Knowledge of the16th Century in the 21st Century. The Inca’s Spy, a novel. Interview with Rafael Dumett

Carlos Maza

The Inca’s Spy is an espionage and suspense story set in a well-known historical process: the Inca Atahualpa has been captured by bearded foreigners, mounted on “giant llamas” and carrying “metallic sticks inside which dwells Illapa,” the powerful thunderbolt of storms. Salango, “accountant at a glance”, an intellectual from the Inca high society, is in charge of his rescue and poses as a servant to maintain contact between the Inca and the generals of his powerful armies ready to crush the invaders. But the Inca can’t make up his mind…

The portentous story is told from the perspectives of the protagonists with a rarely seen authenticity and following a very special model, that of the quipus, the knotted strings that served Andean societies to keep the accounts of their domains and also to record historical facts; a technology that has allowed archaeological knowledge to disprove the prejudice that Andean pre-Columbian cultures did not have writing. 

Writing The Inca’s Spy took years of research and writing. But once it was finished, its author, the Peruvian playwright Rafael Dumett, went through a long series of refusals: one publishing house after another declined to publish it, arguing different reasons: the size, the complexity, the language, the theme. Finally, in 2018, a remarkable publisher, Esteban Quiroz, head of the small independent house Lluvia Editores, which has been characterized by betting on the promotion of reading in provinces long forgotten by Lima, the capital from where all books come from, put it on bookstores and fairs throughout Peru. Some years later, a powerful international publishing house, Penguin Random House, through the Alfaguara label, rectified the mistake of having rejected such an important work to produce the edition that is being distributed throughout the continent.

Carlos Maza: We are interested in your approach to language in the novel The Inca’s Spy; what you had to develop to build such an impressive historical account. How did you arrive at this approach to Spanish, so far removed from an author’s style and focused on the historical reality of language?
Rafael Dumett: First, I think I spent about a year accumulating information and sorting it out, and at the end of that time I was pulling my hair out because I didn’t know what I was going to do with all that material. It was detailed information about the events of the Conquest that I had to sort through. I had made a rough profile of each of the main characters and developed chronologies and profiles, but it wasn’t until I discovered that I was writing a plot to free the Inca Atahualpa that everything fell into place; let’s say I could see exactly what I wanted and needed: to write the story that would tell the plot of a failed attempt to free the Inca Atahualpa but from six or seven different points of view. It was completely clear to me that these views had to be exclusively indigenous, and I proceeded in the way that is most natural to me: as an actor. The most convenient thing for my novel was to offer an exercise of perspectives, that is, to put oneself in the skin, in the heart, and the mind of the indigenous characters. I studied acting and I love it, I have a diploma; I am a bad actor, but that has not been an obstacle to having that fundamental attitude of every person who works in theater: to put oneself in the other’s skin. It was obvious to me that I could not simply simulate or digest the information in advance for a prospective western reader. No. I had to do an exercise to the last consequences, without conceding, I had to get into these characters’ skin. It was clear to me that this was the only way the book could have credibility: that I could believe it myself. This applies to anyone who writes: if you don’t believe in it, you cannot transmit that conviction to anyone.

CM: But you wrote it in Spanish and not in Quechua…
RD: Because I don’t know Quechua. I could not share this story in that language because I don’t speak it.

CM: Nevertheless, you incorporated cosmology into your version of a language that would be like an indigenous Spanish of the 16th Century.
RD: Exactly. In found the reference for the type of language I could construct in José María Arguedas, who did similar work. Some people think that Arguedas wrote in Quechua, but this is not so; what he has done is to create the illusion that we are reading Quechua when in fact he did very interesting work with Spanish in terms of syntax, in terms of vocabulary, and sensibility, something that no one had done before. So, I used him as an older brother who had walked this path before, and I have also looked for referents in another writer, Óscar Colchado Lucio, as models of what I could do. I have also reviewed translations of Quechua plays, for example, Cusco’s theatrical repertoire in the early 20th  Century. These references helped me see how I could at least try to create a Spanish that would give the feeling of being spoken in Quechua. 

CM: I think it’s a goal you achieved, and the novel conveys it with great interest.
RD: That’s what I tried to do because I believe that language is not simply the message that you convey but that there is something intrinsic in the way your vocabulary depicts a universe, a vision of the world. It was clear to me that I had to do that job and I had no choice; it was the only way I could create a credible, believable universe; not for others, but fundamentally for myself. I have family from the Andes and I know how they speak. I think I have an ear for the characters’ speech, for dialogue.

CM: That must be your background in theater. When you approach a novel, you don’t do it only from literature but from your background as a playwright and as an actor, right?
RD: Not all tales are necessarily told in first person, but they assume a very clear perspective and even in moments in which the character is not saying anything, the tale tries to put the reader in perspective: what the character thinks, believes, feels. This exercise is what fundamentally motivates me to write and is what I try to achieve.

