On Reading Nabokov in Peru

StoryCaitlin PurdyComment

A month after returning to the states I’m on the A train in New York. I’m sitting across from a Peruvian telling him about how much I love Lima because somehow everything I say morphs into that refrain.

Once while at the immigration office in the center of Lima, I met an Australian man. The Australian didn’t speak Spanish and was frantically flailing his arms around in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to communicate with the visibly agitated woman at the counter. He was thin and tall. These physical characteristics in conjunction with his pink shirt and perpetual arm flailing evoked the image of a giant flamingo.

It was early morning: hot, hot in the raucous, humid Lima summer kind of way.  I was tired and sweating and I found the flamingo in the midst of the whole thing to be hysterical, so I felt compelled to intervene and translate. Later, I took him to La Lucha in Parque Kennedy and he bought me lunch, I think, expecting us to form some kind of expat bond. We didn’t. He told me that he hated Lima; I told him that I loved it, and any chance of an expat bond dissolved right there.

“How could you love Lima?” he asked. “It’s dirty, it’s chaotic. I’ve never met any expat who loves this place.”

I left the lunch shortly after that.

I suppose it would be hard to love Lima if judging by purely aesthetic standards. It is covered in a thick layer of fog a good part of the year and it certainly isn’t the cleanest of cities. But Lima isn’t dirty, Lima is gritty and grit is interesting. I like that Lima doesn’t wear her treasures on her sleeve, that you have to do a bit of digging, peel back a few layers of grime. And if you do the hunting the treasures always emerge: the pork filled pastries in Chinatown; the view of the city at night, glittering and sprawling, from a rooftop in Miraflores; the fruit vendor on Avenida Brasil with the wonderful mandarins; the little store full of used instruments on a random street in the city center where Mateo somehow managed to acquire a fully functioning trumpet for under 100 soles.

Gabriel once compared Lima to an ugly woman. “She tries to be pretty, though,” I remember him saying. “She puts on make-up and wears classy clothing and even though she isn’t the prettiest you love her anyway. You love her for the effort.”

And as for the chaos, I love the chaos. We’re a clan in Lima– Gabriel, Mateo, Santiago, and I– and we navigate the chaos together. I crave the bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic, the honking horns, the angry cab drivers, the screaming street vendors. It all adds to the city’s eclectic kind of beauty, the asynchronous charm. The new is constantly trying to invade the world, but in Lima the old seems to be able to hang on a little longer, lending the texture of everyday life a few extra layers of time, a beautiful temporal unevenness that never gets dull. The streets are full of beaten up Mercedes and Monte Carlos that still somehow miraculously manage to start with a tender touch and perhaps a bit of luck. Sunday afternoon coffee is still made by hand, a mixture of water and coffee grinds pushed by palms through a strainer.

No, Lima isn’t perfect. It is often frustrating and sometimes dangerous. I’ve been pickpocketed twice here, robbed at knifepoint once, and harassed by strange men in the street too many times to count. But this is all part of its charm, because in the end Lima is always fascinating and truly glorious. Lima is the most alluring place I’ve ever been.

I’ve done a lot of roaming; I’m good at roaming. But when I moved to Lima something clicked, I fell into the city, it absorbed me, and leaving broke my heart. I felt fragmented, a part of me was in Lima but I wasn’t. And so seven months later I packed up and moved back, falling right back into rhythm with the city.

The problem is that I left Lima for a second time two months ago.

No matter how many times I have to do it, I will never be prepared to leave a space that I have grown into. Because when you leave a space– a country, a city, a house– there are always pieces of that life that remain. The pieces that can’t be packed into a suitcase and hauled back to wherever it is you are returning to.


Before my second move to Lima, I had lunch with a literature professor. Her parting gift to me was, appropriately, a book– the complete collected short stories of Vladmir Nabokov.

“For the extra time you’ll have in the airports,” she said gently, as she pushed the book across the table. Waiting to board my flight in Newark I encountered Spring in Fialta, the story of a man who abandons reality for a few days and heads off to Fialta, meeting up with a woman with whom he has had various fleeting romantic trysts. It moved me.

