationship between “mysticism” and “the absolute” next to a brilliant poem by the committed Communist César Vallejo.
In the fall of 2013, I moved to Peru for a reporting job at the Reuters Lima bureau. My father’s parents died when I was young, so I often called upon Jorge, my grandfather’s younger brother, and his wife, Carmen, whenever I wanted to talk about my family. They were more than happy to have me over for lunch and talk about their memories of “el doctor,” as Carmen has called Mariano ever since she worked as his secretary, shortly after marrying my great-uncle. Toward the end of our meal, I mentioned my discovery, and idly asked whether Mariano had been a Marxist.
“No,” Jorge replied, flatly. “My father admired Mariátegui’s intellect. But he wasn’t a Marxist.”
“In fact,” he went on, leaning back in his chair, “my father supported the Germans during the Second World War.”
I was stunned, a little embarrassed, and by this point a little drunk. (Jorge is a staunch practitioner of the midday cocktail.) I tried to muster the spirit of the reporter. “Really?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” my great-uncle said. “All the intellectuals did.”
I decided to move the conversation along by telling them about a trip to India I’d taken earlier that year to visit a friend’s family. I told them about how we’d taken a train from Delhi into the Punjab, visiting Chandigarh and Amritsar, where we ate rice and dal in the heart of the Golden Temple, observing the custom of covering our heads and removing our shoes as we walked through the magnificent marble complex. I was eager to explain how interesting it had all been, how fruitful and edifying—anxious to avoid what I’d just heard.
Jorge interrupted to ask whether I considered myself a racist. I paused, unsettled by the question. I had tried to move on, but what he’d told me about my great-grandfather still loomed over the table. “You’ll say no,” he said.
A smile played out on his lips. “A racist believes that certain cultures are inferior.”
“Certain cultures,” I replied, heated, defensive—lame—“are different.”
“Of course,” Carmen intervened, serious and quick, turning to my uncle and training her green eyes on him. “Don’t forget that times have changed. That’s how it’s said now.”
I was shaken by the revelation—and the accusation. Behind my uncle’s joking tone and my aunt’s correction, I felt, lay an unnerving question. For all my interest in what I’d seen in India, did I really believe that “their” culture was equivalent to “ours”? And if that was true, was it so hard to understand my great-grandfather’s position on the war? How much distance lay between him and me?
Peru is a society long organized by strict racial hierarchy; put on the spot, it’s not so hard to imagine that my great-grandfather—or anyone else in the tiny white minority that controlled, and largely still controls, virtually all of Peru’s wealth, industry, and cultural institutions—would have considered a political program that sought to elevate a “master race” as justification for the suppression of the popular political movements—Mariátegui and Vallejo’s socialist dreams among them—that were beginning to shake the world.
In college, I had grown fascinated with the period of time immediately preceding World War II, of the swirling intellectual ferment that eventually gave rise to Fascism, to Communism, and to social democracy. My fixation, I think, stemmed from the general sense of malaise I felt at being the beneficiary of an absurd historical accident whose horizon seemed to be rapidly approaching. Here I was, the son of immigrants and a college student at Yale, an avatar for the so-called American dream. Yet the premise of that dream, pressed up against the enormous amount of suffering and exploitation upon which American prosperity rests, seemed fundamentally rotten to me. My parents’ bet had paid out, but how much longer before history called in its debts? It’s embarrassing to admit, but I now wonder whether I craved the moral clarity—the test—the rise of the Third Reich offered to Europe’s young men.
But my war never arrived. (There was, and is, a war, of course: an endless war that continues to demonstrate, with each passing day, the bitter cost of American abundance.) Instead I graduated, and like most of the others, took a job with a multinational corporation and dutifully maneuvered for a higher position. The compromise I made with myself was to return to the place my parents had left, a place perpetually mired in crisis and rich with history.
Now, not two months into my stay, I’d learned that my illustrious ancestor had—however obliquely—faced and failed the challenge posed by Nazism. The whole thing felt intensely embarrassing, an indictment of the parochialism of Peru’s light-skinned bourgeoisie: my people. Yet at the same time, here I was—drinking midday cocktails, dining alongside ambassadors and deputy ministers, being served meals by cooks, having my apartment tidied by a maid, free to read novels and discuss philosophy and basically do as I wished. Here, I suddenly felt, was the legacy of my great-grandfather, the Fascist: me.
Before moving to Lima, I’d spent a few months in Brazil as an intern at the Reuters São Paulo bureau. I’d taken the opportunity to visit Rio, and while there had met the woman who would one day become my wife. In the years since we’ve been together, I’ve often thought back on the conversation with my great-uncle. Was I carrying a dark secret, one that would poison my family’s legacy? I became convinced that, if what my great-uncle had said was true, then there would be proof somewhere in Mariano’s writing, in those dense books I could barely read. I would turn to my crumbling copy of Notas Sobre el Paisaje de la Sierra and find in its crystalline prose an obsession with forms, with spirit, with landscape. There! I would think. Fascist! But these moods would inevitably pass: His prose is all soil and no blood.
He never marched in the streets. Never delivered a lecture or wrote an essay on the proud spirit of the German Volk, on the importance of battling international bolshevism. In fact, the closest he came to political involvement, so far as I have been able to discern, is his relationship with Mariátegui, the Socialist.
Every so often, I would tell people the story as best I could, with all my caveats and hesitations. Kate, my wife, has heard it more times than anyone else, and every so often she’ll ask me what it is I’m after exactly. What am I trying to prove? What would proof even mean?
I never quite know how to answer. Kate is Jewish. Neither of us is religious, but if we have kids, they will be Jewish. Won’t it matter that their illustrious ancestor supported, in whatever convoluted or nuanced way, a political program that set out to exterminate their mother’s people?
It’s also possible that by now I’ve grown invested in the idea of his evil. Why else spend years thinking, at times obsessively, about one great-grandparent out of eight? His being evil, of course, gives me something to write about. My discernment and thoroughness in sussing out his secret will surely prove his heir to be above reproach, definitely not a Nazi. In unmasking him, I will expiate myself.
But instead of evil, I’m faced with something far murkier, a condition quite similar to my own, ensconced—for now—in the middle class of a decaying empire, a place where fascist rhetoric is finding new expression and new adherents. History, after all, doesn’t happen elsewhere, and it doesn’t stay put. Or, as César Vallejo once wrote: “One does not narrate history, or see it or hear it or touch it. One feels history and feels it live.”