Disclaimer: The Page 69 Test is not mine. It has been around since 2007, asking authors to compare page 69 against the meat of the actual story it is a part of. I loved the whole idea of it and so I'm stealing it specifically to showcase small press titles - novels, novellas, short story collections, the works! So until the founder of The Page 69 Test calls a cease and desist, let's do this thing....
In this installment of Page 69,
We put Andrew Altschul's The Gringa to the test.
Set up page 69 for us. What are we about to read?
In this scene, Leonora Gelb, the central character of The Gringa, is seeking out a man she knows as Julian, whom she suspects of being a leader in a Peruvian leftist militant group called the Cuarta Filosofía. She's met him once before, after having expressed some interest in the group's activities, but was rebuffed and told not to come back. But a friend of hers has been disappeared by the government after a nonviolent protest in Lima's slums, and when his dead body turns up weeks later Leonora decides she can no longer sit on the sidelines while others fight for justice. Julian works in a cafe in Miraflores, a tony and touristy neighborhood where the wealthy barricade themselves against the desperation of the poor - in places like this, it's as if the "dirty war" of the 1980s and early 1990s, in which 70,000 people died, never happened.
What is your book about?
The Gringa was inspired by the real-life story of Lori Berenson, an American woman who, in 1995, was arrested in Lima by counterterrorism forces. She was renting a house in the suburbs in which a dozen members of the Movimiento Revolucionário Túpac Amaru (MRTA) were living and, according to the government, plotting an attack on the country's Congress; Berenson was convicted in a military court and sentenced to life in prison. The Gringa takes the broad outlines of that story and tries to understand who Leonora Gelb (the Berenson character) really is, what brought her to Peru, and whether she could possibly have been guilty of the things the Peruvian government accused her of. (Berenson has always maintained her total innocence.) It's narrated ten years after her arrest by another American expat - a failed novelist and "refugee from George W. Bush's America" named Andres. As his personal life unravels, he struggles to understand Leonora, to reconstruct her involvement with the militants, and to chronicle Peru’s tragic history. At every turn he’s confronted by violence and suffering, and by the consequences of his American privilege.
Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what the book is about? Does it align itself with the book’s overall theme?
I think it demonstrates one of the novel's overall themes, which is Leo's ambivalence about her role and her responsibilities. She's a true believer - she wants to do whatever she can to alleviate suffering and feels that she "can't live with herself" if she hasn't explored every possibility. She's a privileged American who recognizes what that privilege costs the rest of the world, and to her it seems that she has two choices: retreat into the bubble of comfort while others are dying, or go "all-in," though she's not yet sure what that means. Throughout the novel, she's constantly struggling against the mistrust of Peruvians, who simply can't accept that this woman would want to involve herself in their affairs and who regularly point out that she doesn't understand nearly as much as she thinks she does. And so "proving herself" to them is always a part of her complicated motivations, showing them that she's worthy of their trust and respect, that she's ready to take "the next step."
riverscape. She buys a cup of Jell-O from a vendor and savors the cold, sweet wriggling in her throat, watches the Lima gentry on their evening promenade – as if nothing has happened, no one’s grandmothers have been humiliated, no one’s children murdered. As if these things hadn’t been done in their name.
In a corner of her room, the copy of Moby-Dick lies splayed and gathering dust, a shiny new American Express card taped to the inside cover. To my own little Ahab, her father had written. May you never stop chasing your dreams.
Across the street, the bright café bustles with activity: bowtied waiters glide among sidewalk tables, silver-haired men take their wives’ coats. Over the clink of glasses, the sweet voice of Edith Piaf warbles into the night. A waiter opens a bottle of champagne, popping the cork with a flourish; the seated couple smiles up at him, their laughter thickened by the warm air. One more step, Leo tells herself. Take one step, then the next – or spend your life on this bench, enjoying the show.
When the waiter reappears she hurries to cross the street. “Got a light, amigo?” she calls out. She touches her lips with an imaginary cigarette. “¿Fuego?”
She almost laughs at his confusion. When Julian reaches into his apron, she says, “Oh, shit, I forgot my cigarettes! Thanks anyway” – then saunters past the cosmetics store, the frozen yogurt shop, and into the anonymous night to wait.
For ten minutes she wanders the back streets, admiring Spanish bungalows and prim townhomes, wrought-iron balconies, high walls trussed by bougainvillea. Her vision is sharp, her sense of smell heightened – since the fever passed she’s felt honed, whittled down; she moves through her surroundings watchful as a cat. At a corner, she stops before a long gray building surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. She studies the impassive façade, the arched windows and mounted security cameras that lend an air of vigilance, of dignity. When the footsteps come behind her, she doesn’t turn around.
“What did I tell you?” he says, his breath hot on her neck. “I said don’t go back there. Are you stupid? You don’t speak fucking English?”
“What is this place?” she says, nodding at the dark building. “What’s with all the cameras?”
Andrew Altschul is the author of three novels: The Gringa, Deus Ex Machina, and Lady Lazarus. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies including Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best New American Voices, and O. Henry Prize Stories. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford, he has received fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, the Fundación Valparaíso, and the Ucross Foundation. He lives in Fort Collins, CO with his wife, the writer Vauhini Vara, and their son, and directs the Creative Writing program at Colorado State University.