The haunting of a missing letter: César Vallejo and José Carlos Mariátegui

Guest post written by Valentino Gianuzzi and Carlos Fernández, editors of the book César Vallejo. Correspondencia 1910-1938 [2-volume set]

As the task of collecting and editing the “complete” correspondence of the poet César Vallejo progressed, an initial idea soon proved excessive. During the annotation process we started to draw up a list of missing, non-extant or still undiscovered letters which were mentioned in the existing letters. This list soon became too long and unwieldly, and since its usefulness would have been limited and restricted to only a few specialists, we finally decided to keep the list, to be included as an appendix, out of the edition.

What the list made very visible was something obvious, but not often underlined: that the archive of a writer’s correspondence is always full of substantial gaps, never really “complete”. In absence of said appendix, our preface for the edition highlights these gaps and makes a point about how the incomplete extant corpus of the correspondence has coloured our perception of Vallejo’s life. We strongly maintain that an edited collection such as this one should always raise the question of what is missing, even if only to keep those gaps in the back of our minds, as a sort of ghostly presences.

And like many ghostly presences, some missing letters are incessantly haunting. This is the case of the letter that Vallejo sent, or may have sent, to the writer Pablo Abril de Vivero on April or May of 1930. The story goes as follows: Vallejo had promised Abril de Vivero to write an article, to be published in Abril’s magazine Bolívar, about the recently deceased José Carlos Mariátegui. Mariátegui, one of the most important essayists and intellectuals of Perú, editor of the influential revue Amauta, had passed away on April 16th. Vallejo was then making a brief stay in Salamanca and wrote to Pablo Abril de Vivero, who was in Madrid, on April 24th (in our translation): “I will be sending you the article[s] on Mayakovski and on Mariátegui for the next issue of Bolívar”. Three days later, on the 27th, the articles were sent. The following day, however, Vallejo sent a hurried telegram to Abril de Vivero: “Beg you do not publish article Mariátegui will write motives”. This telegram reached Madrid in time and the article never appeared in print.

Neither the text of Vallejo’s article on Mariátegui, nor that of his promised letter, explaining why he backtracked from publishing it, are known. None of the physical documents seem to be extant.

These missing documents are haunting because they raise questions, to this day, about the relationship between two of the most important icons of the Peruvian left. What made Vallejo change his mind at the last minute? Was the article an obituary full of praise, or a more critical assessment of Mariátegui’s life and work? There are reasons to support both explanations, and these are determined by Vallejo’s increasing closeness to Comintern orthodoxy in the early 1930s. Mariátegui, on the other hand, had been sidelined by the Comintern in 1929, who disagreed with his view on a united left or on the “indigenous question”.

On the one hand, we can speculate that Vallejo wrote a heartfelt tribute to Mariátegui, whom he had met and with whom he had corresponded always in friendly terms. And Mariátegui had often been generous when writing about Vallejo’s work. He would have ultimately decided not to publish the article so as to follow the Comintern’s wishes to marginalise Mariátegui.

On the other hand, maybe the article was much more critical from the start, following the Comintern’s mandate. In fact, the article he wrote in parallel about Vladimir Mayakovski, who had committed suicide a few days earlier, was quite aggressive, in line with an orthodox directive. His last minute decision not to publish the piece could have pre-empted criticism from Peruvian friends, who may have seen Vallejo’s article as harsh, and him as ungrateful. Perhaps it was too soon to be too critical.

Any real clues into gleaning Vallejo’s feeling at the passing of Mariátegui, however, are lost with the documents. The article, we can be sure, was written and existed, but as far as we know Abril de Vivero did not preserve it. The promised letter may never have been written, but its ghostly existence, and what Vallejo may have argued in it, still haunts us. Despite the big questions raised by this episode, our note to Vallejo’s telegram from April 28th is brief and blunt: “We do not know the reasons why Vallejo backed away from publishing the article; furthermore, the text of this article remains unknown”.

Carlos Fernández is Margarita Salas Postdoctoral Researcher at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.

Valentino Gianuzzi is Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Manchester.

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