“I found myself, all my senses wide open, on one of Fialta’s steep little streets, taking in everything at once, that marine rococo on the stand, and the coral crucifixes in a shop window, and the dejected poster of a visiting circus, one corner of its drenched paper detached from the wall, and a yellow bit of unripe orange peel on the old, slate-blue sidewalk, which retained here and there a fading memory of ancient mosaic design. I am fond of Fialta, I am fond of it because I feel in the hollow of those violaceous syllables the sweet dark dampness of the most rumpled of small flowers, and because the alto like name of a lovely Crimean town is echoed by its viola; and also because there is something in the very somnolence of its humid lent that especially anoints one’s soul. So I was happy to be there again, to trudge uphill in inverse direction to the rivulet of the gutter, hatless, my head wet, my skin already suffused with warmth.” 

Lima, quite simply, is my Fialta. Both are costal cities; both are humid. The two names even have a similar linguistic resonance, marked by euphonious sounds— long vowels and soft consonants. But these similarities are superficial, really. The most intriguing characteristic of Nabokov’s Fialta? It doesn’t actually exist. It is an illusion, spun from a filament of Nabokov’s imagination. And now, back in the green New York summer, a landscape so unlike Lima, I find myself wondering if Lima actually exists or if I’ve fallen in love with something imaginary.

I lose myself in Lima. Time evaporates, order evaporates, reality evaporates. Stretched out across the cool, tiled porch, listening to the hum of the evening traffic and the rich, low notes of Mateo’s bagpipe I find myself wondering how long I’ve been laying here. Floating down the Malecón in Gabriel’s Soviet-era Niva Jeep I stick my hand out the wind and drag it through the breeze, tracing the gleaming horizon of the Pacific that appears off in the distance with my finger. 90’s grunge rock pounds out of the stereo and Mateo chatters away at me in Spanish. I’m unsure of where we are and wondering where we are planning on going. Shoved up against the wall at a concert in the Socialist Party headquarters, drunk and in need of a cigarette, I find myself pondering when, specifically, I became a socialist and at which point, exactly, I began to succumb to the power of the cigarette. It’s all a blur. A foggy, beautiful, catastrophic blur. In this city I’ve traded the sensible for the sensual, learning along the way that the sensible doesn’t really get you anywhere anyway.


Several weeks prior to departing from Lima I woke up early one morning to Gabriel calling my name. When in my early-morning, groggy state I failed to respond, he continued calling until I managed to get up and wind my way down the stairs, my bare feet pattering on the cool red tiles, my fingers dragging along the smooth, stucco walls, eventually finding him standing in the kitchen, arms outstretched, smiling.

I remember how enthusiastically he greeted me, how he picked up the breadbasket and rattled it in my face.

“EAT BREAD.” He is wearing a blanket like a cape.

“It’s stale,” I respond, after examining it skeptically.


I take a piece of bread and sniff it.


At this point, Chancho, our dog, strolls past the table, potentially intrigued by the sound of the rattling bread.

“Chancho is the only person in this house whose soul is totally inside of him,” Gabriel insists.

“Where is my soul?”

“Outside of you.”

“All of it?”

“Part of it.”

This intrigues me. I have always pictured the soul as a container.

The first boy I loved was a poet.  I used to drag my fingers back and forth across his chest and imagine that I could rub away his skin and expose his soul, green, glittering and smooth like glass. I imagined that I could open it and gently tuck a small piece of myself inside.

This didn’t work and neither did our relationship.

I eventually learned that he had a bad habit of snorting OxyContin off of the back of Led Zeppelin CD cases. I used to imagine that this OxyContin rusted his soul. When our relationship imploded one afternoon in a coffee shop and he told me that he didn’t love me, that he never had loved me, I was thoroughly convinced it was because there was no room in his soul for me, all the space had been filled with the rust and the OxyContin and the bad confessional poetry he used to like to read.

“You really think my soul is outside of me?”

“Where is Alejo right now?”

“At the University.”

“Right, but you can feel him here. His paintings are here; the bread he bought this morning is here. This house is full of Alejo even if he isn’t here right now. His essence is here. You drop parts of your soul everywhere; the soul is much bigger than the body.”