CM: In The Inca’s Spy you can feel very clearly how the author as a protagonist (the author who marks his presence through style) disappears, he is pushed back, left in the background so that the story and the way the story is told stand out above it. Was it easy to fade away as an author-actor?
RD: For me, it is very simple. I’m reading what I’ve written from another point of view, from another character and there doesn’t have to be any clues, there doesn’t have to be any element that reminds me that it’s me. Then, if I see something I’ve missed, I take it out, replace it, and remove it. If I see something anachronistic, I replace it. If I discover something that is a finding, I try to explore it a little more, to see what it consists of. It’s funny, there’s something they often say to writers who are starting: “The important thing is that you find your own voice.” For me it’s exactly the opposite: the measure that you are finding yourself is when you can evoke someone else’s voice, to seek the mindset of a person different from you, of another gender, with another background, education, and worldview. Even through moral criteria, when I write I try not to judge my characters at all, I try to follow them, to see what they are up to, to understand them from the inside, and follow them, knowing that this work will never be completely successful.

CM: You have achieved this in multiple ways, since there are different perspectives in the novel: the character of the spy at different stages of his life, in different social positions that he has had to occupy to reach the important role he plays. There is also his incarnation as a worthless servant, the disguise he has to wear as a spy; then there is the Inca himself who does not want to be rescued and who prefers to learn to play chess and speak Spanish. The novel is written in two parts: an Inca or Quechua part, which narrates the events among the local, indigenous characters, and another part that includes the Spanish characters and is written in 16th Century Spanish.
RD: It is important to note that this part of the Spanish characters does not cover many pages and that I use it only to convey the perspective of the indigenous translator Felipillo, known as the emblematic traitor in the history of the Conquest of Peru.

CM: It would be equivalent to the character of Malinche in the Conquest of Mexico.
RD: Yes, although Malinche has other components, she is a woman and had a relationship with Hernán Cortés. Felipillo is a 14 or 15 years old boy; he is the indigenous translator par excellence and is, let’s say, the ultimate symbol of the traitor in Peru, the indigenous traitor. He embodies the fundamentally treacherous essence of the indigenous person from the perspective of the conqueror.

CM: A stigma that has been attached to indigenous peoples since the colonial period and until the present.
RD: I have wanted to totally break with that stigma for the rest of story. It is very curious that this character is identified as a traitor when the question that naturally arises is Who did Felipillo betray? He did not betray Atahualpa, he did not owe him any kind of loyalty. Atahualpa was an Inca, while Felipillo was a settler captured on the coasts of northern Peru, possibly in present-day Ecuador, in the area of the Manta or Huancavilca ethnic group. He, most probably (and this is something that important historians such as Juan José Vega affirm) did not know Quechua, so he could not apply the syntactic devices that I mentioned before to try to get a vocabulary that evoked Quechua. He had been captured off the coast of Ecuador and had spent four or five years in Spain, speaking exclusively Spanish, so I had no choice but to try to evoke his language: the 16th Century Spanish as experienced by an indigenous boy who lived around 1526. 

To build this language I used texts of the time such as La Celestina by Fernando de Rojas and I made a dictionary based on expressions and words taken from that work. I also used the Amadis de Gaul, one of whose canonical versions were published in two volumes in 1508, and texts such as the letters dictated by Francisco Pizarro and published by the Peruvian historian Guillermo Lohmann Villena. I used colonial cronistas such as Cieza de León and Agustín de Zárate, not only as sources of information but also as containers or directories of expressions that I was compiling, understanding, and incorporating into the dictionary that I finally built and included at the end of the novel as a reader’s aid. But this reconstruction of 16th Century Spanish is only present in the novel when Felipillo’s perspective appears, who also has a privileged view of the Spaniards: he knows them and can talk to them.

The language he speaks with them is 16th Century Spanish. It is an exercise that not even the Spanish have done. First, they do not have an individualized perception of the Conquistadors themselves beyond Fernando Pizarro, Francisco Pizarro, and Hernando de Soto; at most, they will talk about costumes, but they do not have that individualized perception, not even of the priests. They, the Spaniards, have not done that work and I think it is also necessary to do it. In my case, it was because there was no other way for me to believe in the character of Felipillo.

