Monday, September 18, 2017

What Makes Us Keep Listening? Discovering Jaime Bayly

click here to listen to the podcast (mp3)

I was in a meeting the other day with the goal of coming up with economic development projects for Pawnee. I’m all in. After all, I have some pretty significant skin in the game (a house). But, even if I did not, an economic development meeting would be catnip for me. I love, love, LOVE coming up with economic development schemes. Pawnee is small (pop 2,200), which means that it does not take much positive economic activity to move the needle.  I love it.

At any rate, there were six of us in the meeting:  myself, the Pawnee mayor, the Pawnee Nation College president, a cereals and grains expert from OSU (Oklahoma State), a grant writer from OSU, and a restaurant / hospitality expert. The cereals expert had a Ph.D., I’m thinking in agronomy, or something like that. She was from Mexico, and I asked her if she spoke Spanish. When we were alone, I proceeded to inflict my Spanish on her – it was great! Her first response was to ask me if I happened to be from Peru. Imagine my delight! I listen to recordings of myself and hear nothing but a hideous gringo accent. So, it was delightful to think I might sound Peruvian. I know in my heart of hearts that I don’t really sound Peruvian, but if my accent naturally gravitates that way, I’m willing to try. Plus, I really like Mario Vargas Llosa and I listen to his lectures quite often. So, I decided to listen to all the Peruvians I could find on YouTube.

The first Peruvian I found (besides Vargas-Llosa) was Jaime Bayly (pronounced Bailey). He’s written a number of books, the first one being a coming-of-age roman-a-clef that garnered great notoriety. The novel, entitled, “Don’t Tell Anyone” was made into a movie. I tried to watch it, but was put off by seeing adolescent boys in various homoerotic overtures. It made me think of my son as a young teenager, and I felt a bit sick, and a powerful maternal desire to put a stop to Mother Nature.

Jaime Bayly has a late night talk show that’s available on YouTube. I listened to it and really liked it. He’s in Miami now (unsurprising) and so his Friday program had to do with the potential impact of Hurricane Irma on Florida in general, and Miami in particular.  He was fun to listen to, and I found myself listening closely to his accent and realizing that I tend to drawl when I speak Spanish, and that’s precisely how he speaks. How delightful!

I proceeded to try to listen to every one of his shows I could find. I quickly learned that Jaime Bayly is an American citizen who voted for Mitt Romney, an avowed conservative, and an extreme opponent of anything Chavez or Maduro from Venezuela. In fact, he loves to bring on guests from Venezuela and then grill them about their political beliefs, knowing full well that they can’t exactly denounce the existing political system and expect to have any kind of work when they return home.

Jaime Bayly is every talk show guest’s worst nightmare. I don’t know why they agree to be on his show. He is like the red laser sites in a sniper’s rifle (coincidentally, he was part of an earlier talkshow called “Francotirador” which is “sniper” in Spanish).

Watching his show is awkward and uncomfortable to me, albeit Spanish is not my first language, and nor do I have a dog in the hunt. He’s extremely flattering, even unctuous, but that does not stop him from asking questions designed to elicit the maximum amount of discomfort. It’s raw and potentially humiliating. For example, he grilled a Venezuelan playwright about Venezuela’s voter fraud and corruption that put a president in power who was nothing more than a cheating dictator. The author did all he could to say that politics was not his m├ętier, but to no avail. Bayly was having nothing of that! He attacked the soft underbelly, and the author was utterly flustered. I did not like it. The author tried to explain that art is more universal than politics and with any luck at all, it will appeal to all people and be a unifying force.

Art is not propaganda. The guest did not say that, but he could have, except he was too flustered by Jaime Bayly’s savaging of the entire contemporary Venezuelan political control of art. He did get in a few comments about how even under dictatorship, it’s possible to create subversive art. Sigh. I just realized that I do not agree with my earlier suggestion that art is not propaganda. Actually, it is, and probably always is, whether overt or not.

I had the chance to visit Venezuela in 1999, before Chavez. It was a scary place, with high crime, and yet it was also a lot like the U.S.  There was a very sophisticated highway system, and baseball was the national sport. There were elegant malls and the universities were quite nice. I visited Simon Bolivar University. I also visited the government agency for petroleum, PDVSA, and was impressed by how modern they were.