A month after returning to the states I’m on the A train in New York. I’m sitting across from a Peruvian telling him about how much I love Lima because somehow everything I say morphs into that refrain.

“That is a city that needs love,” he says, smiling. “God knows that city needs love.”

He gets off at 96th Street and I stay on until 4th Street, the whole time imagining I’m on a Lima micro, weaving in and out of traffic, blazing through the blue-black city night. And it’s here that Gabriel’s words return to me.

You drop parts of your soul everywhere.

If my soul were actually a container it would be easy to just take a piece of Lima, bottle it up inside of me, and move on with my life. Yet, instead, it seems that the issue is a bit more complicated. It appears that Lima is the container, sucking in pieces of my soul and slamming shut the lid. Gabriel is right. The soul does shed, leaving pieces of itself wherever we happen to wander in life.

Back in Lima, buying empanadas at Manolo’s, I’m drumming my fingers on the glass countertop while I wait. Part of my soul slips out through the skin of my fingertips and I pound these pieces into the counter as I continue drumming.

In Barranco, roaming the streets on a Saturday night, stumbling straight into 4 AM, drunk and in search of the sandwich truck. I’m accompanied by a philosopher and we’re wandering down Grau and the philosopher is extoling the glorious concept of the 4 AM drunk sandwich, so we’re now pondering the origin of the sandwich (it’s either 16th century China or 14th century England, we’re certain it has to be one of the two). I shake out my hair and tie it up, shedding strands of hair and soul out across the sidewalk.

There are other parts of me on rooftops, in the backseat of taxis, on street-corners, in dive-bars where the floors are covered in a fine, grey sludge and the walls are coated in colorful writing. I would in fact argue that a good part of me is eternally stuck in Lima dive-bars, drinking cheap beer out of thick glass mugs, putting on lipstick, trying to find a cigarette, and putting on even more lipstick (because the thick glass mugs always rub it off), while wondering aloud, “how-much-for-another-round?” Someone says, “two-for-fifteen,” so in response I say, “I’ll-throw-in-five-then,” and so I continue drinking more cheap beer out of the same thick glass mug while pulling of the paper decals from the damp glass beer bottles and slapping them on the table, calling it art.

Pieces of me are wedged in the great red divan after the many afternoons I spent stretched out across it.  Pieces of me dropped when I was eating lunch and they are now stuck in the cracks of the long wooden table in the courtyard. I used to sometimes drag my fingernails through these cracks in swift, rhythmic motions in an attempt to force the lost pieces of myself out. They have always resisted my attempts of reclamation, however, and so I have placidly accepted my defeat.

We’re not whole; we’ll never be whole.

There is no way to be whole when your life ping pongs back and forth between continents.

But this is not something that is easy for me to accept. I’m afraid that the pieces of myself that I have shed will someday dissolve. I’m afraid that they will become like that fading memory of ancient mosaic design on Fialta’s old, slate-blue sidewalks.

I find the prospect of dissolving into sidewalks, in Lima or elsewhere, absolutely terrifying.

And here I am again, grappling with this issue of personal fragmentation. So I only have this left to say:

Lima, in my dreams you come walking to me. You cross continents and oceans. You arrive at my window. You are like Fialta—dark and damp. You are dripping wet, worn, and gloriously grungy. You wave to me. I let you in. You gently touch my hand. You pat my head and your hand leaves my hair damp and warm. You offer me the lipstick I left in a dive-bar last month, the wallet I lost in the back seat of the taxi, the change I spilled out across Larco while rushing out of a micro. You have the pieces of my soul that I shed. You’ve peeled them off of the sidewalks and collected them neatly in a plastic bag. They are small and colorful and in the New York summer sun they glitter like beautiful sea glass. You lay with me. You assure me that you are real, that you are 100% real. You rub your fingers back and forth across my chest, back and forth and back and forth, until you have rubbed away my skin and exposed my soul. You open it and you gently put all of the pieces back, one by one.

Illustration by Gabriel & Mateo Alayza.