The novel has had a very particular impact on the Peruvian people, among the ordinary people I have met during tours throughout the country

CM: I think this is one of the most important values of the novel, which, by the way, has been described as one of the most important novels of the 21st Century, at least in the book publicity discourse in Peru. I would be tempted to say it is true, but how did you receive it? How do you react to this qualification?
RD: I prefer to stick to another type of qualification. I know that the novel has had an impact, not in commercial terms or in terms of criticism, but it has had a very particular impact on the Peruvian people, among the ordinary people I have met during tours throughout the country. Talking to people, the book has touched something in the Peruvian’s nerves that I don’t remember having seen with any other fiction book. There is something that makes people consider The Inca’s Spy as their own. An interesting circumstance that I can mention is that the novel was nominated for the National Literature Prize, but in Peru, this prize is awarded to the publisher, not to the author. It’s the publisher who submits the book to be considered for the award. There was an accounting problem, a tax or registration issue, that sort of thing, and the book was eliminated. What was interesting was the reaction of collective fury. I received letters, and a lot of people started insulting the Ministry of Culture, there was a moment when I was receiving thousands of messages from outraged people, waiting for me to say something, to ask for the head of the Minister of Culture. This went so far that the Ministry of Culture was forced to present the reasons why the novel had been eliminated, explaining that the award not only recognizes a literary work but also tries to favor the publishing system in general, and so on. What struck me was that the outrage was deep, and it was as if this denial, as if this problem had touched people in something very personal. That moved me deeply.

CM: I imagine that this candidacy was presented by the publishing house that has recently published The Inca’s Spy and has taken it to the continent’s bookstores. But the first label to publish it was of Esteban Quiroz’s Lluvia Editores, right?
RD: We have to remember him because he was the one who saw the possibility of publishing it. This novel spent eight years touring publishing houses, including the one that now publishes me, Penguin Random House. At the first opportunity, everyone answered no and there even was even a series of very funny reasons, such as the fact that “it is not a commercial book”, they thought that it would not be accepted by the Peruvian reader, because of its complexity, because of the presence of Quechua; let’s say that it was seen as difficult to read.

CM: Also that it was very bulky, they told you that, right?
RD: Yes; I don’t think it was fundamentally because of that, but I know it was an element that was being considered. In some cases, they did not even read it, they saw the volume, that it was complex, turned a few pages and a bunch of characters with Quechua names, and said; “No way, we are not going to publish this,”

CM: However, The Inca’s Spy has overcome the commercial prospects for which it was initially rejected, it has overcome all of this.
RD:  It has been the best-selling book in Peru from 2018 to 2021. It has also broken all the conceptions that existed before, all the prejudices that existed before in the publishing houses about the Peruvian reader: that a Peruvian reader cannot stand more than two hundred pages, that everything must be given already chewed up, that the Peruvian reader does not like anything very complicated at an aesthetic level. There is also, of course, the language: they said readers would not stand a thing in Quechua. All these preconceived ideas were simply shattered. Esteban Quiroz helped make all that possible. I think he was the right person to break the siege because, although he is an independent publisher, he has a huge network throughout Peru and moves freely between regional and provincial fairs. As soon as it came out of the press, the next day he was already with 20 copies at the fair in Huancayo, Ayacucho, Puno, or Cusco. From a certain moment on, I accompanied him and so the novel followed the opposite path of what a “normal” book does: it did not begin in Lima, it began outside of Lima and finally arrived in the capital of the country. Any preconceived ideas about the publishing system, The Inca’s Spy have shattered them, at least in Peru.

CM: Which shows how little we know our readers as publishers.
RD: In this case, I found it very surprising. I didn’t take it personally, of course, it was a bit exhausting to see that everyone closes the door on you or that they don’t even take the trouble to listen to you, to respond. To be true, I never doubted what I had written, but it was demoralizing to see that there was no response anywhere, until it took someone from outside Lima to see the potential of the book and bet on it.

CM: Now that The Inca’s Spy has proven its success, I’m going to ask you the last question: are there any plans to bring it to the big screen? The audiobook is already circulating. 
RD: I can say it openly. There is a contract signed with a company called Dynamo, the ones that made the TV series Narcos. They have acquired the audiovisual rights to the book for two years and are supposedly preparing a project. Let’s see what happens. I am Peruvian and I believe that Peruvians and Mexicans are like St. Thomas: “seeing is believing.” Even though things are signed, and everything seems to be going smoothly, you never know.

CM: In terms of going from page to screen, are you afraid that the story could lose something in the adaptation?
RD: I prefer to think in terms of a transformation from one format to another. What I am very happy about is that Dynamo is a serious company and has the resources to make a production at full capacity, to give the Incas the magnitude they deserve.

CM: And as for translations of The Inca’s Spy into other languages?
RD: The Frankfurt International Book Fair has just ended, where the book has been presented and offered “up to the front of the showcase”, as they say. Apparently, there is a lot of interest, but once again, let me be like St. Thomas: to see is to believe.
Rafael Dummett is a Peruvian writer, playwright, actor, and academic. He studied Linguistics at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, in whose Drama School he also followed a Theatre program which he later reinforce at the Sorbonne of Paris. He has written drama and scripts for film and TV. The Inca’s Spy is his first novel. He currently resides in San Francisco, United States, where he works in a trilogy of novels on 20th Century Peruvian and Latin American characters.
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