Needless to say, when Chavez took over, anything having to do with oil and gas took a plunge into the abyss. He fired all the experts and replaced them with his buddies. I know I sound rather brainwashed in saying this, but it is the truth. It has been evidenced by the fact that Venezuela has not updated or upgraded their technology since Chavez’s takeover. Even when oil was $135 per barrel, Venezuela did nothing to reinvest in their fields. Instead, they used their oil proceeds for social and political purposes. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (although Jaime Bayly would attack it!), but I am saying that the failure to put money in maintenance or new technologies will lead to problems.

I have not listened to very many of Bayly’s shows with Venezuelan guests. But, I have listened to enough to know that Jaime Bayly believes that Maduro was elected only because there was the most egregious level of voter fraud. He also thinks that Venezuela is the furthest thing possible from a democracy, and that the policies of the current administration have resulted in the destruction of an entire culture. He considers Maduro & Co. to be murderers.

I have to say that I agree with him on that point. But, I think he’s a bit mean-spirited beneath his unctuous flattery. Case in point: he invited an actress to appear on his program, and he instantly focused on her 5 marriages and her possible infidelities – by asking her how many “furtive affairs” she had engaged in.  I thought it was demeaning and took away from her work as a serious artist. But, since she had gained her reputation for doing nude scenes in the 1970s, and along the way earned the opprobrium of her family, I guess it was what the audience wanted to hear. But, yuk. Who cares!!!!! I think it is cruel.

At any rate, we can assume that since she gained fame and fortune from nude scenes when she was 19 years old in the 1970s that she had “perform” for her big breakthroughs. Jaime Bayly, whose claim to fame rests on his scandalous gay / bisexual behavior (and the fact that his family was very wealthy), can “own” his own transgressive narratives. In fact, in one interview he said that when some even suggested that he was simply pretending to be gay in order to sell books. Of course, sex sells, and it sells for the ambitious young actress. But, there is always a double standard, and she's not able to "own" her transgressive nature without receiving the vitriol of audiences. Madonna tried. Miley Cyrus tried. Countless others have tried.  They sell, but they still do not have the ability to "own" the self-exploitation. The ambitious young actress cannot. She does not have power, nor does she possess male privilege.

So, it was uncomfortable for me to listen to him ask the actress such questions. At the same time, however, I recognize that his success is all about scandalizing narratives and transgression. I would find that creepy and boring as well, except there is enough of the “real” Jaime Bayly that emerges to see that he’s a kindhearted person who cares about the welfare of all people, and especially the vulnerable.

But, Jaime was quite relentless in this case. I’m not sure if she secretly enjoyed the transgressive elements. She kept trying to steer the conversation back to her children and the fact she is a mother. That only served to make the questions more disconcerting and to make me really curious about her acting in the 70s.

At the center of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novels is some sort of sexual obsession. I’m most familiar with La Tia Julia y el Escribidor, and Travesuras de la Nina Mala. They definitely have a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream awkwardness – the person who is helplessly in love, and who makes a spectacle of himself because of it. The family is embarrassed. The fascinating and inappropriate woman (love object) is calculatingly Machiavellian. And, through it all, there is a slow burn of desire, only rarely assuaged.

Vargas Llosa has discussed the fact that he puts sexual desire at the center and underneath his novels. He is adamant that it is what life is, and that life is sex, and that it is the engine of art. I don’t like to think so. It seems facile and reductive to me. But, I know in my own creative writing I tried to introduce every possible emotion – especially desire – as a way to express the meaning of life. So, even though my Puritanical side or my I, Robot side would prefer to be either really, really good at repression or simply mechanically logical, it’s not how I like to engage with art. But, as opposed to Bayly and Vargas Llosa, whose novels are very autobiographical, heaven forfend that someone think that everything I’ve written is a chronicle of my life! Scary. And yet, I do blend together feelings, desire, memories, and sensation for something I hope translates as life-engendering.

At least, that’s my feeling about Vargas-Llosa.  I’m not sure about Bayly’s fiction. I’ll have to read a few of his novels.

But, I do like Jaime Bayly’s interviews, even when they make me cringe.
Or, perhaps it is because they make me cringe.

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